I was unaware that this game would exist at Spiel 2018 until being featured as Tom Vasel’s most anticipated Essen release. And not because I had even seen the Dice Tower’s Top 10 video at that point, but because of the influence Tom’s voice has in the hobby. Delicious Games, the game’s publisher, was quick to thank Tom for the shout out – as well they should – because Underwater Cities immediately shot up the BGG hotness. It was then that I realized that my Essen preparedness was far from sufficient, as I had let an upcoming Vladimír Suchý title slip under my radar.
Although I’m not especially fond of Shipyard, Last Will was one of my favourites of 2011, due in large part to how well its mechanisms and presentation portray its absurd ‘go broke’ theme. I’ve kept a close eye on Suchý ever since (Prodigals Club is also very good).
But I was surprised to see that this new Suchý title wasn’t being published by CGE, as they’ve published nearly all of his other games to date. In any case, it turns out that Underwater Cities’ publisher, Delicious Games, was created for the specific purpose of publishing this one game. Will they publish other games in the future? A definite maybe.
Underwater Cities is an engine building worker placement game, a little like if Terraforming Mars and Agricola had a baby on a submarine. Over the course of 10 rounds, you will place 30 workers and play 30 cards (3 of each per round). In doing so, you’ll grow your presence from one lonely dome in the corner of your player board to an array of cities, farms, desalination plants, labs, and metropolises. As long as these structures are connected to the power source in your starting city by an unbroken chain of tunnels and cities, they will reap a bountiful harvest that will supply you with the resources required to continue your expansion as you build your subaquatic empire. Farms will give you the kelp required to feed your cities. Desalination plants produce credits, which you can never have enough of. And labs provide you with science that can be used to upgrade your structures. Should you upgrade those structures, or pay the additional resources required to make your cities symbiotic, your output will be that much greater come production time.
The game’s 10 rounds are divided into 3 eras: era 1 allows you 4 rounds to give you the time to get your motor running, while eras 2 and 3 comprise only 3 rounds each. Each era ends with a production phase where, as mentioned above, your connected structures will supply you with resources. The kelp, credits, science, biomatter, and steelplast they provide will be crucial as you continue to build towards what really matters: points. After the third and final production phase, players will score points for their end game metropolises, cards, cities, and leftover resources. There’s plenty of opportunities to score points during the game, but none so substantial as at game end.
So it’s a worker placement game… Each player has 3 ‘workers’. Sure, they’re rectangular cardboard tokens that depict futuristic looking metal doors, but they’re ‘workers’ all the same. Or it’s a door placement game. I’ll let you decide. Either way, you take turns placing worker-doors at one of the 15 action spaces (12 in a 2 player game) printed on the board to perform the actions depicted there, and block others from choosing that same space (there’s also a single action cloning space available in the 4 player game, as well as an always available space for all player counts, but they’re a little beside the point for the moment). The strongest spaces are yellow, the weakest are green, and red is somewhere in the middle. The actions will allow you to perform all of the game’s basic actions: collect resources, construct cities, build structures, upgrade structures, etc. Once everyone has placed all their door-workers, they take them back, because the round is over.
So it’s an engine building game… Yeah, it’s that, too. Each time you place a door-ker, you must simultaneously play one of the 3 cards in your hand. If the colour of the card you played does NOT match the colour of the space you chose, the card is discarded without effect. However, if it does match, you get to use the card, too, and that could mean one of a couple of things. These cards include instant effects (use and discard), passive effects (triggered by particular actions), production effects (triggered during production), action cards (used and exhausted when a door-worker placement allows you), and end game (ooh, points!). Buuut… their relative strength is the opposite of the spaces of the same colour. While yellow spaces are very powerful, yellow cards have unimpressive effects. Green cards, however, more than make up for the relative insignificance of green spaces. For the most part, you will always be choosing spaces that will allow you to activate your cards.
Why do one thing when you could do two things?
That’s the question that Underwater Cities will ask you 30 times over. And after 5 plays, it’s a question I’m still excited to answer. The promise of performing two actions on your turn is incredibly appealing, and can result in some impressive plays. Even playing a card that will simply provide you with the resources to perform the action on your chosen space (or vice versa) is remarkably satisfying, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (those living in actual underwater cities might not understand this idiom, I’m sorry). And despite some of the cards being very powerful, it never feels out of control, as they are kept in check by the game’s coloured card/action mechanism. There is certainly some possibility for luck in card draw, but by and large, every point you score is a point you earned.
Underwater Cities is able to feel clever and dramatic, while remaining stalwart and calculating, chiefly due to the bipolar nature of its two elements. The spaces on which you place your doorkers supply you with the basic actions that make the game’s motor run. You could play the game without any cards at all, and it would work fine. I don’t think it would be particularly compelling, but it would work. The cards are the spice that makes the game’s motor purr, rev, and roar. But these two only work together because of the colour mechanism that links them together. These cards will shape and define your game plan, and you will need to make the most of them to set yourself apart come game end. You will take stock of each card’s ability or pre-requisite, orchestrating the best sequence of actions to squeeze the most out of each of them. But you also have to be ready to recognize when a card, as powerful as it might be under the right circumstances, can not be shoehorned into your plan, and need to go searching for better alternatives.
I’ll be honest, after two plays (I’ve now played five), I was ready to write a review with a slightly negative tone. As much as I love it now, it’s not perfect, but few games are. However, with repeated plays, most of my complaints have been assuaged by a better understanding of the game, and how it helps you mitigate these issues. And frankly, as hard as I’ve tried, I couldn’t figure out a way to solve any of these minor issues without making the game longer and less fun.
Regardless, I shouldn’t let my love for the game keep me from highlighting some of its flaws, as they might be more disqualifying for others than they are for me.
Worker placement games are supposed to be tense. You’re supposed to feel injured when another player takes that space you were gazing at so longingly, robbing you of an opportunity that would certainly have set in motion a series of plays that would propel you to your eventual victory. And four player Underwater Cities achieves that. With 15+1 spaces (+1 is the action cloning space), players will use all but 4 of them, and you have to seriously consider which actions are important to you, and which you could live without. 3 players, however, will only use 9 of 15 (no action cloning, thankfully). And 2 players will use 6 of 12! This leads to games with fewer players being more easy-going.
Worker placement is also less tense for two other reasons. One is that the somewhat relaxed rules for city and tunnel placement (you can continue building one or the other further and further away from power, worrying about connecting them later). The same even goes for other structures, which can be built before a city is even there. This means that sequencing your actions in a particular order isn’t always that important, and that if you miss your chance to do something one round, you can easily do something else this round and just grab it next round with little to no consequence.
And half of the game is actually in the cards, so attempting to block an opponent from an action space they need could prove futile, as their cards might allow them to do it anyways.
Lastly, I had one game where all I could draw was green cards, which made it disadvantageous and wasteful to take red and yellow actions. But, that’s unlikely to happen too often, and I still ended up doing very well, because green cards are awesome. Plus, it made me realize the benefit of actions that offer card draw. It’s no replacement for lucky card draw, but the game offers a number of opportunities to acquire more cards than you need so that you can better sculpt your hand for future turns.
It can feel a little solitary at times, as the less than perfect worker placement portion is the most significant means of player interaction. There is, however, the race to completing government contracts – objectives that reward the player who first fulfills their requirements – and the end game special cards that are worth a significant number of points.
The component quality should also be mentioned. The visuals themselves are impressive, and the city domes are awesome, but the cardboard pieces, the board itself, and the cardstock player boards are all of inferior quality than I would expect from a $60-70 title. I also really don’t like the tokens that represent three of a resource. Because they look so similar when next to the single resources, I often found myself grabbing these threes when I only wanted one. There aren’t nearly enough single resources, and we were constantly asking each other to make change in our four player games. I intend on replacing these thinner than average cardboard tokens with appropriately coloured cubes for future plays.
Despite these gripes, which I’ve since come to terms with, Underwater Cities is incredibly satisfying. Every card you draw feels exciting, as you ponder its implications within your engine, which action space to pair it with, and how to do it all before production time. And despite the four player game taking two and a half hours, that time has flown by each time.
I also have to commend Delicious games for a stellar rulebook. It’s a little long in the tooth, but it is very well written, and I can’t recall having any rules questions that required resorting to asking the internet for help. That’s impressive, because Underwater Cities is on the medium-heavy side, and other rulebooks fall short on much lighter games. I can’t underscore how important a good rulebook is. Being able to sit down to a game’s difficult, yet rewarding decisions is that much better when you don’t need to go online because referencing its well organized rulebook is such a breeze.
One thing that is especially difficult about Underwater Cities: getting a copy. For the moment, it’s only being distributed in Europe (as far as I know), but it’s been picked up by 5 other publishers, including Rio Grande Games. When will they release it here? I don’t know. But it’s coming. They’ll also be making the player boards thicker, which I’m glad to hear.
Underwater Cities is an incredible game that I’m loving more with every play, especially as I explore the asymmetry of the reverse sides of the player boards. The puzzle of combining engine building cards and worker placement is brilliant and engaging from start to finish. Coimbra was once the clear frontrunner for my game of the year, but Underwater Cities has given me pause, as there is now a contender where there wasn’t before. While it has its flaws, they are heavily outweighed by its strengths! If you’re at all a fan of medium-heavy euro style games, and you have the opportunity to give it a try, I emphatically urge you to do so.
Thanks to Delicious Games for providing us with a review copy of Underwater Cities.