A Deckbuilding Look at Tyrants of the Underdark

Tyrants CoverClearly, deckbuilding games are still a going concern, as I’ve been able to write about two new designs this month: first Mystic Vale (2016) and now Tyrants of the Underdark (2016).

With that said, deckbuilders are growing more outré too. Both of this month’s designs have basic mechanics that you could have found in second-generation deckbuilders following Dominion (2008), but they also incorporate much weirder elements, like the plastic cards of Mystic Vale … and the plastic armies of Tyrants.

The Game

Tyrants of the Underdark (2016) is a game in two parts.

On the one hand, some cards give you Influence. That’s used to buy cards from a central tableau. The default cards can be used to generate influence or power, while a random array of six market cards can provide players with more varied powers.

On the other hand, some cards give you Power. That’s used to affect the game board. You can use your influence to deploy troops or to assassinate troops, slowly expanding across the Underdark and taking control of central locations, which are worth victory points.

Some cards also grant other powers such as the ability to deploy spies (which are used for a variety of purposes) and to move cards to your inner council (which takes them out of play, while increasing their victory point value.

The Good

Tyrants CardsIt’s Ascension 2.0. The deckbuilding of Tyrants of the Underdark pretty obviously feels like a descendent of Ascension (2010). It features two currencies, one of which is used for the purchase of cards and the other of which is used for combat. Cards can be bought from a random array of six, but there are also two static cards, one of which provides two currency and the other of which provides two power. Meanwhile, the cards are divided into a number of “suits”, each of which tends to do different things.

Though Ascension is a great deckbuilding, this game wouldn’t be that interesting if it were just Ascension, but Tyrants of the Underdark takes the next step and notably expands some of those elements and adds others, making it a true 2.0. Many of those advancements come by allowing the cards to affect play on a  game board, which itself feels a bit like Trains (2012) — another fairly simplistic deckbuilder that uses its cards to drive board-based play.

But Power is Now Truly a Different Sort of Currency. The gameplay of Tyrants of the Underdark seems to be built around the question “What if Ascension’s Power weren’t just used to buy cards in a different way, but instead to support actual conflict?”

As a result, where the Power in Ascension is just a secondary currency, in Tyrants of the Underdark it’s truly a different sort of currency, used to do totally different things. It’s essentially moves troops and initiates battles in the Underdark (albeit, in a somewhat abstract way). It feels dramatically different from the card-killing Power of Ascension, giving Tyrants of the Underdark new depth of play.

It’s also well-designed. On the one hand, the Power usages are quite granular: just one point allows you to deploy a troop, meaning that it’s usually useful to play just one Power card. On the other hand, you can do important things with three Power, such as assassinating troops or removing spies. This rewards you for good deck construction where you’re able to play multiple Power cards simultaneously.

This sort of balance in a deckbuilding game is important because it both keeps players from getting frustrated and ensures that good players do better

Spies Are Yet Another Type of Currency. That’s not the only variable currency in Tyrants. Some cards also let you play spies, and though they are useful on their own, they can also be turned in for various prizes. This really shows the advantages of using deckbuiding to create board positions, because components that are less ephemeral than cards create a whole new level of gameplay.

Tyrants MapThere’s Very Direct Conflict. By now, there have been any number of deckbuilding games that support conflict. Some even allow pretty direct fighting like Star Realms (2014) or Zeppelin Attack! (2014) or 3012 (2012). So, the idea of conflict is no longer novel.

With that said, Tyrants offers a very different type of conflict, thanks in large part to the introduction of its board. It’s not just damage or just removing permanents or just a risk-reward combat system. It’s competing for board space and even killing board tokens.

Again, it’s great to see a board that adds so much to standard deckbuilding play.

The Area Control is Innovative. The board game design itself feels pretty innovative too. It’s a simple, abstract design that doesn’t get in the way of the more evocative deckbuilding, but which does allow for interesting play as you surge your troops across the board.

There’s a New Sort of Filtering. Most deckbuilders allow you to “trash” cards, which filters less powerful cards out of your deck; Tyrants instead lets you “promote” cards: they’re filtered out your deck, but you earn victory points. This adds an interesting twist to the game, because you no longer just trashing your bad cards, but may trash good cards as well, to earn additional points. Figuring out when to start trashing the good stuff then becomes an important pivot point in the game. It’s a nice reflection of Dominion’s original play, where deciding when to buy victory point cards formed a similar pivot — but one that could really degenerate the game if you bought too early and ended up with a clogged deck. There’s no deck clogging here, just the chance that you might accidentally depower your deck too soon.

The Card Design is Very Expandable. Finally, Tyrants has obviously been built with expansion in mind. Every game you choose two decks of market cards (from an initial set of four) to form the set of cards available for play that game. This helps to keep the game focused on specific themes and mechanics, without diluting them, but simultaneously allows for near infinite expansion.

It’s what Ascension tried to do, with its rules that you should only mash two sets together at a time — but as far as I can tell no one ever paid any attention to that but me. Tyrants makes this deck selection a much more specific part of setup, and so increases the odds that players will follow the intent of the designers, and optimize their gameplay as a result.

The Bad

Tyrants ShieldsThe Components are Troublesome. It’s probably a good thing when the biggest problem with a game is its components. But, the components of Tyrants are quite troublesome.

To start with, it’s a bit ugly. The color scheme is purple. And black and orange and white, but mostly purple. There’s attractive art on the cards, but someone it manages to look flat and uninspiring too. The shield tokens used for armies don’t look like much of anything.

Some of the problems even rise up to the level of actually troublesome for play. Like most deckbuilders, Tyrants doesn’t use enough icons and the cards are hard to read from afar. But Tyrants goes further. Its icons for its two currencies are black and white, and look about the same, and sometimes they’re printed much too small. Even the choice of colors for the plastic pieces is poor, as the blacks and blues look almost indistinguishable in anything but the best light.

I was willing to grin and bear it, but other players indicated they might not be picking up the game because of the poor component choices.

The Game Length is Too Variable. My big problem with the groundbreaking game Caylus (2005) was always that the game length was too variable. Based solely on player choice, games could last up to twice as long! This has often been a problem with deckbuilders too; I’ve certainly played games of Dominion that have lasted way too long due to heavy use of Curses. Tyrants is unfortunately another member of the unpredictable game length family.

The problem here is that the game can either go really long if players go through the whole deck or somewhat shorter if someone instead plays all their armies. Thus the game length depends largely on how many army placement cards are available to buy, how many are bought, and how they’re used.

It’s Simplistic. Unfortunately, if the game goes long, it can feel too long because there just isn’t enough variety of play. There are about half-a-dozen major actions in the game (buy card, deploy army, assassinate army, play spy, return spy, promote card), and players will typically have fewer options than that based on deck composition. That means you’ll be repeating a lot of the same actions from turn to turn. That’s fine in an hour of play, but less so in two.

It’s Derivative. Finally, the game is relatively derivative. Tanto Cuore (2009) is one of the few games that I’ve played that hewed quite this close to its predecessor. Sure, there’s a whole new area control system, and it’s cool, but the rest of the game is straight-up Ascension.

Conclusion

Though a lot of Tyrants of the Underdark descends directly on Acension’s design, it’s a good design that allows for fast and innovative play, and Tyrants makes good use of it. Meanwhile, what it adds is interesting and innovative: a nice expansion of deckbuilding design that goes in the same direction as Trains by using cards to drive board-based play.

Tyrants of the Underdark is held back by its production, but otherwise it’s a worthwhile and interesting design — especially for those (like me) who are already fans of the ten existing Ascension sets. Or of Dungeons & Dragons theming.

One thought on “A Deckbuilding Look at Tyrants of the Underdark

  1. Played this several times and I would have to say it is my favorite deck builder so far. The promotion mechanic really does it for me. Played several close games where each player took a fairly different path for VP, yet was still close.

    I enjoy it alot, but it does have an issue/feature with multi-player; where a player has to be able accurately read the state of the game, in order to make informed decisions about which player to work against.

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