Who is this for?
That was the question I was left to ponder after packing away Tyrants of the Underdark, the new Dungeons & Dragons board game published by Gale Force Nine and Wizards of the Coast.
I’m not sure it’s for me. I’m not sure it’s for people who dwell in my rather uninhabitable part of the demographic spectrum. Those people who spend all of their money on board games and then bombard Twitter with pictures of them, all the while shrilly protesting that “there’s nothing wrong!” and “no really, I’m fine! Ha ha!”.
It certainly isn’t for the casual player; those friends of yours who indulge your obsession, but would barely lift an eyebrow if the police called to tell them you’d hanged yourself.
Then it seems that this game was made for those DnD players that are board game curious. Market research has identified them as a group, that are not fully maximizing their fantasy product outlay and so this glaring gap has to be plugged. This is what does Tyrants of the Underdark does. It plugs a gap. As do suppositories.
I belly flopped into DnD with the release of fifth edition. I belly flopped hard. The kind of belly flop that leaves your torso red for weeks and people at the side of the pool looking like they’ve just sniffed a three week old pint of urine. I bought the rule books and the adventures. I backed those metal dice kickstarters. I bought really unfunny fucking t-shirts and I loved it, because DnD is so great. So blindingly great. It is the scaffolding around which so many great experiences can be built. It begs you to be creative; it begs you to be anarchic and to simply do with it whatever you wish. This is a product put out by a corporation that doesn’t feel in the slightest bit corporate. Not so with Tyrants of the Underdark.
In Tyrants of the Underdark players are the heads of drow (dark elf) houses that are vying for control of the iconic Forgotten Realms setting. This is achieved through deck building and area control elements that utilize plastic troop figures and a board.
Troops are placed on the board by a combination of card powers and spending one of the game’s currencies: Power. These cards are bought from the now crushingly familiar card row, using the other in game currency: Influence. Locations yield points based on area majority and it is these points that will win you the game.
Now this game isn’t bad and that is part of its problem. It’s almost too slick. Too well play-tested. It doesn’t feel as if a human has had any hand in making this game. There are none of the curious bobbles and imperfections that make designer games unique. It’s like a print of a famous painting. It’s pretty enough, but you can’t see the brush stokes or the eyelashes stuck in the paint. This game feels impersonal and produced rather than designed.
The card play and combos, the life of any deck builder, are without spark and originality. The market deck (the cards you buy) is comprised of two half decks (the game comes with four) that are shuffled together. Each half deck has a singular “character” that is supposed to ensure replayability, but they are just a laundry list of mechanics cribbed form other deck builders. “Look that’s the market row from Ascension” and “Oh, here’s that sub-suit from Star Realms that’s not done as well here.” It’s prosaic and unoriginal. It flows together well but doesn’t give you any feeling of excitement.
There is no peril or danger in the area control. You play cards, you put blokes out on the board and if other players kill them, you just put out more. One of the ways the games ends is when a player places their last troop on the board, and I found myself desperately trying to place as many troops as possible just to end the game.
This is a game that has been produced to try and garner a few more quid from those in love with DnD and it uses blandness to do it. This is no great surprise, though, as they have had such great success with king of blandness in games: Lords of Waterdeep.
If you love DnD stick with DnD, not with this watered-down version of some of the deck builders you know and love. Tyrants of the Underdark plays like it was constructed by The Deck Building Game Machine™ and leaves you feeling distinctly beige after playing it.
So the answer to my question. Who is this game for? Well it certainly isn’t for me and if you crave spark, originality and fun? Well it certainly isn’t for you either