Review: Underwater Cities

I really really wanted to like this game. If you look at Board Game Geek, all the mechanisms listed are my jam – tableau building, worker placement, network and route building, end game bonuses, etc. Also, I sometimes fall victim to the hype machine that is our hobby and during Essen 2018, this game was having a moment. But what really peaked my interest was the comparison to Terraforming Mars, one of my favorite games despite some of its flaws.

But somewhere in the third hour of a three-player game, I wanted out. There are so many things going for this game, acclaimed designer, a unique theme, a fantastically clear rulebook, and again, some excellent mechanisms.

Yet.

A friend said it best, “it was perfectly average in every way.”

What Is It?

Underwater Cities is designed by Vladimír Suchý, published by Delicious Games, a publishing company founded by the designer himself, and distributed by Rio Grande Games. The game plays 1-4 people, there are special solo rules included in the rulebook.

In Underwater Cities, players are working to build – wait for it – underwater cities because Earth has been overpopulated (too real). While building cities, players are also building a transportation network and various facilities, a farm, a desalination plant, and a laboratory, that support them.

While there are a lot of things you can do in Underwater Cities, the game itself is pretty straightforward and again, I cannot stress this enough, the rulebook is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

During a turn, a player will play one card and simultaneously choose one of the available action slots on the board by covering up the space with one of their action tiles. If the color of the card you played matches the color of the slot you chose, you also get to perform the card’s effect. It becomes a free, second action. When I was able to make this work – it was pretty satisfying and one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game. Players continue until everyone has taken three turns – a round. At the end of every round, the era marker advances one space along the era track. On the era track, there are certain points where a production symbol is indicated. At that point, a player’s underwater network will produce various resources and players will have to feed their cities with kelp (apparently in the future, this is what we eat). Throughout the game, new cards are introduced every era (there are three eras) – these cards are stronger and more powerful than the cards proceeding them. Which is great, more games need to have graduated decks.

Ultimately, the heart of the game is the cards. The cards come in three different colors and four different effects. The cards can either have an instant effect, permanent effect, are action cards or production cards, and finally, end game scoring cards. There are also special cards that you can buy as one of the actions on the board. Underwater Cities is all about combining cards and making elaborate chains that work together.
While performing actions and playing cards, players also need to pay attention to their individual player boards where they should be building cities, constructing specialty buildings and creating tunnels between cities. When playing for the first time, pay special attention to what is considered “connected” and in your network because this impacts the production phase.

Play continues until players reach the final production phase at the end of era 3. After production, final scoring can occur. Points are earned in various ways including your personal final scoring tile, end game scoring cards, your network, your cities, and your resources.

Is It For Me?

I’ve been pretty clear how I feel about this game. I don’t hate it and if someone asked me to play it again, I probably would. Unfortunately, I just didn’t enjoy it enough to justify the long game length. Too often my friends and I would have long stretches of silence because we were trying to figure out our optimal move or because we weren’t interacting very much in the game.

While I did enjoy the engine and tableau building, especially the combo making – it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

The components for the game are pretty good, except for the very flimsy player aid. Side note – the first time you see it, it’s like looking at a Punnett square. But once you figure it out, it’s a very useful tool throughout the game.

Table Takes

Here are what some of my friends had to say about the game:

“I liked the combo building in this game.”
“I definitely enjoyed it the second time I played it. No promises I’ll enjoy it the third time.”
“Remind me what this game was about.”
“I like the domes and building cities.”
“It’s like someone looked at 2018 board gaming and tried to make the most 2018 board game possible.”
“All I know is that I beat Beneeta and sometimes that’s all a good game needs.”

Beneeta’s Rating: 6.5 out of 10. Ultimately, the fun I had building up my combos wasn’t enough to detract from the solitary experience I had while playing with friends. I do enjoy longer games but it has to be worth it and Underwater Cities unfortunately wasn’t.