“Ok, so I’m building a deck. What do I do with it?”
If you’ve ever asked this question (and if you haven’t, you haven’t played enough deckbuilding games), then Tyrants of the Underdark is for you. The answer, in this case, is “take over cities underneath the Forgotten Realms.” Part deckbuilder, part area control, Tyrants takes a lot of familiar elements and combines them into something truly innovative.
Each player takes on the role of a drow (dark elf) noble house, attempting to extend its reach throughout the Underdark. Like most deckbuilders, you begin with a starting deck of basic cards. You’ll use these to buy better cards from the Market, which consists of a common pool of six cards refilled from a central deck. The Market deck is made by combining two of the four different factions that come with the game – drow, dragons, elementals, and demons. Each faction plays very differently, and the different combinations do a lot to change the game with each replay.
Cards in your deck provide different currencies: influence, which you use to purchase cards from the Market, and Power, which you use to affect the board. 1 Power allows you to place a troop in an empty spot at or adjacent to your other troops; 3 Power allows you to assassinate other players’ (or neutral) troops. Troop placement is important, because you need to control locations for their points. Additionally, as it is easier to place troops than to kill them, expansion is more efficient than extermination…at least, without special cards in your deck allowing you to kill or supplant (replace an enemy troop with your own) troops. Naturally, these cards are valuable and highly sought in the Market.
Control over locations is important, both for points at the end of the game, and for additional influence to spend during the game. The largest drow cities each contain a control marker that, for the player who has the most troops there, generates additional resources for that player. Furthermore, having total control over a city (having all of its spaces filled with your troops) gives you VP each turn you can maintain it. However, players can also place spies (which don’t count towards your own control, but can prevent other players from having total control) to interfere with you.
As in most deckbuilding games, the more powerful cards in your deck contribute VP to you at the end of the game; however, Tyrants has a twist on this element as well. Certain cards allow you to Promote cards in your deck. Promoted cards are removed from your deck and placed in your Inner Circle, and they are worth significantly more points at the end of the game. A Promotion-based strategy can be powerful, if you’re willing to sacrifice the powerful effects of cards in your deck for VP at the end of the game.
End-game scoring is complex, involving the number of locations you control, your total control, the number of enemy troops you’ve killed, and the value of your deck and Inner Circle. Fortunately, Tyrants comes with a score pad to make totaling up your score easier.
Tyrants isn’t the first game to add a board to a deckbuilder, but it may be the best implementation of the concept. There are too many points available on the board for players to simply ignore it and just build the best economic engine they can, but on the other hand, the expensive cards are powerful – demon lords, elder dragons, and elemental princes all have a massive impact on the board when you play them, so ignoring your economy isn’t an option either. Promoting cards to your inner circle can generate large amounts of VP quickly, but if you remove too many powerful cards from your deck, your board presence will suffer and players will eventually overrun your troops. In the end, no single game element can be ignored without cost, and that is the mark of a well-balanced game.
While the game is pricey, you are getting a lot for it: the four unique Market decks each play very differently, and discovering the combinations of cards available within the set of two you use in any particular game is one of the great joys. The game comes with a lot of plastic troops and spy markers, as well as other assorted high quality tokens. Finally, the theme is fantastic – if you are a fan of the Forgotten Realms, you will recognize many of the characters, cities, and drow houses. If you’ve been wanting something a little different from your deckbuilders, then definitely give Tyrants of the Underdark a try.