Designer: Tomáš Uhlíř
Artist: Kwanchai Moriya and Petr Boháček
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Continuing with my evaluation of solitaire games, I picked up Under Falling Skies, another recent entry that won a design award and picked up by a major publisher. This time around, the publisher CGE really expanded and repackaged the game into a hefty campaign style game featuring multiple scenarios and chapters. This is actually quite appealing as a solo gamer as I prefer a campaign style game with an epic narrative rather than besting my high scores which really doesn’t do much for me.
Under Falling Skies which shares a similar name and theme with a TV series centers upon an alien invasion of Earth. While the TV series is largely focused on the terrestrial invasion, the solitaire game puts you in command of Earth’s defense of an aerial onslaught by enemy ships as they descend from outer space and attack major cities including Roswell. As the waves of ships descend upon the cities, your goal is to allocate resources at the base to repulse the attacks and simultaneously advance in research to figure out the aliens. If you complete the research track, the game is won. Of course, there is a time limit to everything and if your base suffers enough damage or if the mothership descends far enough in Earth’s atmosphere, then all is lost. The premise for Under Falling Skies is deeply thematic and highly enjoyable for fans of the sci-fi genre. The theme and the mechanisms really go well together.
Speaking of mechanisms, Under Falling Skies uses dice drafting for action selection. In the basic game (threat level 0), players assign five dice to 5 columns with each column having different rooms. Each room houses one die and represents an action. However, some rooms are larger and can house multiple dice that stretches across adjacent columns. These rooms are more “powerful” simply because you add up the face values on all dice. Importantly, during die allocation, no two dice can share a single column so all five dice must be evenly distributed amongst all columns. In addition, enemy advancement depends on the die values in that column. Whatever face value of the die you place in a column, the enemy ship in that column will move toward the city that many spots. So, while high value dice are desirable to trigger more powerful actions, they also accelerate descent of the enemy ships. It’s a trade off.
Dice in the basic game can be assigned to perform specific actions: conduct research, manning anti-aircraft guns, produce energy, excavation or scrambling interceptors to intercept enemy ships. Later on, in more advanced scenarios, blue dice can be used to build robots for automation. Usage of some of these facilities require energy, hence keeping an eye on energy levels is critical. As enemy fighters start steaming down from the skies, the city must defend itself by slowing down movement of the enemy craft by placing dice on AA guns or shooting them down from the sky by scrambling jets to intercept. However, only specific spots on the board allow fighters to intercept and so, part of the strategy is to allocate dice to move enemy craft into the line of fire. However, all destroyed enemy ships are respawned at the end of each round, so you can never beat them with just raw firepower.
Ultimately, the only way to beat the bad guys is to conduct enough research to move the marker until it reaches the end of the track. Presumably this represents a breakthrough to win the war. To move up the research track, dice must be allocated to research facilities. Dice allocated to research slots must be summed up and used to move a research marker on a track where difficulty levels at each steps have different values. To move up a step, the allocated dice total must equal or exceed the requirements. Moving multiple steps each turn is possible if the sum total can cover all the required costs for all steps. Of course, the final research breakthrough is the hardest to achieve and requires excavation of more efficient research facilities.
The excavation part of the game reminds me of base development in X-Com, a computer game of the same theme. As the excavator is moved deeper and deeper underground, more rooms in the base becomes automatically developed. You don’t get a choice of rooms to build as all the structures are predetermined. After excavation, you will get access to the rooms for die placement. In general, all new rooms are more potent, efficient and consumes less energy. In some cases, excavating rooms is essential for winning the game. For example, the last research step in the basic game has an 11 difficulty rating and so at least a 5 and a 6 must be placed on the linked research slots. That means the linked research labs must be excavated and built in order to place multiple dice in a single room.
One obvious strength of the game is that the design is incredibly modular and is not lacking in variety or replayability. The board consists of several modular pieces that can be swapped or flipped to introduce varying degrees of difficulty. CGE has packed the game with tons of content. The campaign also appears to have a ton of additional materials, yet to be explored. For a solitaire game, this is all great news. I look forward to playing the campaign mode and locking the new content.
At the end of the day, my exposure to solitaire games remain limited and with all due respect to solitaire game designers, I hope it stays that way. Nothing can substitute for a multiplayer experience and I would be happy just playing games with friends and never ever have to play something solo. I guess these days, playing face-to-face is almost a luxury. So, it makes sense to spend 30-40 minutes on a Friday evening shooting down alien spaceships and saving planet Earth over an ice-cold beer.