Designer: Vladimir Suchy
Artist: Uildrim, Milan Vavroň
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Underwater Cities is a card-driven tableau builder not unlike Terraforming Mars. In fact, the games are often placed side by side for comparison with good reason. The main similarity is that both games feature a relatively huge deck of cards from which players will get to decide how to build their tableau and subsequently, how points are scored. Naturally, the large deck of cards also provide variability as one only sees a fraction of the cards each game. While Terraforming Mars and Underwater Cities share a similar tableau building DNA, each game brings a different flavor to the table. So, comparing the games directly may not be fair even though it is unavoidable.
The game play for Underwater Cities is actually not that complicated. That’s also partially credited to the excellent rule book that comes with the game. It is crystal clear and easily digested. The main mechanism for action selection in Underwater Cities is worker placement. There are probably a dozen or so actions on the main board and the actions are grouped by colors: red, yellow and green. Each player gets to choose 3 actions per round and once an action is selected, no other player can choose the same action for the round. An action is always paired with a card played from the hand and if the card you play matches the color of the actions on the board, you get to preform the bonus action printed on the card. If the color does not match, the card is simply discarded with no benefit. This color-match action selection is probably the biggest innovation of Underwater Cities.
The pairing of the card with an action, hoping to get a color match greatly increases tactical play. Whenever possible, you want to match the colors of the action and card as the benefits are mostly positive. While some benefits may be rarely used or situational, they are all useful in some form or other. Of course, like most tableau builders, you aim to play cards that can help your overall plan in the game. In some instances, having the right cards in the tableau will turbocharge specific strategies. So, there is always that luck of the draw aspect to a tableau builder where you hope to get and play cards that synergize with your game plan. Not surprisingly for a Euro, card benefits are differentiated by the traditional categories of immediate use, conditional activation, permanent activation or for end game scoring. While you don’t always have to play a card with the color that matches the action, it never hurts to play them. At the end of each game, all players will have a tableau of cards in front of them, some useful and others, not so much.
The game lasts for 10 rounds over 3 eras with each era having a separate draw deck. Between eras the draw deck gets increasingly more powerful with era 3 cards also having end of game scoring bonuses. Through out the game, players also get to pick up special cards laid out on the board. There is an action which allows a player to pick up a special card and then play them at various costs. Cards costing 1-2 credits have powerful benefits but limited to in game enhancements. There are six 3-credit special cards that score at the end of game. Those are very strong and highly sought after. They will all score for different criteria and one must pick up these cards to trigger scoring. Depending on the criteria, some cards can score between 10-20 points and will be the difference between winning and losing. This is a first come first serve situation and if you hold off buying these special cards, some one may pick them up and prevent you from scoring.
There are more than a dozen possible actions in Underwater Cities but honestly, they are all relatively standard worker placement actions in a generic Euro. Workers can be used to build different ocean structures including the domed underwater cities. There are 9 spots on the personal board to construct the domes which are linked by a network of tunnels. Actions can also be taken to construct tunnels and also other ancillary buildings such as desalination plants, kelp factories or research labs that is attached to each domed city. Each of these buildings produces either raw materials or credits and can be upgraded to either enhance production or score victory points. Of course, raw materials are needed to then construct more buildings. As cliche as it sounds, Underwater Cities is just another resource conversion game. Another important action is moving up on turn order track. Given that this is a worker placement game, it should not be surprising that there is an initiative track since the earlier you are on the turn order, the more choices you get. So the battle for turn order is important and each round, certain actions and cards will help move your marker up the turn order track and also gain you some benefits such as credits or materials.
While Underwater Cities contain familiar elements of a resource conversion Euro, the game does that very well and the entire design feels streamlined. The strength from underwater Cities comes from a couple of things. First, I like the worker placement with color-matching card play mechanism. As mentioned, this really provides some tense moments where actions and card priorities clash. You want to always play a color-matched card while taking an action, but sometimes, it’s just not possible. You may want to prioritize the actions instead of focusing on card benefits because as worker placement goes, it may not be available when your turn rolls around. Having something more than just a standard worker placement really makes the decision harder and also reduces the luck of the draw. The actions and cards in combination really makes the decision space larger and trickier…. in a good way. Another wise design choice for Underwater Cities is having only 3 cards in your hand each turn because it greatly reduces analysis paralysis. You can only choose one card and perform one action and you really only have 3 options as far as hand size goes. If the hand size is larger, people will be busy mapping out an optimal sequence of actions that will suck up all the play time. I find the game to have just the right balance of complexity.
Fairly or unfairly, people will compare Terraforming Mars and Underwater Cities. I definitely enjoy the worker placement in Underwater Cities even though the process is much easier in Terraforming Mars where you draw 4 cards and decide which to purchase and play. This for me is the strongest selling point for Underwater Cities. On the other hand, I actually like having a shared central board on Terraforming Mars where players get to compete for resources and points. On top of that, in Terraforming Mars, players also fight to claim milestones and awards within a shared space that is visible throughout the game. This is less obvious in Underwater Cities and also less critical. I know worker placement itself is a type of player interaction and competition, but somehow the two mechanisms feels different. Thematically, both games have a similar feel of exploration and building a civilization on a futuristic terrain. But because of the shared board and end game conditions, Terraforming Mars feels more…. cohesive. The end game for Terraforming Mars occurs when certain parameters on Mars are achieved and the red planet is terraformed and becomes habitable. There are no fixed rounds and the end game just feels…organic. In Underwater Cities, you have 10 rounds. The game ends always ends after 10 rounds and there is a mad scramble in the final rounds to eek out every last victory point for scoring. This is particularly true for the end of game special cards. The last few rounds will see a strong fight for turn order so that the special card action can be selected. The structure is much more predictable and also more Euro-like in Underwater Cities.
From the skewed list of pros and cons, it would seem like I favor Terraforming Mars over Underwater Cities. That is not the case. For me, both games are on par and there is a case to be made that both games are different enough to justify keeping both. However, since both games are complex tableau builders, it is just as easy to compare and keep only the one. Personally, both games are rated on the higher spectrum of “good”, perhaps borderline “great”. I really enjoyed playing either game and still have a desire to revisit either. The card decks are quite large in Underwater cities, but I wish they have more variety in scoring for the metropolis tiles and special cards. These scoring options really drive the tactical aspect of the game which promotes specialization. I feel that the main game really should have a few more of these scoring options. The expansion for Underwater Cities bulks up the scoring options, but the price tag is incredibly high just for that. Too bad the designers didn’t include some additional materials with the primary game which deserves addition scoring options.
I think if you like Terraforming Mars, there is no reason not to try Underwater Cities. If you dislike Terraforming Mars, then the more tactical nature of Underwater Cities might appeal to you. But if you dislike tableau builders, then there is nothing much in Underwater Cities that will change your mind. Fans of Suchy will still be delighted with his design because honestly, his games have always been delightful to play and highly regarded. We have colonized the oceans, Mars. What’s next? The skies perhaps?
10/2021: Having played Terraforming Mars again recently, you can check out my comparisons there as well. I have forgotten how tactical that game is. Underwater Cities clearly allows more long-term planning and strategy. I also favor card decks being separated and introduced at different times to match progression of the game.