Dungeons & Dragons: Tyrants of the Underdark review

15 December 2016
DSC_3698-40657.jpg Tyrants' area control board
Is it a board game? Is it a card game? Where does D&D come into it? We cast some light on the underdarkness

On paper, the latest Dungeons & Dragons spin-off has all the elements of a tabletop classic. It has the might and depth of the RPG’s storied lore in its characters, creatures and settings, from the terrifying Mind Flayers to dragons and Wyrmlings of varying colours and devastation. It’s a deckbuilder in the vein of some of the greats, echoing Ascension and Star Realms. It’s also an area control game – and it’s designed by the same smart brains behind fellow D&D descendant Lords of Waterdeep.

Up to four players take control of Drow houses vying to rule over the eponymous Underdark. As with most deckbuilders, you begin with a hand of simple resource-earning cards and quickly build up your army by purchasing new cards from a central marketplace. In this case, influence allows you to recruit one of six revealed cards, with simple resource-centric cards always available to pick up from separate stacks. Purchased cards are replaced by fresh stock from a combined 80-card market deck, which is created by mixing two of four included 40-card half-decks: Drow, Dragons, Elemental and Demons. 

The other core resource is power, which plays into Tyrants’ other key mechanic: area control. A central game board (you’ll play with one, two or all three thirds of the map depending on the number of players) spans the Underdark and presents various named sites, which fans of D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting will likely recognise. (Holiday trip to Ss’zuraass’nee anyone? Anyone?) These sites feature multiple spaces for troop pieces – itty-bitty plastic shields in each player’s colour – while the routes in-between consist of single-space holes.

Players can spend power collected using cards played that turn to place troops or assassinate enemy troops (and place them in their trophy hall to earn game-winning VP), as long as they attack or deploy in spaces that they either occupy or that are adjacent to spaces they occupy (referred to as ‘presence’). However, once placed, a troop can move to any free space on the entire board – a generous allowance that can often make combat feel less weighty, as troops hop from space to space with little impeding them. We played with the maximum four players in our sessions, yet enough holes existed throughout the games to undermine the desire to fortify our starting site and slowly expand outwards, as you might expect with a title based around the idea of growing the strength and control of your house.

Power can also be used to place (or return to your barracks) spies, who can be placed on any site and subsequently used to assassinate enemies. They also prevent rival players from gaining total control over a major site when all of the spaces are occupied by one player’s troops, stopping the acquisition of bonus VP at the end of their turn.

And so the game flows, with players playing cards to gather resources and perform actions, recruiting new cards, assassinating enemy troops and placing their own pieces until a player has no more troops to place or the market deck runs dry. At the conclusion of a match, players add up VP for holding majority control at sites, total control at sites they possess fully, troops they have defeated, cards in their deck and cards promoted to their inner circle via specific abilities, which removes them from the game but provides them with bonus points above their standard value.

The number of cogs inside the interlocking deckbuilding and area control frameworks means that there are plenty of different ways for players to approach the game with differing tactics and emerge on top. Want to hoard valuable cards with influence, promote them to your inner circle and stay out of battling for the board? No problem. Want to quickly strengthen your army in the hope of dominating sites and forcing an early game end? Totally okay. Want to spread your spies across the Underdark and stuff your trophy hall full of assassinated foes? Sure thing. The way that the different components and abilities interact feels natural both thematically and mechanically, meaning there’s room for fans of deckbuilders and area control titles to both feel reasonably at home. (Though the former will certainly be more comfortable in the bulk of the gameplay.)

Here’s the thing, though. While the engine inside runs smoothly, Tyrants never feels particularly exciting to rev up and play. In our group, we had a diehard D&D player, an experienced deckbuilding fan and devotees of area control classics, and yet none of them felt overly warm towards the game by its end.

The Dungeons & Dragons lore feels lost within the mechanics, with the cards’ largely perfunctory presence and relatively short list of abilities (add influence/power, assassinate/deploy troop, deploy/return spy, promote) leading even expensive cards to feel unexciting. As one example, the Red Dragon, which costs eight influence to recruit, allows the player to supplant (assassinate and replace) one troop, return one spy and gain 1 VP for each site under their total control – hardly gasp-inducing when it appears.

The Underdark setting of the game is reduced to just another set of lines and boxes to populate with troops, with only the presence of spies lending it its thematic mystery and sense of backdoor deception. This is exacerbated by the board, which simply appears as a purple and black square stamped with incomprehensible names rather than feeling like a wide-reaching environment with distinct locations and environments for the taking.

Things are more positive when it comes to components, at least, with durable card player mats and generally strong artwork on the cards themselves. The dark colour scheme may be off-putting for fans of sunshine, but ties in nicely with the subterranean origins of the Drow. The purple is less welcome on the backs of the cards, which are all identically marked with a thick black border, faint spider web design and word ‘MINION’ written in bold white text – given the strength of the Dungeons & Dragons artwork on both the front of the cards and in the wider universe, it’s a shame to see the backs so plain and ugly by comparison. There are also minor issues with the wording of the rulebook, which circles around to the same rules multiple times without fully explaining other elements, such as the acquisition of VP points when a player’s troop barracks is empty – an occurrence that also ends the game.

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At roughly an hour per session, stretching up to around 90 minutes with a full house, Tyrants takes roughly twice as long to play as a pure deckbuilder such as Dominion, and lacks the tactical depth of a dedicated board control game – El Grande, for example.With the Dungeons & Dragons world failing to shine through and help the game stand apart from its peers, it makes the game hard to recommend in place of a shorter, more tightly-focused deckbuilder or a longer, more mechanically satisfying strategy effort.

Tyrants of the Underdark is not a bad game, but it suffers from the well-worn adage of being a jack of all trades – and a master of none.

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Tyrants of the Underdark is hard to recommend to fans of D&D, deckbuilders or area control titles, when more mechanically exciting and thematically rich alternatives exist separately in each of those genres. It’s more of a missed opportunity than a flop, but it’s hard to deny the disappointment given the elements involved.

Publisher: Wizards of the Coast

Genre: Deckbuilder/area control

Players: 2-4

Time: 60+ minutes

Age: 14+

Website: dnd.wizards.com

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