Hold your breath as we go beneath the surface of the caving horror
Being trapped underground is one of those universal fears, like falling or drowning, that sends shivers down backs with the mere thought alone. In Sub Terra, the dwindling light and air is only part of the problem – you’ll also need to contend with cave-ins, floods, gas and, worse of all, the mysterious ‘horrors’ that pursue you through the winding tunnels.
Like caving in real-life, it’s best to head into Sub Terra with at least one other person, as the co-operation between the uniquely-skilled characters is key to escaping the tunnels. Turn-to-turn actions are simple, but varied. Characters will spend most turns drawing random facedown tiles to expand the cave system in search of the exit, which lurks somewhere in the bottom six of the 64 squares. Even on the standard difficulty, it can be a challenge to even get close to simply discovering the exit unless you’re revealing and moving onto new tiles on almost every turn – which risks running straight into hidden hazards and monsters with little chance of reaction.
At the end of each set of player turns, the hazard deck triggers the dangers on a specific tile type. This generally involves the fragile explorers unlucky enough to be resting on the spaces immediately taking damage or having to pass a simple skill check by rolling the die, but can also set loose up to three horrors. These mysterious creatures are the highlight of the game, forcing players to stay on the move as they’re chased through the caverns, but can be frustrating to encounter. It’s an instant KO if a horror catches you, knocking your character out of the game until you're healed by another player. With the random layout and need to press on to escape before the hazard deck runs out – while avoiding any remaining horrors – players may end up forced to leave their friends behind, meaning a rather dull wait for those eliminated.
At least the horrors are somewhat predictable. That’s not the case with the rest with the hazards, which can strike suddenly and quickly wipe out even a careful team. While many depend on the risky decision to stay on a particular tile, tremors strike players regardless of where they are and can dish out wounds based on an unlucky die roll.
While the use of luck keeps things tense and random, the tight time pressure often results in the game becoming nothing but an exercise in pure hope, undermining much of the chance for strategy. It’s not uncommon to realise you stand little chance of discovering the exit based on the remaining number of tiles and cards halfway through, having spent too many turns being forced to heal or recovering from unfortunate draws.
The punishing difficulty would be easier to look past if there was a greater opportunity for experiencing unique stories, but with the tiles consisting solely of a small selection of hazards and no real narrative element beyond light characterisation of the explorers, it too commonly descends into a draw tiles-draw card-repeat loop with little sense of reward or progression. The core gameplay is solid, but it feels like the number of cards and tiles could’ve been better offset against the luck factors to achieve a tense experience that avoids too much frustration and apparent lack of control – yet that’s just not always the case here.
It’s a disappointment, as Sub Terra has a great look, does a fantastic job of translating its absorbing concept to interesting gameplay and makes a strong first impression. Unfortunately, spend too much time trapped in its depths and you might end up climbing the walls.
Sub Terra looks fantastic and is fun to play at first, but the crushing difficulty and heavy reliance on lucky draws and dice rolls ends up making it feel unfair, rather than presenting a satisfying challenge. It’s a shame there’s not a stronger story element to help spice up the repetition, either.
Publisher: Inside the Box Board Games
Time: 60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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