Underwater Cities,
is it better than Terraforming Mars?

We’ve been thinking about buying Underwater Cities for a long time. We read a lot of opinions that “it’s basically the same as Terraforming Mars, only underwater”. Terraforming Mars is one of our favourite games (and we are definitely more interested in the space theme) so we decided that we do not need a similar game. Finally, we were convinced by the opinion that in Underwater Cities we will experience more interaction between players. But is this really the truth?

Theme

Underwater Cities are moving players into the future. The world is overcrowded. The Earth’s surface is becoming less inhabitable, so mankind is looking for a new place to live.ย  This place is the depths of the oceans – unused areas of the earth that are only waiting for colonization. Players take on the role of administrators, whose goal is to build an underwater network of cities and connect them to terrestrial metropolises.

Underwater Cities board game

Execution

The box is surprisingly small, but it’s a good thing. We all face the problem of missing space on our shelves, don’t we? ๐Ÿ˜Š What we find in the box, however, will not delight everyone. The authors obviously didn’t have a big budget to prepare unique, imaginative graphics, or even any insert (everything is just thrown into the box).

Cards: On the cards you will find nice, but not very engaging graphics that look a bit like photos from the Internet passed through a filter. Unfortunately, the graphics, and thus the functions of the cards very quickly begin to repeat themselves. And this way we can have e.g. 4 Smuggling cards with exactly the same graphics, and the only difference is the effect on the other resource. In addition to graphics on the cards you will find two important areas: the top on which the symbols show the function of the card and the bottom, where is text with explanation. In terms of functionality and legibility, the cards cannot be accused of anything. The symbols used are very intuitive and it is unlikely that you will have any doubts what function each card has.ย 

Underwater Cities board game


Domes:This is probably the most attractive element of the game. Plastic hemispheres in two colors, which we put on our boards. This is the only element that adds character to the game, which is somehow unique (I don’t know any more games in which there are plastic domes ๐Ÿ˜Š).

Underwater Cities board game


Plastic building markers: colorful “capsules” designed to symbolize different types of buildings that we can build. If we improve a building, we simply place one marker on top of the other. It is neither very engaging nor practical – they are very small so they can fall, slide down. They fulfil their function, but they could certainly do it better.

Underwater Cities board game


Tokens of raw materials and tunnels: Microchips look best. Simple design, but it seems to be “finished”, with an idea and a well-thought-out shape. They just look like microchips. It’s worse with the rest of the tokens. They fulfil their function, the graphics are correct, easy to distinguish and nothing else.

Action tokens: I have to admit honestly – I don’t know what it is and what it’s supposed to symbolize. It’s probably a door, but why is it a door, why are we using doors and why are they in some yellow wall? We do not know. Anyway, each player has 3 of them.

Underwater Cities board game


The main board: whatever you say, it’s very bad. It might as well not be there. You have to treat it only as an organizer – a place for cards, scoring, a place to activate the actions. Nothing else. Neither is it pretty, nor does it present anything interesting. Just a map of the world in the background. I don’t know what it has to do with underwater cities. I think that the potential of the map could have been used much better by preparing some climatic graphics, underwater elements, the bottom of the oceans, divers, anything!

Underwater Cities board game


Player boards: Another very weak element. It’s just a pretty thin piece of paper on which there was symbolically marked some water reservoir and some pieces of earth around it. Again, they fulfil their function, but do not add any fluff. Their advantage? Double sided and one side is asymmetrical. ๐Ÿ˜Š The biggest drawback? Everything is flying on them. You have to play carefully, or your tunnels, domes and buildings will be every turn in a different place. Get ready to buy organizers ๐Ÿ˜‰

Help cards: this is a real nightmare. Thin pieces of paper that look like they’re going to tear up in your fingers. The first thing we did was to laminate them.

Underwater Cities board game

Mechanics

The mechanics of the game is extremely simple and it is a worker placement combined with the management of cards on the hand. Players can have up to three cards on their hands (unless the played cards say otherwise), which they will use during their turn. The cards in the game are divided into three colors (red, green and yellow) and the actions available on the main board are marked with exactly the same colors. Players use their action tokens (3 tokens with strange doors) to take action on the board. If they match the color of the action from the board to the color of the card, they can play actions from both the board and the card. If they don’t have a card of the same color as the action on board, they have to discard the card in any other color and consider only the action from the main board. After each action one card is drawn (unless already played cards says differently).

Possible actions (from the cards and action fields on the main board) are largely limited to:

  • Production of various resources
  • Construction of domes, tunnels and special buildings producing resources
  • Changing positions on the federation track (the track that determines who will be the first player in the next round)
  • Improving your buildingsย 

Of course, there are also different types of cards (immediate, activated during the production phase, action cards that can only be played when the appropriate action is activated on main board), which modify our game, affect the strategy. In a way they dictate the way we play (e.g. some give us bonuses if there are two improved laboratories at one dome).ย 

In the game we also have additional mechanics such as setting the order of players by progressing on the federation track or special bazaars with unique cards that can be bought by the players (part is drawn and known to everyone from the beginning of the game, part is a covered deck with a card visible only at the top of the stack).

Underwater Cities board game

Flow of the game

The whole game is divided into three eras. For each era there is a separate deck of cards, which is an interesting solution, because you can see a significant difference in what cards are in each era and what players should bet on when expanding their underwater cities (e.g. in the first era dominate cards based on development, in the third era cards focus primarily on the maximization of the result at the final score).

At the end of each era comes the phase of production in which players can feel on their own skin what they have managed to build and to what extent their strategy works. What resources are produced, what bonuses they have collected and whether they have enough algae to feed their cities. Unfortunately, this stage of the game is underdeveloped. With moving elements on the board and a rather illegible help cards production is quite chaotic, it’s easy to make a mistake, miss some elements, get resources for the same building twice or not take them at all. Considering the high importance of this stage, its imperfection is an extremely weak element that strongly affects the gameplay.

Interaction between players

Referring to these “interactions” between players, they are limited to stealing colored fields from each other on the main board. That’s all. You can tell yourself if this level of interaction is sufficient for you.

Replayability and randomness

The game itself, thanks to the use of cards and different colors gives us a lot of possibilities and it doesn’t seem that every game should be the same, especially if the opponent “steals” from us the field on the board that we needed. Always a shuffled deck with cards for each era additionally influences the diversity of the game. Fortunately, the actions on the cards and actions on the main board complement each other. So we don’t feel like we have a terrible hand, nothing fits anything and everything makes no sense. Usually it is possible to match the cards in such a way as to use the turn effectively. In addition, proper card play allows you to have more cards on hand, which reduces randomness, and gives us a sense of greater control.ย 

Underwater Cities board game

Feeling of the theme

Well, this game has its magic. I don’t know where it comes from, are these unleavened, cheap elements or is it the main theme of the game? There are some games which, despite their ugly elements, still have their charm (in my case it is e.g. Mage Knight, Terraformation of Mars, Gaia Project). And this is exactly how it is with Underwater Cities. Game is rather ugly, but this ugliness is engaging. However, Underwater Cities don’t do it as well as the above titles and you won’t feel like an underwater mayor.

Fun from the game

The weirdest thing about it is that, despite its flaws, it’s fun to play. Seriously. With simple rules and repetitive cards, the game doesn’t seem very difficult (great for non-Players), and with relatively high card repetition, it’s easy to come up with a strategy. Thus, it seems to me that the game can be better perceived by people who are not hardcore players.

Pros

  • Easy rules
  • A good choice if you want to play with people who are not hardcore players
  • It has its bizarre, kitschy climate
  • Unique theme
  • With the potential to play fast-paced games
  • Few unique cards, many actions begin to repeat quickly so it can be easy for beginners

Cons

  • Few unique cards, many actions begin to repeat quickly what can be disadvantage for hardcore players
  • Poor quality of components (both in terms of graphics and materials used)
  • Overpriced in relation to the quality of components
  • Unused potential of a unique theme – it could have been done much better
  • The bizarre kitsch climate is one thing, but unfortunately you will not feel like the builders of underwater cities….

Verdict

We don’t think this is a first choice game. There are many better games that use this mechanics, but are more engaging and climatic. If you don’t have such classics as the aforementioned Terraforming Mars, you’d better invest in it first. Underwater Cities is a category game: “I have extra money to spend and I don’t know what for, so I’m going crazy.” ๐Ÿ˜‰

Scores

Overall score 6/10
Execution 5/10
Climate 6/10
Price justification 6/10
Fun from game 7/10

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