Control, Expand, Betray - Tyrants of the Underdark
Updated: Mar 2
Tyrants of the Underdark, another collaboration between partners Gale Force Nine and Wizards of the Coast, released an updated edition of the popular game late last year.
Tyrants is an area control game where each player assumes the role of a Drow Noble house (Mizzrym, Baenre, Xorlarrin, Barrison Del'Armgo) seeking to expand their influence in the Underdark.
D&D Lore alert: for those not acquainted with D&D Lore, the Drow are a sub-race of elves that live below the surface of the world, scheming, and plotting.
Most live in the Underdark (as mentioned) which is a series of vast caverns, caves, and tunnels. Many fell beasts live beneath the world above and have been forever changed by life below the surface.
None of this is particularly relevant to this game, mind you, but it's cool nonetheless! /End D&D Lore alert
The primary mechanic of the game is deck building. You use your starter cards, each of which either give you influence, or power, to build your deck. Power and influence are the two currencies of the game.
During your turns you will use your influence to expand your army, purchasing more powerful minions to do your bidding, and you will use your power to expand your areas of control on the board.
It all works rather nicely.
As your strength grows, you can send forth spies to expand your reach, or even assassinate the troops of your enemies, giving you a foothold in their regions. As the board fills with troops from all factions, the game draws nearer to a close, with the noble houses fighting for supremacy in famous D&D locations such as Menzoberranzan, Skullport, Gauntlgrym, and more.
The game ends when the minion deck is exhausted (the market where you purchase new cards) or one player has used all of their troop tokens (the circular tokens that mark your control of a point on the board.)
At that point you go through the final scoring to see who wins!
You get final points for controlling sites (especially if you're the only one located at the site), for each enemy or unaligned troop you kill, for cards you've purchased, and for cards you've upgraded (removed from your deck, and put into the inner circle for the higher point value.)
Then, once the final scores are counted, you crown the true power behind the throne in the Underdark! At least until the whispers of dissent grow louder, and you open up the game again...
Unlike most deck building games I've played, after the initial "what am I doing again?" wore off, players progressed through their turns fairly quickly. It seemed partially because we didn't see many minions that allowed for extra card draws, which tend to bog these games down.
We did only play with the recommended Drow and Dragon decks, however, so I can't speak to what might be in the other four minion decks.
The area control elements of the game were simple to understand, but there was a definite strategy. Like most area control games you can only strengthen areas where you already have troops, or areas adjacent to those troops. Where Tyrants differs slightly, is that some cards allow you to place spies. Yes, spies. (It IS the the Underdark, after all.) Those spies allow you to place troops at a location where you don't have any.
It represents your minions gathering intelligence and can serve as a springboard for future incursions into this new territory. It's a simple but effective way to propagate your troops across the board.
During the game, there is an important balance to be struck between cards that give power and cards that give influence. If you wait too long to get the former, you may be too far behind to secure the victory points you need to win. It's a delicate balance. Making early bids to secure sites is key because they give you extra resources and (if you fully control them) VP every turn.
As noted, the version that I was sent was the updated one. The only major difference between this edition, and the previous one, are: the smaller box profile (aligning with previous GF9 releases), the miniatures have been replaced with cardboard tokens, and two new minion decks have been added, the Aberrations and the Undead.
Tyrants of the Underdark is a nice, medium weight strategy game. If you, or your friends, like deck-builders in general, Tyrants adds an area of control twist that should be enjoyable for you.
I learned the rules from the book, without a video or online tutorial. I always try and judge my first playthrough of a game based on the rules as written, as opposed to other material. I want to understand how the experience would be for somebody picking it up for the first time who may not have access to those tools. It's important. The rulebook is often the first experience a player has with the game, so if its indecipherable, it's unlikely to lead to a positive experience.
Overall, I found the rulebook very well laid out and easy to understand. When I needed to reference a rule or question, it always seemed to be right where I expected it to be. It's the highest compliment I can give a gaming rulebook. It really is.
Though I only have one playthrough so far, I think the replayability of Tyrants is high. Why? Well the market deck (the minions) include six separate types: the Drow, the Dragons, the Elementals, the Demons, the Aberrations, and the Undead. During game setup, you combine two of these decks to create the the stack you will use for a given game. If my math is right, that's 15 possible combinations (it's probably wrong, but there's a lot of possibilities is my point.)
More importantly, how each of these pairings interacts will be VASTLY different. Every game will feel like a wholly different experience because the strategy must necessarily change based on the unique combination of those decks.
I really like that about Tyrants.
If I had to offer one small point of criticism about Tyrants of the Underdark it would be that it runs a tad long for a medium weight game. Including teaching, we played for about two hours.
I'd love it if Tyrants ran in about an hour, with a slightly smaller market deck (30-35 cards each instead of 40 perhaps) and slightly fewer troop tokens bringing about a quicker game end. It's a very minor quibble as I, and most everyone at the table, enjoyed the experience and said we'd look for an opportunity to play the game again.
It was complex enough to keep the heavy strategic players engaged, but not so complex that the less-seasoned players felt overwhelmed. In my play group, few games have been able to strike the balance.
Like all D&D/Gale Force Nine games, the components are extremely high quality. I also applaud their decision to update the game by removing the minis. Though I didn't play the first edition and can't compare, the tokens in the second editions worked fine. For the medium weight of the game the price point without them seems right.
Overall, if your group likes quality deck builders, you should enjoy the area control twist that Tyrants of the Underdark will offer. It has lots of Easter eggs for D&D fans but won't discourage non-fans from trying it because they aren't mission critical.
The game is highly language-dependent, though, so I would encourage you to purchase the game that matches your native tongue. It's currently available in English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish. GF9 tends to do an exceptional job of ensuring its games find the broadest audience possible with multi-lingual editions.
So if you're brave enough...and cunning enough...you too might become one of the Tyrants of the Underdark
A review copy of Tyrants of the Underdark was provided
Images copyright Wizards of the Coast and used with permission