Updated: Jan 13, 2020
Designed by Fergus Blair with art by Matt Paquette and Craig Slade, Underleague is a card combat game from Cogwright that should particularly appeal to those who have played games like Magic the Gathering (MtG). The cards represent fantasy creatures that can be enhanced with fancy equipment, so there are elements in this game that MtG fans will recognise. But Underleague certainly isn't just more of the same...
One of the issues with MtG and its like is the bloated arsenal of cards at players' disposal - provided you have the real-world cash to spend on acquiring them. Underleague isn't a collectible or trading card game; what you see is what you get and is all that you need to play - and to play with up to five players.
In the basic game, each player starts with an identical 30-card creature deck. They select the three creatures to play (their 'starting stable') through individual player card drafting: each player draws three cards, picks one and puts the other two on the bottom of his deck, and they do this thee times so that they end up with three cards in front of them. Players initiate combat by selecting one of their active creature cards and choosing an active card of an opponent to attack. Each card has a day and a night value (representing the number of combat dice that creature rolls), and the defending player chooses whether the attack takes place in the day or at night. The aim is to be the first to reach 20 victory points, and these are counted by adding the total value of cards in a player's stable (ie: their three face-up creature cards, taking account of any equipment modifiers) to the number of victory cards they have won.
What sets Underleague apart is its incorporation of a betting mechanism. Before the combat phase, players look over all of the active creature cards and they bet their five win/lose tokens on creatures they think will win or lose. They can bet on their own and other players' creatures, and they don't have to back their own creatures to win. Successful bets mean the betting token is recovered and the player will next turn get to draw strategy cards that they can use to enhance or equip their creatures. This means that just sometimes it can be in a player's interest not to win a combat encounter; so you will occasionally find a defending player deliberately choosing day/night conditions that are least favourable for their own creature.
And though this isn't a game where you are driven to buy and collect ever more powerful cards, you aren't left short of strategy cards to draw from: the game comes with a massive draw deck of 250 strategy cards. These aren't all unique (there are multiple copies of several of the cards) but there's enough variety in the pack to ensure that successive games of Underleague will all play out quite differently.
You won't quickly tire of Underleague because the rules incorporate options for more elaborate deck building arrangements in place of the pre-constructed creature decks of the core game. These include options to build individual strategy card decks, balanced by card value. There are options too for more extensive card drafting and rules for running a 'league' tournament of knockout games; but then you probably expected that from the game's title...
Underleague was launched on Kickstarter in 2017. It's hard to find at retail but you can buy it direct from the publishers (Cogwright) at their online store.