Updated: Oct 24, 2020
The London Underground railway network has an iconic status, largely thanks to the colourful topological maps first designed by Harry Beck in 1931. The standout tube map has been featured over the years in several games, including Mind the Gap (Gibsons) - which was one of the very first games featured on Board's Eye View. In Sebastian Bleasdale's On the Underground, the London tube network is central to the theme but players aren't using the diagrammatic Beck map but, in effect, one they are collectively building themselves over the course of the game. On the Underground was first published by Rio Grande Games and JKLM Games in 2006. For many, it has been a highly sought 'grail' game in the long years during which it has been out of print.
Ludicreations have brought the game back. It was launched last year on Kickstarter and you can now find it on retail shelves. Tho' many fans of the original liked the art of Matthias Catrein and the original game's little wooden tokens, Ludicreations have updated the design with art by Viktor Csete. The core game is essentially unchanged. Players have a number of wooden coloured strips (the number of colours varies with the number of players: with two, you each have four colours so are creating four rail lines; with three, it's three apiece; and with four or five players you'll each have two colours and therefore two underground lines). On each turn, you take four actions. You can use these to place out track (ie: extending lines you've already started) and/or to take 'branch tiles', two of which can be traded in to allow you to extend a line other than from its end (allowing the line to fork). You score a point any time a track connects to a National Rail station and two points and a free branch tile for track connecting to a Terminus station. Four pairs of 'connection' tiles are randomly placed out at the start of the game, and there are three points to be earned for connecting each matching pair. Players can also potentially score big by creating a circle line or loop, which scores a point for any station encompassed within the circle.
Meanwhile, there's a pawn representing an obviously bewildered passenger and a set of cards representing all the destinations on the map. Four cards are always displayed and, at the end of every player's turn, the passenger moves to one or two of the destinations (depending on the mix of cards displayed) taking the route that has the fewest empty track spaces. All players score a point for each of their lines taken by the passenger in moving between destinations. At the start of your turn, you'll be able to work out where the passenger will be travelling to and that can influence your track placement decisions.
On the Underground plays like a puzzle game as players have limited track in each colour (15 in some colours; 20 in others) and you want to maximise the point-scoring potential of your lines. Do you go for the early points that can be picked up from connecting to Terminus stations or do you try to build lines that are more likely to be taken by the passenger over the course of the game? And this is a game that changes in mood and tempo as it progresses. At first, players are each pretty much doing their own thing but the game becomes increasingly cutthroat as players' lines don't merely intersect with rivals but can be used to cut their lines off completely from further expansion.
The game is easy to learn but, in terms of strategy, On the Underground is a step or two up from entry-level 'gateway' rail building games like Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder). And this is just the basic game, replicating the 2006 original... This edition, however, is two games in one. Flip the board and it substitutes Berlin for London. There is a separate deck of Berlin destination cards and the 'connection' tiles are replaced by 40 landmark tiles. Scoring in the Berlin game is slightly different and the landmark tiles introduce a set collection element. The end-game scoring for these can lead to some odd dilemmas, with players deliberately avoiding a connection so as not to have to take a tile. You score 3 points per tile only for the type you have the most of, but ties all count, so, for example, if you have three each of three different landmarks, that would score 27 points, but if you took a fourth tile, you'd score just 12 points for your landmarks. During the course of the game, you can get 10 points for trading in a complete set of landmarks (one of each of the 5 types), and we found most players aiming at least initially to do that.
And to top off the package, an Underground Challenge mini-expansion has been designed, offering a solitaire option where you are competing against real London Transport/Transport for London (TfL) underground lines in London or real U-Bahn lines in Berlin. The Underground Challenge mini-expansion has been co-designed by the ubiquitous solo game design specialist David Turczi.
If you don't have the original, this is a game you should definitely consider adding to your connection. And if you do have the original, you may still want to add this for the alternatives offered by the Berlin map and scoring rules. And, who knows, if this new edition of On the Underground does as well as it should, could we be in for editions covering other city subway maps? Sebastian Bleasdale made a Paris map and components available for print'n'play download in 2012, and that confused passenger would surely love to stumble around the Tokyo and New York subways...
(Review by Selwyn Ward)