Under Falling Skies
There's a widely accepted maxim that movies based on computer games are, at best, not good, and often downright terrible. In fact, a quick Google search reveals a top 35 list which is 'Ranked from Least Bad to Absolute Worst'. You get the idea. However, board games based on computer games are generally pretty good: yes, the media are more similar, but still there are some highly regarded titles out there, including XCOM (FFG), Jetpack Joyride (Lucky Duck), Jagged Alliance (Underground Games). More dated computer games have fared less well, with Super Motherload [sic] (aka Dig Dug) the best I'd played... until now. You don't get much more classic than Space Invaders and that is where Under Falling Skies draws its inspiration.
Under Falling Skies started life as a nine-card print'n'play microgame; now it is a weighty production from Czech Games Edition in a box slightly larger than their flagship Codenames size with art by Kwanchai Moriya and Petra Bohacek. Opening the box you are cautioned not to dump everything out, as there is a campaign packed beneath the core game. Said core game is value enough already... the campaign is, frankly, above and beyond! Customer care is extended in the form of a QR code leading to a How To Play video, tho' we found the rulebook was still regularly referenced for the first few plays.
At its heart, Tomas Uhlir's Under Falling Skies is a lane defence game in which hostile alien ships plummet down from a mothership that slowly descends through four modular boards which flip sides depending on the chosen difficulty or threat level. These boards have spaces that accelerate the mothership, shift the hostiles left or right, or give you a chance to shoot them out of the sky with your fighter planes. Each modular city - New York, Washington or, appropriately, Roswell, in the base game - is defended by a barrage of five cannon beneath which is an underground base where you place your five worker dice. The base must be excavated further to power up your skills and increase your options.
The three grey and two white dice when rolled must be allocated one per lane; placing a white die forces a reroll of any remaining dice. The rooms trigger effects: the cannon slow down the hostiles by 1; generator rooms replenish your energy; fighter planes shoot down all hostiles on explosion spaces of an equal or lesser value; robot factories give you an extra, automated die; and science labs advance your alien research, which is how you win the game. When you place a die, hostiles in that lane move down an equal number of spaces; if they hit the city, the city takes damage; if the city takes too much damage or the mothership descends too far, it's time to toast the end of the world.
While the game's mechanics are uncomplicated, there are plenty of interlocking decisions to be made in the placement of those five dice: the rule of 'one per lane' is vital in building pressure and there's a good amount of planning needed before you place the first die. As well as costing energy, spaces in the base can adjust your die roll up or down, and while sixes are great for juicing up your research or blasting a wave of hostiles, remember that placing that die will bring the hostiles in that lane will be six spaces closer... The initial setup in the rulebook puts you on the easiest setting, giving you a false sense of confidence for when you try a threat level of three or four.
The modularity of the game is a big plus: while the experience has a similar flavour each play, it is spiced up by the adjustable threat levels, city powers and base rooms chosen. I must admit, in this age of dual-layer boards I would have liked a frame to hold the modular sections as they tend to get knocked about a bit, but that's getting greedy.
Having enjoyed a few standalone games, I eagerly started a campaign: a minimum of seven games which increase the alien threat over four chapters, with some narrative and comics, too. There are, of course, plenty of tweaks and new rules along the way, all of which can be used for later one-off games. The campaign was compulsively addictive, though the scoring seemed a little off, with one-shot abilities not worth the minus to the Threat Level. It's no spoiler to say that in my campaign, London Has Fallen, but Singapore celebrated its Independence Day.
Under Falling Skies' development is the story of the Little Micro Game That Could: from the initial constraints to this eye-catching package, I'm really impressed by what has happened here. The '1+' on the player count seems a tad disingenuous though: you could alternate turns if you want to but this really is a solo game. Perhaps the only negative is a degree of repetition, but if there are gaming experiences out there that are worth repeating a few times, this is definitely one of them.
(Review by David Fox)
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