Updated: Oct 24
Did you grow up in the 1970’s when Jacques Cousteau was regularly on our TV screens with his rich French accent and his love for the sea and everything in it? Would you regularly put on your Dad’s safety goggles and fashion a snorkel from a piece of leftover plumbing and do breaststroke arms as you traversed your living room pretending it was some wild aquatic environment? Well if you dreamt of building cities in the depths of the oceans and spent hours watching sea creatures in your living room, then perhaps Vladimir Suchy's worker placement, engine building game will be right up your strait.
Players take the roles of corporations vying to build the best network of underwater cities with desalination plants, laboratories and kelp farms to work in and great underwater tunnels that allow the inhabitants to go to and from their places of work and giant domes to house the populace.
I hate starting any review with a negative point but the components are not universally great and this game suffers from Terraforming Mars syndrome, as it has come to be known in my house. That is, someone elbows the table and no-one can remember where all those displaced pieces were once stationed. Underwater Cities is not as bad as TM in that regard, but it does ask you to perch one tiny plastic cylinder on top of another to show you upgraded a building. To be clear, this is not a dexterity challenge, it is simply part of the game, but you will nonetheless need steady hands. Finally, your workers are not workers but curiously rectangular shaped pieces of cardboard; I am still not entirely clear why. The domes are excellent though. When it came to the resources, could we have perhaps have had a few more?: enough for a four-player game without the need to keep swapping in and out denominations; I know, I’m nit-picking.
Interestingly, the gameplay itself also resembles the great Terraforming Mars (Stronghold/FryxGames), although the collection and tableau placement of the cards has a decidedly different flavour, and the good news is that it isn’t at all fishy. You have a hand of three cards at all times and if you get more then you must discard down to three, and oh that’s a delicious tension right there. The cards and the worker spaces on the board are coloured Red, Green and Yellow. When you play a worker, or rather an amorphous piece of cardboard, you also have to play a card and if the card matches the colour of the space then you get to do both the action on the space and the action on the card. You get 3 worker placements each round and there are 10 rounds in the game. After the fourth, seventh and tenth round you have a production phase, and this is where the engine building kicks into overdrive and your buildings spew forth mountains of resources which you can spend in future rounds, or in the case of the third production phase after round 10, give you points for final scoring.
There is a lot going on in this game, and the cards have different abilities; some give you an instant satisfying hit of resources or push you up the turn order track (turn order is super important in this game), some cards provide an ongoing benefit for the rest of the game, others give you a bonus during those all important production phases and yet others are actions that you can activate by using certain worker placement spaces. Oh! And there are final scoring cards as well!
Underwater Cities is not lightweight; it is most certainly a mid- to heavyweight eurogame, and with four players it's going to set you back over three hours, with a 45-minute teach. However, it has a satisfyingly crunchy depth, it has wickedly addictive engine building and the mechanics really integrate beautifully and seamlessly with the theme, which remains an unusual and welcome characteristic for a heavy eurogame. Art is by Uildrim and Milan Vavron.
Rio Grande have picked up the distribution of this game in the USA and the Rio Grande version is apparently slightly better in terms of components than the Delicious Games original. However, this is not the easiest game to find. It hasn’t had the biggest marketing splash or been produced in large quantities and therefore it remains a little under the radar. If you think this type of game might tickle your inner trout, then I can certainly recommend the saltwater goodness that is Underwater Cities.
(Review by Jason Keeping)