The distant or not-so-distant future is often depicted as overpopulated and polluted. Instead of taking humankind into space, players are tasked with developing a liveable environment underwater.
Developing a new nation underwater is no small feat, and you’ll have to plan your moves carefully to develop a stable economy fit before you can expand across the sea bed!
Brief Overview of Underwater Cities
Underwater Cities checks all the boxes for a proper Euro-style game, but it does its own twist on the core formula, primarily by changing the way production works.
Rather than providing resources continuously or after every round, Underwater Cities has only three production phases over a fixed number of rounds.
There’s card placement, engine building, and a lot of complexity in Underwater Cities, which is often compared to Terraforming Mars. The two aren’t exactly comparable, but if you know what Mars is like, then think of Underwater Cities as a slightly more complex and longer game.
Speaking of length, it’s one of the make-or-break factors for Underwater Cities. The game can be played by up to 4 players, each adding 40min to the official total playtime. A more realistic estimate is at least 3 hours, but if you’re fine with it, you’re going to love this game!
Versions & Expansions
Underwater Cities: New Discoveries
Unboxing Underwater Cities
Under the box lid you’ll find:
- 1 Rulebook
- 1 Double-Sided Game Board
- 4 Player Info Cards
- 4 Double-Sided Player Boards
- 4 Final Scoring Cards
- 4 Personal Assistant Cards
- 12 Action Tiles
- 25 Credit Cards
- 8 Government Contract Cards
- 66 Era I Cards
- 57 Era II Cards
- 57 Era III Cards
- 16 Metropolis Tiles
- 35 Credit Tokens
- 84 Resource Tokens
- 47 Double-Sided Tunnel Tiles
- 1 Action-Cloning Tile
- 4 Multiplier Tiles
- 30 City Domes
- 111 Farm, Desalination, and Laboratory Tokens
- 1 Era Marker
- 12 Player Markers
The components of Underwater Cities are a mixed bag of great art and solid tokens, and not-so-great player boards.
Starting with negatives, we have to look at the info cards and double-sided player boards. One of the nicer industry standards is the use of relatively thick paper for board pieces and currency.
However, Underwater Cities uses thin, flexing paper that doesn’t inspire confidence in its longevity. I haven’t had any issues during the games I’ve played, but if I continued playing, I’d probably laminate these pieces.
The rest of the components are okay, but there’s nothing that goes beyond expectations. The card artwork is nice, although it’s used over several cards.
I quite like the domes that represent the underwater cities, they are a nice touch. Overall, even though I’m not blown away by the components, I’m reasonably satisfied with what I got.
How to Play Underwater Cities
Underwater Cities is quite deep and complex, but fortunately, it’s not one of those games that have a convoluted set of rules and mechanics. Most things are straightforward and I’ll give you a brief overview of how the game is played.
We’re not going to dive into the setup; What matters is that players pick a color, starting resources, and action tiles. Special cards are drawn and placed on the game board, and hexagonal tiles are placed on individual player boards.
The Flow of the Game
Underwater Cities has a player-order tracker that provides different benefits based on the position in the queue. The game is played over 10 rounds, grouped into three eras. The end of each era marks the production phase, with the end of the last era also signifying the end of the game.
The rounds are broken into three turns for every player. In the determined order of play, players will take actions from the game board while simultaneously playing one of three cards out of hand. Once the action is resolved, the player will draw a card, and discard if necessary so they’re always at three cards.
Cards & Actions
Cards represent the core of the gameplay and there’s quite a lot going on around them. There are three decks of cards, one for every era of the game. Once an era passes, the corresponding deck is discarded for the next one.
Cards are played simultaneously with the action slots found on the game board, but to gain the benefits of the card, the colors must match. Cards come in three colors and five types:
- Instant effect cards that provide some benefit immediately.
- Permanent effect cards, providing discounts, abilities, and bonuses when triggered.
- Action cards that work like board action slots.
- Production cards that provide benefits during the production phase.
- End scoring cards that give points at the end of the game.
Building Underwater Cities
Cards, actions, and productions are tools you’ll use to construct your underwater metropolis. At the start, it’ll be a small city, as represented by the dome game pieces.
The idea is to construct cities and buildings on the small circular spots around the dome. Then, cities should be created in other areas and connected to other cities via tunnels. It’s important to connect all your cities to reap the rewards throughout the game.
End of the Game & Scoring
There is so much more going on in Underwater Cities and if you’re really curious about all the rules and mechanics, I suggest giving the manual a quick look.
As for the end of the game, it happens when after the final production phase is resolved.
The number of cities, the complexity of the network, the resources, and the special action cards all contribute to your final score. The player with the most points is declared the winner!
Your First Game of Underwater Cities
Even if you thoroughly prepare for your first game of Underwater Cities, there are a lot of things you’ll need to learn as you go, as the tempo of the game is a bit different from other Euro games.
Try to match the color of the card to the action on every turn, as that will maximize your overall production, at least until you figure out how the game works. Knowing when to go for the action and disregard a card will come naturally to you as you encounter different situations.
Scoring cards are a great way to score points, but if you want to focus more on the development of your city, feel free to do so. While we’re on the subject of cities, diversify the production and try to upgrade the structures to gain more benefits during the production phase.
It should go without saying, but the most important thing is to have fun! It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and strategy, especially when playing a Euro game, so rather than hunt the points, try to do as many different things as possible and see what happens!
Pros & Cons
- Refreshing Take on the Euro Genre
- Well-Written Rulebook
A lot of games try to reinvent the Euro-game wheel and fail, while others stick to the general formula to a fault, and end up being dry, number-crunching games.
Underwater Cities has become as popular as it is because it managed to make the formula work extremely well. There is no list of complex rules and dozens of actions, but at the same time the ones you have offer plenty of depth.
The fact that you play cards and board actions at the same time increases the scope of possible strategies immensely. I really like how the cards complement the board actions, so the stronger the card the weaker the action, and vice versa.
Combine it all with the irregular production phases, and you get a really interesting game loop. The engine building doesn’t have those bland moments of nothing happening, as you only get three production/reward cycles throughout the game.
The rulebook really helps with the rules and even has a section that references the commonly broken and neglected rules. It’s easy to follow and doesn’t burden you with too much information, although reading it a few times will be necessary.
- Length of Games
- Components Are Serviceable
Underwater Cities is a complex game, but not so much that it’s going to gatekeep a lot of people. However, it definitely is a long game — don’t trust those box figures.
The estimated 2h 40min in a 4-player game might be true, but I’m yet to play a game under 3.5 hours, which is a lot even for me.
I have to mention the components in the cons section, as the designer really could’ve stepped it up in certain departments. The player boards are this “high-quality” paper that is too flimsy for my taste, and I feel like one mishap with the box will get it all creased up.
Underwater Cities Review (TL;DR)
So, if you’re looking for a Euro game that you can really play a ton of, then Underwater Cities is the perfect pick for you!
It has a lot going for it that gives it an advantage over other popular games in the genre, such as Terraforming Mars and the Raiders of the North Sea series — mainly the complexity, more structured gameplay, and significant rewards.
As long as you and your group of friends are ready for the time commitment Underwater Cities requires, then you’ll definitely have a great time with it!
I’ve been looking forward to trying out Underwater Cities for quite some time now. The only thing preventing me from buying it was the limited player count. As I always say, my group of friends is big and with 4-player games, someone is bound to be left out.
Still, the few games I’ve played for review purposes have been great, especially the ones I played over the weekend. I wouldn’t get into Underwater Cities on a work day again, as it can go on for quite longer than expected. Still, we managed to finish that session without losing focus, which was quite an achievement.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Underwater Cities is often compared to Terraforming Mars, which is one of my go-to games. Having been exposed to so many games through this job, I can now understand most of the negative points people pointed out in regard to Mars.
It’s not that it’s a bad game, far from it — it’s just that some games do certain things better. Now, if I had to pick only one of the two, it’d be a tough choice. Underwater Cities does a lot of things better, but it’s also a lot lengthier.
To leave a conclusion, let me put it like this: If you’re not a fan of Terraforming Mars or you’ve played it out, then definitely give Underwater Cities a go. It lands in that sweet spot between the games that can be figured out quickly, and those that require too much skill and effort.