UNDERWATER CITIES – A COMPARATIVE REVIEW BY SIMMY PEERUTIN

I own 3 Vladimir Suchy games – Shipyards, Pulsar 2849 and Underwater Cities. They have one thing in common; They are almost always not my first choice to bring to the table and yet, afterwards, I almost always remark on how much I enjoyed the experience and wish we played them more often.

What I think is so special about his games is that each one has a unique central mechanic that introduces a delicious tension to every decision and keeps players’ attention even when it is not their turn. On the other hand, the decision-making in his games is on the complex side and that can lead to analysis paralysis.

In Shipyards it is the central action selection track where each action tile moves to the front of the track when a players’ action pawn is removed  from it just prior to them taking an action. As one cannot take the action of the action tile at the front of the track this prevents players from taking the same action twice. You have to keep watching and hoping that the action you want will not be taken by another player as only one action pawn can reside on each tile. And on your turn you may have to take a sub-optimal action because you fear it will not be available when you next have a turn.

In Pulsar 2849 there is a central dice track from which players choose a dice. Selecting a die from a space costs initiative or engineering depending on the number of spaces it is from the mean position. Not only is the player presented with agonizing choices related to the dice value versus cost but then has to decide on multiple actions, some of which will not be available if selected by other players.

In Underwater Cities the action selection complexity is ramped up again! Here, one has a handful of cards in three colors. To take an action one plays a card AS WELL AS selecting an action space in one of three colors around the edges of the board. If the card matches the color of the action space you get to use the action on the card. If not, the card is discarded or placed in ones tableau with no effect and you only get to play the action of the chosen action slot. Optimizing play by ensuring you get both actions is key to doing well. But only one player can take occupy each action slot on the board and so players are all engaged all the time, watching which actions are taken by the other players and hoping the action you want or need is still available.

In this game, players compete to build the best underwater nation by building a network of underwater cities, scoring points for each connected city,  for different types of buildings and tunnels connected to their cities and for connection to the land-based metropolises.

Building cities, tunnels and buildings cost resources – credit (money), steelplast and kelp are the three basic resources while biomatter is more difficult to obtain but can be used as a replacement for steelplast or kelp. Science is another resource that is used for upgrading tunnels and buildings

Players start the game with three cards, and each time after completing ones turn, a card is drawn, so you always have three cards Each round consists of players playing cards and taking actions as explained above until each has taken three turns.

At the end of a round the era marker moves one space. After 4 rounds there is a production phase where one’s network produces resources. Upgraded structures produce significantly more resources than standard ones. The happens again after 7 rounds and then again after 10 rounds, at which point the game ends.

At game end players score for connected metropolises, connected cities with more points awarded for cities with different types of buildings, end scoring cards and a small amount of points for remaining resources.

Underwater cities has some of the underlying structure of Shipyards. Whereas Pulsar is directly competitive on the board, the other two games have an element of solo world building. Whether its building ships or a network of  underwater cities it is done on one’s own player board.

The interaction between card play and action slots in Underwater cities adds a lovely layer of tension concerning the choice of actions. This is a fairly clear progression of complexity through the other two games. In Shipyards the action choice is straightforward. In Pulsar the choice of die which allows one to buy actions has an effect on two other tracks – one that affect turn order and one that awards engineering cubes which allow the purchase of various bonuses.

The action slots and the cards in Underwater Cities are clearly and beautifully balanced, piling on the sweet agony in making choices. Green has the most powerful cards but the weakest actions; red is balanced and yellow has the most powerful actions but the weakest cards.

The building of one’s underwater world has yet more choices that influence other phases of the game. Does one diversify the city buildings for game end VP or does one concentrate for more resources? Does one expand quickly to connect to the metropolises and get the larger bonuses or does one fill up building slots?

And then there is the tableau. Four types of card  do not have instant effects and so are played into ones tableau. Players can have a maximum of 4 cards in their tableau but they can discard cards and replace with others. Some cards give permanent effects, others have additional actions, others expand production during the production phase and finally, others grant VP at the end of the game if the conditions are met. The limit of four cards and the hand limit of 3 makes this part of the game the weakest for me. Not only that, but if one plays a card and it does not match the action slot color the card is discarded even if it has a permanent effect.

Having said that, there are special cards available for purchase and these are not only displayed on the board, (hence they are known to all players, unlike the cards drawn each turn) but they are also generally quite powerful. Players take one into their hand via the use of an action slot and then have to pay the cost when they play the card, as one of their 3 card plays in a round. This does go a long way towards improving the value of the tableau.

Overall, I think Pulsar is the best of these three games, with Underwater Cities coming in second, due to its development of the underlying core mechanics of Shipyards. This is mainly due to the player interaction taking place on the main board in Pulsar. But I like the card/action slot mechanic of Underwater Cities the best.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

TERY: I don’t know Shipyards, but I have played two games each of Pulsar 2849 and Underwater Cities.  I do like them both, but I find them both to be average good games – games I would play if asked, but I would not necessarily think to suggest or purchase (although I do own Pulsar 2849). There is nothing wrong with them, and in both cases the rules are clear the mechanics work, so they are playable and enjoyable while being played. However, I don’t find myself thinking about what I wished I had done or what I would do next time I played or wanting to recap the game in anyway.

Dan Blum: I guess I have to be the curmudgeon here. I didn’t care for Shipyards at all: it’s an endless grind and there are serious balance issues (fans claim these are solved by everyone ganging up on the player with the advantage, which even if it is a solution is no tribute to the game design). Underwater Cities is better but rides entirely on the action selection mechanism, which is interesting but not interesting enough to carry the game. It might be decent with three players – with four it outstayed its welcome by a lot. Pulsar 2849 I thought was reasonable but still a bit too long and also a bit messy.

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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2 Responses to UNDERWATER CITIES – A COMPARATIVE REVIEW BY SIMMY PEERUTIN

  1. huzonfirst says:

    I recently played Underwater Cities for the first time, with 2 players, and it was fun, but long. Since you replenish your hand via blind draws, it’s not too surprising that the luck of the draw reared its ugly head multiple times. Having a handful of cards of the same color can definitely reduce your options, which was a bit frustrating. It also felt surprisingly tactical to me. But I do feel it’s one of the better games of the year, albeit perhaps not good enough to join the rotation once more new and shiny games arrive.

    My favorite Suchy designs are 20th Century and The Prodigals Club. I’ve never played Pulsar 2849.

  2. Larry Rice says:

    I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Suchy’s designs. I didn’t end up keeping Shipyards or Last Will but enjoy both. Pulsar is quite good and unlike Dan I found it to play pretty fast overall. After almost a dozen plays, the card draw in UC no long fazes me as it tends to even out over time but I also enjoy the tactical nature of not always being able to pursue your plan without a deviation or two (also, I wonder if the game tends to distract you since you want that efficiency and the extras granted by playing a card of the same color). I won’t play UC with four, but enjoy it quite a bit with three and our games usually end in just under 2 hours or so even with people who have AP tendencies.

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