Under Falling Skies: A Solo Gaming Review

Our story starts back in March of 2020… which, let’s be clear, feels like a decade ago. (In the words of Ned Ryerson, “Am I right or am I right?”) As my family and I chose to self-quarantine, I began searching for print’n’play solo games on BoardGameGeek. One of the highly recommended solo games I stumbled on was Under Falling Skies – the winner of the 2019 9-Card Nanogame Print and Play contest on BGG. 

About the time I found it, Czech Games Editions announced that they were going to publish an upgraded version of the game for Essen 2020… so, after one play (which I enjoyed), I put away my nine-card deck and played other solo games instead. (If you want to know more about my solo game play, check out my Solo Gaming in the Time of Covid post which I just updated to cover all of 2020.)

I wondered if CGE could take Tomáš Uhlíř’s incredibly compact design and expand it without making it too complicated and/or too riddled with unnecessary components and rules… so I was more than pleasantly surprised by the incredible success they packed into the 9 x 7 x 2.75 inch box.

Tale As Old As Time

The setting is familiar to anyone who plunked quarters into a Space Invaders video game or watched the movie Independence Day. (The first one… not, for the love of all that is holy, the sequel.) Giant motherships have appeared over cities around the world and alien fighter craft are diving towards the planet surface. You, our intrepid leader, must work to defend the city, limiting the damage, all while improving our technology and conducting research to figure out how to repel the alien invasion. 

One of the unique features of Under Falling Skies is the way that the board (made out of various small boards) lays out to make a tall yet skinny “map” of the alien invasion. It was tricky to fit on a hotel room desk (I managed, thanks to swapping out parts of the board as needed) but worked just on a coffee table. The design of the board actually enhances the theme – the alien ships (and the mother ship) are moving inexorably towards you and the city you are protecting. 

How It Works

The clever mechanic at the heart of the game is both blindingly simple and perfectly frustrating. The player rolls five six-sided dice… and then chooses to place them in their “underground bunker” to activate various functions. (Yes, it’s a worker placement game… which really didn’t occur to me until I typed out that last sentence.) The strength of each action is determined by the number on the die. There are five columns – and only one die can be placed in each column. 

Also in each column is an alien fighter… which dives toward your city as many spaces as the amount on the face of the die you just placed. So, strong actions encourage faster alien attacks while weak actions slow them down. Certain spaces allow the fighters to slide over into the next column… or trigger the movement of the mothership towards the city. Other spaces make the fighters vulnerable to attack by your jet fighters.

When you begin the game, you don’t have access to all the possible actions you’ll need to finish off the invaders – you’ll have to spend dice to move the excavator piece to grant you the ability to place dice on the lower levels of the bunker. No surprise – the really powerful action squares tend to be at the bottom of the bunker.

Possible actions (in the base game) include:

  • fire AA guns at the attacking alien fighters to slow them down
  • send out jet fighters to engage & destroy alien fighters
  • research how to defeat the aliens
  • build robots to power rooms over multiple turns
  • generate energy to power other rooms

The campaign (we’ll get to that in a minute) adds new wrinkles on top of those basic actions.

Two of the dice are white – when you place one of those dice, you re-roll all of your remaining dice. Making the decision about the order of dice placement involves balancing this re-roll, the diving fighters, and the need to accomplish a variety of tasks to save your city.

When a fighter reaches the city, you take a damage. Run to the end of your damage track and the city is destroyed – and you lose. Well, humanity loses, which is you.

Impending Doom

At the end of each turn, the mothership moves one step lower in the atmosphere, triggering a variety of effects:

  • forcing the excavator backwards (collapsing part of your underground bunker)
  • stealing some of your research
  • spawning extra alien fighters

Movement by the mothership during dice placement doesn’t trigger those effects – so there are times when it is actually wiser to let them advance to keep something worse from happening.

After the mothership moves, it respawns fighters which you destroyed (plus any extra fighters gained by the mothership)… and the battle continues. If the mothership reaches the atmosphere, say hello to your new alien overlords. And you lose.

The only way to win is to reach the end of the research track prior to the city being destroyed or the mothership landing.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Part of the genius of the CGE production of Under Falling Skies is how much customization they packed into the box:

  • You can vary the threat level (difficulty) of the game by flipping one or more of the sky tiles to their more threatening alien-goo splattered side.
  • There are a number of possible cities to defend – and each one has both a special power and a specific layout of the underground bunker created by combining bunker tiles in specific combinations.
  • If you lose a game, you can consider your city damaged and flip the city tile for a second game… with a more effective version of their special power.

And all of that is before you get to the campaign, which strings together a series of approximately 10 games in four chapters, requiring you to defend your cities from an alien onslaught. Scenarios create new problems for you to tackle… while characters add once per game special powers to deal with particularly thorny problems created by this invasion.

There is enough material in the box to have two completely different campaign experiences… and still you’ve just scratched the surface. (I’ve played – and won – a full campaign, as well as multiple one-off battles… and there’s content I haven’t seen yet.)

With all the content revealed, you can manage the difficulty level of individual games with a simple system to measure just how “epic” your battles are.

Speaking of epic – this is the epic pile of stuff that CGE managed to tuck into this box. (There will be no complaining about wasted shelf space for this game)

It’s Easy to Miss Things

While all of the rules are right there in the rulebook, it’s easy to make assumptions about how to play the game based on other games you’ve played. (If there was a place to look up “I played this wrong ‘cuz I didn’t pay attention to the rules” in an encyclopedia, my picture would be right there.) A couple of key issues I missed in my first couple of games:

  • Fighters move as soon as you place a die in their column… which means that fighters that shift columns can be moved a second time and make defending your city even more difficult.
  • Remembering to move the mothership down at the end of each turn.

Final Thoughts

2020 was a great year for aliens attacking solo games – with both Warp’s Edge (which I reviewed earlier this year) and Under Falling Skies using very different systems to create games with solid mechanics, tactical and strategic decisions, and nail-biting “will I be able to pull this off?” moments. 

Under Falling Skies is the meatier of the two games – the decisions are trickier to make than Warp’s Edge. It also has a slightly longer playing time – most of my games run about 35-40 minutes (compared to Warp’s Edge at 20-30 minutes). But I’m glad to have both games – and recommend them both to you if you’re looking for excellent solo gaming experiences.

Note: I received a review copy of Under Falling Skies.

About Mark "Fluff Daddy" Jackson

follower of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, boardgamer, writer, Legomaniac, Disneyphile, voted most likely to have the same Christmas wish list at age 57 as he did at age 7
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