The first two missions of The Undercity left me feeling like the gameplay was going to be a reflection of the board: functional but bland. The third mission had an interesting task to complete and showed a spark of life that the first two were lacking. The fourth mission completely knocked my party on our butts and featured a neat and challenging mechanic that forced us to plan and strategize, and really got me excited to see the campaign through to the finish.
Published by Privateer Press, The Undercity is a fully cooperative board game for 2-4 players that places players in the shoes of four(-ish) unique members of the Black River Irregulars, a band of mercenary heroes. These characters are the backbone of the game and all look and play very differently from one another and, since the player characters are persistent and grow and change over the course of the campaign, players are likely to get very attached to their chosen character.
The Iron Kingdoms lore contains a mash-up of steam punk and not-quite-high fantasy magic and the player characters reflect this mixture in interesting ways. Gardek Stonebrow, the Trollkin Warrior, is close to the typical fighter class with a few tweaks, such as inherent regeneration, but the others are more varied and interesting. Canis Gormleigh, the Gun Mage Duelist, focuses on using magical bullets to modify the shots from her pistol while Milo Boggs, the Cutthroat Alchemist, has various alchemical grenades at his disposal. My personal favorite character, Pog & Doorstop, is actually two separate characters who work in tandem. Pog is a frail and rather weak Gobber Bodger who spends his time modifying the abilities of Doorstop, the Warjack. They can function separately, but they are far more effective when working together.
The cast of player characters is used to play through an entirely linear storyline in The Undercity. The only real choice involved is in how to approach each chapter's objectives and whether or not to attempt to activate any Side Quests that may be present in a particular chapter. The Side Quests themselves aren't very aptly named though, as most are simply an item or effect and don't really lend any additional story to the game.
The story told is interesting and stands out from the crowd in that it has a much smaller and tighter focus than many dungeon crawl games. Instead of setting out to save the world or some such grandiose concept, the story of The Undercity stays relatively small and focused, similar to the beginning of a tabletop RPG campaign. This makes sense in the context that Privateer Press presented the game at GenCon 2015, as it gives players a good taste of how a low level adventure in the Iron Kingdoms RPG may begin and play out.
[caption id="attachment_52565" align="aligncenter" width="797"] Each adventure lays out which enemies will be faced as well as how many the heroes potentially face and how likely they are to spawn onto the board.[/caption]
Nearly every aspect of gameplay in The Undercity involves dice rolls, but the dice provided are big and fun to roll and the to-hit rolls are made separately from damage rolls. This means that players often need to balance how hard something is to hit against how much damage they want to try and inflict. This consideration is important as the heroes will have options to add dice to rolls to Boost them. This is the most common tactical choice faced by the heroes but each hero also has access to a deck of Feat cards that allow them to take special actions, Boost dice rolls, force enemies to miss attacks against them etc. Clever use of Feat cards can significantly shift the odds in the heroes' favor.
[caption id="attachment_52566" align="aligncenter" width="797"] The Undercity's villains are all controlled by the game and their behaviors are determined by the symbols at the bottom of their cards.[/caption]
The way that The Undercity handles experience gain and character growth is one of the game's strongest points. Each wound done to a Villain counts as a single experience point that is added to the Treasury. After each mission the XP total is rounded up so that each hero receives an equal share to spend on new Abilities, which can then be used in all future missions. Each hero has their own deck of Abilities to choose from and the players can tailor their character as they like by choosing which Abilities to purchase.
[caption id="attachment_52567" align="aligncenter" width="797"] Each round of play begins with an Event card. Event effects vary wildly but are almost uniformly bad for the heroes. The Event deck also acts as the game's timer and prevents heroes from stalling the game in order to hoard XP.[/caption]
The persistent characters, character growth, and mission objectives that become more interesting as the story progresses mean that, while I was underwhelmed with the first few missions of The Undercity, I am really looking forward to what Privateer Press has in store for this game system. The more I played The Undercity, the more I wanted to play The Undercity.
The storyline comes to a satisfying close after the final chapter, but also opens a door to a future storyline and hints at the potential to continue via expansion content. I don't know if I will make the full leap to the Iron Kingdoms RPG, but The Undercity has certainly left me wanting more.
A note on player count: The Undercity is designed with four heroes in mind but does have the option to play with fewer heroes. I would recommend playing with four heroes, even when four players aren't available, as it preserves the game balance and offers the best, most fun, and most interesting way to play.
A note on re-playability: Because the game's 7 scenarios are designed to be played out as part of a single linear storyline, re-playability is fairly limited with The Undercity. My gaming group had to re-play a few missions, so the box did offer more than 7 plays, although, of course, those were re-plays of missions attempted and failed.
The option to build characters in different ways is also present, as each character has more Abilities than can be purchased in a single campaign, but the storyline and missions played will be essentially identical with each play of the campaign.
A note on “chrome”: The components and art for The Undercity are almost uniformly excellent. The miniatures are highly detailed and begging to be painted. The miniatures also have facing indicators on their bases, meaning that owners of The Undercity can use them directly out of the box with the Iron Kingdoms Full Metal Fantasy Roleplaying Game. The art is colorful and thematic and the dice are actually full sized, chunky and fun to roll, which is becoming an increasingly rare treat as board game dice are trending smaller over time.
The one glaring caveat here is the board itself. The board is utilitarian and functional and extremely bland looking on the table, even when set up with some of the unique tiles that are used in missions. The board facilitates gameplay and nothing more, which is a missed opportunity to add a bit of eye candy and "pop" to the game.
The bottom line:
The Undercity is a fun game and could easily become a must-have if Privateer Press supports it with expansion and supplemental materials. It lays a solid foundation for what could turn into an excellent system. Currently it sits in an interesting place as a mid-weight cooperative dungeon crawl. It is a great place to start for people interested in the Iron Kingdoms but probably not complex enough for people who are already invested in current Iron Kingdoms products. It nicely bridges the gap between the simpler and more complex and free-form cooperative dungeon crawl board games on the market.
Get this game if:
You are interested in getting your feet wet in the Iron Kingdoms lore and universe.
You really enjoy fully cooperative dungeon crawl board games.
You like campaign driven games that tell a linear story.
Avoid this game if:
You are already an Iron Kingdoms RPG player and are looking for something fully as complex as a tabletop RPG.
You prefer 1 vs many or competitive games.
You don't like your fate to be determined by the roll of dice.
The copy of The Undercity used for review was provided by Privateer Press.
The Undercity's underwhelming board and slow start belie the fun to be had with the game. The missions are increasingly fun and I'm excited to see what else Privateer Press has in store for this board game system.