Are you afraid of the dark?
Everybody is afraid of something. For some, it’s something pretty average: Heights, Spiders, Snakes, Rice Krispies, but for others its odd things: sponge, rabbits, clowns, or even body hair. Some people are quite justified in their apprehension of other things as far as I’m concerned. Claustrophobia for one thing I think is just your brain trying to keep you safe and sound, and I’d much rather it tried to keep me alive than luring me into a false sense of security.
As such, the thought of spelunking is pretty repulsive to me. Spelunking, if you didn’t know is underground cave wandering. I’m not too fussed about the dark, but the possibility of being underground in the dark, somewhere where I’d have to quite literally squeeze through a gap to be able to get out again makes my common sense tingle and tell me to give it a wide berth.
Luckily, with the advent of board games I no longer have to worry about trying out spelunking as I have a copy of Sub Terra.
Co-Op Carousing in the dark
Before I get into my review too far, I just want to share my interpretation of what I feel Sub Terra is. To me, it feels like Pandemic and Escape: The Curse of The Temple had a baby and then spliced the DNA with a movie called The Descent. It sounds so wrong, but it feels so right! It’s a co-operative game (such as pandemic) but is also a tile laying game you’re aiming to find the exit (like Escape) but it’s set deep underground with nameless horrors hunting your down and all kinds of other nasty cave related things to go wrong. Sounds like a match made in… board games.
One caveat I feel the need to mention is that I got my copy of Sub Terra from the UK Games Expo before it had a proper retail release. So, there could be components that I mention which may not be in the retail copy.
Upon opening the box, everything is beautifully neat. You have 2 bundles of tiles neatly bound together, you have your 8 characters also neatly bound together, you have a bag full of meeples to represent your characters, some cards and a die. Sadly, since the fist play they have not stayed that way, but you can’t win them all. Also in the box, I found a mystery origami challenge.
I had a trawl through the rule book and there’s no mention of it in there… great! I love a mystery. I had a trawl of the internet and found out that it is actually a tower for holding the tiles! I thought this was a really nice touch. It doesn’t fit back in the box without being collapsed again, but it is still a really nice touch.
The Horror Hunt Commences
To start Sub Terra, you collect all of the tiles together and shuffle the exit tile into the last 6 tiles in the game. You then remove some of the Hazard cards according to difficulty and remove some more depending on the amount of players that you have. The Hazard deck counts as your round timer as well as the frequent harbinger of doom. You then place all of the meeples for all players onto the start tile, ensure that you have a lot of room on the table in front of you and then you descend in to the depths to begin your adventure.
Turns out, that although spelunking is pretty hardcore already, Inside the Box Games; the designers of Sub Terra didn’t think that would be terrifying enough (thanks guys) so it turns out that you’re not actually alone in the Subterranean wonderland Sub Terra is set in and there are actually nameless horrors under there too which start hunting you down for something to occupy their otherwise dank and lifeless spare time.
The whole idea of Sub Terra is to get as many cavers as possible to the exit and then get your end game score from that. You get a gold for nobody being left behind and then gradients less for people being comatose in the cave while you’re off hobnobbing with the local social elite and celebrating your horror-free life above ground.
When written down like this it sounds sooo easy…. It’s really not.
Round and further down
Each round consists of 4 phases, action, horror, hazard and then the spectacularly named End Phase.
In the action phase, each turn, each player will often have 2 action points they can use. These can be to reveal a tile, move from one tile to another, explore which means you reveal a tile and move straight onto it (and this can be a pretty ballsy move around even from the beginning of the game) and they all cost one action. Or, they can run, heal, or use 2 actions to deal with some of the nastiness which the Sub Terra hazard deck will throw at you.
The horror phase only has consequences if there are horrors out on the board, but if they are out wandering the cave, then the horrors move one step closer to your cavers.
The Purple ones are the horror tokens…. Scary!
Now comes the meat and potatoes of Sub Terra, the hazard phase. The majority of the tiles in Sub Terra have some kind of hazard related to them. All of which are really thematic and REALLY, REALLY annoying. You have water, gas, cave in’s, horrors, choke points you have to squeeze through, ledges you need to climb and slides which make it a nightmare to traverse back in the direction that you came in. Lastly, you can also get “rough terrain” which I make as board game developer speak for “Sub Terra just isn’t hard enough. How can we mess with the players even more?” The water, cave in, gas and horror tiles are activated when the corresponding card is drawn from the hazard deck during play, so they may not hurt you. Yet….
If any of them are triggered, bad things happen. For example, if you pull a cave in card, all of the cave in tiles you have found need to have the die rolled for them, and you have a 1 in 3 chance of them collapsing. Assuming they do, you’re no longer able to go through those tiles without digging the cave in out first. Also, if you’re on the tile when it caves in, it’s virtually insta-death as you lose 3 health. Brilliant!
If you pull a gas card, all of the gas tiles become poisonous for the round so if you’re on one then you lose 2 health straight away (and everyone except Jai “the tank” only starts with 3 health) which is going to spoil your day somewhat too.
If you pull the horror card however, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. The horror just keeps eking ever closer to the nearest caver, and if they catch up with them (don’t forget they move in their phase as well) then they go stark raving mad and that’s another insta-death. Fantastic! You can lose the horror by getting more than 7 tiles away, but considering the challenges listed before, this isn’t always too easy either.
To be fair to Sub Terra, it’s not like death is permanent. These cavers must be related to the Winchester’s from Supernatural because someone can always come and heal you and bring you back to the land of the living. Good thing really since it has happened to me quite so frequently.
One thing I also forgot to mention is that once the hazard deck is empty, you draw the “out of time” card. This means that every turn during the hazard phase you now need to make a skill check (roll a 4 or higher) just to keep on living. If you fail then you pass out and you’re mauled to death by the nameless horror that has been hunting you. What a way to go.
Sub Terra- Sub Terror or Sub Par?
So what do I think of Sub Terra? I really loved it. In all honesty, I didn’t have too high hopes for it. I actually picked it up from the show for my wife. That being said though, I have had a whale of a time playing Sub Terra so far.
First things first, the production value is second to none. Where I do get to play a lot of games, the little things about Sub Terra stand out. Some of the tiles have a glossy finish and are exceptionally well produced and that in itself is a breath of fresh air. Not only that, the die that they supplied is glow in the dark. Completely unnecessary, but a really nice touch since you’re spending your games underground. There are also the tiles you use once a cave in or flood which are a really nice touch. To me, it just shows that Sub Terra and Inside the Box are a shining example of spending Kickstarter funds in the right way; to make a better game for everybody.
The player boards are nice and big which gives you a subtle reminder of what your player powers do (so long as you remember to use them of course) and the artwork is great. The only gripe I have (well, it’s more of a nit-pick than a gripe) is that the meeples look a little bit generic. I mean, we’re not talking Carcassonne generic but it would have been nice to have them look a little more spelunky somehow.
I’d say that games play out in around 40-60 minutes or so, no matter how badly you’re treated by the deck and that means that there’s always time for “one more go”. I am a little disappointed by the fact that you know that the exit is always going to be in the last 6 tiles of the deck. It ruins the surprise somewhat, but then again it also means that you all know you’re going to have to explore the caves in a feverish manner to try and escape before you’re out of time.
That also brings me to the other thing I found great about Sub Terra: it really does feel claustrophobic. If for example there are some horrors chasing you around and then you come to a choke point that you have to use both of your action points to get through, and then find that the horror is one tile behind you, then the pressure really mounts. The same can be said for when the hazard deck empties and you’re trying to get the remaining tiles out like a person possessed because you know that your next die roll could be your last; there’s an immense amount of pressure to be felt, and that is thematically fantastic. I have to tip my hat to Sub Terra for that.
Then there’s the horrors. Maybe I’m biased because I’m reading Lovecraftian stories at the moment, but Sub Terra has made a clever decision that although there are horrors in the cave with you, nobody has any idea what they look like. Kudos! My imagination is much scarier than anything ITB can come up with I think.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a downside to the game though. My biggest beef is the fact that it’s advertised as a 1-6 player game, and in all actuality, it’s not. OK, you COULD play it as a 1-6 player game but in all fairness it needs at least 4. We played it 2 player first off and this meant that we had to play as 2 cavers each. We kept forgetting which character had taken their turn and who was first player next etc. and it seemed just a bit of a pain to keep track of. That being said, it plays much more smoothly with a better player count and now I know, it can make it to the table in the right context.
So, the final question! How to rate Sub Terra? I have to give it an extra half a point because of it surprising me like it has. I can genuinely say that I really like it and have had a blast playing it so far. I already know the right group of people to play it with so it will see a solid amount of table time.
I’ll give Sub Terra a claustrophobic, darkness dwelling, Lovecraftian horror escaping 8.5 out of 10.
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I am just a regular guy that fell into board gaming. That's why I am no longer allowed in my local Toys R Us. I'm a huge fan of deckbuilding games and games with unusual themes or mechanics. OK, maybe I'm not that regular after all.