How Well Does Tyrants of the Underdark Capture the Spirit of D&D?
Menzoberranzan – what does that word mean to you?
The D&D universe is a vast one. Not only is it the largest role playing game to have ever been made, but that RPG has spawned everything from t-shirts to a TV series to a whole host of board games. Those who are familiar with the worker placement game Lords of Waterdeep, know exactly what I mean.
Of course, Lords of Waterdeep is not the only game. There are a series of tabletop RPGs in the style of the classic D&D game, from Castle Ravenloft to The Legend of Drizzt to the Temple of Elemental Evil board games. All of those fit the same kind of genre of game; however, it is not one of those we will be looking at today. Obviously, those are fairly akin to the Dungeons and Dragons style. Instead, I am more interested in the other board games D&D has to offer. Lords of Waterdeep is one game, but what about the others?
Well, there aren’t that many others out of the RPG genre, but there are a few. Today I want to look at one of those games to see how well it reflects D&D. The game? Well, you probably guessed from the title. That game is Tyrants of the Underdark.
One of the reasons I want to look closer at Tyrants of the Underdark is because, as a game, it allows the players to play as one of the Drow (dark elf) families of the Underdark, a realm in D&D that exists beneath the surface of the world. The Drow are in constant war with one another, with each family looking to out defeat the other families and gain as much power as possible. Your job is to help one of four houses take control of the Underdark, seeking out famous places from the D&D universe and seizing them for your own personal collection. This includes the famous Menzoberranzan aka. the City of Spiders.
Tyrants of the Underdark is a deck building game in which you start with a basic deck, and each turn you purchase cards for your discard pile. Every time you run out of cards you shuffle your discard pile into a draw pile to take into your hand. The game is played with two decks of different types of cards – the base game comes with Dragons, Drow, Elementals, and Demons. There is an expansion pack, which I have actually just ordered writing this article, which includes Undead and Aberrations. You merge those two decks to form the draw pile for the market place.
As a player you can place troops or spies on your turn based on specific cards, and they can be used for actions in the game, including slaying your opponents. I won’t go into the rules in any more detail than that, because that is not what this article is about, however, you can read up on the full rules here.
How well does Tyrants of the Underdark capture the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons?
So, how well does Tyrants of the Underdark capture Dungeons and Dragons? Well, it’s a good question. In some ways Tyrants of the Underdark is a deck building game that bears little resemblance to the RPG. In other ways, it is the most D&D-y out of all the D&D games after D&D.
So, how do we decide? Well, first, let’s look at another D&D game – Lords of Waterdeep.
Lords of Waterdeep is an incredibly popular game. Taking part in Waterdeep, also known as the City of Splendors, Lords of Waterdeep has players collecting mages, clerics, fighters, and thieves to send of quests. These are the four base archetypes of the RPG game, with the quests being D&D-esque, but not inaccessible. Part of the popularity of Lords of Waterdeep is that it has become a gateway game, introducing players to new types of gameplay, as well as a serious challenge, building upon the basic entry-level games. It is a thematic worker placement game with a lot of soul.
Tyrants of the Underdark is a far more complex game than Lords of Waterdeep and is more of a gamer’s game. Like with Lords, the base mechanics are relatively simple; however, it is also requires more of a knowledge of how to min/max board game gameplay than Lords of Waterdeep may do. Tyrants of the Underdark is also far more vicious than Lords of Waterdeep is, which shows the strong theme, but also makes it much harsher for new players.
So, thematically, how does it fare? Well, it probably doesn’t surprise you that Tyrants of the Underdark is a hugely thematic game. You recruit cards into your own private army/family throughout the game, and those cards could not be more Dungeons and Dragons-y for those familiar with the mythos.
That being said, everyone has heard of mages, clerics, fighters, and thieves. Lords of Waterdeep has the advantage that, in using archetypes, players may not necessarily understand the ins and outs of the backstory of the quests, but they will understand the basis of the game. To fully make the most out of Tyrants of the Underdark the stakes are much higher. I would recommend that you probably have to have read the very first (in the series, not chronologically written) Legend of Drizzt book, Homeland, to understand the Drow mentality. Realistically, the more of Drizzt you have read, or the more D&D mythos you know, the more you will get out of Tyrants of the Underdark as a game.
What this means is the cards are hugely thematic. I’m five books into the Drizzt series now, and I am also a fairly hardcore D&D-er, and I got a lot out of the cards. There were still ones I didn’t know; however, I am sure they will come to light as I make my way through the series.
Leaving aside the deck, the game itself is fairly abstract, with just the map of the Underdark and a few miniatures for theme, as you move them around the board like an incredibly elaborate game of chess. The deck, however, brings the game to life with references galore.
So, how well does Tyrants of the Underdark channel the spirit of D&D? Well, it depends how you approach the game. On a surface level, it is possible for those who know nothing about the game to see it as a something which does not directly associate with the franchise. It doesn’t really have any of the base level tell tale signs that it is about Dungeons and Dragons. Lords of Waterdeep appeals to all the base sensibilities that it is about Dungeons and Dragons. It has magic, and quests, and cities, and sewers, and beholders, and all those things that make Dungeons and Dragons so recognisable.
Tyrants of the Underdark, however, has Demogorgons, Matron Mothers, Insane Outcasts and Gibbering Mouthers. These are things that bring a smile to the face of anyone who has been a Dungeon Master or who knows the rules of D&D well – but, they are not easily accessible. Again, I ask the question, what does Menzoberranzan mean to you?
So, to conclude this somewhat strange article, I think Tyrants of the Underdark does a great job of channelling the spirit of D&D for people who know a lot about D&D. It is a great game for people who have played a lot, or read the books, or been a DM. It is not; however, a great game for someone who is new to the genre. The barrier to entry is relatively high in regards to D&D knowledge – so start with the RPG or Lords of Waterdeep and work your way up.
So, there we have it – one opinion on whether Tyrants of the Underdark channels the spirit of D&D. It does, and it does so well, but only if you are familiar with the content.
What are your thoughts? Is Tyrants of the Underdark the kind of game you would like to play? If you have played it, do you agree or do you disagree? Let me know in the comments below.