26th Mar2020

‘Sub Terra: Collectors Edition’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

sub-terra-box

If you’re familiar with cooperative games like Pandemic, then you’ll already know more or less how to play Sub Terra before I even explain it, although think twice before you assume that Sub Terra is a family game. Rather than working together to save the world, the players actually find themselves in a desperate struggle to survive an underground cave system that makes the one seen in Neil Marshall’s 2005 movie The Descent look like a walk in the park.

Sub Terra has already been out for three years, and the copy that I’m reviewing tonight is the Collectors Edition, which includes all three of the released DLC packs, known as Investigation, Extraction and Annihilation. A further expansion pack, Incubation, will be released in 2021 and is therefore not included here. Also in the box, you’ll find a development book and a hardback graphic novel, as well as a dice bag and a set of unique Sub Terra dice. There’s also a rather poorly manufactured torch that serves no game play purpose (and in my case, which doesn’t work) but that’s sort of a moot point.

One thing I really do like about the Sub Terra: Collectors Edition is the fact that the collectors box provides a shell that contains the base game and each expansion within its own original box inside. This does mean it takes up a heck of a lot of space on the shelf, but it also gives the completionist in me a lot of satisfaction – probably more than it should. On the downside, this collectors edition would have been a great chance to save all that packaging and replace it with a decent insert that contains the many cards, tiles and tokens.

Getting back to the game itself, and things are fairly straightforward. In the base game, players are simply working their way through the cave system looking for the exit – which they must reach before a variable deck of cards runs out. This deck is sized based on the chosen difficulty level and the number of active cavers, and broadly speaking, the players win if at least half of the crew reaches the exit. They lose if everyone is knocked unconscious, or if one reaches the exit but the other three (there are always at least four cavers) don’t make it.

Each turn allows the current player two actions, or three if they are willing to exert themselves at the risk of taking damage on a roll of one to three. Every character has access to a number of basic moves and one or more class specific skills that might either reduce the cost of a normal action, or provide a special one. Normal actions include scouting a tile (taking the top tile from the deck and then placing it in a suitable orientation) or moving (either onto a visible tile, or onto one drawn blindly and then placed.) Each of these takes just one of your two actions, but swimming through a flooded space, climbing up or down a ledge without a rope or squeezing through a narrow gap will use two.

There are numerous hazards in the cave system to consider, including the flooded spaces I’ve just mentioned, as well as those with gas on them, or rockslides. Worst of all are spaces with horror nests on, because should a horror spawn (which it surely will) then the nearest player will likely be pursued mercilessly for what remains of the game. The ledges and narrow sections serve to slow players down, whilst the ability to move cautiously (by scouting and then moving) works well early on, only to be replaced by a riskier feeling of having to rush (by moving blindly onto new tiles) once being pursued.

The three expansions introduce a small number of their own tiles (usually only three or four) that add new features into the game, as well as a new character. These tiles add features such as horror nests that can be destroyed by a bomb carried into the caves (Annihilation) or evidence that must be collected before leaving (Investigation) These expansions can only be used one at a time since each has a unique victory condition, but each one switches up the idea of simply finding the exit, which really prolongs the lifespan of Sub Terra.

Between the base game and the expansions, there are something like nine characters all said, and each one is different. The Medic (unsurprisingly) is an efficient healer, whilst The Leader can give her actions to someone else. The Bodyguard can protect others and The Exterminator can destroy horrors – which will usually KO any character as soon as they reach the same space. The Diver has one of the most interesting abilities, and can use flooded spaces to teleport around the game space.

Between the base game and the expansion content Sub Terra: Collectors Edition has a ton of content that is relatively accessible in terms of complexity, yet fairly tough to beat and filled with weighty decisions. Where and which way to place tiles matters, when to take risks in sprinting or climbing recklessly matters, and when to sacrifice yourself to help aid the team also matters. Of course, using player skills to best effect is also very important, but one thing that differs Sub Terra from the likes of Pandemic is the fact that the team can be widely dispersed, and it’s often difficult to come to each others aid.

The expansion content adds much needed variation to the base game, with each expansion feeling relatively distinct from the others. Annihilation, for example, involves searching the cave for specific tiles that allow you to blow the cave up, which is mechanically similar to Investigation. The key thing however is that the two feel distinctly different, with a very different experience offered by each. Whilst Sub Terra is probably not a must buy it’s a fantastic survival horror experience that feels good with the extra content. In this guise, Sub Terra is well worth a look.

***½  3.5/5

Sub Terra: Collectors Edition is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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