At the risk of revealing myself as a rather old man, one of my earliest memories is playing the cult classic Space Invaders on my father’s Atari computer back in the early 1980’s. Since its original arcade release the game has become a pop culture phenomenon and a statement to the positive impact that games, regardless of medium, can have on our lives. So when publisher Czech Games Edition announced that the company was planning to release an updated version of the solitaire card game Under Falling Skies from designer Tomáš Uhlíř it goes without saying that I was more than just a little bit excited. With updated graphical design and new content added to the mix I was really curious to take a closer look at this classic solitaire game that started out as a nine-card print-and-play project and has now morphed into a fully fleshed-out retail edition.
Full disclosure: a review copy of Under Falling Skies was kindly provided by publisher Czech Games Edition.
When Kwanchai Moriya is credited as the artist you know you are in for a visual treat and this new edition of Under Falling Skies does not disappoint. With a colour palette consisting of predominately bright pink and turquoise tones the game certainly gives the impression of being a homage to the neon-lit style that defined the 1980’s whilst simultaneously feeling fresh and relevant. In terms of art and graphical design you can tell that a lot of love and effort has been poured into this new edition of the game, from the clever way that the spaceship miniatures are sculpted so as to not obscure icons on the board to the screen printed wooden token representing your excavator.
That being said there are some aspects of the components featured in Under Falling Skies that I found less enjoyable, the main culprit being the included player aid. As Zee Garcia from The Dice Tower pointed out in his excellent video review, the decision to incorporate a player aid to the back of the mothership tile is awkward to say the least both from a practical and artistic point-of-view. I would not go so far as to say that it is to the game’s detriment, personally though I would have appreciated a separate player aid as opposed to the current solution. The other thing that I found somewhat confusing is the fact that the included rulebook does not clearly explain one specific effect that triggers during the later stages of each round. This oversight has been confirmed by the designer and a new, updated version of the rulebook can be found and downloaded from Board Game Geek.
PLAYING UNDER FALLING SKIES SOLO
“We don’t know what they are. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know why they are attacking. All we know is that they’re here, we must find a way to stop them, and time is running out.”
Usually when I sit down to write a board game review, I tend to start off by describing the overall mechanisms that constitute the core game design before proceeding to diving into the solo mode. However, seeing how Under Falling Skies is a solitaire game to begin with let us get right down to business starting with the narrative. The Earth is under attack from an unknown, hostile alien armada targeting the major capitals all around the world. As the enemy’s fighter jets rain down terror and destruction onto the scorched earth, humanity mobilises to launch a counter-attack whilst simultaneously trying to figure out the origins of the celestial invasion force and more importantly how to survive. Essentially, Under Falling Skies is the board game equivalent of Space Invaders. As the commander of an underground military base you are tasked with the perilous mission of fending off the alien invading forces before the city is reduced to nothing more than rubble and ashes. You will need to send fighter jets to try and shoot down the invading armada before it reaches the city, generate energy needed to perform actions, spend time researching alien technology and even expand the underground network of your base to incorporate new areas of development.
The goal in Under Falling Skies is to advance the research marker to the very top of the track before the alien mothership descends beyond the designated threshold or your base is destroyed as a result of attacks from the invading armada. The way this is achieved is by rolling and assigning dice to the various rooms that make up the bulk of your base, each with their own unique ability that triggers in the later stages. At the start of each round the dice which represents your workforce are rolled and assigned to the rooms that make up the bulk of the underground military complex. Although the base consists of several rows, which can be expanded upon if you designate a die to advance the excavator along its projected track, only one die can be assigned per column.
This rather clever design choice immediately causes a bit of a conundrum, as you are constantly forced to prioritise between several necessary actions. On several occasions I managed to trip myself up by placing a die only to realise moments later that I had essentially painted myself into a corner by cutting off access to other areas of my base for the current round. Based on the description of this particular aspect of the game one would be forgiven for thinking that rolling high numbers is always preferable when playing Under Falling Skies. Well, call me M. Night Shyalaman for here comes the plot-twist: when placing a die all alien spaceships in the corresponding column descends by the amount of the allocated die.
Suddenly, the act of rolling a six is not met with joyous exuberance but rather a groan of despair as you realise that the game has managed to turn your own workforce against yourself. And this is what makes Under Falling Skies such an interesting puzzle of sorts, you have to constantly weigh the pros and cons over how to allocate your dice not just in terms of their value but also to what column of the base. In fact, sometimes it might be in your interest to take a suboptimal turn in favour of getting all your ducks in a row for a future round in regard to where the alien ships are currently positioned on the board. In order to give the player some form of control over the whims of Lady Luck the game provides you with an opportunity to re-roll all of your unassigned dice whenever a white die is added to a column of the base. Again, this creates an interesting risk reward situation where you might be tempted to gamble with the outcome of a new roll versus playing it safe and first locking down the dice you do not want to be altered but running the risk of allowing the invading armada to descend upon you too rapidly.
This notion of equilibrium is something that permeates the entire design philosophy of Under Falling Skies. Take for example how the alien ships descend upon the city. Scattered throughout each of the columns on the sky tiles are symbols denoting an effect that triggers instantly a ship ends its movement on the associated space. Some will allow the enemy to shift left or right depending on orientation, while other spaces will move the mothership tile down one row. This might sound absolutely awful and to a certain extent it is but at the same time you can use this seemingly negative effect to your advantage. At the end of each round the mothership descends one row, more often than not triggering an event like adding new ships to the columns or forcing you to decrease your research marker. However, seeing how you can calculate where a spaceship will end its movement based on the value of the allocated die a clever player will intentionally allow the mothership to move down a notch thus bypassing the negative effect further down the line. It is yet another example of how cleverly the mechanisms interlock with one another.
In addition to one-time game sessions, this new edition of Under Falling Skies can also be played as a campaign consisting of several chapters gradually revealing the story as the game progresses. Fret not, for this review will not spoil any of the minute details that surrounds the narrative or mechanisms of the story. In the immortal words of the wonderful Rodney Smith “[…] I will leave that for you to discover on your own”. However I will say this: the content that is featured in the campaign can be used even after you have played through the entire story, making this latest edition of Under Falling Skies extremely good value for money in my book.
At the end of the day, what we are left with is an updated version of a beloved solitaire print-and-play game with beautiful artwork and components topped with a cherry on the cake in the form of a campaign which injects Under Falling Skies with a much needed longevity. Based on these merits alone the game should be nothing short of excellence, a must have title for anyone who enjoys playing board games solitaire. And on paper all of these things are absolutely true. And yet I find the experience of playing Under Falling Skies to be… fine. Ironically, it reminds me of Space Invaders. I recognize that it is a stellar design but actually playing the game quickly evolves into a state of tedium where I find myself constantly counting spaces in order to maximise my turn.
To me the game lacks what the French describe as “je ne sais quoi” which translates into a quality that cannot be described or named easily. Do not get me wrong, I have enjoyed playing this new edition of Under Falling Skies and on an intellectual level I recognise the game as an expertly crafted solo experience. But for whatever reason it just does not jell with me the same way other solitaire board games have done lately. That being said, I do applaud publisher Czech Games Edition for bringing a solo-focused game like Under Falling Skies for a wider audience to enjoy and if you find the premise interesting I encourage you to take a closer look.