I don’t remember the time I went spelunking very well, but the wet walls and unrelenting darkness still stick with me. I remember the times I fell behind, not able to see anyone but hear their voices echoing through small limestone gaps. As a thirty-year-old man, this terrifies me. However, I was at the age where the novelty of exploring outweighed the danger. What if I got lost? Would I die of starvation or thirst? Or worse still, what if I wasn’t alone?
Sub Terra is a 2-6 player cooperative tile laying and exploration game, designed by Tim Pinder and published by Inside the Box Board Games. It is a cautionary tale about what happens when occupational health and safety is ignored. You and your friends are spelunkers, who failed to perform the necessary safety checks before abseiling into a cave. During the decent the ropes snapped, and you are now trapped in its murky depths. Will you make it out and claim that juicy workers compensation? Or will you be the latest victim of The Descent?
How to Play
Give each player a role card, meeple, and health tokens to match. Place the entrance tile in the middle of the table, and then shuffle the rest of the tiles face down to create one long stack. Shuffle the exit tile along with the five bottom tiles, placing them back on the bottom when done. Finally, place all remaining tokens in reach of the board.
A player’s turn consists of two actions, but they may perform an additional action, and then risk a Skill Check at the end of their turn; this is called Exerting. A Skill Check requires you to roll a six-sided die, on a four or more you pass, otherwise you fail. When Exerting, failure means you lose one health. Thankfully, Skill Checks exist only in the world of Sub Terra, I couldn’t imagine attending a job interview in a suit and tie, and a pair of dice.
In this game there are basic, character specific, and hazard actions. Of these you’ll be using basic actions the most. They are:
- Reveal: Draw the top tile from the stack and add it adjacently to your tile.
- Move: Your explorer moves one tile in any of the four cardinal directions.
- Explore: Combining the previous two actions, you first reveal, and then move onto the revealed tile.
- Run: Costs two actions. Perform the move action up to three times.
- Heal: Costs two actions. You or another explorer on your tile regains one health.
A lot of tiles have their own flavour of danger from gas leaks, to rock falls, to floods, and they all work in conjunction with the hazard deck, which you draw one card from after everyone has their turn. For instance, if you’re on a gas tile, and drew the gas card, then there’s a good chance you’ve died. And by died, I mean knocked out. After an adventurer loses all their health, they no longer take part in the game until another player revives them by using the heal action.
The deadliest of these hazards are horror nests. If there is a horror nest in the cave, a horror spawns on that tile when the respective card is drawn from the hazard deck. From then on, these horrors chase you like the monster from It Follows, slowly but unrelenting. Once per round they pick the closest explorer and move one space towards them. If they ever catch someone then, regardless of their health, that adventurer gets knocked out.
To win the game the adventurers must find the exit, escape, and then curse at the players for putting the exit tile at the bottom of the stack. Otherwise the game is a loss if everyone dies.
Through the horrors mechanic, this board game manages to capture the feeling of being a teenager in a slasher film. They create a sense of tension and dread I’ve yet to experience from another board game, a huge achievement. A lot of the reason behind why is because everything else in the game works to enhance the tension that these horrors bring. One example is you usually move two tiles a turn, whereas a flooded tile, or a gap you must sidle through reduce this to one. Another example is in running away, you’re more likely to use the Explore action, putting yourself onto dangerous tiles you would otherwise check first.
More mechanics that align perfectly with these horrors are ledges, and slides. Slides are great fun at kid’s parties, but they’re also great here because they create points of no return in the cave path. To go up a slide, or a ledge, you need to expend two actions, and perform a Skill Check. Normally this is a mechanic I would hate, but when there’s a horror chasing you, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on getting the right result. This provides you the same stress you would feel fumbling with your equipment trying to make an escape. Thematically, it’s perfect. Hiding also uses two actions and die roll mechanic and makes for great moments and tense die rolls throughout the game.
Sub Terra uses another horrible mechanic in player elimination to provide real consequences for being KO’d. Using your fun as hostage is an interesting way to provide a sense anxiety and jeopardy, that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Nowhere in the rule booklet, box, or any of the tiles, have they shown what these monsters look like. This technique is taken from the horror genre and allows people’s imagination to fill in the blanks. For me these horrors take the form of my mother-in-law. For you, something else entirely.
Outside of the horrors, there are a lot of rules going on in Sub Terra, but thankfully it’s easy to get into and teach. Most of the rules refer to specific tiles and situations, so you don’t have to front load everyone with a lengthy rules explanation up front. It’s also light on strategy, so it’s ok to bring it out with newer players. This also works to negate quarterbacking, it’s so easy to understand what to do that it makes instructing people is pointless. Combining this lack of involvement with how thematic the game is, it feels a lot like watching a movie, which again is something I’ve yet to experience from another game.
I’ll throw in a caveat here: my plays of Sub Terra were with 2-4 players, and we only played on normal. BGG suggests the best player count being 5-6 players, so keep in mind that some of my criticisms may only apply to lower player counts and difficulty settings.
A lot of this game revolves around the horrors and the interplay they provide with the players. The problem is that there isn’t enough of them, and a lot of the time they’re easy to get rid of – with the Bodyguard, and Scout roles, they also disappear when you’re seven tiles away. When they’re in the cave, the board game provides edge of your seat excitement. However, when there’s no horrors, it plays like a scary movie without a villain, a boring movie about teenagers going camping.
That’s my main criticism of the game: without horrors the game isn’t as interesting as other cooperative games. It’s ironic that a board game about cave diving isn’t that deep, and a lot of this shallowness comes from there being only one objective: to explore and escape. It doesn’t allow for conflicting priorities or management of multiple win or lose conditions.
The other big issue is limiting players to two actions per turn. Not only does this limit the amount of options you can perform, but it makes your turn feel like a false start or getting to run only first twenty meters of a hundred-meter race. I guess we can blame Matt Leacock for that. Then the actions you perform aren’t that exciting either it’s mostly just moving and revealing; a fun novelty that wears off after you realise that’s all you do. Alternatively, healing and some hazards take two actions to perform, and again without the horrors pursuing you it makes these actions a chore rather than play.
In terms of strategy, the team is forced into a game of tug-of-war between sticking near your team in case you need a revive and splitting up to maximise your exploration. This gets frustrating because it forces you to do what you need to do – follow team mates around – rather than what you want to do – reveal and explore the cave.
While we’re on the topic of being knocked out: player elimination sucks. It’s become scarce in modern game design because it leads to situations where players are benched for large portions of the game. That’s still the case here, and I’m not sure it’s worth the trade-off for the suspense it brings.
Outside of gameplay there are a couple of issues with the components. First, the tiles are quite dark, and even though they have blue lights showing the entrances and exits, it’s still hard to see. Secondly, there are three player information cards, and on none of these does it tell the players about the Exert manoeuvre. Being such a key part of information, that’s also forgettable, it seems like a real misstep not placing it on these cards.
I’ve cooled off a lot on Sub Terra since the first time I played it. The introduction of horrors into the game made me so immersed. Along with dodging all the traps, it felt like I was in the cave beside my meeple, desperately trying to get out. However, the more I played the more the flaws came to the forefront, or rather flawfront. Namely, player elimination, and no depth of strategy. I feel like this game could have used more work to get around these issues to take the game to the next level. That said, the games I played were still enjoyable, and Sub Terra gets an easy recommendation from me.
It’s been a while since I reviewed a cooperative game, which considering how much I like them is weird. Which are your favourite games in the genre? Also tile laying games, should I get Isle of Skye?