‘Blip!.. … … Blip!.. … … Blip!.. … … Blip!’ The ships can just be made out, high in the sky, slowly coming closer and closer, something very methodical about their approach. We’re working tirelessly, trying to dig out new sections of the base, all the time trying to fend off the threat from above.
‘Blip!.. … Blip!.. … Blip!.. … Blip!’ They can be seen clearly now with the naked eye. Time is running short. We have fighters up there, doing their best to stem the constant march of doom. Our AA batteries are no match; occasionally they might cause a ship to slow, but just for a moment. Hope is with the scientists, but the energy crisis is playing havoc with their research.
‘Blip!.. Blip!.. Blip!.. Blip!’ Panic has befallen the base. They are almost on us; even as I speak, they hurtle across the rooftops. Our Robot plan failed. Our fighters have done what they can. The scientists, well, they haven’t even come close to a solution. And now, our poor city, what is to become of it?
‘Blip! Blip! Blip! Blip!…. Game over, thank you for playing!’
Under Falling Skies – A solo experience that is somewhat reminiscent of a certain classic arcade game. Defend the cities from the continuous advance of alien ships. Excavate your base to open new facilities, then use them to stem the tide, and hopefully defeat the threat from above. Is this, like the classic arcade game, a little one dimensional, or is it more of an H. G. Wells, containing manty hidden depths? Let’s find out…
- Designer: Tomáš Uhlíř
- Publisher: Czech Games Edition
- Year Released: 2020
- Players: 1
- Playing Time: 20-40minutes
- Ages: 12+
- Recommended Retail Price: £28.99
What’s in the box?
- Mothership tile
- 4 Sky tiles
- 3 Base tiles
- 3 City tiles
- 7 six-sided dice – 3 grey, 2 white, 2 blue
- 10 Plastic ships – 5 purple, 4 white, 1 orange
- Research, energy, and damage markers
- Wooden excavator
- Campaign notebook
- 4 Chapter campaign, the contents of which I’m not sharing here!
Here’s a quick look at how the game plays. Not everything is covered, as I just want to give you a feel for the game, and I’ve centered on the standalone game only, not the campaign.
Set up is quick and easy and at the end of it you should have something that looks like this…
There is a choice of Cities, and this dictates the tiles used for the base. The sky tiles can be flipped to adjust the difficulty, with the standard being one flipped.
The object of the game is to reach the top of the research track before the Mothership descends to the level of the skull or your City takes maximum damage.
The game is played in rounds and each round is broken down into three phases.
Firstly, the five dice are rolled (two White and three Grey). These are then placed in available rooms of your choice, one die per room. When a white die is placed any remaining unplaced dice are re-rolled. Placing a die in a room causes any Alien ships in that room’s column to descend by the number shown on that die (if placed in an AA room the Alien ship descends by 1 less than its value). Where the ship stops may cause an effect to be triggered, such as causing the Mothership to descend by a row, moving the Alien ship to the side, or if it lands on an explosion space, allowing it to be shot down later if the requirements are met. If a Ship descends below the sky, then it has hit your base, causing one damage, it is then moved to the Mothership.
Only rooms that have been excavated can have a die placed in them, and only one die can be placed in each column. A single die may be placed after the Excavator to dig out those rooms in phase two, however, the value of the die must be equal to or greater than the number of spaces from it back to the excavator.
Once all dice have been placed, we move to phase two. This is the rooms phase. Dice are now removed in any order, activating the room as you do so. Any cost must be paid at the time of removal. You do not have to activate rooms and may just remove the die.
Here is a run down of available rooms and actions:
- Energy Rooms: These generate energy. Add the value of the die and any room modifier to the energy track.
- Jet Fighter Rooms: These let you shoot down any Alien ships on Explosion spaces. Pay any cost indicated and then shoot down any ships resting on spaces equal or less than the value of the die including any room modifier.
- Research Rooms: These allow you to advance on the research track. Pay any cost indicated and then move up the track one or more spaces. The sum of the numbers on these spaces must be less than or equal to the die value including any room modifier.
- Excavating the base: Pay one energy, remove the die, and move the excavator into its place.
- Robot Rooms: These allow you to install a Robot (a Blue die) in any empty, excavated room of your choice. Pay any cost indicated and place a Blue die in a room set to the value of the die just removed including any room modifier. This Robot is rotated 45 Degrees to show it is exhausted. Placing a Robot does not cause Aliens ships to move.
Any unexhausted Robots can be activated in this phase. They work exactly as a normal die except, rather than be removed, their value is decreased by one and then turned to show they are now exhausted. At the end of the phase all exhausted Robots are rotated back to unexhausted.
The final phase is the Mothership phase.
The Mothership descends one row and then the action indicated at the end of that row is performed. This could be moving the excavator back a number of spaces, moving down the research track, placing White Alien ships onto the Mothership, damaging your base, or, if the Mothership reaches the last row, destroying your city and losing you the game.
After the Mothership’s action, any Alien ships on the Mothership spawn into position. Purple ships spawn first. Place ships on the Mothership’s five drop points, choosing those that have no ships in their column first, then those where the ships are furthest down the column. If all drop points are full, any remaining ships stay on the Mothership until the next round.
White ships behave slightly different to Purple ones. When they are shot down, they are removed from the gameboard rather than placed back on the Mothership. However, if they damage your city they do move to the Mothership.
That’s it, a very quick overview of how to play the game.
So, what do I think?
Under Falling Skies is a rather nicely put-together little package. The artwork on the box instantly sets the scene and introduces the theme of the game – Aliens dropping from the sky, fighters launching to meet them, and, more appropriately, a man standing pointing at the sky, whom I imagine is shouting, “Space Invaders!” into his radio.
Opening the box, it was nice to see some thought had gone into the packaging of its contents. On top are all the things needed to play the basic game, but underneath, taped into separate chapters, I found the campaign, all in order for me to investigate when ready.
The game tiles were of good quality and featured artwork that was colourful and functional, as was the graphic design, which was clear and easy to understand, such as the functions of the rooms and the symbology for the aliens and their mothership.
The dice were nice and large, if a little light for my taste, and the plastic markers did their job no problem. There was a nice wooden excavator, and there were the plastic alien ships. Now, these ships looked good, I’ll give them that, but I had a hard time trying to pick them up. They’re that kind of shape that just pings out of the fingers when you try and grasp them. They also had some sharp points on them, so if I made to grab hold with a little too much gusto, I’d end up with one sticking in my finger, but at least that way it hadn’t shot off across the table!
What I really did like were the comic book scenes on the scenario tiles. These were really well done, adding to the story, and bringing it to life – they added a little polish to the production.
Overall, as I said, it’s a nice and tidy production. There’s nothing to disappoint and the comic slides stand out with some lovely artwork.
It’s a simple theme… Aliens invading from the skies and it’s your task to defeat them. Do this by managing your base in order to stem the flow of Alien ships and complete your research before the mothership lands or you’re blown to smithereens!
On the whole, it gets the theme across a treat. I certainly felt the pressure of these unstoppable creatures from outer space, especially as the game drew to a climax. It is here that it reminded me of the old ‘Space Invaders’ arcade game, in that when the aliens were right down on top of me it became a panic, as I tried to stave them off and still accomplish my goals – great fun!
The campaign also immersed me into the theme by changing things up just enough to make me feel like I was trying to achieve something different with each mission – the comic slides do a great job of setting the scene here.
In the base management, the rooms provided thematic actions – the Hangars provided air cover to shoot down aliens, the AA guns slowed their approach, the Energy rooms provided me with the power to do all these things, and so on. The only thing I felt let it down, thematically speaking, was the research side of things. I needed to reach the top of the research track to win the game but climbing up didn’t give me any sense of advancement – you don’t gain perks or anything as you gain more knowledge – you just move on up… and occasionally down! Still, it worked as a means to provide a goal, and as a game mechanism, it worked quite cleverly, as we shall see a little later.
It’s not very often I say this, but I found the rules to be excellent!
They were well laid out, straightforward, colourful, featured lots of examples, and above all, they covered everything I needed to know.
Great rulebook, let’s move on…
This is one of those games where you read the rules and think, ‘How hard can this be?’ On paper, it all sounds so simple, but then you start to put it into practice, and it all goes very wrong, very quickly.
Oh, it starts off okay, as you think you have all the time in the world before those ships get low enough to do you any harm, but by the time you’ve scratched your head, placed a few dice in what you think will be beneficial rooms, you’ll suddenly realise that the only die you have left is a ‘1’ and it that isn’t going to raise enough energy to do what you wanted, so it’s time to go back to the drawing board and this time engage the old grey matter cells before you try anything.
One thing I realised pretty quickly with this game was, to get better, you have to fail. I tried various things out to see what worked, such as concentrating on trying to down as many alien ships as I could each turn, solely hitting the research track whilst picking off ships when the opportunity rose, and of course the old favourite, trying to do everything all at the same time.
What I learnt was, that to be good, you must be able to take the rough with the smooth and know when to let those ships advance and when to stop them in their tracks.
Ah! But if it were only that simple. Let’s talk about those dice for a moment. Dice shouldn’t give you a headache. They shouldn’t be able to glare back at you, looking smug because they know full well, they’ve got a face full of dots and there’s nowhere you can put them. But they do!
The simple dice mechanisms utilised here are both clever and frustrating at the same time… You can’t help but smile at the way the design works to make placing a die the central and most difficult part of the game, but you’ll also want to throw them at the wall, because they always seem to conspire against you, and the thing that you thought would help you most, those re-rolls, well, it turns out that they’re a nightmare in sheep’s clothing!
So, you roll your 5-dice. What do you want? Well, you’d like some big juicy numbers, surely, so that you can produce lots of that much needed energy, shootdown those pesky aliens, and advance your research, but what happens when I place this ‘6’ in my power plant? That damn alien scoots down the sky ‘6’ places and lands on a space that advances the Mothership, that’s what. How about this ‘5’ I’d like to put in my Jet Fighter Room? Blast, that aliens already quite low and will end up doing me some damage… and so it goes on.
It’s a clever thing, making you want to put large numbers in rooms to make the most of the action you receive, but doing so brings that column’s ships down on you all the quicker – it’s like chocolate, you really want to eat it, but those calories, ah!
Each turn, when you first roll those dice, you’re faced with some meaty decisions. You must weigh up what it is you want to achieve this turn based upon the numbers you’ve rolled. Of course, if you don’t like what you have you could place a white die first and re-roll the rest, but that’s chancy, best to produce a strategy using some of what you have.
This is where a little experience counts, as you’ll know what you can get away with and what you can’t for the particular city you’re playing. But, no matter what you decide, it’s those white dice that will cause you all the bother. You have to make sure you play any useful grey ones first, and you have to judge whether playing that ‘3’ where you really want a ‘4’ there is worth the risk of re-rolling something worse, such as a ‘1’ that doesn’t generate you enough, or a ‘6’ that charges an alien down to get you.
The rooms vary from City to city, and each City plays quite differently in terms of how you use the rooms. This keeps things interesting, as the strategy you employ in one may just scupper you in the next.
The Robots bring an extra thing to consider too. Firstly, do you want to waste a die to create a Robot for use next turn? Of course you do, don’t you? Welllll… maybe. Again, you have to decide on the moment and it’s yet another meaty choice to get your teeth into, or most likely dwell over, sobbing into your dice tray. Personally, I liked to get my Robots out roughly mid game. That way I could have them installed with high numbers for use when the Alien ships are getting low. I also like to have them generating energy, which became a constant thorn in my side, as I was always running out. However, as I used them, they decreased in value and needed to be reinstalled, which meant losing another die for a turn to generate one. Choices, choices!
The way the Excavator works is also clever. At the start of the game, you’re limited to what rooms you can use, and it’s always tempting to put some big numbers in them whilst the Mothership is still a way off. But, as I soon learnt, you really, really, need to get the whole base available as soon as possible. This opened up my choices, especially in the crucial research area, which, don’t forget, you need to win the game.
Finally, in terms of game mechanisms, I need to mention the research track and how you progress. There are a variety of numbers along the side making up the track, and to work your way up, the sum of the numbers on the spaces must be less than or equal to the value of the research room you’re cashing in. So, if the next two numbers on the track are a ‘3’ and ‘4’, and I have a ‘5’ in a research room, I can only move up once to the ‘3’, as ‘3+4’ is greater than ‘5’. This simple, cunning use of numbers had me scratching my head on many an occasion, as I didn’t want to waste dice in research rooms if I couldn’t proceed along the track. Using multiple research rooms could prove beneficial (you can only use one room at a time, no adding them together under normal circumstances), but the more dice I placed in research rooms meant I was often light somewhere else, such as gaining energy or shoot shooting down Aliens.
Right at the end of the research track there’s a big, juicy space with the number ’11’ on it (’12’ if flipped to increase difficulty). Move on to this space and you win the game. I found I had to work out how I was going to achieve that well in advance, as it usually meant evacuating the entire base in order to access certain rooms, and it’s just one more thing I had to think about. Obviously, a rather important thing, as I needed it to win the game!
Hopefully, I’ve given you the impression that this game is all about balancing a lot of spinning plates, because that’s just how it feels, and it’s a delight to play whether you win or lose, but that’s not all the game. Once you’ve become familiar with the base game, you’ll be itching to lift out the first chapter from the box and head out into the campaign.
Now, I’m not going to give anything away regarding what the campaign and its scenarios contain, as I found part of the enjoyment was discovering new rules and ways to play. A great job has been done in the way things were spiced up here. A small rule addition here and there changed it more than enough to stop things feeling repetitive, it also offered a very different challenge. The small, comic like scenes used to introduce the scenarios were a great touch, and I made my decisions of which to play based solely on them rather than flicking them over to find out what it would entail; It made me feel like part of the story.
I did find that my game time increased as I played through the campaign. This was because I felt it mattered. I wanted to succeed. And so, I started to take more time in placing those dreaded dice. After the initial roll, I’d consider if I had the perfect die for a particular column. Then I’d look at the next best, and so on, seeing what I could, or most likely couldn’t, do with what I’d got. Then I’d think about the white dice. Are any of them useable? If so, when do I place it, what do I re-roll, and what are the odds of getting what I wanted if I did. Basically, there was a lot to consider, and I’d often resort to the good old feeling of the gut.
Games often went down to the wire, but some scenario combinations (Scenario/City/other stuff to be discovered!) were easier than others, but that didn’t bother me in the slightest, as even easier games were still pretty tough.
When you’re done playing through the campaign, you’re left with a lot of stuff that can be thrown together to create a game to your own liking. The various components that have stars, either yellow or black, can be used to tailor the difficulty, and the more stars, the more ‘Epic’ the game… their words, not mine! Personally, I preferred playing through the campaign again, as it is different every time you play it, it also gave the game an aim, which I liked, and unlike many campaign games it didn’t take multiple sessions to finish, nice.
The standard way of changing the level of difficulty is by flipping over the sky tiles to their more threatening side. Standard difficulty is threat level one – 1-tile flipped over.
The game can also be balanced using a Star system. Components with a black Star increase difficulty, whilst those with a yellow Star decrease it. So, flip over a sky tile and you’ll find a black Star. If you play a scenario, that may add another, but throw in a character and a damaged City and you could negate them both and end with an even game.
So, there are lots of ways to play with the difficulty level and tailor it to meet your own requirements, but how much challenge does the game offer?
Okay, I admit it. I found this game hard, very hard, but with much repeated play I did get better. I’d work away at a level until I beat it, and that gave me quite a lot of satisfaction. You have to refine your strategy to make the best use of the base you are playing.
It’s a great thing for a solo game, too easy and it becomes boring, but the difficulty levels here really offer a challenge and it’s one that never feels impossible, you just have to work it out. Okay, you’re playing with dice, which aren’t always going to be nice, and I did get the odd game that was over all too quickly, as the dice just didn’t roll in my favour, or even show me the slightest bit of mercy. Conversely, I also got games that I won at a canter because the cuboid Gods smiled down at me for a while.
I didn’t find this a problem, as games never dragged their heels and I never felt I’d wasted time playing a game that was decided by a last-minute bout of bad dice rolling.
Solo games need several things to keep you coming back to them, challenge, variability, and a high reward to effort ratio. This game has them all in spades!
As I mentioned somewhere above, the game is certainly challenging, but it’s the fact that you’re sure you can beat it next go that makes you want to play again and again. It also has plenty of variability, not just in tailoring the difficulty to suit, but in the way you can mix and match scenarios, cities, characters, and some of the additional campaign rules, all of which gives you something different to try.
Sure, play it three or four times on the bounce and you’ll probably have had enough of it for the time being, because at the end of the day you are going through the same motions over and over, but that could be said of many games.
This is where the final one of those things I mentioned comes into play, high reward to effort ratio. Under Falling Skies take no effort to get out of the box and set up, and in a matter of minutes you’re up and running. It is also simple to play – there’s no head scratching here as you try and remember what the rules really mean, or a complicated turn sequence to decipher. The only effort is the brain busting that you’ll have to put in to win, and that, of course, is all part of the reward for playing!
It’s a game that takes no effort and yet rewards you with a fun filled hour, and if you win, it leaves you with a warm glow of satisfaction that you beat the game and saved the world!
If you like solitaire games, then you won’t go far wrong with this. It’s very quick to get into, including setting up, and a single game plays nicely in under an hour – standalone games can be rattled off in as little as 20-minutes, while campaign games take a little longer.
It certainly presents a challenge, one that rewards repeat play as you learn how to make the best use of the dice for the particular city/scenario you’re playing.
There is a lot that can be juggled about to give a unique experience each time you play, keeping it interesting, and the campaign can make for a satisfying session. The campaign isn’t complex, and the rules are easy to follow, and yet it spices the game up enough to keep you wanting just one more go, for me it was the best way to play the game.
As far as theme goes, the mechanisms all tie in nicely and you do get the sense you’re trying to save the city, especially playing the scenarios, which offer new rules and differing goals. Even if you’re not a fan of the theme at first glance it’s still worth a try, especially if you like a complex puzzle that requires a fair amount of thought because though the theme is there, it’s easy enough to forget about as you concentrate on those pesky dice.
One observation, though, at the end of the day all you’re doing is rolling dice, placing them to take an action, and repeating. This may not be enough for some, despite the depth of thought that has to go into it. It’s a game for thinking and if you like lots of action in your solo affairs then this might not be for you.
Playing Time: Standalone games can be as quick as 20-minutes. Campaign games often went to an hour, as it was easy to over analyse things.
Age: 10+ If you have the patience to work the strategy.
Expect to Pay: £25.95 (Wayland Games at the time of writing.)
Official site: Czech Games Edition
Recommended video review: Shut Up and Sit Down
BoardGameGeek page: Here