A Review of Sub Terra II: Inferno’s Edge

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Sub Terra II: Inferno’s Edge is a cooperative tile-laying game (with push-your-luck elements) for 1-6 players. It’s a stand-alone game in the Sub Terra universe. The II might imply you need the original to play, but you don’t: this is a stand-alone sequel. This game was on Kickstarter back in November 2019. But I didn’t back it.

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Part of the reason I didn’t back Sub Terra II was because I already have Sub Terra (the original): See above. I like the original, and it came out quite a bit in my game groups for a while, but it had fallen off the radar: the original Sub Terra was a just a teensy too random for some of my groups. I think I was worried Sub Terra II would simply be more of the same. Would it be worth buying it for “almost” the same game? In the end, I needed $40 or so to make a GameNerdz order get free shipping, so I added Sub Terra II in to my order. I am interested in the base game, I am just not interested in the $100s in expansions for the game. (The Kickstarter all-in was more than I wanted for a tile-laying game).

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This just arrived a few weeks ago! (Late Dec. 2022,/Jan 2023) Let’s take a look!

Components and Gameplay

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See the box with a Coke Can for scale. It’s a deepish box, but not too tall or wide: it’s about the size of a piece of paper.

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In the game, each player takes on the role of one or more explorers: ideally, each player gets their own explorer, but there must always be at least 3 explorers in play, so a solo game will get 3 explorers, and a 2-player game will probably have 4 explorers (2 per player).

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Each explorer has their own corresponding meeple to mark where they are on the board.

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Each explorer also has their own unique powers: see some examples above.

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Each player has two action points: on their turn, they can typically do 2 actions (some actions cost 2 action points). They can do any of the things above, which are pretty much what you expect (move, reveal a hidden tile, run, etc). Interestingly, players can also choose to exert themselves for one damage to get an extra action.

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At the end of each player’s turn, some “bad news” happens! The player, after using two action points, gets some Bad News from one of the bad news dice! See the orange dice above.

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This is a tile-laying game: the explorers need to explore the temple (laying tiles to “explore”), find 3 keys, retrieve the artifact, then finally escape with their lives! This is cooperative, and it’s best if all players survive, but if some players don’t make it out alive, everyone else still wins … to be clear: there is no incentive to subvert other players! The game is fully cooperative!!! It’s just that, sometimes, circumstances dictate that not everyone can survive, even if players try really hard, so the game recognizes this reality and allows for most people to survive. It’s really not a semi-co-op. (Except Joe might play it that way. Joe.)

The tiles (after being punched out), end up in the bag above. This bag was “okay”: I think it might have been a little small. When players “explore”, they draw a tile and put it on the board:

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As the game unfolds, the template starts to take shape … (my example above is off because I took the left boundary too far .. mea culpa!).

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This game has push-your-luck elements because you have to choose between revealing and/or moving as you play. If you just reveal a title, you won’t suffer the ill effects of the revealed tiles (the white Guide just REVEALED the trap tile above, so he doesn’t suffer the effects), but now he has to spend an extra action to MOVE to it. The push-your-luck comes in if you decide to MOVE and REVEAL in one move (called EXPLORE)! You get more done, but you may move to a room that hurts you! If you play too conservatively, you may never get the temple explored in time! If you play too aggressively, you may die quickly from ill effects! It’s a push-your-luck game.

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The volcano tile (above) is your timer: at the end of every round, the volcano tracker moves up one (for a beginner game, you can see the tracker start on place 27). If the volcano erupts before the players have found the Artifact, they lose!

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Once the volcano erupt and you have the Artifact, you can still escape … you are just racing for your life against the lava flow! Tiles starts turning to lava and follow you Get out! Get out! See above!

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Luckily, the Veteran above was able to get the Artifact!

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And they all made it back to the entrance! Note, that the game gets significantly harder after Artifact is obtained: you’ll be rolling two bad news dice per turn!

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The components look really nice, are very readable, and fairly thematic. I suppose I would have preferred some cooler tokens other wooden meeples, but they were fine. (I suspect the Kickstarter had some really great component upgrades).

Rulebook

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The rulebook was good.

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The first few pages contained nice annotated Components list and Introduction: they worked fine.

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The Set-up was easy to use and well annotated. See above.

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The main game ideas are discussed quickly and easily after your set-up. See above.

The rulebook had great pictures and a nice easy-to-read font. Overall, a very good rulebook.

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The rulebook passed the Chair Test with flying colors: an A+! It fits perfectly on the chair next to me, so I can keep it open and easily available.

This was a good rulebook, but I do have a few very minor complaints.

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First, they didn’t use the back cover to convey any game info. This is a wasted opportunity in my eyes, but it’s definitely personal opinion: it’s not a flaw.

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Second, the rulebook was 32 pages. I love the big font, but maybe it was a touch TOO big? I felt like there could have been a slight adjustment of whitespace, margins, and font size to make the rulebook just a smidge smaller. But I shouldn’t complain, because I’d MUCH rather rulebooks err on the size of “font too big” than the other way around! It’s just that a 32-page rulebook looks a little daunting, but it’s quite good: It’s easy to read and has lots of pictures.

Solo Play

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The back of the box proclaims 1-6 explorers (see above), but the solo rules are a little hard to find.

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The solo rules are in a parenthetical expression on page 4 of the set-up: I actually missed them the first few times through the rulebook. It’s just one sentence: If playing solo, you can choose three to six explorers to control.

The difficulty chart chart shows a minimum of three Explorers (and a max of six), so if you miss that single solo sentence, you might deduce “OHHHH!!! A Solo game has the solo player taking the role of three explorers!” It’s not real emphatic: part of the reason I knew this was because the original Sub Terra worked the same way!! So, you must always have at least 3 explorers for any game, and a max of 6 explorers. This game does follow Saunders’ Law.

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So, the solo player must rotate through three players as he plays. The variable powers are fairly straight-forward, so there’s not too much context-switching as the solo player rotates through explorers. That’s always the question when you play multiple positions, right? “How much context-switching is there?” There’s not too much context-switching here: It’s very manageable.

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In general, I liked the solo game. I would play it again. Most importantly, it gave me the chance to learn it so I could teach my friends.

Cooperative Play

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My group had a good time playing this!  We liked that the powers were very different and felt “powerful!”  When we used our powers, a lot happened!  My rogue was fantastic at avoiding the traps (I enjoyed pointing out this was a Mark IV trap: don’t step here), the Marksmen kept the guardians under control, the Aristocrat kept the ruins under control (by placing her Journal tiles exactly where we needed to avoid Ruins problems), and the Veteran kept us going!  They were all arguably critical to getting the game done, and we really enjoyed that!

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The game also seemed to elicit a fair amount of talk: we cooperated, but we still had our own turns and a lot of agency.  There were a few turns (especially for the Veteran) that weren’t fun because she got stuck (see Randomness and PTSO  sections down below), but in general we had a good time.

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We had a winning game, and it was dramatic and fun.

Rating: In general, the group seemed to think 7s to 7.5s all around. Everyone had a good time (modulo a few issues we’ll discuss).

It’s always a good sign when the group says “I’d love to see how this game played out if we used very different characters”.  They want to play again!

Things I Liked

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I liked that there was a decent amount of agency in the game: For example, I can choose to “exert” myself to get an extra action point. That allows the players some latitude to “try real hard” when its really needed! That’s very thematic that every so often I can “exert” and get myself out of an obvious bind! I am not always stuck at just 2 actions points: extra agency.

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The components are pretty darn fantastic.

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I like that the tiles are very easy to read, have some cool spot art on them, and the iconography is pretty easy to read.

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I like that the game is simple, easy to teach, quick to set-up, quick to tear-down. The 60-minute gameplay is pretty accurate (unless you are prone to analysis paralysis). Sub Terra II has a nice “simplicity” permeating it.

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I want to give a major shoutout for the new idea of “running out of the temple while the lava follows you!” That is so cool of a mechanism (lava following you), and it is just flipping over the tiles as you run out. It looks great and is very thematic. It’s so simple to do, but it’s such a nice touch.

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The explorers powers were cool and very interesting: those powers seemed more useful/powerful than the original Sub Terra.

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It’s a pretty nifty game.

Minor Complaints

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I wish the bag to hold the tiles was just a little bigger. It felt cramped and a little small.

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I wish a few more rules having to do with “knockdown” had been specified. Is the explorer above allowed to move away? He’s at 0 health, so all he can do is move, but the guardians do damage when you move away? How do you rectify that? Also, do the powers of the guide still work when he’s knocked-down? Probably? These are minor questions, but I can’t be the only one who had these questions. A FAQ might have been helpful.

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You’ll notice that I messed up and went “too far to the left” with my temple: you are supposed to only go as far left and right as the leftmost and right most edges of the bottom piece. Whoops! It’s in the rulebook, but I think a simple component (a piece of paper? A cardboard edge?) would have helped me to not make this mistake. It’s really minor, but it could have been fixed.

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Actually, though, I do have a solution that comes with the game!! In the future, I will use the punchout skeletons to enforce the edges! See below. (Hey, this is another reason to keep Punchout Skeletons!)

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Major Complaint: Lack of PSTO

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But my biggest complaint, without a doubt, is the lack of Player Selected Turn Order (PSTO). I can’t tell you how many times I had one of the explorers “do nothing” on their turn because they had to wait for someone else to do something out of sequence! Consider the case above: I’d really like the Guide to venture into the room above and do two looks around him (his special ability). But he can’t, because the room has a pit trap and he’ll likely die! Luckily, the Rogue is with us! As long as he Rogue is with us, we can avoid traps! Huzzah!

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But …. because the Guide goes before the Rogue in turn order (and turn order is very specific: see above), the Guide would have to wait for an entire round to go up! So, the Guide does nothing for a turn. Not fun.

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It seems very thematic to say “Rogue! Why don’t you go in that room first and I’ll follow!” It’s very thematic, and probably what we’d do in real life!! I feel like this game would be a lot more fun with Player Selected Turn Order: allow the players (per round) to choose the order of their turns! More importantly, it allows players to avoids turns where you don’t do anything.

I understand that Player Selected Turn Order (PSTO) makes a game harder to learn/deal with (see a long discussion of PSTO here), but I think it would easy to notate each taken turn with a simple token (just flip it when your turn is over).

For some reason, the lack of Player Selected Turn Order dates this game for me: it feels like more and more modern cooperative games are embracing this mechanism (The Reckoners, Marvel Zombies: Heroes Resistance (which we’ll see soon), CO-OP: the co-op game, to name a few) because PSTO makes the game feel more cooperative! We all decide, as a group, the best way to proceed through the temple, and can change as circumstances change! It gives us choice! Agency!

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I can see it being harder to teach newer gamers PSTO: it’s not what most newer gamers are used to! So, maybe some chart like this in the book would help:

  • Newer Players: Use the tradition round structure: clockwise order
  • Advanced Players: use coarse-grained Player Selected Turn Order! Players choose per round the order that each explorer acts: For example:  Player 1, then Player 3, Then Player 2. 
    If you use use coarse-grained PTSO: increase the volcano tracker by 5
  • Very Advanced Players: use fine-grained Player Selected Turn Order! Players choose the order of actions and may intersperse actions: For example: player 1 takes action 1, player 2 takes action 1, player 2 takes action 2, then player 1 takes action 2. 
    If you use use fine-grained PTSO: increase the volcano tracker by 10

Of course, PSTO makes the game “easier to win”, so you probably want some adjustment of the difficulty: luckily, Sub Terra II makes that easy by just adjusting the timer on the volcano.

Is It Still Too Random?

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In a word, yes, but I like some of the new stuff the game does. I think the randomness of Sub Terra II is consistent with the amount of randomness in the original Sub Terra, if maybe a touch less random.

I understand that randomness can breath life into a by-the-numbers game, and I do think the amount of randomness of Sub Terra II is apropos to the game. That cave-in at “just the wrong time” is both infuriating and exciting! It’s such a thin line: too much randomness can feel crippling, too little randomness can feel predictable. This game can feel too random at times, but it generally straddles the line between too much randomness and too little randomness fairly well. Again, some of my gaming groups thought it was a shade too random.

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For example: in one cooperative game, all the collapsing caverns came out right next to each other (see above). It was very scary trying to figure out how to deal with that: it was exciting and fun, but at the same time, had the randomness gone slightly awry, we would have had no chance whatsoever.

That swingy randomness is a double-edged blade: it cuts both ways! Exciting and tense but possibly unwinnable. And Sarah echoed the thoughts of my game groups from years ago, “It was fun but it feels like it could be too random“.

Needs a FAQ

Every time we play, I feel like a question comes up that we can’t answer.  For example: In one play, the final Sanctum tile could only go two places, but there two were competing concerns: put it as far as possible but keep within the boundaries.  As a two-tile final tile, you could argue it couldn’t go to the furthest away (upper right) because the artifact would actually extend over the boundaries!  We argued “maybe that was thematic” because that’s why the artifact is so hard to get to! But, if we have to keep within the boundaries, it must go in the other spot.  But what if the other spot had the same problem?  It was very close to being right on the edge too … what would we done had that happened?  (Probably just chose the furthest and moved forward, but it felt like it was underspecified).

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Every game I have played, some question has come up that the rulebook didn’t quite answer. Most of them were simple, and we could always move forward with a reasonable guess, but I feel like this game needs a FAQ! Little questions seemed to crop up a lot. Minor ones, to be sure, and not enough to hold up the game, but enough that it was annoying.

Conclusion

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Sub Terra II is a minor improvement over Sub Terra: the theme might be more interesting, but some of the new ideas are quite invigorating! The most interesting new idea, both mechanically and thematically, is the lava chasing you out at the end of the game! It really adds to the excitement of the end game!

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Do you need both Sub Terra and Sub Terra II? Probably not: they are similar enough that you could do with just one or the other. I suppose it really just depends on which theme speaks to you more: trying to escape a cave (Sub Terra) or hunting for treasure in a temple (Sub Terra II).

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I think that, for a variety of reasons, Sub Terra II (and Sub Terra) should be embracing Player Selected Turn Order (PSTO). The lack of PTSO is sometimes very glaring in the game: sometimes players can’t do anything because of the constrained player order!! I feel the lack of PSTO makes the game feel a little dated. Without PTSO, I’d probably give this is a 7.0/10. If we add PSTO into the mix, I think that jumps it up to a 7.5/10 or more! This game just feels like it needs a little more agency to counteract some of the randomness and empty turns.

We had fun. We’d play again.

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