Helgarten, a once quiet port town, has become the industrial hub of a vast empire. Ramshackle towers and factories blight the skyline, and a sick canopy of pipes and chains hangs over the cobbled streets. With the growth and expansion of the city has come a seedy underbelly – every day, pirates and smugglers import vicious creatures and fantastical beasts from across the globe, hidden among barrels of grain and sugar cane. These creatures are destined for the Helgarten pits. In abandoned sewers and overcrowded slums, the local degenerates breed these creatures and pit them against each other in gladiatorial combat. Huge amounts of money changes hands daily on the outcome of these bouts. You are one of these breeders, and through hard work and unscrupulous tactics, you hope to find your fortune. This is the world of Underleague, designed by Fergus Blair and published by Cogwright Games.
Underleague is a strategic card game for 2-5 players that plays in 45-90 minutes. Players will take on the role of collectors of fantastical creatures who pit these beasts against one another in illegal underground fights and gamble on the outcomes of these battles.
Note: There are multiple ways to play Underleague. In this review, I will be focusing on the main game. However, there are rules for competitive play, as well as a draft format. I’ll leave it to you to learn these other methods of play.
To setup a game of Underleague, shuffle the 250-card Strategy deck and place it in the center of the table along with the dice. Shuffle and give each player one of the 30-card Creature decks. These decks are identical to one another. Each player is also given a set of five betting chips. Players will then draw and look at the top three cards of their Creature deck and choose one card to place face-down in front of them. The other two cards are placed on the bottom of the Creature deck. Repeat this selection process until each player has three face-down Creatures in front of them. Players will then simultaneously reveal their selected Creatures. These Creatures will serve as the starting stable of beasts that will face off with one another in fierce battles for supremacy.
The object of Underleague is to be the first player to reach 20 victory points. Your victory point total is made up of the value of your stable of creatures, modified by any equipment cards attached to them, plus the number of victory cards in your victory card pile.
Underleague is played over a series of rounds, each round made up of three phases – the Pre-Season Phase, the Betting Phase, and the Combat Phase.
At the beginning of the Pre-Season Phase, each player totals their victory points. If any player has 20 or more victory points, the game immediately ends and the person with the most points is the winner. If multiple players are tied, the tied player with the most cards in their hand wins. If there is still a tie, then the game ends in a draw. If no player has reached 20 victory points, the round proceeds as normal.
The player with the lowest total of victory points in the first player for the round. If there is a tie for lowest victory points, the player with less cards in his or her hand is first player. If there is still a tie, randomly determine the first player for the round (from those tied). If it the first round, each player draws a hand of five cards from the Strategy deck. If it is not the first round, players will perform the following actions:
- Uncommit any committed Creatures (turning them from horizontally oriented to vertically oriented).
- Draw cards from the Strategy deck equal to the number of betting chips in their pool and add them to their hand.
- If they control three Creatures of the same type (beast, construct, or spirit), they draw an extra Strategy card.
- Collect any of their betting chips that are not currently in their pool, adding them back to their pool so they again have a total of five chips to bet with in the next phase.
- Choose to either invest in strategies (draw an additional two cards from the Strategy deck) or transfer a creature (replace a face-up creature with one from their Creature deck, discarding any equipment on the replaced creature, by looking at the top three cards of their deck and choosing one to add to the stable).
Play proceeds around the table until each player has taken a turn during the Pre-Season Phase.
Starting with the first player and proceeding around the table clockwise, players will take turns betting on which creatures they believe will win or lose during the upcoming Combat phase. To bet, simply take one of your betting chips and place it on any creature in play with either the Win or Lose side of the chip facing up. Players will bet, one chip at a time, until each player has placed all five of their betting chips on creatures on the table. The only restriction to betting is that you cannot place more than one of your betting chips on the same creature; all five of your chips must be on five separate creatures.
Starting with the first player, each player takes a combat turn. During each of your combat turns you can make up to one challenge and play up to one strategy card. These actions are not required. You may do one, both, or neither. Although you may only make one challenge during your combat turn, there is no limit to the number of combat turns you can take during the Combat Phase. The Combat Phase only ends once an entire circuit around the table is completed with all players choosing to not make a challenge or play a Strategy card (or being unable to do so).
To make a challenge, you will select one of your uncommitted creatures and commit it (turn it sideways, much like “tapping” in Magic: The Gathering). This creature is your attacking creature. Then select any uncommitted creature in an opponent’s stable. This is the defending creature. The defending player will then choose Day or Night. Each player takes a number of dice equal to the their creature’s Day or Night power (depending on the type of fight chosen by the defending player).
If a player is rolling one die, use the D6. If rolling two dice, use the D6 and the D4. If rolling three dice, use the D6, the D4, and the D3. Each player will roll their dice. The total of the numbers rolled on the dice represents their creature’s combat total. If they are entitled to any re-rolls, each player will declare which dice they will re-roll (beginning with the attacking player). All re-rolls are taken simultaneously and each die can only be re-rolled once per combat. The creature with the highest combat power is declared the winner. If tied, the defending creature wins. Any effects based on the creatures winning or losing are triggered, beginning with the active player.
If the attacking player wins, they take a victory card by drawing a card from the top of the Strategy deck and – without looking at it – and placing it face-down on their victory card pile. Any players who bet that the winning creature would win or the defending creature would lose will remove their chips from the creatures and return these chips to their pool. The defending creature is then committed.
If the defending player wins, no player takes a victory card. Any players who bet that the defending creature would win or the attacking creature would lose will remove their betting chips from the creatures and return them to their pool.
You can only play one Strategy card from your hand – either an Equipment card or a Scheme card – one each of your combat turns. You can play an Equipment card either before making a challenge, or after a challenge has been resolved. Scheme cards may be played at any time (unless otherwise noted on the Scheme card itself).
To play a Strategy card, you must pay its cost. Each Strategy card has a cost associated with it. To pay the cost, you will discard that number of other Strategy cards from your hand. Equipment cards must be attached to a creature as you play it. It takes effect immediately and is attached to the creature on which it is played. Note that Equipment cards have value modifiers on them which affect the total value of the creatures they are played on. These modifiers must be taken into account when totaling your victory points at the beginning of the Pre-Season Phase.
Once you have taken your combat turn (making a challenge and/or playing a Strategy card), the player to your left takes their combat turn. Play will continue in this manner until an entire loop goes around the table with all players passing. Once this happens, the Pre-Season Phase immediately begins.
Underleague is a fun, strategic creature battling game – where the focus of the creature battles is not on the fight itself, but rather on the betting. This provides a unique twist to the genre of games filled with monsters fighting to the death. Underleague is going to draw comparisons to the granddaddy of creature-battling games, Magic: The Gathering. I don’t think this comparison is fair, however, because it is a VERY different game. In Underleague, your creatures are never killed. They are simply committed (exhausted) and will “revive” to fight again in the next Combat Phase (unless you yourself choose to switch them out). Also, in other monster-fighting games, you always want your creatures to win. In Underleague, your creatures losing is not necessarily a bad thing – as long as you bet on your own creatures to lose. This adds a level of strategy not previously seen in other card games of this type. The more bets you win, the more cards you will be able to add to your hand for use in future rounds. I really enjoy this aspect of the game.
It goes without saying – though I’m going to say it anyway – that the art is absolutely stunning. The art is done by Mozchops (Paul Pippen), who previously worked on projects such as Warhammer, Batman and Fantastic Four comics, Spongebob Squarepants and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius cartoons, as well as designer the radio-controlled car racing hit Re-Volt. Mozchops does a great job of capturing the intensity behind each of these creatures, as well as the world of Helgarten itself. If you’ve not already done so, click the images in this post to see full resolution versions of them so you can enjoy the artwork.
If I have one thing that falls in the negative column for me, it is the straight die rolls to resolve combat. I really would have liked to have sen a different combat resolution mechanism, preferably something not as random as rolling dice. I feel like the die rolls almost eliminate the strategy side of the game. No matter how well you’ve planned your turn and your bets, it comes down to the dice landing in your favor. That being said, I still enjoy the game because of the uniqueness of the Betting Phase.
I would recommend taking a look at the Kickstarter campaign for Underleague and consider backing it. At the moment of this posting, there are about two weeks left in the campaign. Please feel free to ask questions below and I will answer them to the best of my ability.