Underlings of Underwing: Preview

Fairway picks up another Kickstarter preview where he’s the master of colorful dragon hatching operation.  In the words of the famous They Might Be Giants:

🎶 Roy G. Biv is a colorful man
🎶 And he proudly stands at the rainbow’s end (So you’ll see him)

So follow Fairway to the end of the rainbow as he previews Underlings of Underwing, a color-theory game coming to Kickstarter in August by The Pericles Group. Underlings is a two- to six-player set collection and worker placement game with an educational twist using dragons and dragon eggs.

Underlings of Underwing is the most recent addition to The Pericles Group‘s growing educational games offering. It was picked as the winner of The Game Crafter’s Learning Game Contest, which they sponsored. But before you stop reading, this is a great game first and an educational game second. Plus, it has dragons!

Initial Impressions

  1. The bits and components are really appealing. There are so many neat crystals and meeples in this game. It’s fun just to put the crystals on the egg cards.
  2. The educational objective (teaching color theory) is there, but isn’t the focus and is much more the biproduct of playing the game.
  3. The number of unique dragons is amazing.
  4. The game play is intuitive and pretty easy to teach.

Game play

In Underlings of Underwing, players are managers of a dragon-egg hatching operation during the busiest time of the dragon hatching season. Each player is trying to be the one to hatch the most valuable dragons from a field of dragons.

The game is played over a series of 18 days. In short, a day consists of gathering crystals, putting workers to work, placing crystals onto dragon eggs, and hatching dragons.  The goal is to have your workers stationed at dragon eggs when the dragons hatch in order to earn points and bonuses.

To hatch dragons, players play colored crystals onto an array of dragon eggs that are on the factory floor. Each dragon egg requires a specific set of colors which, when they’re all present, makes the dragon hatch.  Since this game is a color-theory game too, players can combine colors too to form secondary colors: e.g., if an egg requires purple, you can play a red and blue crystal.

The eggs themselves come in all kinds: from simple combinations to legendary eggs requiring lots of colors. Because there’s an array of sixteen different eggs available at any time, there is a lot of opportunity to use the various colors and color combinations.

If all goes well, eggs hatch under the supervision of some player’s worker. That player then flips over the dragon egg card to reveal the dragon and collects it and it’s associated bonuses.  However, occasionally, a dragon can hatch in the “wild.” When this happens, no one collects the dragon and a negative “effect” often causes a cascade issues for other eggs on the factory floor (such as more crystals being added to adjacent eggs) which can cause yet more bad things happening.

But to hatch any eggs, players first need to gather the crystals. The primary method is by blind drawing crystals from a bag at the start of the day. However, Underlings also deploys an interesting luck-mitigation strategy by allowing players to assign one or more of their workers to “the field.”  The field is a map around which meeples can travel gathering very specific colors on each turn. While it does take a meeple out of egg monitoring duty, it also means that you don’t have to worry about never getting the color you need.

During each day, players take alternating turns up to their number of workers placing crystals (or combination of crystals) onto the egg cards. The crystals must be placed even if the crystal has to be placed on an egg not under their supervision.

At the start, since players start with two workers, they place two crystals to the array. Over the course of the game, as players earn more workers and collect bonuses from the dragons, it makes for a much more interesting final days as lots of crystals and meeples are in play.

At the end of the 18 days, players sum up their points.  Points primarily come from hatched dragons, but there are also special color temperature objectives and similar bonuses.

On The Green

Underlings does so many things well.

Educational value.  I almost hate mentioning that this game is an educational game. One of the biggest wins for Underlings is that it doesn’t feel or play like an educational game. You’re hatching dragon eggs to make dragons people! Daenerys would approve. Combining colors and learning about color temperature are just bi-products of a well-designed game.

The dragons. These are just awesome. Even for an advanced copy of a game, it already had a rich arrangement of unique dragons and whelps and wyverns. My understanding from the publisher is most (all?) of the dragons will be ready by the time the Kickstarter launches.

The game play.  Underlings will be familiar to anyone who’s played Compounded: collect gems, place workers on an array of cards to reserve them, place gems to complete the cards, score points. The basic mechanisms make for a fairly low learning curve. My five-year-old daughter can play the basic game with help only on reading aspects.

On more than one morning, by the way, I found that my kids had taken out Underlings to play on their own. By itself, that fact is a terrific indicator of a fun, playable game.

Player aids and components. Even for an advanced copy, Underlings has some really nice components. Everyone enjoyed playing with the crystals and the meeples. The fact that it supports up to six players is fantastic. There were other nice touches too. Like the fact it’s clear a lot of thought went into making the player aids helpful for both the learning objective and the game play itself.

Player count.  Underlings seems to play well at all the various player counts, including two-players. It is an added bonus that you can play all the way up to six players on this game.  While we didn’t play a six-player game, I could see how there’d be some real competition for dragon eggs in those games.

Where it comes up short

Underlings is a great game. The one concern we had about the game was recently fixed: handlers only as loot drops. Under the original rules, it was possible for one player to gain a ton of handlers just by hatching the correct eggs and created a runaway leader problem. The publisher has since changed the rules to make it so that you also got handlers at regular intervals even if you don’t get them as rewards.

With that issue resolved, there weren’t any other issues with the game.

On Compounded. I note above that this game shares a lot with Compounded. Underling’s game play will be familiar to Compounded players. However, in a number of ways, we found Underlings superior and solves some of the issues people have with Compounded’s game play:

  • Unlike the compounds, the dragons are great and compelling with fantastic art.
  • The placement of colored gems felt more rewarding than just dropping colors that represent the basic elements in Compounded.
  • The rewards for hatching a dragon are a lot of fun.
  • And, there is a lot more variety of color/crystal options, including the ability to combine them.

So even if you have Compounded, Underlings is well worth your while.

In the hole

Designer Alisha Volkman and The Pericles Group have a definite winner on their hands. Underlings of Underwing is a fantastic game that will appeal to gamers of all sorts. The dragons and the eggs are amazing and will have instant appeal. The game itself is enjoyable and has already hit the table a bunch of times.

Underlings of Underwing is in the hole for a Birdie!

Fairway was provided an advanced copy of the game for free, but was otherwise not compensated for this review. Also, Fairway entered his own game, Happy Little Planets, into The Learning Game contest, and The Pericles Group will be publishing that game at a later date.

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