Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Tuesday, 10 March 2020

The Game Shelf Reviews:- On the Underground: London/Berlin

Game: On the Underground: London/Berlin

Publisher: Ludicreations

Designer: Sebastian Bleasdale
 
Year: 2019


On The Underground was originally a 2006 title from Rio Grande Games, which has been out of print and hard to find for a long time. The new reprint from Ludicreations gives the game a fresh new look, as well as adding in a second map. Now you can play on the classic London map, with the original rules, or the new Berlin map, which introduces some different scoring mechanisms, which it swaps out for some of the old ones from the London map.

On The Underground is a competitive game of route building for 2-5 players. Players are responsible for building different underground lines, creating the best connectivity across the city to attract passengers, travelling to the different tourist sites.



Gameplay

A game of On The Underground is centered around the passenger, a grey marker that wants to move around the board by walking as little as possible. At any particular time they have four locations that they want to visit, it's your job to make sure that the routes that the passenger takes involve traveling over your rail system rather than that of your opponents. Doing this is rather simple, each turn you have four actions which are mostly used to lay down a piece of track in one of your colours, extending the line that you have made. If you need to split the rail off in multiple directions then you can spend an action to collect a branch token, discard two of these and you can split one of your lines off in an additional location.


Once a player has finished their four actions the passenger will move. They will first head to a yellow, priority, location if available, before heading to a grey standard location. If all available locations are of one colour then the passenger will only visit one location this turn. The passenger follows a few rules, primarily wanting to travel the least amount of distance on foot, and make the fewest number of line changes to get where they want to go. After moving the passenger every line that was used rewards its owner one point. Players will own up to four lines, each of which can earn them points every time the passenger moves. Once the passenger deck runs dry the game will end.

In addition you can earn bonus points for making effective train routes. Every major train station you connect to will reward a point. Should you connect to an end-of-line station then you will get two points and a bonus branch token. On top of that each map has a pair of unique scoring mechanisms. On the London map you gain bonus points when you connect two matching landmarks together. You also gain bonus points for creating a loop, whenever you create a circle of track you gain points for every station that has been encircled. The Berlin map still features landmarks, but they work a little differently, instead you get a big bonus every time you have visited, and therefore collected the tokens of the full set of five landmarks. In addition there are four major stations which earn you bonus points for each line once you connect that line to the second/third/fourth one of them.


Amy’s Final Thoughts

I find it hard to classify On the Underground. To teach someone the rules is easy; you have 2 actions you can do and you do 4 of them each round. To explain the concept is easy; the passenger wants to visit a yellow marker then a grey one, you want them to use your trains to do so. But the playing of it becomes incredibly complex. Anyone who has visited London will be baffled by our unique underground system. For a new tourist the idea of getting from one end of the city to another is daunting. Now imagine that this same train system has been made by a bunch of non-professionals who have been unnaturally skewed by short term goals, yet is still just as big and complex as the real thing. Trying to work out which route the passenger will take can be a game in itself and even the tiniest change can completely change the way it wants to go. On the Underground may be simple to learn, but it's deep!


The mechanics manage to promote making small moves to manipulate the passenger. If you manage to get them to end the turn on a line that only your trains go to, then you know you are going to get a free point or two next turn. But it also promotes creating a functioning, efficient train system. The passenger dislikes making changes almost as much as walking, so if you've made a system that lets them move around the city easily and efficiently on your lines then you can expect the points to roll in naturally. Trying to balance this out with the bonus points for stations which are typically found near dead ends makes On the Underground a difficult game to master. You tend to creep up in points incrementally, with players sometimes getting boons when the passenger just wants to stay in certain areas. This makes for an enjoyable game as you really don't know who the winner will be until the last turn.

But it's not all sunshine and roses, On the Underground is a remake of an old game and that age has brought a couple of wrinkles with it. Primarily is the length of the game, with the deck of cards ensuring that (almost) every station on the map will be visited. There's a lot of game to get through here and it can outstay its welcome. This is compounded by the fact that the passenger doesn't always visit two places a round, you can get stuck with only grey/yellow location for round after round at times, slowing down the pacing dramatically. The new art style has done wonders to freshen up the look of the game, but otherwise the components are basic, simple wooden sticks and cardboard tokens, perfectly functional, but it doesn't feel like a 2019 game. Overall On The Underground is a very welcome remake of a classic game, the addition of the new map adds some freshness to the package without overwriting what made the original great.


Fi’s Final Thoughts

On The Underground is a really nice puzzle that changes from round to round. I love that every turn I have a new opportunity to manipulate the board state to try and score more points than anyone else for that round of passenger movement. The game plays out like a tug of war and you need to find ways to not only win the points this rounds, but also make longer term strategic decisions, working towards bonus points or set collection - not always getting so distracted by the quick wins. This positive aspect of the ever changing puzzle can also be On The Underground's downfall. We are both fast players and even in a two player game it can be a bit exhausting to need to recalculate the passenger's preferred route - especially as this becomes more complex later in the game. AP certainly has a tendency to creep in and you seem to spend quite a chuck of the game time in that 'resolution' phase, rather than actually playing your turns. The balance is OK with two players, but I'd struggle to have the patience to play with more people, because there's very little planning you can do between turns.

It's good then, that the game plays really well for two players. Unlike other route building games, like Ticket to Ride, you don't suffer from empty map syndrome when playing with smaller player counts. Instead each player just plays with more player colours - with two players, each player has four colours. This keeps the board tight, maintains some of the competition for single routes and gives each player more to be excited about on a given scoring round, because there's a high chance your routes will be being used, even when it's not your turn.

The reprint from Ludicreations is a wonderful thing. The watercolour artwork is certainly the first thing that strikes you - with the London skyline on the front of the box and the Berlin skyline on the back. But, even with artwork on the front and back cover, they've cleverly used the side of the box to give you game information, contents and images, so there's no complaints for box design. Even the inside covers have beautiful artwork! You also essentially get an expansion in the box. This edition of the game opens up the potential for expansions with new rules and new cities. Personally, since the game slightly outstays its welcome for me, I'd like to see a smaller metro system tackled - perhaps Copenhagen? That could be really pretty and also compact!


You Might Like...
  • The puzzle you're trying to solve changes every round, so it's fun to be adaptive with your route building and try to squeeze every point scoring opportunity in your favour.
  • This new edition has incredible artwork throughout - it looks like art on the table or on your shelf.
  • On The Underground is a very simple game to teach.
You Might Not Like...
  • The game seems excessively long. Every destination on the board will come up before the end of the game and we often wished that the map was smaller to make the game be shorter too.
  • A lot of time is spent figuring out the passenger movement and when this changes every turn, players spend a lot of time thinking because it's hard to plan turns.

The Verdict
7/10 On The Undergound: London/Berlin is a fantastic reprint of a long out of print classic. The artwork is such a huge improvement and it's great that you can either play the classic, or the new Berlin map - almost like having an expansion right there in the box. It's a great route building game, with a handful of ways of scoring that you can puzzle over and enjoy. The biggest downside though, is that you'll spend just as much time figuring out where the passenger travels to and it can really elongate the game. On the Underground is a good choice for a gateway train game, but it's just a little bit too long for it to become a go-to choice for us.


On the Underground was a review copy kindly provided to us by Ludicreations.

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