One of my favorite boardgame designs is Troyes. Although it relies on dice, it’s not about chasing sixes. Normally, dice games are all about seeing how many high numbers you can roll. Over the course of the game, you have to work through the peaks and valleys of sixes and ones, which feels more like following the course of a river than actually planning anything. Luck pulls the game, but your strategy is an oar you can use to splash around in the water. Troyes is different for how it’s never about seeing how many high numbers you can roll. In Troyes, a one can be just as welcome as a six.
Under Falling Skies works on this same principle.
Every die you place in your base does two things at the same time. The first thing it does is determine the efficacy of the room where you placed it. How much energy did you produce? How far up the research track can you advance? How good is the pilot you just sent out to shoot down attacking aliens? How much progress did you make improving your base? You’d think you want as many sixes as you can get.
But the second thing the die does is determine how far towards your base the aliens advance. Sixes suddenly aren’t so attractive. It’s nice to produce six energy, but it’s not nice to move an alien six spaces down a track that’s only sixteen spaces long. And getting shorter all the time. Each turn, the mothership that spawns aliens moves down a row. By the end of a game, a six can send an attacking alien directly into your base.
Of course the ones are still bad. Because while it’s nice to only move an alien down one space, what a waste of a perfectly good room in your base. Only one energy? One research might not even move you up the track. A pilot with a one probably won’t shoot down a single alien.
But the numbers in between matter a lot as well, because as you move the aliens down the track toward your base, many of the spaces where they land will have some effect on the game, for better or worse. This grid informs which numbers you want to place in any given column. Sometimes you really really need a three. Not a two, not a four, but a three exactly. There’s some built-in randomness mitigation by allowing at least one re-roll during a turn, and usually two. So the dice you initially roll aren’t going to be the dice you’re stuck with.
At first, this is a pretty simple but moderately brain burning grid puzzle. You need that three in the one specific spot, which means you’re going to suck it up and place the six to reroll the rest of the dice, and now you’ve got the three, but what are you going to do with that five? And do you really want to keep two twos? The basic game — which is to say Under Falling Skies straight out of the box — doesn’t have many moving pieces, and it’s going to be easy to all but solve it. Basically, you make a beeline to improve the base as quickly as you can, unlocking more helpful spaces. Once you’ve improved your base, it’s just a mild dice management challenge. Now push a marker up a victory point track, which represents research. Science will defeat any alien invasion.
But even as a mild dice management challenge, Under Falling Skies offers a lot of variety because of its modularity. The different cities you’re defending — there are three — give you special abilities. But more importantly, they determine how you set up the tiles for your base. The bases for different cities progress differently. Some readily produce energy, but take a while before research kicks in. Some have better fighter pilots to fend off the aliens. Some can take more damage.
Furthermore, the grid representing the sky is comprised of four double-sided tiles. You set it up with the easy sides showing, then randomly flip one of them. Now you’ve got a patch of particularly threatening sky. This changes how the aliens advance, how your victory point track progresses, and what the mothership does as it gets closer. So while the basic puzzle of Under Falling Skies is relatively easy to parse, the permutations with the three cities and four double-side sky tiles keeps it from being fully solvable. And, of course, the dice have to cooperate.
But at this point, you’re still not playing Under Falling Skies for real. When you open the box, you’ll find bundles of extra components sealed with paper bands. These are the different chapters in a campaign that will introduce more components and new gameplay mechanics. Once you’ve played through the campaign, you’ve got absurd amounts of modularity to set up standalone games, but especially to replay the campaign. And this is where Under Falling Skies really starts flexing the dynamics of its basic dice puzzle. This is where things really get going. Each game in the campaign will have a randomly dealt mission that adds some overarching tweak. Saboteurs, radiation leaks, kamikaze alien pilots, and fleeing refugees are cleverly layered over the already wildly varying gameplay. It’s a little crazy, frankly. Remember that relatively simple puzzle that you had all but solved? If you squint, you can still see it under there.
But here’s where it starts to get messy and ultimately falls apart completely. Because Under Falling Skies insists on playing coy with campaign spoilers — heaven forfend you might see what new gameplay mechanics will be introduced! — the rules are spread out across the rules book and separate sheets of paper for each campaign chapter. Would it have killed the publisher to add another four pages of information to the rules book for the sake of keeping everything together?
I also take issue with some of the theming shortcuts, specifically for the cities. The cities each have a distinctive special ability, but most of these smack of “just because”. Why does Havana get free robots? Uhh, just because? Why does Rio get to shoot down a free alien every turn? Just because? Why does Mexico City have such a huge base construction bonus? You guessed it. Just because! Contrast this to different characters who have abilities that make sense. Lucia is a mechanic who boosts robots. Shanti is a politician who can decree a specific die roll for the worker dice. And General Moss is a general who can command a worker die to work harder. This wouldn’t have come through if they just had a name and an ability, minus their job or title. Yet that’s exactly how Under Falling Skies presents its cities. Why does New York get a +1 robot? Just because!
Furthermore, cities differ dramatically for how much health they have, how they start off the victory track, and especially their base layouts. Unfortunately, this information isn’t presented anywhere unless you set up the whole game. Which is a significant issue because every game during the campaign starts with choosing between two cities. Given that this choice is a cornerstone of the campaign, why not make it easier for me to compare cities? Why do I have to flip and compare different tiles to remind myself how the cities will play? Why waste all that printing ink on sheets of paper and tile backings with a half-hearted comic book story instead of helpful reference materials like how the cities differ?
But the real problem with Under Falling Skies is that it has no idea how to end. So it just piles up a bunch of junk and unceremoniously drops it onto you. Over and over and over. You played six games to get here, and now you play up to six more, losing them one after the other, and with it whatever score you earned getting here. If I got lucky, and if I felt like subjecting myself to the endgame’s repeated nut-punches, I might eventually log a score of two or three points at the lowest difficulty level. But I don’t see how anyone can score more than zero points at the harder difficulty levels. I don’t see how anyone would care to try.
What’s more, there are no meaningful new dynamics introduced during this finale. The campaign does a great job layering in new concepts as it goes, and it teaches you the intricacies of its various dice puzzle permutations. It also gives you new advantages as it also ramps up the difficulty level. But when you get to the finale, all that stops. Instead, it raises the difficulty level by undercutting the tool you had been using to manage aliens. And on top of that, it literally doubles the number of aliens dropped on you. This isn’t game design; this is a petty gamemaster deciding to make things more difficult. And also more frustrating while he’s at it. I played through the campaign for this?
It brings to mind the old adage about only having one chance to make a first impression. And to Under Falling Skies’ credit, it makes a great first impression. But you also only have one chance to make a last impression, because once you blow that, no one’s coming back. I can’t imagine anyone thinking the drawn-out slog is a good finale. I can’t imagine anyone stepping away from his first campaign thinking, “That was satisfying! I can’t wait to do it again!” Because now the oppressive finale looms over every subsequent campaign. Instead of being excited about how all the modularity will come together, I instead get to dread reaching the finale. I get to dread having to play the same losing game over and over again until my score is reset to zero. I get to dread where the game is going. Why would I bother playing my way here again?
Game developers need to figure out their endings, especially if they’re relying on campaigns. This is true of any form of entertainment. Storytellers need to consider where they’re taking their audience. What will they leave the audience with? Where will they end up? It’s like a rote boss battle at the end of a great videogame. It’s like an inept final episode at the end of a fascinating TV series. It’s like a lame solution to an intriguing mystery. Under Falling Skies is a compelling dice puzzle campaign that culminates in a bunch of arbitrarily difficult junk dropped onto me. Ouch. Maybe I should have expected it. It’s right there in the title.