Sub Terra Board Game Review (Inside the Box)


You and your curiously diverse, international team of spelunkers have been trapped in a mysterious and dangerous cave. Horrors and environmental hazards lurk around every corner: can you get out alive? (Spoiler: probably not.) Sub Terra is a cooperative game like no other, in the sense that more than any other cooperative game, it may make you want to kill everyone around you, leaving them for dead despite your win conditions. And, like many games, our experience with Sub Terra had a vaguely meta nature to it, in which we had to consider the nature of games, the nature of man, and the nature of cooperation.

Sub Terra Board Game Details

Players: 1 to 6

Game Time: 60 Minutes

Age: 10+

Genre: Cooperative / Tile-Based

How is Sub Terra Played?

Sub Terra is a tile-based game. Players need to reveal and explore tiles, defeating hazards and avoiding monsters, in order to find the exit and escape. At the end of every turn, a hazard will activate -- including the very dangerous shadow creatures that will doggedly pursue players throughout the game.

During a turn, players can take two actions. As an example, the player could:

  • Move a single square for one action.
  • Reveal an adjacent square for one action.
  • Dig through debris for two actions.
  • Swim across a puddle for two actions.

All of these actions are laid out very clearly on the action cards, with extremely intuitive setup and options. It takes almost no time at all to learn the game: it's obvious, almost immediately, what you are and are not allowed to do. But that by no means implies that the game is easy. Far from it. 

As tiles are revealed, so are hazards such as cave-ins. Players need to juggle their own health while also defeating hazards, helping each other, and searching for the exit. To help, players are given special abilities. Leaders can grant extra turns to other players, divers can dive into flooded areas and transport into other flooded areas, medics can heal other characters quickly, and so forth.

Sub Terra is a game that absolutely requires strategy, teamwork, and cooperation, because a situation can quickly spiral out of control. And that's what makes it so incredibly interesting and frustrating at once. 

Our Experience With Sub Terra

Cooperative games tend to be our group's favorites, but the last few cooperative games that we've played have reminded me of something important: cooperative games are next to useless when you're playing with the wrong players. And by wrong, I certainly don't mean players who play the game badly, because we most definitely do, all the time. By wrong, I mean players who:

  • Constantly tell other players what to do.
  • Strike off on their own without discussing it with the rest of the group.
  • Take the game far too seriously.
  • Start yelling and sulking when the game is about to be lost.

Our group loses a lot of games. A lot of games. We also try our best to follow the rules, avoid cheating, and accept that defeat is a part of the game experience. For whatever reason, Sub Terra brought out the worst in the group that we were playing with. 

In games like Pandemic, it really doesn't matter if one player is acting out. A player can be next to useless and the rest of the team can compensate for their actions. In Sub Terra, everything is paced so tightly that people really do need to work together. A single person running off and doing their own thing quickly becomes a recipe for disaster, even though it's actually often quite good for that one player.

Sub Terra is a cooperative game, but in a game with 5 players, only 3 actually need to escape. At any time, players can decide that another player should just be left behind. And that changes the feel of the game. In our group, of course, most of us were jovially fine with sacrificing ourselves for our friends (within reason), but to one player, that wasn't just frustrating -- it was anger inducing. 

And we had in game reasons for doing this, as our characters were good characters. One of our characters could not cope with the idea of someone dying (it was right in her bio). Still, when the game became about winning, things got tense. Because this is not a game that is easily won.

A Meditation on Cooperative Games

Cooperative games are, well, they're cooperative. The last few cooperative games I've played have been destroyed by the same thing: a player deciding they did not want to cooperate, that they knew better than others, and that they were going to do their own thing, regardless of what anyone else said. They would demand that other players do exactly as they were told and, when the other players declined to follow these actions, they would sulk, angrily, to themselves, resolving to single-handedly win the game to prove their own strategies. As things went wrong, it would never be their fault, it would be because no one listened to them.

Every group is different. But for the most part, the group that we have, don't play cooperative games to win -- though of course, we are trying. We play cooperative games to socialize and have an experience with each other; an interesting engaging experience that is fostered by the game's mechanics.

Others have a different focus, and that's just fine. There's no "right" way to play a board game. There are only conflicts when a group wants to play the game differently. What we've discovered is that some players want, above all, to win a game: and if they are disrupted in that dogged pursuit, they will start to turn on each other. Sub Terra might not be the game for those people, at least, not with larger sets of players. Sub Terra can be played with 1 or 2 players, and that might actually be better for those who have that focus. 

Back to Sub Terra...

Sub Terra is a difficult game, and that's why it happened to bring out the worst in our non-cooperative players. There are hazards everywhere and each hazard takes time to get out of. If players aren't constantly helping each other, everyone's health goes down very quicky. At the same time, players need to be aggressively exploring: if every player isn't exploring frequently, there's no way to win, as the game itself has a "timer." Once the hazard deck is exhausted, you "run out of time," and monsters come out to hunt you down. If you haven't found the exit tile back then, you're in trouble.

There's a mechanic that lets you exert yourself in Sub Terra, getting an extra action. If you fail your roll, though, you get hurt (a 50% chance). All of this means that you need to be sticking close together and healing each other as you go, takng advantage of each other's abilities while also avoiding staying in the exact same tiles, as that could lead to certain death.

All of this makes Sub Terra a great game for a group that wants a challenge -- but it's also a test of not only your patience, but your group dynamics. Make no mistake: Sub Terra is a very good game, it's just a game that can reveal your own flaws very easily. It is absolutely a team work game, and if your team cannot work together, you will die. 

Sub Terra Board Game Review
  • PRO: An intuitive game with simple rules that nevertheless has a surprising amount of depth and challenge.
  • PRO: Unique characters and character abilities that significantly improve replay value.
  • CON: Game can be very random and often feels stacked against you.