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Underwater Cities vs. Terraforming Mars: worst components face-off

I just received Underwater Cities. In many ways it looks heavily inspired by Terraforming Mars which is one of my favourite solo games. At first glance I see thematic, mechanical, and commercial similarities:

  • We are colonizing Mars in TM, colonizing the sea in UC.

  • There is card-driven engine building in TM, and card-driven engine building in UC.

  • My friendly local game store is selling TM for 65 euro, and UC for 60.

As soon as I opened the (flimsy) box of Underwater Cities, I noticed it follows TM in one more aspect: bad component quality. I knew to not expect recessed boards, as these come with the UC expansion. Still, I couldn't help but feel bummed at what 60 euro amounts to, just as my heart sank when I first unboxed TM.

And then the question arose: which game does it better? Or rather, worse? Is TM the king of crappy components and UC a pale imitation? Or does UC manage to offer even less value for money? Join me as I set them up for the ultimate component quality face-off.

1. Rulebook

Underwater Cities has a beautiful rulebook. Good glossy paper, lots of illustrations, nice to the touch. The Terraforming Mars rulebook looks like a pamphlet by comparison. Cheap paper, not many images, the bare essentials.

We have a clear winner in this category: Terraforming Mars

2. Player boards

The player board in both games is a sheet of slightly thick paper. This component screams for an upgrade not just out of fear for the unavoidable bump, but also because it's barely better than print 'n' play. UC also has flimsy, bendy player aids. The scales tip a bit more towards TM because the player board is ugly to look at.

Winner: Terraforming Mars

3. Plastics and other bits

UC has round plastic domes. They are okay, I guess, I wouldn't call them fancy. It also has small plastic bits, wooden markers and standard cardboard tokens. TM has a plethora of translucent coloured cubes and plastic cubes painted in metallic colours. The faux-metal cubes have chipped off edges, but this is how they are made in the factory, they are not damaged. It's not easy to choose the worst, but I think I'll go for UC. There's nothing here I would call eye candy, and one keen-eyed BGG user revealed what the plastic domes really are:

Image source: BGG user Paul Aner

Winner: Underwater Cities

4. Main board

UC reigns supreme in this category. The main board is awful. Very thin cardboard, non-edged sides, uninspired illustration. The TM board is thin as well, sure. But at least it gets you right into the theme by showing the planet, and it has edged sides.

UC should tickle the player's fancy with a lush marine landscape. Instead, it's giving us the map of the goddamned world as if it's Pandemic.

Winner: Underwater Cities

5. Cardboard tiles

More or less same quality here. I like the artwork of the TM tiles better but I haven't played UC, so perhaps I'm biased.

Let's call it a tie.

6. Tacky characters on cards

Everyone complains about the cheesiness of the art in TM but I don't see why UC is any better. A talking dolphin? Xzibit from MTV's Pimp my Ride? Lame jokes in the flavour text? At least CEO's Favorite Project and Sponsors make me smile.

Winner: Underwater Cities

7. Card art

I see two problems with the artwork in UC: first, it has many repeats. Second, it's not evocative. Say what you will about the art in TM not being art at all, or being inconsistent. It still manages to convey exactly what the card and the action is about. Deimos Down? Yup, I can see it. Artificial Lake? Crystal clear. Regolith Eaters? I didn't know what they are, but the picture shows me. In UC, we have titles such as Trade Surplus, Autonomous Systems, Extraordinary Mission, and Federal Priority. Can you get any more vague? I can't blame the artist because, how can you give an accurate depiction of Trade Surplus? You can't. So he gave us a boat.

Winner: Underwater Cities


And the winner of the match is Underwater Cities! Congratulations to Delicious Games for surpassing Stronghold Games, and selling an overpriced product of subpar quality! It may end up becoming my favourite game to play, who knows. But a happy customer, I'm not.

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