Have you ever had that nightmare where you’re lost in a dark, uncharted cave? And while you’re trying to find your way back, you get the uneasy feeling that something is in the shadows, hunting you, waiting for your light to die in order to devour you? No? Well after a game of Sub Terra you will!
What is Sub Terra?
Sub Terra is a cooperative cave-crawling survival horror game, published by Inside the Box (ITB), that you can literally play in the dark! Ok maybe dim light, but it’s still pretty cool! You plays as a group of cave explorers with different roles and abilities, trying to find your way out before your light runs out and you get devoured by the the horrors. It’s a simple, yet elegantly designed game that’s easy to pick up and play.
The core game comes in a relatively small box, about the size of an A4 piece of paper. It fits all the pieces and tiles nicely inside, without much excessive space, which saves a lot of shelf space.
A cool little thing about this game is that it glows in the dark. Not kidding. The 6 sided die and the box glow in the dark, and the tiles and tokens light up when you shine a UV light on them. It is something so simple, but it allows you to play with dim lighting, to enhance the horror experience. Put some scary cave ambient sounds, or an official Sub Terra Soundtrack on Spotify, and you are set for a spooky Halloween.
The game was Kickstarted back in 2017 and was backed by 6,626 backers that pledged £368,256 (about $509,502), way over their initial goal of £16,500 (about $22,828). Backers received the core game, along with the three expansions, a graphic novel with a nice intro to the game, a developer journal with why and how they got to create the game, a UV flashlight, glow in the dark dice along with a RPG dice-set, and miniatures for the horrors and cavers.
As of writing this review, I believe only the miniatures are available on their official store page, but some game shops still stock the big deluxe editions from Kickstarter, so it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for copies!
Playing the Game
When it comes to setting up the game it is very quick and easy. The only thing we don’t like about the setup is that it’s hard to shuffle the cave tiles (just like in most of other games that use randomised tiles). You also will need a lot of space clear, as the cave can get very big, but it shouldn’t go over a standard dining table.
The rulebook is well written, quick to read, and very easy to understand. The rules are available online and there is an up-to-date FAQ for edge-cases not covered in the rulebook (though honestly we’ve never had to use it). According to their Kickstarter, the game should also come in at least 13 more languages, making it more accessible to people. However, only the German translation of the rulebooks are available on their official website.
If you want to check out the game in action, we did two quick games on our stream on the International Tabletop Day. Otherwise, keep reading for what we think about different aspects, despite all the horrible things that happened to us in those caves…
Playing Alone or with Friends
The beauty of coop games comes with the option of playing them alone. But not all games are fun to challenge alone, as the social aspect of the game is very important. This is not one of those games. The game comes with a hard enough challenge that you can easily just lay it out and play it alone, and honestly the experience isn’t going to be that much different from multiplayer.
It is very important to work together to get out. In order to win at least two characters need to make it out, so you can’t just leave your friends behind and leg it for the exit, as much as it’s tempting to try!
The game can have from 4 to 6 cavers in play at the same time, and while we thought that having more characters with different abilities would make the game much easier then having only 4, the game is so well balanced that it’s actually not the case. The game also doesn’t even take much longer to play out, as the number of turns you have to escape are reduced to compensate for the number of people exploring.
Sub Terra is also available online. If you have Tabletopia, a virtual tabletop platform, you may be able to get together with friends, or even find new ones. We personally are fans of in-person games, as the monitor can ruin the social magic, but we have also been the in shoes of people who want to play games together but physically cannot get together. So we love that this option is available.
Going Deep: The Cave and the Game
I love procedurally building maps with tiles, as the map will be different each playthrough, and fans of games like the Palace of Mad King Ludwig, Betrayal at the House on the Hill and other tile-placement games will be familiar with the way Sub Terra works. Everyone starts on the same spot, a starting tile, and has to go through the stack of 64 cave tiles. The exit tile is in between the last 6 tiles, so you will build up a very big branching cave before you can find it.
There are also only few special tiles types, so you don’t have to constantly refer to the rulebook, what each tile does when you draw it, or have absurd amount of icons that are more of a hindrance then anything. A simple design like this, makes the game run faster and smoother, and you’ll find yourself flying through the turns remarkably quickly and smoothly.
While building the cave it will give you hints on where hazards may accrue. When you draw from the hazard deck you resolve the hazard on the appropriate tiles. It may sound hard to follow, but it’s surprising not. There are not that many tiles, and you need to care only about the tiles that affect you – the one you are on, and the ones with currently active hazards, like pockets of poison gas or flooded watery areas.
There are only 5 types hazards in 31 cards, but you can never know what is left in the deck, because you don’t play with all of them every game. This makes every draw from the hazard deck unpredictable and scary.
The hazard card system may not be unique, but it is very simple and nicely implemented, as it doesn’t slow down gameplay, and it forces you to change your strategy on the fly. Will you run blindly into the dark, not knowing whether you’ll find death around the corner, or will you explore more slowly and cautiously until the batteries of your torch run out? That decision hardly ever ends in your favour.
Push Your Luck
If you play safe, take your time to heal up everyone and wait things out you will never get out. There is not enough time, or actions for your team to go through the stack. The game requires you to live on low health, take risks, and keep on pushing your luck to survive, raising the tension and the stakes at every turn.
Each character has two actions per turn. Most of them will be use to reveal or explore tiles, so you can progress. But sometimes you just need that one extra chance, one more push. That is where the exhaustion mechanic comes in. You take a third action, and at the end of the turn you role a 6 sided die. If you fail (which is a 50/50 chance), you lose health, putting yourself in ever-increasing danger.
The scary monsters in this game are called horrors. If you don’t have the miniatures (that are sold separately), they are represented by small black cylindrical tokens. It’s actually a great way to represent the horrors over art tiles, as you don’t see them, they are in the shadows, and you can only imagine what they might look like…
The Developer’s Journal (that is available in the big box from the Kickstarter) goes into more depths of the design process and rationale behind the game. It shows that the developers did go though a lot of research and testing, and it pays off. We can’t praise enough the quality and simplicity of this game. While there are more fun games, more complex games, Sub Terra is extremely well-designed and deceptive in its simplicity.
Is it worth buying?
Now to the most important question: Is it worth it? We would say, yes – Sub Terra is definitely worth buying! And not only for horror lovers, it is a solid game, that doesn’t take a lot of space on your shelf, quick to set up and easy to pick up and play. Sure the win-rate may be very low, and most times you will end up devoured while just one of your cavers lives on and never speaks of what happened, but that is part of the challenge.
If you want to try out a demo online, you can play a single-player demo on Tabletopia for free. The experience won’t be as exciting as in person, just like most digital tabletop games, but it is a great way to try out the game before investing.
If you have a local board game café, check out if they have it in house for play, or rent. That is another way you can test out the game, or even play it without getting a copy of your own.
If you are still unsure, there is one more thing you can do – Print and Play. Yes, you can download the print-and-play version from their official page, and play the entire game. You can spend some time printing, cutting and shuffling paper cards, and if you enjoy it, do support them by buying it. The production quality of the game is extraordinary.
- Simple and smart design
- Forces you out of the comfort zone
- Quick games
- Simple rules
- Play in the dark
- Luck heavy
- High fail chance
- Bodyguard can kill the horror element
- Tiles that have to be shuffled and stacked