I was first drawn to Under Falling Skies during the beginning of lockdown. Board games with friends looked increasingly unlikely given the circumstances, so I looked into a few solo games to try to pass the time, and maybe get away from the screen a bit. One that caught my eye was the original version of Under Falling Skies. Designed from a sort of minimalist solo design competition where entrants were challenged to create a game that only required nine printed cards, Under Falling skies was designed to do a lot with very little. It was created to be printed on one double-sided sheet of paper, with a few dice and some tokens to round out the experience. The game was nominated for the best print and play award at Boardgamegeek.com in 2019, and won a lot of accolades, but then by chance the designer Tomáš Uhlíř was hired by CGE (Czech Games Edition) and the company took a chance on making this little design into a full blown commercial game. The end production is stunning and tries to make an argument for why you might want to drop $30.00 for a purely solo game. I wanted to share my first impressions as I started to dig into the game.
I must admit there is something very Zen about solo gaming. On a lovely Spring day with the birds chirping and the work day over it’s nice to set up a game and not worry about when other players are arriving, how to teach the game, or whether everyone at the table will have a good time. Solo board games are very much like solving a puzzle mano a mano vs the logic of the game itself, as I’ve written about when I first looked into the trend a few years ago. Under Falling Skies is essentially Space Invaders in board game form. There is a mothership sending attack ships towards your city in five columns and you must roll and place dice to defeat the incoming forces, excavate and create new defensive measures, and ultimately research a weapon to take out the mothership before it blows you up ala Independence Day.
In more detail, you roll five dice on a turn and place them on a room in one of the five columns. The rooms do one of three things: Research the weapon to destroy the mothership, send air strikes to destroy incoming attackers, or generate power to do either of these things. The brilliant push and pull here is that while higher dice rolls are always better for any of these actions, any alien ship in the corresponding column moves that many spaces towards your city. So if you want to place that six you rolled you have to also accept that the attackers that much closer to landing a hit on your city. Too many of these hits and it’s game over. To counteract this you can place dice in a column as anti-air defense, which subtracts one from how many spaces the enemy ships move. This can be a bit of a war of attrition but plays into another puzzle-y aspect of the game. Incoming ships can only be destroyed by your airstrikes if they land on attack spaces in the sky. So often die placement is a calculation not only of how it benefits you on the ground, but where the enemies end up in the skies. A perfectly timed anti-air die can position that pesky invader just in the right spot to kill multiple ships at once which is incredibly satisfying. Finally you can place a die further underground to move an excavator and unlock new and better rooms for your defense. It is all a giant balancing act and one heck of a brain burner.
To add another wrinkle to this, of your five dice three are grey and two are white. Whenever you place a white die you reroll all remaining dice. This gives flexibility but also adds a timing puzzle on top of the rest. This makes it an excellent solo game, plenty of tension from the impending doom of attackers and the mothership, the push and pull of powerful dice hurtling enemies ever closer toward your city, and knowing when to use your re-rolls. Additionally the “turn” of the mothership is simple to follow making it not feel like you are playing two different games at once. The advanced game even offers robot dice which will continue activating a room but degrading by one each turn. A four or five die robot is great for a few turns but once it degrades to a one or two it almost becomes a liability as it occupies the space. It is yet another wrinkle to puzzle through in each play of the game.
For additional variability there are four levels of difficulty, and various different cities to play as, each with a unique power. That alone would be plenty but CGE has gone out of their way to pack the box full of replayability. There is a whole campaign with new boards, new gameplay and comics to tell a branching story. As a game launched during the peak of COVID lockdown Winter, Under Falling Skies was primed to be a puzzle that could take months to explore. Ok, so they definitely give you enough game in the box to justify the price, but what do I think?
Well… that’s tricky. I have recently been playing a lot of thematic games like Stationfall which I wrote about last week. I also played my copy of Pax Renaissance solo the other week to test it out, literally playing two hands at once to test out the rules. Under Falling Skies is a more elegant design than either of these games. But with all the puzzling, it did feel a bit like a game of pure calculation. Don’t get me wrong, when you pull of a turn where you blow up three enemy ships in the sky it is an incredible feeling, but it is still not a game that generates stories quite like the games I’ve been playing recently. There is sure to me more story in the box as I dig into the campaign, but a campaign framing the core game can sometimes feel like narrative scaffolding versus the emergent stories that come from some of my favorite games. With that said, I am happy to explore Under Falling Skies more, and I do want to dig into all of the content they’ve put in the box. Part of that is to get my thirty dollar investment back, but otherwise if I am feeling like playing something particularly puzzle-y and Zen I might pull this game out. It’s certainly a beautiful production with gorgeous art, neat plastic ships and tons of variability. But as the world opens up and there are hints of lockdown ending, I am honestly more eager to get to gaming in person again. Perhaps solo gaming is just not for me, but I admire what Under Falling Skies is trying to do.