The Under Falling Skies board game is a dice placement action selection game, with clear nods to the likes of Independence Day and X-COM. It is definitely just a solo game and has a short play time of around 30 minutes. It is listed as 12+, but I’m sure gamer kids a bit younger than that would soon get to grips with it.
While this is a small box game with a small footprint, it manages to pack quite the thematic punch and has loads of replayability. Impressive for what is basically quite a mechanical dice puzzle. The base game is complimented by a story-driven mission campaign which is both multi-directional and fully replayable.
In the box you’ll find about 10 plastic pieces, seven dice, a wooden vehicle piece and whole bunch of cardboard mini boards. At less than £25, you won’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth. The game is beautifully produced, the iconography simple and clear, and the comic book-style artwork nicely compliments the overall experience.
Playing the Under Falling Skies board game
The multi-section game board is long, thin and split into five columns. The alien invaders start at the top in their mothership, with our hero (that’s you, gawd help us) at the bottom in (of course) Roswell. The enemy starts with five ships, one in each column. 17 spaces below is your base, and below ground are six more rows making up your base. Just five dice rest between you and the end of the world. No pressure.
You first roll and assign one dice to each column within your base. There’s no dice mitigation as such. Instead, when you place a white dice in a column (you have three grey and two white) you must reroll all remaining dice. This works well, letting you (hopefully) get out of a bind – or in the opposite case, place four dice immediately if they’re in a good combo. Higher numbers tend to give better powers. But once placed, you have to move any ships in that column an equal number of spaces towards the base…
To win you need to complete research. Green spaces in your base let you do this, but cost energy. Red base spaces also need energy, but let you attack the alien ships. (Some sky spaces have a number on them, allowing you to shoot down ships on those spaces if your attack value is high enough). You get energy from yellow spaces in your base. Elsewhere, the top row of your base is a bit of a dumping ground. Dice placed here have the simple/weak ability to decrease the die number placed by one. But even this can be handy to get a ship onto a kill space, or at worst slow it down.
‘Welcome to Earth’
Your base also has a seven-space damage track. Each time an alien ship gets to the bottom of its column, it deals one damage and heads back to the mother ship to go again. So managing those ships is crucial. But even if you shoot ships down, they come again – so time is of the essence. After each round the mothership drops down a row, and if it manages to drop 12 rows it’s all over. And, of course, each time the mother ship drops a space it means the smaller ships are starting one row closer to your base…
And the mothership dropping can hurt you in other ways; adding extra attack ships, negating some of your research or slowing down your excavator. Your what? Well, you also have a little wooden piece in your base that can burrow down to lower levels, opening up extra (always better) rooms lower below ground. Awesome, sure – but it wastes a dice each time you do it. Speculate to accumulate and all that. It can definitely be worth it – and is sometimes unavoidable, as those lower rooms open abilities you may need to win.
So that’s the basics: slow/shoot down the enemy enough to get your research done before your base is annihilated or the mothership arrives. After your first play you’ll add robots (extra dice which can do automated actions for you each turn), as well as all sorts of other exciting things I’m not allowed to talk about. You simply don’t have clearance…
The four criteria
In a change to my normal reviews, I’m instead looking at areas in which solo board games tend to be judged – either favourably or not, depending on your tastes.
- Elegance: I didn’t find playing the Under Falling Skies board game an elegant experience at first. And was a little worried after one play. But once you become familiar with the timings, and the nuances of how certain aspects gel together, it soon becomes a smooth experience. The rules are spread over eight A5 pages, including plenty of pictures/examples. And most of the actions, while hardly oozing theme, make thematic sense. After two plays, I felt 100% confident in what I was doing and didn’t find myself returning to the rulebook.
- Meaningful decisions: It’s here the game shines surprisingly well. You have just five dice and one only one way to mitigate them – but that one way is where the game really stands out. Knowing you’ll have to reroll all remaining dice when you lay a white one keeps you almost permanently on edge. Do you take the average-ish grey dice you rolled now, or risk rolling disastrous ones by placing a white dice now? Elsewhere, you can shift focus on a dime. You may think OK, this turn I need to put a load of effort into research. But then the dice fall in a way that could see you take out several ships – potentially prolonging the game, giving you an extra turn or two to get that research.
- Replayability: Publisher CGE has specifically asked reviewers not to talk about the content of the included campaign. Personally, I think this is a mistake on their part. All I’ll do here is repeat what I said earlier. Included in the box is a story-driven mission campaign which is both multi-directional and fully replayable. But even before you get to that, you have three cities to choose from (giving a different ability each, plus a different base setup). And the sky tiles are reversible, with a tougher side on the back. You always play with four sky tiles, so the more you flip over the tougher it gets. When you add in the campaign, the replayability is huge.
- Theme, narrative & the ending: This is a mechanical euro-style puzzle game with dice used to claim action spaces. But the theme works, while tension builds as the mother ship starts to descend and time begins to run out. There are no adventure game elements. Your dice rolls influence your decisions rather than deciding the outcome of your choices. In terms of narrative, again I wish I could talk about the campaign. Let’s just say it adds quite a lot of personality to an otherwise quite mechanical experience. And the game has a pretty good story arc, with tension building throughout.
The Under Falling Skies board game uses a small set of components to create a surprisingly varied experience, with multiple paths to victory. In my first play I was totally gung-ho, ignoring ships and letting my base take damage while rushing to do my research. In my next play I handled the ships better and took my time. Then next time I got my excavator to its lowest level fast, using the powerful lower base actions to come back from the brink. And that’s just the basic game.
Tactically there are other things I haven’t mentioned. The mothership unleashes extra ships, but these only need to be destroyed once. And there are spaces on the board where, if a ship lands on them, the mothership gets to drop an extra row. Sounds bad, but it doesn’t trigger its ‘end of round’ ability. Avoiding this (for example, losing precious research) can win you the game. Just another thing you need to weigh up each time you’re looking blankly at the dice you’ve rolled!
To date, no real criticisms have come up. I expect some will say it isn’t thematic enough, or this enough, or that enough. But for now it is basking, quite rightly, in pretty universal praise. But it is what it is. A 30-45 minute thinky puzzle, with dice adding that random factor every solo game needs. Choosing one space means you’re missing out on another, so you’re always thinking on your feet. And it’s very much tactical. Because if the dice say ‘no’. any grand strategy for the turn goes out the window.
Conclusion: The Under Falling Skies board game
For me, Under Falling Skies offers up a fantastic solo board game experience. If you want a long, adventure heavy experience then no – you won’t get that here. But if you’re happy with a sub-hour game heavy on the puzzle but with a coherent theme, plus bundles of replayability, I highly recommend it. Now, let me get back to my campaign… Hello boys! I’m baaaack!