Under Falling Skies Review – An original, crunchy solo game with only 9 cards
Posted On January 19, 2022
Disclaimer: This review is for the free Print-And-Play version of the game. Under Falling Skies was also recently released as a “full fledged” board game with additional campaign, and is getting great reviews (I’m not surprised). Check it out on Amazon.
The wonderful world of Print and Play board games
In an attempt to control my board game spending, I recently decided to have a look at Print-and-Play games, particularly in the solo world. It’s fairly easy to find “top 10” lists of free board games, and Under Falling skies consistently was in the top ten of most lists I found for solo games. It was time for me to get rid of my prejudice on PnP games, and give it a try. I’m happy I did.
Under Falling Skies gameplay
On the surface, Under Falling Skies is a deceptively simple 1-player (solo) board game, made of 9 cards (to which you need to add a few dice and tokens). You can print them at home, or get them printed in some professional place, depending on how much (or rather how little) you’re willing to spend on the experiment.
In Under Falling Skies, aliens are attacking your city, and you need to discover the formula for a powerful weapon, before they destroy your base. The “formula discovery” is symbolized by science points that you need to earn, while the Aliens fall from the sky in a pattern that will inevitably remind you of Space Invaders.
The rules initially appear fairly complex for such a small game, but after a couple of gameplays it all starts to click into place. And it then becomes exciting that such a simple game gives you such a crunchy list of possible actions.
Spend your dice wisely while the aliens attack
The game is split into multiple rounds, each split into 3 parts. In the first part, you will roll dice and assign them to “actions” in your base, while alien drone ships will simultaneously get closer to your base. In the second part, you’ll get to use the actions you selected, increasing your science points, gaining energy or access to more actions for future turns, building robots, and potentially destroying some alien ships (and therefore delaying their attacks). In the last part, the alien mothership comes closer to earth, with some potentially devastating effects.
With its theme, and with the aliens falling quickly from the sky, Under Falling Skies feels like an action game on the surface, but it’s actually quite the brain burner. Arguably, one can play it fast without thinking too much, but in my experience that will lead most of the time to a defeat, even at the lowest level of difficulty.
The brain burn part comes from some very clever design decisions in the game. Things that are good for you (a high dice roll) also have a terrible counterpart, because how quickly the aliens come to you is directly related to the value you rolled on a dice.
But lets get back to the turn structure:
In the first part of a turn, you’ll roll 5 dice. Each one of them can be assigned to one position in your base, and will give you benefits: Energy (required to activate any other action), Science (increasing your science points is what wins the game), fighter plane (to destroy aliens that are getting too close), creating a robot (which kind of acts like a free die for the next few rounds), or digging your base further with the excavator, to open a wider range of actions in the next few turns.
All of these actions are interesting, and if you assign a higher die to a given action, you’ll get bigger benefits. In general, assigning e.g. a 5 roll to a given action will give you e.g. 5 energy, or 5 damage point from the fighter, or 5 science points, etc…
BUT, there are some constraints that make this choice difficult.
Awesome balance between benefits and constraints
First of all, as you assign a die to a column, all alien ships in that column will fall down from the mothership, a number of steps equal to your die number. Assign a 6 roll to your science room? Great, you get 6 science points, but that alien just got 6 squares closer to your base. If they hit your base, that’s one damage point to your shield, and you don’t have that many.
You’ll want to balance your needs for a given action, with making sure the aliens don’t come too close to your base. Or if they do, they should land on a position where your fighter jet can actually hit them.
Secondly, each column of your base can only get one die. So if you need both energy and science, but both those rooms happen to be on the same column (or share one, for rooms that span across multiple columns), you’ll have to make a choice. The robots are the exception here (a die can be assigned on a column where a robot already is) and that’s why they’re so valuable.
Last but not least, out of the 5 dice you roll, two have a different color and yield a special action: when you position them somewhere, you get to (or have to, depending on the situation) re-roll all dice you haven’t positioned yet. This mitigation mechanism is both simple and brilliant. You sometimes try to push your luck to see if you can get something better out of your dice roll, only to end with a disaster. But sometimes it just works, and when you get the perfect turn of collecting science points plus destroying a bunch of alien ships as well as extending your base for future turns, you feel like a great strategist. Crunchy.
Once you’re done assigning your dice and moving the aliens accordingly (possibly taking damage in the process), you get to reap the benefits of the dice. That’s of course, if you have enough energy to use those benefits. Here again, if you miscalculated or had a bad dice roll, you might have to make tough choices (do I take those alien ships off, or do I get the science points?).
Then, the mothership gets closer to earth. While doing so, it does something bad, such as spawning another drone, or damaging your shields, or maybe getting you to lose some of those science points you fought so hard to acquire.
Rinse and repeat, until you die from damage, or the mothership reaches the Earth’s atmosphere, you you get enough science points and win.
Under Falling Skies – Opinion
I love the balance of the game: higher dice rolls are usually better, but there are no “bad” dice rolls. Sometimes you’ll specifically want a 1 or a 2 on a specific column, so that the matching alien drone will land on a special position where you can destroy it, or just so that it doesn’t reach you too fast. Other times, you’ll really, really need a couple of 6 rolls to cross the finish line, and you’ll position your “special” dice anywhere else just so you can get a re-roll.
The decision space is also surprisingly huge for such a small game. All the actions need to be done at some point, and it’s a matter of finding the right rhythm between generating energy, using it for other actions, getting science points, destroying enemy ships, expanding your base. Everything’s urgent, aaaargh!
Under Falling skies – sometimes a bit fiddly?
On the cons of the game, this really is a minor complain, but given how small the components are, it can get fiddly sometimes. As you move the mothership, some pieces will move, and you’ll forget where this or that token was. This can be a bit frustrating sometimes, and I’d recommend people with large hands to maybe print it at twice the size? I read that the commercial version on the game does much better on that aspect.
Last but not least, there is some significant replay value in the game. Under Falling skies does a great job at feeling “fair” whether you win or lose, and pushing you to play “one more time”. A game lasts roughly 30 minutes once you’re used to the rules, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. There’s also a clever difficulty mechanism in the game, as each card has two sides, one being “normal” and the other “difficult”. Once the normal mode becomes too easy for you (it isn’t for me yet, after about 15 games), you can flip any of the cards to increase the difficulty level. And you then keep flipping more and more cards as you progress, giving the game 9 difficulty levels, arguably more if you mix & match the different cards.
It’s difficult to say anything bad about Under Falling Skies. It’s free (unless you go for the commercial version which introduces a campaign mode, multiple cities, and is worth the money), crunchy, elegant, and keeps you wanting for more. Apart from being a bit fiddly when manipulating the mothership, this is one of the best solo games out there, PnP or not. Under Falling skies was ranked 14th best solo game of all times on BoardGameGeek “People’s choice top solo 2021”, and fully deserves the spot in my opinion.