Monster battling has been a popular concept for a long, long time. You create a deck of creatures with vicious abilities and take on another player, simple enough right? I remember Pokémon cards coming out and being popular. They were all the rage! We didn’t play football or tag at break times in school. Oh no! We sat in small clusters taking each another on as if we were Ash Ketchum himself! Naturally some decks were stronger than others; there was always that one kid whose parents had bought him specific cards. Usually a Zapdos or Dragonite, and they’d always crack them out and decimate everyone. And that’s just the start. When you bought a booster pack you had no guarantee of quality or reliability. It became more about the trading element of the card game over the actual game itself. Plus, people quickly outgrew Pokémon and left it for less “whimsically fun”/child friendly games. Underleague by Cogwright games is the first monster battling game I’ve experienced where there is nothing but balance. No one has a pure advantage from the start and a battle can go either way! It’s got a dark theme, a solid variety of cards and is a lot of fun!
The game is a competitive card game where players battle monsters and bet on the winners. You can bet on your own monsters and other players’ to win or lose and earn victory cards through correct bets. At the start of every round, players count up their victory points from the cards they currently have in play and add on the number of victory cards they have earned. When a player starts the round with 20+ points, they win!
To kick off the game, every player receives an identical deck of 30 monster cards. Players then receive an initial hand of strategy cards and choose their starting stable of monsters. They draw three monsters and choose one, then repeat this until they have three monsters. Nearly all the monsters have unique abilities which enable them to gain an advantage in specific areas. Also, monsters have two different power levels which link to their performance when fighting at night and in the day. This can be the difference between an underdog’s winning or losing in any battle!
Once everyone has 3 monsters, they are placed in a ready position (standard placing). We showed this by having them in line with our monster deck. Monsters who attacked are automatically exhausted, and defending monsters who lose are also exhausted. To show this we moved their card up so it was clear they had been used. On their turn, players can choose to play a card from their hand, challenge another player’s monster, both or neither! To play any card you must discard the card’s cost (if it has one) and then play it appropriately. The game has a big emphasis on saying what you’re doing and every move should be announced so everyone is in the know. Equipped cards take effect immediately and scheme cards target a player straight away. There’s little room for confusion, and any terminology can be clarified in the rule book.
When a player’s monster is challenged, that player chooses whether to fight in the day or night, so naturally they’ll choose something to their benefit! Then players roll the corresponding dice according to the monsters’ power. It’s always worth playing equipment that will have a good synergy with a bad roll, especially when a single D6 can beat the opponent’s three dice! The winner of any fight is the one who has the highest value! If the attacker won, both monsters are exhausted and the attacker gains a victory card – a strategy card that always remains face down and is kept on the table. Victory cards count as 1VP when counting up and are visible to all players. If the defender wins, their only prize is not being exhausted!
Whether a monster wins or loses can also come down to how people bet. If many players expect a mammoth of a monster to win, it’s best that monster loses! Hear me out… Betting chips are returns when the bet is correct and they allow players to pick up more strategy cards at the start of the next round. Although strategy cards aren’t a direct influence on the game’s winner, more strategy cards means more options! Having too much confidence in something can be a bad thing, as can following suit! The game ends when a player starts a round with 20 or more points.
How It Plays
This game’s a weird one. It plays excellently in terms of its fluidity:
- You start a round and do round start checks
- You place bets on monsters, starting with your own
- You battle it out till all monsters are exhausted and each player passes
- You rinse and repeat
There’s little scope for error, and yet you’re never without questions as to your opponents next move. Whether you’re choosing to go full confidence or flop every fight, how you bet on your monsters will determine how others perceive your plan. I always went full confidence, meaning I was sure my monsters would win, then after everyone else had bet I’d decide whether to drop them or not. Some scheme cards allow you to change bets from wins to losses, which was perfect as I could then still earn a correct bet and screw everyone else over.
The game screams competition in every one of its mechanics and motions. At no point will you have the chance to be passive; there’s no point! However, it’s important to know when to reel it and take a dive. Losing on purpose can be just as effective as being a try-hard, and switching from one to the other can also bring you success. What did catch us was the placement of equipment cards. Some of the equipment is incredibly evil, like unbelievably cruel in terms of both its theme and its outcome. The results of these cards not only hinder an opponent’s monster, but also give them a minus VP – not something they’ll be eager to keep! The only way to remove this burden? Exchange the monster. This means removing all gear which may be contributing to your VP total and losing a potentially quality monster!
How It Handles
Despite what you may think, the game is relatively accessible. Picking up and playing the game can immediately seem intimidating when looking at the 500+ strong deck. And I’ll admit, it took a read or two of the rules for our first game. However, once we’d learned it, teaching it to someone else was incredibly easy! We had taught others and were playing fluidly after one round.
There’s no risk of getting this one wrong when you’re in the midst of it. It took us a while to get it going, granted there are a lot of things to do within the process, but it made sense once it had been done. The outset of cracking the decks open and seeing the monolithic tower of cards was terrifying! And shuffling them was an even bigger job! But once it was done, it didn’t need doing again. The cards’ purposes were clear and could be figured out from the card’s effect text.
Set up and set down times are very quick. You give everyone their identical decks of 30 monsters, give the scheme deck a shuffle and set up your stable. Then it’s simply routine of play, the standard progression. To set down you simple collect everything and put it in the box – literally. The only components in play are cards and betting chips, and with the card being back differently there’s little scope to get mixed up!
Having the same deck as everyone else emphasises how balanced this game wants to be. You’re never stuck with the monsters you choose, and the choice of three means you aren’t short of choice. The only time you could claim a lack of balance is in the drawing of strategy cards. However, many of these play for free and enable you to exchange X cards, again meaning you aren’t stuck!
Underleague does dice battling perfectly. And that’s a big claim! I often find dice a poor choice for determining battle values, the randomness isn’t always a well received outcome. This game needs the dice. The betting mechanic runs on it! Imagine it, you bet on all your monsters to lose and intentionally play badly. Easy exploit. But with the dice, your plans can be foiled by sheer chaos. It forces you to have more in place and to be more aware of each monster’s circumstances. Not only that, it ensures there’s always that possibility that a weak daytime fighter will beat a strong one! Always root for the underdog!
The theme of the game is clear throughout and the artwork and terminology/effects do a brilliant job of upholding it. However, what this game could really have done with is flavour text. It’s pointless I know, and honestly speaking it’s sometimes unnecessary, but background can be key to theme. The game does theme very well, but to kick it up that extra notch, flavour text would have been a treat! I’ll acknowledge that the concern then would have been space on the card, but I’m a man who likes a bit of atmosphere!
Despite its heavily gritty, dark theme, we thoroughly enjoyed Underleague. It’s entertaining, allows for big plays and kept us engaged a long while. The betting element is a great mechanic for determining how you’ll use your strategy cards, and using a few over a series of turns that coincide with your bets can really turn the tide of the game! If you’re a bit of a tactician or you enjoy a lighter TCG with more balance, Underleague may be a quality choice for you! Just don’t let the dark theme and harsh undertones spook you!