Too Many Bones: Undertow – Review

Theme and What is it?

The Gearlocs, Duster and Stanza, set off down the Sibron river in search of answers and adventure.  In this new two-player stand-alone expansion players will see the familiar gameplay of the original Too Many Bones.  Battles against your enemies can now take place on the raft itself, adding new variables and tactical opportunities. Defeat your enemies, grow and shape your character, and test your wits in this dice-builder RPG!

Gameplay Mechanics

Too Many Bones: Undertow (Undertow) plays very similarly to the original Too Many Bones (TMB) so I will give a brief overview of gameplay and then highlight key additions and changes.  I should also mention that Chip Theory Games has supported the rulebook wonderfully with a number of video tutorials on Youtube which I would strongly recommend. Undertow comes as a two-player set, but can be played with up to four players through the addition of either expansion Gearlocs or Gearlocs from the original game.  To begin, select a Tyrant and any of their specific encounters and then create the general Encounters deck and the Loot and Trove decks. Similarly, gather all of the Baddies featuring the icons displayed on the Tyrant card and separate them into piles by their point values. Choose your Gearloc and gather their set of dice as well as your specific Gearloc reference sheet.  Finally, some other components will need to be near the playing area such as dice for Attack, Defense, and Conditions.

(The dice tray is an available purchase through Chip Theory Games)

Gameplay follows a simple routine as the adventure plays out over the course of several in-game days.  Each day begins with a new Encounter. Players will draw the card and select which option on the card they wish to face.  If they are successful, they gain rewards as indicated on the card whereas if they fail they skip this step and proceed to the Recovery phase.  During Recovery, players have a chance to rest and recover health, search for better Loot, or even Scout ahead for an advantage on the next encounter.  Then the next day begins.

While there are special encounters that can be triggered by certain events and specific Tyrant encounters that feature as the boss fights of the campaign, the bulk of encounters offer up a challenge which often comes in the form of combat.  The TMB system builds the combat difficulty in a very ingenious manner. Players take the current day of the campaign and multiply it by the number of players to yield a point value for the encounter. Players then draw Baddie chips from the stacks using the highest values possible.  So on Day 4 with two Gearlocs, you would have a point value of 12 and would therefore draw two 5pt Baddies and two 1pt Baddies.

Many of the Baddies, just like the Gearlocs, have a number of skills that can trigger before battle or during the battle and they are all listed on the reference sheet.  Players will set the battle initiative order for both the Baddies and the Gearlocs. A major difference between TMB and Undertow is that the battle mat in Undertow is double-sided allowing for some battles to take place on land whilst others take place on the raft.  Battles on the raft can see the raft taking damage which can add Wreckage chips to the battle area which can hinder movement. Turns will follow the order of the initiative dice.

On a Gearloc’s turn, they first trigger any effects on top of their Gearloc Chip.  They may then move using # Dex to move # of adjacent available positions. Then they select a target for either their Attack or Skill dice.  Players may select and roll a number of dice equal to their remaining Dex for the turn. They may choose dice based on their Attack stat, Defense stat, and available Skill dice.  While resolving the results, players are not forced to use the result of any dice unless otherwise specified. Players will resolve damage and any effects triggered by the dice and allocate dice accordingly.  As their Backup plans fill, a player may trigger a Backup Plan once per turn by remove the appropriate number of Bones.

The Baddies have specific rules for movement and targeting, generally they focus on the closest Gearloc.  At the start of their turn, all Effects trigger before they determine target(s) and move. Any applicable skills for the Baddie activate.  Baddies then roll all of their inactive Defense dice and its Attack dice. The roll is resolved and any Gearloc reaction skills trigger. The battle continues, following the initiative track, until combat is resolved.  When a Baddie falls to zero health, it is removed from the battle mat. If a Gearloc runs out of health, it is Knocked Out and all slotted Active, Locked, and Backup Plan dice are cleared from your mat whilst you retain all of your Loot.  If the full party is Knocked Out, the battle ends, but the adventure continues.

Encounters can grant many rewards such as Loot and Training points, the latter of which allows you to improve your Gearloc’s Skills and Stats. Training HP, Dex, or a Skill will always succeed, but when Training Attack or Defense, the player to roll dice equal to their current level in that stat.  Any Bones results are rerolled and, if after the second roll there are no Bones results showing, the Training is successful. If the Training fails, they must spend the point elsewhere. The Training point is never lost. Many Encounters also grant Progress Points and once you have earned enough to equal or exceed the amount on the selected Tyrant, players may choose to face the Tyrant and attempt to win the Adventure.

Initial Impressions

The original Too Many Bones was a massive hit on Kickstarter and was very well received.  That success kept rolling during the campaign for TMB: Undertow and during convention season between GenCon and PAX Unplugged  I knew the gameplay would be solid but was very excited to see TMB in a more accessible two-player set and to see the mechanisms of the two new characters.

Game Build Quality

The components in any game from Chip Theory Games are always amazing and Too Many Bones: Undertow is no exception.  Chip Theory Games is so named because their games always feature great heavy poker chips. In Undertow, there are 46 Baddie chips, 65 health chips, 14 Tyrant chips, 1 Day counter, and 3 chips for the Gearlocs and ally that come in the set.  There are 2 Gearloc mats and a double-sided Battle mat, all of which are neoprene mats with stitching around the edges to prevent wear and die-cut openings for dice placement. There are 121 high quality cards that have a plastic feel and are very durable: 14 Special Encounters, 29 Party Encounters, 12 Solo Encounters, 8 Tyrant Encounters, 32 Loot, 12 Trove, 7 Campaign cards, 5 Epilogue cards, a Day counter, and a Cover card.  There are 3 reference sheets (one for each Gearloc and general reference). Finally, there are 88 specialized dice: 2 Gearloc initiative dice, 2 Loot dice, 8 Stat dice, 8 Effect dice, 4 Baddie initiative dice, 10 Attack dice, 16 Defense dice, a D6, a Round counter, 4 Lockpicking dice and 32 Gearloc Skill dice. The set also includes 3 dice and 2 chip storage trays to keep everything tidy.

Artistic Direction

The art for the Too Many Bones universe has a great style and Undertow follows suit.  The Gearlocks are small, gnomish creatures, but they have a very original appearance that makes them feel both unique and familiar.  Each of the playable Gearlocs has a lot of detail and character. The iconography on the dice is expertly designed making it very easy to interpret the significant amounts of information needed on each die face.  The color selection is vibrant making the game feel like a world you want to explore while the graphic design is such that it is easy to navigate through the dice and your specific character mat to succeed.

Age Range & Weight

The box suggests ages 12 and up for Too Many Bones: Undertow and I think that is appropriate.  However, as a cooperative game, it would not be difficult to play with younger players either through helping them manage their Gearloc and aiding with some of the strategic and tactical planning or just letting them roll dice as there are piles of dice to be rolled.  Thematically, I did not see anything that would be inappropriate for younger players. Overall, I would say the game is complex to learn, but simple to play. The amount of options in Skill selection for a single Gearloc can be overwhelming and there a are a few moving parts, but once it clicks, the game rhythm is pretty simple to execute.  The player aids are very helpful and Chip Theory have even made videos available on Youtube for many aspects of gameplay and for each Gearloc.

Conclusions

Too Many Bones: Undertow is a great package and is one of the top games of 2018.  The tactical combat is fun and the strategic options for building your character are as deep as ever.  Stanza and Duster each have very unique styles and area a great addition to the existing line of Gearlocs.  The new possibility of river battles in Undertow adds just enough to tweak the formula if you are coming from the original Too Many Bones.  As always, the component quality is amazing. I found the cards a little slippery, but this is a satisfactory tradeoff for their durability. I expect all of the components to stand up to a significant amount of play time.  If you want a game with solid tactical options and wealth of opportunities for character building then you simply must try Too Many Bones: Undertow. As a two-player set, it is quite a bit cheaper than the original boxset, but is fully compatible if you already own TMB or want to consider expanding after starting with Undertow, not to mention that there are also multiple expansion Gearlocs available for purchase.  The gameplay within TMB is simply exceptional and since it plays great solo it’s easy to get to the table.

(Some photos used by permission from Chip Theory Games)