Ulm: A four-sided game review

Ulm* is a family level gateway game (so a step up from Ticket to Ride or Catan) for two to four players that plays in about an hour. It is fun at all player counts and the 10+ age restriction seems about right.

Set in the German city of Ulm in medieval times, it would be easy to dismiss the game as just another themeless euro – but the game and rulebooks do at least do a great job of integrating the city’s rich history into the game’s components.

In terms of gameplay, Ulm is an action selection game with a clever mechanic for choosing those actions. In addition there are elements of area control (but not competitively/aggressively) and set collection and while there is quite a lot of luck involved, there are ways to mitigate it – and the game is short enough that the luck doesn’t feel out of place (but those who want perfect information should definitely look elsewhere).

The artwork and presentation is fantastic throughout, from the mechanically pointless yet aesthetically lovely cardboard cathedral to the board art and iconography. In the box you’ll find the board, almost 150 cardboard pieces, more than 50 wooden bits, 33 cards, a cloth bag and two rulebooks (more on that later) – solid value for your £30 (or less).

Teaching

Ulm’s basic game concepts are simple to explain to even a new gamer, but there are hidden depths that push it up a complexity notch – and these can’t simply be ignored for a simple path to potential victory.

The central mechanism revolves around a three-by-three grid which is always populated with nine action tiles. On their turn, players simply take a new action tile from the bag and push it into the grid, sliding one tile out the other side. Whichever three tiles are left in the row they pushed into (so including the one they drew from the bag) are the three actions they get to take that round.

There are five different actions on these tiles, so you could do anything from one action three times to three different ones. The simplest sees you take a coin, while another lets you move your boat along the river which runs across the bottom of the game board. Your progress along the river will affect end game scoring (giving anywhere from -11 to 11), but has the dual purpose of opening up different areas you can visit on the map.

The seal action costs you two coins, then lets you place a seal (you start with 12) into one of the city quarters you’re adjacent to along the river. These areas give you a variety of stronger extra action the tiles, but of course you’ve had to spend two coins as well as an action to use them – so choose wisely.

Another tile lets you draw or play cards by spending tiles, while the last allows you to pick up the tiles that have been pushed out of the three-by-three grid (allowing you to buy/use those cards). Each card has a choice of either an immediate benefit or end game scoring opportunity, and in most turns you’re only allowed to play one card (hence card actions allowing you to play additional cards instead of drawing, if you’ve built up a surplus).

The complexity arises largely from the resource management required. Both coins and tiles can be scarce, and sometimes simply unavailable, so making sure you have enough of them in hand to do the actions you want to do can be genuinely tricky for any gamer.

Each round a new section is placed into the cathedral – and after 10 of these have been placed the game ends. Players then add their river position points and any end game scoring cards to their score, as well as a few points for resources, and the winner – you guessed it – is the player with the most victory points.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It’s easy to pull a tile from the bag you don’t want, but one of the game’s currencies – sparrows – let you change the one you draw from one of five face-up tiles in an area called the docks. This too, of course, can fill with things you don’t need but does usually at least alleviate the issue a little. It’s a clever yet simple way to reduce luck that typifies the thought that’s been put into the game’s design; you need to work to get those sparrows, but the payoff can certainly be worth the effort required.
  • The thinker: I expected the game to be too light for me, but what’s so impressive is how fast you can get to a strategy from a standing start – and how differently things play out each time depending on how the tiles come out of the bag. Additionally, one city quarter (the Oath House), for example, has four of the game’s eight ‘descendant’ tiles placed in it each game. These, if taken, can also shape your strategy – as can the cards you’ll draw throughout the game. These cards can be a more problematic in terms of their randomness – but for such a short and enjoyable game I’m willing to overlook it on this occasion.
  • The trasher: While Ulm isn’t really my kind of game, it’s fast with snappy turns while having a small amount of indirect interaction. Two city quarters allow you to take control of other areas, letting you gain victory points when players use it – so you can speculate on player strategies and profit from them a little. Controlling quarters is also the only way to earn sparrows, as each area of the grid tiles are pushed from corresponds to one of them – and if you control it when a tile is pushed that way, you gain a sparrow. But pushing a tile in from the opposite direction blocks this move, making it more difficult to get them. Small things, but they show an extra element to the game that at least gives a not to player interaction.
  • The dabbler: The game is pretty and the basic rules are simple, but you need to be really switched on to play well – this is not an ‘end of the night’ game! I don’t like the tower tiles (just another thing to think about and they don’t add any fun) and the game could do with some cheat sheets: it’s easy to forget what pays for what and the little help section on the game board gets lost behind the 3D cathedral! I like it, it’s clever, but I really need to be in the right mood and it’s pretty much at my high end in terms of complexity. It’s also low on table talk, as there’s a lot of thinking required and the theme is far from inspiring.

Key observations

Ulm has randomness coming out the wazoo – be it input, output, or something in between. If you can’t handle a game that may give your opponent the perfect card/tile one minute and you a useless one the next, it’s time to walk away.

Not all the luck can be mitigated either. You may take a descendent in turn 2 that gives you a bonus to coin collection and see barely any coin tokens drawn all game – while someone else takes one that aids river movement, only to see a plethora of boat tiles come along whenever they need them. Or you may draw a card that will give you three points, only to see the next player draw one that earns them double that.

But for me the game’s challenging complexities, and short play length, more than make up for this. Resource management is always tricky, decisions can be agonising and there’s a real sense of achievement when you pull off a great set of actions in a big turn.

Elsewhere, sadly publisher Huch decided to go down the rarely wise ‘two rulebook’ path in spectacularly poor fashion. I never know where to look and it drives me mad – which is a real shame, as the rules themselves are comprehensive and easy to follow, when you can find what you’re looking for.

Another bone of contention for me are the tower tiles. In the simple game these tiles are blank and simply count off the 10 game rounds, but you can opt for a more complex version of the game where these tiles each carry an effect (some good, some bad) that will stay in effect for just that round. However, you can also see the one that will be coming next so that you can plan accordingly.

Personally I find this tiles to be an unnecessary step too far in terms of fiddliness. Sure, they add another level of complexity to the decision making but that isn’t always a good thing – especially here, where it’s also adding yet another level of randomness. I’d play with them if someone was desperate to, but I find them a pointless irritation and for me they actually make the game less fun. It has enough without them.

Conclusion

I think Ulm is a fantastic game. The action selection mechanism is clever, simple and original; it packs tonnes of tough choices into a quick game, and it has an acceptable (just) amount of luck for a game of its length.

It’s a definite keeper for me, and it’s great to see a quality publisher such as Huch delving deeper into the strategy game market.

Having played a lot of games in recent times that fell just a little short by being under developed, I feel it’s an area where the big, experienced publishers can really show their expertise and remind consumers why they should be continuing to pick up their games, rather than the mini-laden promise breakers we so often get from their less experienced crowd-funded counterparts. I just hope they’ve learnt their lesson on the rulebook front…

* I would like to thank Huch! & Friends for providing a copy of the game for review.

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