Ulm, a game designed by Günter Burkhardt, was number five on my Spiel ’16 Games of Interest list. It’s a game about the daily dealings of the people in the town of Ulm. It’s a pretty themeless Euro game, I can tell you that, but does that make it less fun?
Let me just start this review by stating that the components of this game are very good. You get good quality cardboard bits, a nice cloth bag and, as icing on the cake, a 3-D cathedral. The cathedral itself is pretty useless, but it looks good, so I’m happy with it. I’m also a fan of Michael Menzel’s artwork, so I was a happy man when I could unpack the box and look at all the bits and pieces. I do have to say that, although the board itself is beautiful, it’s a bit too busy.
Ulm is played over ten rounds and during every round you get one turn in which you can do three actions. These actions will help you to gain points. You can get cards, city coats of arms and descendants that might give you points during the game or at the end. That in combination with the position of your barge and the amount of sparrow tokens you own results in an end game score, and the player with most points wins the game.
I was attracted to the game itself because of its action selection mechanism. There are five different actions that you can do throughout the game and these actions are represented by tiles in different colours. The actions are: get a coin, move your barge, place a seal, buy or play a card and, lastly, clear away tiles on one of the four sides of the cathedral area.
This cathedral area is where the magic happens. It’s a three by three grid of action tiles and the way you select your actions for your turn is by sliding a new action tile, randomly drawn from the bag, from the outside into the grid. In this way you will slide one tile out. That tiles will stay in the spot on the outside of the grid and no other player can use the row (or column) you just changed until that tile is removed. The three tiles that are left in that row or column, two old ones and the one you just slid in, represent your three actions in your turn. So, if you look at the topmost row in the picture above. You slid in the blue tile. The brown tile is removed from the grid and you can do the blue, white and grey action this turn.
This mechanism is pretty clever. However it has two disadvantages. First of all, you draw the tile you push into the grid from a bag. This means that one of the three actions you do on your turn, is totally random. You can use a sparrow token that you will acquire throughout the game to exchange your just drawn tile with a tile that is currently present on the loading docks, which doesn’t always harbour an action tile you want.
The loading docks is an area on the board where five actions tiles are constantly displayed and when you get the chance to get extra tiles, or exchange tiles, it’s mostly from that area.
Secondly, the action grid changes constantly. Payers slide in new action tiles and action tiles you desired are slid out. That means that planning your next turn is out of the question, you will have to do with tiles that are there at the beginning of your turn and do something clever with them.
Let’s talk about the actions themselves. First, of all the money action. You need money for the seal action. To place one of your seals during the seal action, you have to pay two coins. You then place your seal, your disk, on one of the available seal spots in a city quarter, on the south or north bank of the river. You can then execute an action there.
A river runs straight through the city and depending on the position of your barge you can choose between exactly two quarters, one on the south and one on the north. That position also gives you positive or negative points at the end of the game. That’s why the barge action is important.
Let me talk about the other two actions you can do, and then I go back to the actions your can take with your seals. The fourth action tile is the clear-away action tile. Here you may choose one side of the cathedral area and take all tiles that were pushed out before and place them in front of you. These tiles are used, among other things, for the fifth action, the card action. Here you have a choice. Either you buy a card or you play a card. To buy a card you have to pay with two action tiles you have collected. When you pay with two different ones, you can only draw one card. When you discard two of the same type, you can choose between two cards.
You can always play one card during your turn, but with the card action you can play one extra card if you choose so. When you play a card, you also have two option. Either you discard it and execute the one-off action, giving you points if you have the right stuff, or you play the card in front of you. Then the end-game scoring condition applies. You can collect different types of commodities or maybe you are able to finish building the cathedral. When you collect the right cards, you can get a large amount of points in the end. Again this sounds pretty fun, and it’s not that it’s not fun at all, but it is pretty random. I mean, you just draw one card, or maybe two cards, so getting the right cards is not a matter of strategy and planning, no, it’s pretty much straight luck.
OK, back to the seal spaces on the board, beginning with the city coat of arms action. There are two quarters that allow you to take two coat of arms from the stack, pick one, and put the other back at the bottom. Every tiles corresponds with a quarter on the board and a spot on the cathedral area. There are two types of coats. There are the ones that give you straight up points and there are the ones that give you fewer points now, but allow you to place your own coat of arms in a city quarter. Every time a player places his seal in that quarter you get extra points.
Additionally, when you place a seal in coat of arms section, you can place one of your disks on the corresponding spot on the cathedral area. Every time someone pushed out a tile onto your spot you will get a sparrow token. These tokens can be used to exchange the action tile you draw at the beginning of your turn with another one from the loading docks, or, if they are not used, are worth one point at the end of the game.
Again, a random element in the game. You draw two coats and depending on the coats you’ve drawn you place your seal and/ or coat of arms on the spot it depicts. The amount of sparrows you might get from that seal is totally random, you have almost no influence on that. The amount of points you’ll get from the coat of arms also depends on luck. The quarter you ‘own’ depends on the tiles you’ve drawn and the amount of points you’ll get depends on the choices of other players. It’s always better to take that chance. It’s better to have one or more coats of arms in the city than not, but what did you actually do to earn these points?
That’s the overall feeling I get from playing this game. What did I actually do better, or worse than the other players? What did I actually do to earn these points? Yes, I had more influence in the city, but that’s just because I had the opportunity to place a coat on a quarter where a lot of barges where located for a while, so they placed seals there. Did I have a cool card buy and card play strategy, with cool combo’s. No, I just happen to draw a couple of cards that gave me points in one way or the other in the end. I mean, why not play them if you have them, a few points is always better than no points.
You have to make some choices yourself. It’s not that if you do all your actions totally at random you will be successful, but there are just too few decisions you actually have to make yourself compared to the choices the game pretty much makes for you.
I do not dislike the game, I don’t think it’s a bad game, it has some interesting things going on, but I do not like the game either. I still like the idea of the action selection mechanism, I do like the two options you have when you play a card. However, all combined it leaves me very unfulfilled and therefore I will not recommend Ulm.