Design by Gunter Burkhardt
Published by Huch & Friends
2 – 4 Players, 1 1/2 – 2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
The German city of Ulm has many attractions, but quite likely its most famous landmark is its impressive cathedral. Constructed in the 16th century, it became the social hub of the city and at one time boasted the tallest steeple in the world. It remains an architectural gem to this day.
Don’t worry, however, as Ulm by Gunter Burkhardt is not another cathedral building game. Rather, it is a game of gaining influence and prestige with the city’s powerful guilds and patricians, hoping to rise to prominence and become one of the city’s most renowned citizens. To accomplish this, players must excel in various facets of the life of the city, including shipping, gaining influence with guilds, winning the favor of powerful citizens, and more.
The extremely busy and cluttered board depicts eight districts of the city, separated by the Danube river. Players may place influence shields into these districts to gain special favors as indicated in the districts. Each district has limited space, however, and a player’s boat must be adjacent to a district in order to place a seal there. There are also spaces where players may gain additional influence (victory points) by placing their family crests.
The northern section of the board houses the 3-D cardboard cathedral, which is mainly for aesthetic purposes. It does, though, serve as a timer, as each round a new section of the tower is added, counting the passing of each round. The most active section of the board is next to the actual cathedral and, appropriately enough, is known as the “cathedral” area. It is comprised of a 3×3 grid of tiles, and manipulating these tiles will determine the actions a player may take on his turn.
A player’s turn consists of randomly drawing a tile from the bag, then pushing it into the cathedral grid from one of the 12 possible locations (3 tiles along each side). Pushing in a new tile will force one tile out of the grid, where it remains. The three tiles remaining inside the grid in the column or row where the player pushed the tile indicate the three actions the player may perform that turn. However, a player may not push a tile into a row or column if there is already a tile that has been pushed out of the grid in that row or column. It is possible for numerous rows to be blocked in this fashion, but usually this clears quickly as folks will want to grab those “pushed out” tiles so they can be used to acquire cards.
It is important to understand the possible actions granted by the tiles.
Money. The player takes one coin.
Clearance. The player may take all of the tiles located outside of the grid, but only along one side.
Card. The player may surrender two action tiles (which are usually acquired via the “Clearance” action described above) to draw a card. If the two tiles the player discards are identical, he may draw two cards and keep one, thereby giving him more control over the card he acquires.
Alternatively, the player may use this action to play a card from his hand. Cards generally give the player two choices: play the card for an instant benefit (usually coins, boat movement, victory points, etc.) or hold onto it for end game scoring. The points that can be earned from some cards at the end of the game can be significant, but usually require the player to collect sets of three cards in order to score the maximum points. Cards in hand are worthless at game’s end, so getting them played is vital.
River. The player may move his boat one space along the river, moving past any intervening boats. Moving along the river gets players adjacent to districts so he can place seals and earn the privileges allowed. Further, a player earns or loses points at the end of the game based on the distance his boat has traveled. Getting left behind the fleet can make it quite difficult to catch-up as there are no boats to leap over. This puts a player in danger of losing points at the end of the game if he doesn’t advancer far enough along the Danube.
Seal. This allows the player to spend two coins and place a seal in one of the districts adjacent to his boat (either on the north or south side of the Danube). As mentioned, placing a seal allows the player to enjoy the benefits of that district’s privilege. These usually give the player tiles, coins, boat movement, sparrows and/or the ability to place family crests. The latter is done by drawing two coats of arms tiles from the stack and choosing one. Some of these coats of arms allow the player to place his family crest on the matching symbol on the board, which will earn that player points whenever an opponent places a seal into that district. Others are simply kept and earn instant victory points. In any case, the player also places one of his seals on the matching location beside the cathedral grid. Whenever a player pushes a tile in the column or row that contains the player’s seal, he earns a sparrow token.
So just what are those sparrow tokens? They represent the famous sparrows of Ulm and each token can be used to either score a victory point at game’s end, or swap the tile drawn from the bag at the beginning of a player’s turn with one from the loading docks. Used in this manner, it allows the player to select a specific tile, so he knows he will be able to enjoy the action of that tile. For example, if a player is in desperate need of a card, he can use a sparrow token to grab a card tile from the docks…provided, of course, one is available.
The tile pushing mechanism is very clever and a main challenge of the game. Players will want to manipulate the grid so that they get the three actions they strongly desire. They can execute those three actions in any order they desire, which can often be done in a clever fashion, mixing tile actions and special actions granted by the districts.
After a player completes his tile and board actions, he may play one card from his hand. As mentioned, cards can be used for their immediate benefit, or saved for potential end game points. Cards can be extremely beneficial, so players will want to acquire and play as many as possible.
There are more aspects and nuances to the game, but this covers the major features and mechanisms. There are even optional rules, including special rules that can occur each turn with the tower tiles. Indeed, there is a lot going on here and a lot about which the players must think carefully as they plot their turns. As such, the game can take awhile to complete. Most of the games I have played took about two hours to complete. There can be a bit of downtime as players contemplate their options and how best to arrange their actions and powers.
Fortunately, the game is quite challenging and engaging. There are many possible actions and many special privileges that players can gain. It is a fun mental challenge to figure out how best to combine all of this in order to optimize one’s position and points. There is ample space provided for formulating and executing clever moves. I love that in a game.
While I truly enjoy Ulm and consider it one of the best games released in 2016, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some issues. I’ve already mentioned the cluttered board, which is difficult to decipher. The rules also leave much to be desired, as inexplicably they are divided between two separate books, which forces players to search both books when looking for a rule or explanation of a special power. Whoever thought this was a good idea needs a good dunking in the Danube.
As annoying as these issues are, they are not significant enough to doom the game, which rises above these problems. There is no doubt that Ulm has a distinct “old school” European style feel. This is just fine with me, as I prefer traditional European style games. While designer Gunter Burkhardt has not had many hits with me, this one is certainly at the top of the list.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Ted C. Wow, I will admit I play this two player with my daughter who loves it and we are finished in 45 minutes tops. I must be getting up to huber speed. I cannot fathom 2 hours for this game even with the push/pull of the tile display. Maybe 1 ½ hours with rules and new players. Merci, it is only 10 turns.
Larry: Played it once, wasn’t particularly impressed. The action selection mechanism is nice in theory, but we went long periods without certain tile types showing, limiting our choices. The display also clogged fairly often, reducing your options even further. The actions themselves aren’t that exciting, either. It’s a decent game, but it didn’t engage me at all and it’s not one I’m that anxious to play again.
4 (Love it!): Greg S., Ted C.
3 (Like it):
2 (Neutral): Larry
1 (Not for me):