Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: I’m reviewing a boardgame set a few centuries ago in a European city—a German one, specifically—where players gather certain resources and compete to earn prestige points. It’s been done before, so Ulm, a new title from R&R Games, isn’t breaking any new thematic ground. Where it differs from the glut of games in this particular niche is in the base mechanic, which means that the game’s turns happen rather quickly and entire games take under an hour. Instead, the complexity is in the number of rules around those turns and the ways you can score points, so that the game will move more quickly the more you’ve played it.
The heart of Ulm is a 3×3 grid on the board that contains action tiles, which determine what a player is allowed to do on his/her turn—you get one turn, but three actions, plus the right to play a card from your hand. You decide which row of three tiles to play by drawing one tile from the bag and “pushing” it on to the grid, bumping one tile off the squares and playing the remaining three: the one you drew and added to the grid plus the two left in that row. Actions include gaining a coin, moving your barge up the Danube (you start at -11 points, and can get up to +11), drawing a card, placing one of your tokens in a district on the board for a reward, or taking up to three of the action tiles that have been pushed off the grid by player moves. You need to trade in action tiles to draw a card, and you need to pay two coins to place a token, called a seal, in one of the districts adjacent to your barge.
The seals and the cards add a lot of rules to the game—opportunities for players to score more points, of course, or to get bonus items, but also a lot more for everyone to track in their minds, something we struggled with given how many of these added rules we encountered each game. There are four “descendants” you can gain that give you specific benefits, such as moving your barge token one additional space every time you use a barge action. You can earn city crests via two of the districts, and when you take one, you get an immediate point bonus, potential bonuses later in the game if other players place seals in that crest’s district, and an Ulm Sparrow token whenever someone pushes an action tile off the 3×3 grid into that crest’s space alone the outer edge. Each card has two functions—an immediate bonus if you play it during the game, or a point value at game-end that might depend on what other cards you have (collecting certain sets of three may be worth 12, 15 or 18 points). I don’t think that’s everything in Ulm, but it gives you a sense of just how much is happening under the hood.
With all of those rules and tweaks, you might expect a long game, but we tried it two- and three-player (it plays up to four) and came in under an hour, with the two-player game taking maybe a shade over a half hour excluding setup. Ulm has ten rounds, and each player goes once per round, so that’s thirty actions total per player per game, although you may occasionally be unable to use an action (e.g., if you don’t have the two coins to pay to place a seal), and there are some chances for bonus actions. Each player also gets one free action each turn to play a card from his/her hand, although as I mentioned above, sometimes it’s better to save cards till the end for the point bonuses if you think you can collect a set. Aside from in-game point bonuses, players score at the end of the game with one point for each Sparrow token they’ve earned, the point value of their barges’ positions on the Danube, and any points on cards they still hold. We had winning scores in the low 40s, but I think you could probably get to 50 once you know the rules better from more plays.
The mechanics of turns are simple enough for anyone to pick up, but I think the complexity of scoring meant my daughter (age 10) lost interest after a while; she realized there were things going on in the game that she wasn’t grasping, and I ended up doing more hand-holding than I do for most games. With two players, the game has a lot less interaction and is closer to solo play, because you’re rarely paying your opponent anything (and can often specifically avoid doing so), and the game itself doesn’t involve any direct competition for resources. I think Ulm is fine for its style—if you like this theme and genre, its mechanics are different enough that you’ll want to play it. I do think, however, that this theme has been done better, and I couldn’t stop comparing it in my head to 2013’s Bruges, which is a little longer but implemented the same kind of multifaceted scoring scheme a little more elegantly than Ulm does.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.