|Components & Design
One city not so blessed so far, unless you consider Monopoly editions or games advertising the region, is Ulm. Today it’s a medium sized city by German standards, but it’s a beautiful place, and it looks back on almost 1,200 years of history since its first written mention. Among some other things, being the birthplace of Albert Einstein among them, Ulm is famous for having the church with the highest steeple in the world. The Ulm Minster is also at the center of the game Ulm that Günter Burkhardt designed around the city.
Welcome to Ulm – The Rules
Interestingly, that statement about the Minster being at the center of the game is only true in the visual sense. The paper standup towers impressively over the board. Mechanically, it serves as a counter for the game’s ten rounds, indicated by stacking pieces on the steeple. At the time of the game, in the 16th century, the Minster was still under construction. It’s an interesting choice to have the Minster present on the board, but only as a backdrop. Not a choice I want to complain about, though, because the game of winning wealth and influence for your family is great.
What do you do in Ulm, then? Ulm is primarily an action selection game, but with a new mechanism for the selection. On the board, you have a grid of three by three spaces. On each space you find an action tile. When it’s your turn you draw a new action tile from the bag and push it into any row or column, pushing another tile out on the other side in the process. Then you take the three actions that are now in that row, the new one and the two remaining old ones, in any order.
Ulm only has five different actions, and in themselves they are all really simple. For instance, a gray Money Action lets you take one coin from the supply, that’s it. With a white Clear-away Action you may clear one pushed-out tile from around the action grid. Until thus cleared away, those tiles stay around the grid and prevent that line from being used again. Clearing those tiles is an important public service, but it’s also profitable for you. The action tiles you clear away stay with you, to be used as currency for the next action.
The brown Card Action has two options. You can use it to play an additional card from your hand, on top of the one card you may play for free. The other option is to buy a card. For any two action tiles from your supply you take the top card of the draw pile. For two tiles of the same color you draw the top two cards and decide which one to keep. All cards in Ulm have two uses, you can play them during the game for extra actions or supplies, or you keep them until the end of the game for scoring. Especially for that second part, the option to draw two cards and choose which to keep is powerful: collecting sets of either Minster cards or Trade cards is a very lucrative source of points.
For a blue River Action you may move your Barge one step along the river Danube. There is a simple reasons why you’d want to do that: the space you start on is labelled -11. As you can easily guess, those are victory points. The space at the far end is labelled 11. In a game that often ends between 30 and 40 points, 22 points of difference is huge. But there is another reason why you would want to move your Barge, or possibly why you’d want to stay back instead of scoring those easy points. That reason has to do with the final action.
The orange Seal Action is the one that is more complex than the rest. When you take this action, you place one of your seals in a city quarter next to your barge. You always have two options, one on the North bank, one on the South bank, and each quarter has different rewards for placing seals there. The simple one reward you with resources: coins, action tiles, cards, even recovering a card from the discard pile in one case. In the quarter around the Reichenauer Hof you earn a point for each quarter with one of your seals. That is pretty nice, and at least one successful strategy makes great use of this. But some other, more complex rewards are potentially even more powerful.
In the Oath House quarter you can send one of your descendants to learn a profession – mechanically speaking, you take a tile that grants you a special ability for the rest of the game. If your offspring becomes a Barge Driver, then you may move your Barge two spaces for every River Action. Train him as a Builder and you draw two Action Tiles to choose from every turn. A City Guard scores points for creating straight lines in the action grid. There are eight of those tiles in total, but you only use four in any given game. Which ones are available makes a big difference for your strategic options – a Speedboat strategy is much harder to pull off without the Barge Driver.
Finally, there are two quarters – the Leaning House quarter and the Garden quarter – that let you take a city coat-of-arms. Actually, you draw two and keep one. Each coat-of-arms is worth some victory points and allows you to place a seal on one space around the action grid. Whenever an action tile is pushed into that space you may take an Ulm Sparrow token. A Sparrow token, named so because the Sparrow is a symbol of the city, acts as a joker for action tiles. When you don’t like the tile you draw, you may discard a Sparrow to exchange the tile for another one from the loading docks. Alternatively, you can deal with the tiles you get and keep the Sparrows. Each is worth a point when the game ends.
On top of that, some of the coats-of-arms let you mark a quarter with your family coat-of-arms. Every time a player, including yourself, places a seal in that quarter you score points again. You only have three family coats-of-arms to spread around, but if you get all of them on popular quarters that’s plenty. Ten rounds gives the other players enough options to make a profit for you.
Enjoying your Stay? – The Verdict
Like already hinted at above, Ulm allows for a good range of strategies. Dashing ahead with your Barge, the Speedboat strategy, is possibly the simplest one. If you can augment it with some points from other sources, it has a good chance of winning. Collecting coats-of-arms is easy to do as well, but owning the right quarters can also be quite profitable. We call this the High Sparrow strategy, because you also get an indecent amount of Sparrow tokens. And while we didn’t come up with a catchy name for collecting cards before all else, making two sets of Minster cards gives you a good shot at victory as well. And you can always mix-and-match strategies for better effect, too.
Especially the card collecting strategy shows one problem some people may have with Ulm: it does have an element of luck. When the cards you draw just don’t fit your strategy, or you don’t get that last cathedral card after five draws, that can be frustrating. The same applies to the action tiles. Sometimes you just don’t get the one you need, the loading dock doesn’t have it either, and you don’t know what to do. As always in this case, it comes down to a basic distinction: is the game about luck, or about managing your luck. As always, your mileage may vary on that question. For Ulm, I’m on the managing your luck side. Luck does play a role, but outside of the most extreme cases the better strategy will win.
Part of the better strategy is picking the right strategy in the first place. Which one that is depends not only on the vocation tiles in the Oath House quarter but also on the number of players and their strategies. The High Sparrow works best with four players, when you score more points from players placing seals in your quarters and more sparrows from the action grid. Spreading some seals and then rushing to the Reichenauer Hof to score points for them works better in two players.
Another thing that works better in two players is planning your moves on the action grid. With four players, pretty much everything changes between two of your turns. You can’t plan ahead. In two, you can actually build a strategy here. Deny your opponents actions that he needs. Build up a row with actions you want to hopefully use on your next turn. Ulm is fun with any number of players, but the more there are the more unpredictable the grid gets.
Finally, a word about the components. As you’d expect from Michael Menzel, artist for games like Bruges and Rococo, Ulm is not only beautiful but also easy to read. You’re never in doubt what an element on the board does. The Ulm Minster as a paper model on the board is a great touch and a whimsical round counter. Unfortunately, counting rounds with the Minster’s steeple has a downside. In the game variant where a random event strikes each round, the icons on those round tiles are rather small and hard to read, just to fit in the steeple. That’s an otherwise nice design element unexpectedly gone bad. But then there’s another upside to the components that deserves a mention: our review copy of the HUCH! & friends version is completely trilingual. Not only do the rules come in German, English and French, there is also a complete deck of cards for each language.
Small downsides aside, though, Ulm is a great game. It has interesting decisions on the tactical and strategic level. No direct player interaction, but many situations where your actions interfere with the other players. An element of luck is present but doesn’t control the game. And most turns are lightning quick, even with four players you have very little downtime and will usually finish a game in an hour. And above all, it’s fun to play. All those are elements that a jury for next year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres award might be interested in. It’s too early for a prediction, but Ulm would fit quite well in the line of nominees from previous years.