Ulm Review

Designed by Gunter Burkhardt and Published by R&R Games

Without fail, we will have at least one new game every year
that charts the progress of a well-known European city and its rise (or fall)
hundreds of years ago.

There’s something fascinating about reenacting the ebb and flow of a city’s development in historical context, and Ulm does a great job of evoking that in its thematically oriented gameplay. From the second book full of historical details to the use of family crests and coats of arms to represent the 16th century city and its citizens, Ulm is nearly exactly what you’d expect from a modern euro-style board game about the country in which it was produced’s famous cities. And yet, it’s not entirely so.

How Ulm Plays

The first thing you’ll notice about Ulm is the incredibly
busy board that you lay out. Artist extraordinaire Michael Menzel has packed a
lot of information into a relatively compact board with most of what you need
sitting directly on the board. From the assembled Cathedral, evoking memories
of another famous game about European roots – Pillars of the Earth – to the
action tile display in the top right corner where you’ll place and activate
most of your actions, there’s a lot going on here.

Thankfully, the core mechanics of the game are somewhat
simple. As in every good mid-weight euro, you do one thing on your turn, which
then turns into several cascading actions. In this case, that one thing is
placing an action tile in the Cathedral area:

When you do this, you will take all three corresponding
actions in the row or column that you have placed your tile in, of which there
are five options:

  1. Money – Simple, take a coin from the supply
  2. Clear Away – Take the extra tiles that overflow
    from any one side into your personal area
  3. Cards – Either buy a card by spending action
    tiles or play an extra hand card (you can always play one per turn)
  4. River – Move your barge on the Danube one space
    (skipping over opponent spaces)
  5. Seal – Pay 2 coins and place a seal on the map
    depending on where your barge is located. Take the privilege associated with
    that space.

And that’s about it. This continues for the duration of the
game, which lasts 10 rounds (which you’ll track by stacking tiles on the
Cathedral – which is very cool). There are of course levels of complexity to
track beyond this. City Cats of Arms offer victory points both immediately and
in the future, Descendants give you special abilities you can use throughout
the game, Ulm Sparrows are wild cards you can use throughout the game in
different ways (or save for scoring), and cards come in several potential sets
and with different actions – allowing for game-altering activations or end game
scoring opportunities depending on how you use them.

But for the purposes of this review, the game is squarely in the “easy to teach” category of “do this and then do these” – a favorite at most game nights.

What We Like About Ulm

Ulm is an interesting game. The action selection mechanism
is clever and provides most of the game’s interaction, albeit almost always
passively. You must in some sense program your actions in order to effectively
get what you’re looking for from the tableau, but others can mess with them
easily.

At the same time, your barge isn’t just trying to reach the
end of the river – it’s trying to maneuver strategically to key points on the
river where you can place seals. Move too far too fast, and you’ll miss some –
losing out on point and ability opportunities.

These alone would make for a sleek, fun euro, but the card
actions take it up a notch. Because you can aim to use the immediate actions or
save the cards for set building later in the game (still played on your turn,
however), there are always interesting decisions to be made. The game is filled
with these – frequently asking you to decide between now and later as the best
euros do. It feels tight right up to the end of the game as a result, and
scores are generally in the same range as each other.

Component quality is solid, especially for those in the US
buying the R&R edition of the game (which can be had for a rock bottom $25
online – less than half its contemporaries with comparable components). And the
artwork is of course spectacular coming from Menzel.

What We Don’t Like About Ulm

On the surface, Ulm is a clever, fun-to-play game, but there
are some cracks when you start to look deeper.

To start, the game doesn’t play nearly as smoothly with two
players as it does with 3-4. That’s not uncommon for a euro, but it’s
increasingly worth pointing out in a world of diverse player count claims.
Additionally, because the core mechanic is so simple, and the variability lies
in the action selection and cards, not the board positioning, the replayability
may not be strong for all players. There aren’t necessarily optimal paths, but
you’ll quickly start to see patterns in winning strategies, especially if
playing with people who play a lot of similar style games.

The result is a game that feels very solid with interesting
ideas, but somehow missing something – another mechanic or layer of complexity
that could have tied it all together. Unsurprisingly, the theme isn’t
particularly important to the game, but even still the way in which the seals
are placed, and items gathered could have been expanded upon further.

The Bottom Line

Ulm is a good but not great game. It offers unique
puzzle-like elements to the gameplay that are fun to do, especially if you pull
off a large enough combo or have the right cards in hand. The surface level
shine of this game, however, is dimmed by its lack of final polish to the
mechanics, and the replayability suffers for it.

Ulm is absolutely worth playing, and a game you will almost
certainly enjoy if you’re fan of other mid-weight euros like Pillars of the
Earth. And for many players, the low price point and high production quality
may push this into buy territory. For me, though, it’s a game I enjoyed, but
wish provided just a bit more to sink my teeth into.

SUMMARY & RESULTS

7.0

Play

7

  • Anthony

    Anthony lives and plays games in Pittsburgh, PA. A lover of complex strategy, two player war games, and area control, Anthony is always eager to try a new game, even if he's on rule-reading duty.

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