Fans of Euro-style board games have become quite self-educated on the subject matter of famous, imposing cathedrals over the years. Gamers love the likes of Calimala, Sagrada, and Notre Dame – each featuring, respectively, the architectural wonders of Florence’s duomo, Barcelona’s Sagrada Família and the residency of Paris’ most famous hunchback.
However, it seems that not everybody has heard of the 2016 board game Ulm, by Günter Burkhardt – despite the German city being home to Ulmer Münster, the tallest church in the world. (Yes, higher than Sagrada Família… Until Antoni Gaudí’s dream is finally realised, Ulm’s steeple, at 161 metres, will hold the crown).
Despite having a colossal church, Ulm has, in some gaming circles, gone a bit under the radar. We’re here to fix that with this review though, because there are some rather excellent mechanics going on here, including some wonderful tile-pushing and the perilous activity of ‘river jousting’…
Gameplay and Rules
Let’s time-travel back to circa 1527, when Ulm was a prosperous city – the second-largest in Germany after Nuremberg. The Danube River provided excellent opportunities for trade and the construction of the ever-growing church loomed over all. Ulm is a Euro-style board game featuring action selection, area control, area influence and set collection, and progressing along the Danube is one of many ways to score points.
Ulm consists of five different action tiles: take one coin; pay two coins to place a seal; move your barge down the river; take all of the pushed-out action tiles from one side of the cathedral area (more on that in a little bit); and cash in two action tiles to receive a card for set collection purposes (or instead play an additional card from your hand this turn). Standard Euro fare: you’ll often need to do one before you can benefit fully from another.
On your turn, you’ll do three of these actions. Since the game lasts 10 rounds, that means a total of 30 actions – which sounds like a lot, but trust us: like all great Euros, it’s never quite enough to do everything you want!
The twist here is that the three actions you pick depend entirely on which are available among a constantly evolving square grid of nine (3x3) action tiles – thematically, the cathedral square, where you’ll meet guild masters and patricians. This square is Ulm’s beating heart. It’s also the mechanic that makes this game such a fascinating experience.
Ulm isn’t like Castles of Burgundy, where you can pick any of the actions you want. Here, there are limitations. You start your turn by drawing an action tile randomly from a bag – it will be one of the five mentioned earlier. You have to push this tile into the 3x3 grid, thus pushing one out.
(This is like a miniature version of the 1986 Ravensburger game, Labyrinth. There you’d push one remaining tile into a grid of tiles to realign maze walkways to best benefit you. However, the similarities between Ulm and Labyrinth end here!)
Once pushed, you then get to do the three specific actions depicted on the tiles within the row you just activated that remain within the grid. The now-popped-out action tile is redundant, but it still plays a massive part in player interaction – we’ll touch on that later on. Meanwhile, you can activate the three tiles in any order that suits you.
The order in which you activate actions is massive, in particular in how you synchronise moving along the river with placing seals. Each player starts on the furthest-left spot along the Danube, which is worth -11 points (yes, minus points) if your barge is at this point come the end of the game. Each space you progress down the river is worth an extra point, so the next spot is -10, then -9 and so on, eventually reaching zero at the middle of the river, then working into positive numbers up to +11.
However, like Oink Games’ Deep Sea Adventure, no two player pieces can share the same spot, meaning they’ll leapfrog each other. This is great for trying to get as far down the Danube as possible for end-game points, but there’s a catch…
All-Important City Seals
Paying two coins to place seals in a city quarter is fantastic. By doing so, you get an immediate, valuable bonus from placing there – perhaps acquiring a first-come, first-served special ability Descendent power, or gaining coins, actions tiles or cards (or playing an additional card from your hand) for free.
However, you can only place seals in unoccupied spaces in the city quarters above or below where your barge currently sits. Deciding when to and when not to move offers players terrific choice. Do you try to benefit from that quarter’s seal action? Or keep up with the pack or floating barges?
Another clever feature of Ulm is how you can aim to acquire cards for end-game set collection purposes. These can be worth up to 18 points for the right set of cards if you can collect three within a set. Each card has two values; it can either be saved for collection purposes to score end-game mega points, or it can be cashed in sooner (usually for a minor cost) to earn you bonuses in the game, such as extra river movements among others.
Players can always play one card on their turn for free. However, cards not played come the end of the game do not count towards set collection or end-game points, so ideally players will aim to manage this carefully (not acquiring more cards than they can realistically place) or their efforts will have been in vain…
Earlier we mentioned about ‘redundant’, pushed-out tiles. They play an enormous part in Ulm, first and foremost in the fact that once pushed out, they cannot be pushed back into the cathedral square. They must remain on the outer edge until someone activates the ‘clear-away’ action tile (meaning they can claim up to three of the pushed-out tiles on one of four edges of the grid). The longer they remain unclaimed though, the fewer options the players have left to interact within the cathedral square!
Of course, it’s in the players’ best interests to claim tiles at regular points, because they’ll need them to purchase cards or use them as payment to cash in a card’s immediate action. Therefore, the grid doesn’t remain blocked for long… Just blocked when you happen to really need it! Spending two different tiles gets you one card with the get-card action, while cashing in two of the same action tile allows the player to take two cards and pick which one they want, giving them a lot more flexibility in trying to get a more useful card.
Two of the seal actions allow players to claim one of the 12 coats-of-arms (eight of these are the city quarters themselves). This is important, because claiming coats-of-arms earns the player immediate victory points, but also further points if any other player places a seal in that quarter later.
Not only that, but they place one of their counters onto the corresponding city quarter icon around the cathedral square (there are, of course, 12 spaces around a 3x3 grid: three along the top and bottom, and three to the left and right). For the rest of the game, every time anyone pushes a tile out of the cathedral square and into a claimed city quarter, whoever owns that quarter will gain a sparrow.
Sparrows are jokers. There are always five action tiles sitting face-up in the loading docks, and a player can, after drawing an action tile, opt to swap it with one of said five action tiles by giving up a sparrow. (Unspent sparrows at the end of the game are worth one point each). This offers flexibility to players if fortune frowns upon them – for a small price. Of course, the tile you give in to take the one you want might be the tile your opponent needs!
Components and Artwork
At a glance, Ulm looks like standard Euro fare. Michael Menzel’s artwork might look like a game you’ve already played (Menzel worked on other Euro historical city games such as Pillars of the Earth – another cathedral! – Bruges and Firenze, to name but a few).
The board is a drop-down view of Ulm with monochrome banners marking the city quarter borders. Being a medieval German city, there are of course plenty of browns and terracotta roofs that dominate the colour palette. However, the blue Danube flows along the lower third of the board and south of the river is lush with green grass, offering a break from the brown.
It looks quite busy, what with there being 12 shields, eight of which are city quarters with iconography beneath explaining the quarter’s benefit. However, after the first round, when most of the actions will have been experienced, all players will grasp how the game works.
There is also a fabulous 3D model of the Ulm Münster itself that sits proudly on the board. To mark the end of each round, you’ll place a small rectangular round marker into the spire. You can also play them according to their reverse side, each of which has a round-long rule or requirement (such as, say, river movement action tiles give you double the movement for this round only, or everyone must pay two coins at the end of the round or forfeit five victory points). There are 12 (for 10 rounds), so you cannot determine which ones are yet to be revealed, but you can at least try to semi-prepare for the next one.
The latter gives players a direction to plan for (revealed one round in advance), rather than feeling a tad overwhelmed by the choices available to them, otherwise. These tiles are small and only have iconography on them, so you might have to reach for the rulebook to decipher them to begin with.
Talking of rulebooks, Ulm has two – a basic rulebook, and then a separate Chronicle, which gives details about the descendants, the city quarters’ actions, and the cathedral’s round tiles. Flicking between the two can irritate at times. The cards, however, have English text on them alongside iconography, which is handy.
Component-wise, the cardboard action tiles are pleasantly thick and high quality – there is little to no chance of them bending. The barges themselves are twee little wooden boat shapes, which adds character when moving them down the Danube.
Final Thoughts on… Ulm
Ultimately (or should that be ulmtimately?), you will have been sold – or turned off – by that 3x3 action selection grid. Personally, I think it’s a wonderfully interactive experience – as well as providing smooth and elegant gameplay. You might be able to get the dream push but could your realignment could result in the tiles lining up perfectly for your opponent!
Could this lead to dreaded analysis paralysis? There will only ever be a maximum of 12 possible ways you can insert your drawn tile (and chances are it will be less than 12, because there is, more often than not, at least one or two tiles sitting outside the 3x3 grid), so I’d argue against this.
Only playing one card per turn is another neat touch. It means you can’t hoard cards – such as one player slamming down a load after the ‘final whistle’, as it were, to reveal a load of hidden, extra points. There are ways to play extra cards (as well as your default one-card-per-turn action), such as opting to use the brown card tile as a means of playing a second card rather than paying two tiles to acquire a new one. Some seal locations allow players to play an additional card, too.
This means that some players will not risk an unfinished set of cards, instead opting to cash them in at the time for a smaller reward there and then. Again, this is a delicious conundrum – do you gamble or play safe? The cards feel fairly balanced. However, ignoring them entirely will probably result in you losing, especially if some players manage to collect a set of three or have been cashing them in, scoring points throughout.
Different player counts can and will impact the speed at which players travel down the Danube. In a four-player game, for example, you could leapfrog over as many as three barges in one movement if they are all directly moored in front of your boat (which is obviously twice the rate you could do this in a two-player game). This means that you have a far better chance of getting closer to those 11 VP for reaching the river’s end, but you also might miss out on vital seal opportunities en-route.
In a four-player game there is also a higher chance of more players doing seal actions, which is great if you’ve managed to claim a city quarter (because you’ll get points just by others doing seal actions there). Thus, there is a chance players will score more points. Because turns should be fairly fluid, the game can progress at a pleasant pace.
Try Ulm, I implore you. It’s an excellent mid-weight Euro. You could argue that the theme is a little loose, perhaps verging on that of ‘generic Euro’, but I feel that the cool, innovative cathedral square counter-balances this, because it’s unlike any other mechanic I’ve experienced before.