ULM from R&R Games is a 2-4 player game from the prolific designer Günter Burkhardt whose impressive list of published games goes back to 1994 and includes productions by several mainstream major games companies as well as many games I really enjoy.
Way back before I was born (which is thus a very long time ago) ULM was a major trading city spreading along the banks of the Danube. Barges and Boats carried goods along the river to the main docking area, stopping off along the route to drop necessary provisions and passengers of note at quays for the different sections of the city. It is these areas the players can visit to exert some control and influence that will benefit them either eventually or throughout the game. Ulm is a game with interim and final scoring where Victory Points are gained through the unusually named "Ulm Sparrows", Coins, Barge movement and various other actions and at the end of the game the most VPs determines the overall winner.
Ulm has some excellent parts, some good parts and some parts that we feel could have benefited the game a little better. There is also the fact that the game is aimed at ending after 10 rounds taking about an hour, which means that the game is rather compacted; four players having three Actions a Turn means 120 possible Actions in just 60 minutes. For core boardgamers the end comes either too abruptly because it seems as if they have only just got to the meat of their strategies or it is just right because their aren't enough actions they can take of which they have any control.
I have played ULM many times, at first because I need to for review purposes and then after because it is in principle a good short game, or at least it can be. I must admit that even now there are times when we thoroughly enjoy it and other times when it feels that we are going through the motions; this tallies in my experiences with some (I stress "some") of the other Günter Burkhardt designs I have played.
So let's take a good look at ULM. It is visually eye catching for the core gamer from the off because of the 3D Cathedral that dominates one section of the City. This gives Ulm its strong medieval look, along with the use of a lot of dark and brown colouring and the very good illustrations from Michael Menzel that represent the various player identifications and other aspects of an ancient city. Medieval cities were renown for being tight-knit communities of narrow streets, canals and bustling businesses, mainly street traders, and as such the board is a good representation of a compact, heavily populated, city with a cathedral near to completion. This is both good and not so good because although it is highly representative, being so compact it gives the board a heavily congested and squashed appearance which, in turn, diminishes the size of the icons and symbols on display making them somewhat difficult to identify at a glance; in other words the board could have done with being a little larger.
The most visual and thus immediate impact making part of ULM is the Cathedral. The read through of the rules suggests that you are going to be building this Cathedral but instead it is already completed bar the 12 Tower tiles that are used as both the Round counting mechanism and also, after the initial game or two, an event deck. We quickly discovered that when four players are sitting across the table from each other the Cathedral prevents a clear view of the board and so we generally place it to one side next to the stack of face down tiles (10 randomly taken from the 12).
The main mechanic of the game is the Labyrinth style Oath Charter Action that each player must take at the beginning of their Turn. On the board is a 3x3 grid with each row and column expanded by 2 squares. The first row of each of these 2x2 mini grids has representative illustrations of the 12 Golden Coats of Arms of the city. The second row has spaces on which the players put their identification tokens when they gain control over one of the Gold Coats of Arms, having placed their own Shield on the board to cover it; each player can control only three Gold Coats of Arms (which give bonuses throughout the game and at the final scoring) but can obtain the immediate benefit from any Silver Coats of Arms obtained during play - these are one-shot bonuses as there are no spaces on the board for Silver Coats of Arms.
The players draw a tile from the bag and push it onto the Oath Charter grid (as in Labyrinth) displacing the three tiles it pushes; it may only be used on a row where three tiles lay. There are still three tiles on this row, including the one just added, and one pushed off into the first extra row. The tiles in the 9x9 grid each have specific special actions associated with them and the player may now activate, in any order, the Actions of the three tiles in the row they just pushed. This is a neat and clever mechanic and makes the players think before choosing a row. Naturally, and therefore sometimes unfortunately, this doesn't always give a satisfying or required option. Because this is a mandatory first action which always alters the tiles on the grid players cannot plan their turns from one to the next and this can be frustrating, and lead to the reason why I said that on occasion it can feel like you are going through the motions. This Oath Charter Action is the most important aspect of the game and because it either works or it doesn't it can also be the best or most frustrating aspect of play.
One of the Actions given by the Oath Charter tiles is Barge movement. When the barge moves along the Danube it stops with the boundaries, North and South, of different City areas in which Privilege Actions can be taken. When it starts its journey the player's barge is on a space that has a minus 11VP value. The values of the movement spaces change in a descending order until they finally reach the plus 11VP space. Along the route players have the choice of taking the actions associated within each boundary. I mark this as the second most important aspect of play and one which all core boardgamers will understand and enjoy as it is (almost) a controllable action.
Another thing to note is that money is more than "just tight" it is extremely very difficult to obtain and especially hard to build up a bank of. Coins can be acquired from the Oath Charter grid and from very few other sources. But it seems as soon as you gain a couple of coins you need to spend them. For example, one of the Oath Charter Actions is a "Seal" action which costs two coins to take; this is the one that allows you to perform the Privilege in one of the areas your barge is located. Other Oath Actions include the Clear Away, which means taking all the tiles from one of the extra rows on the grid, that is the tiles that have been displaced by the player's pushing actions, taking a coin, the River action, and the Card action (which costs two Oath Charter tiles). You use the tiles removed from the grid by the Clear Away to buy cards, two tiles buys one card from the top of the deck, but if you have two duplicate tiles you can take the top two tiles, select one and discard the other. Another way to gain tiles which helps you get two same tiles is to obtain tiles from the Loading Docks.
There are two booklets that come with ULM, one for the rules and one to give a detailed description of all the pieces, both work especially well in getting the players playing as quickly and as informed as possible. Production wise the booklets are clear, concise and colourful, the components are solid card, wood, and quality playing card, all, where necessary, finely illustrated. My preference would have been to have a larger board, just three or four inches in length and two or three inches in width would have made all the difference to easier visual clarifications, plus I would have liked either another Oath Charter option or the Oath Charter grid to be 4x4 (with a choice of three actions from the four possible) to give at least a chance of planning. These are not actual criticisms just personal thoughts. The 60 minutes/10 rounds per game makes it playable when you haven't time for a longer gaming session, but the actual game itself has the feel of a larger, longer game only with a mechanic that has been designed for short time play. Although I have shown slight misgivings in its design, ULM is still regularly played and liked here, especially as it is a gamer's game that can easily be explained to and enjoyed by non-core boardgamers; thus in part the fairly abrupt end to play becomes a boon.