Ulm is a medium-weight euro game for 2-4 players designed by Günter Burkhardt and published in 2016 by R&R Games. In Ulm, the loose theme is that players are trying to expand their spheres of influence in the eponymous city by making optimal use of the hustle and bustle of the marketplace around the cathedral. But that is not where the beauty of this game lies. No, while the theme fits and the game’s components do look great on the table, the true beauty of Ulm lies in its primary mechanic, the 3×3 action grid.
The turns are simple. The active player randomly draws one of the game’s five action tiles from a bag and pushes it into the grid to carry out the three actions on the resulting tiles. The actions are pretty straightforward: get a coin, move your barge to the next empty space on the river, draw or play a card, place your seal in a city space and gain rewards, or grab some action tiles which have been pushed to one of the sides of the action grid. None of these are very complicated mechanically, but the difficult choice of which three actions to pick based on the current grid composition is where the carriage wheels meet the streets in Ulm.
All of the actions in Ulm get their context from the river running through the center of the city map. Each player has a barge that can be moved during the game. This has two effects. First, if you don’t make it past the bridge in the middle of the city you will lose points at the end of the game, and conversely, if you do make it past the bridge you will gain points. In my last two-player game this resulted in a 7 point swing, which is pretty substantial.
The second aspect of the river revolves around the “seal” action. While all the actions have meaning, the most thought usually surrounds the seal action, where you’ll be placing one of your discs in the city district to the north or south of the location of your barge. As you do this, you will gain various rewards that can be immediate and/or ongoing. The river and the seal action work together to create a strategic tension because while you may want to linger behind to use the benefits of certain districts, the promise of districts further ahead and the negative points from remaining behind the bridge are constantly pressing on you. It’s tense but not too tense, and I love it.
Another exciting aspect of the game is the card play and the economy related thereto. Every player gets to play one card as a free action during their turn. This is important because the only end-game scoring comes from the set collection bonuses on the cards and the players’ sparrow tokens. During their turns, players can play an additional card by using the “card” action if it appears in the action grid, but that is also the main way to acquire new cards, so it can be an important decision.
Drawing a card also costs you two of the action tokens you will acquire sparingly throughout the game. These stored-up action tokens can be used as currency during seal actions and card play during the game, so you’d like to have those handy when you need them. Finally, “sparrow” tokens are used throughout the game to mitigate the luck of the bag draw, but unused sparrow tokens provide one point each at the end of the game, so you’d like to keep them if you can as well. As you can see, Ulm’s decisions often overlap different strategies, smartly adding to the game’s tension level. I really like that.
As for negatives, there are only a few I can come up with in Ulm. One has to do with the game’s two rule books. One is technically a chronicle, which fleshes out some of the game’s concepts, but it also exclusively contains some of the important core rules which causes some unnecessary switching back and forth between the two books. The second nitpick is having to learn the game’s symbology on the cards, board and tiles, which have no text on them due to Ulm’s language neutrality.
The last negative is that I wish there was a player aid for each player with action summaries and maybe a symbol glossary. That being said, however, these end up being only minor nags because the game’s mechanics are pretty intuitive and easy to grasp, and the symbols make perfect sense after a couple of plays.
Overall, Ulm is a solid euro game that is accessible but not too simple. It provides nice strategic choices that result in a fun level of tension throughout. And the 3×3 action grid is a work of genius that should be used more often in tabletop games. As a bonus, the board is vivid and pretty, giving the game an excellent table presence. I feel like Ulm is an underrated board game that deserves more love than it gets. Hopefully, this review will entice you to check it out if you haven’t. You probably won’t be disappointed.
Thanks for reading. Keep nerding on!