Posted by: gschloesser | August 12, 2011

Ursuppe

Design by:  Doris & Frank Matthaus
Published by:  Doris & Frank
2 – 4 Players, 2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

There are many games where the one of the objects is to eliminate or ‘kill’ your opponent.  However, there aren’t very many (if any) where the object is not only to eliminate your opponent, but you can actually eat them as well!  That tactic can … and usually does … play a major role in Ursuppe, a lively and entertaining game from Doris & Frank.

The game bills itself as “The struggle for survival in the Primordial Soup”.  Players represent amoebas who are trying to find enough food to consume, thereby avoiding starvation, while at the same time trying to evolve into higher life forms with greater gene capabilities.  These new gene developments serve to give the owning player certain advantages and powers and alter the rules accordingly.  There is a nice variety of genes available, but each are only available to one or two of the players.  Thus, it becomes a struggle of trying to balance another player’s acquired gene powers with your own.  In some cases, players are forced to develop ‘defensive genes in order to attempt to counteract the more aggressive genes which were developed by their neighbors.  This can be a downright nasty game!

As is typical of most German games, the pieces are magnificent.  The wooden discs representing the amoebas  actually have to be assembled using a hammer!  The colors of both the amoeba discs and ‘food stuff’ cubes are vibrant, which is in sharp contrast to the dull blue-gray of the board.  Several players have commented on the dullness of the board, but I feel this may have been done deliberately so as to better illuminate the colorful amoeba and food stuff pieces, as well as to represent the murkiness of the ‘primordial soup’ in which the amoebas struggle for survival.

Another neat feature of the game is that the gene cards are double-printed in both German and English, and the player aid charts are also supplied in English.  Now why hasn’t someone thought of that before?  I, for one, would gladly pay a few extra dollars in order to be able to acquire the relevant game pieces, cards and charts in English.  My knowledge and fluency (or, should I say, lack thereof) in the German language is not at a level where I can comprehend all of the German writing on the cards and charts.  Thus, having the charts and cards in English is a great feature for not only myself, but others who play the game.

Each player begins with one of his seven amoebas on the board, although it begins with one damage point.  It only takes two damage points to cause the poor, struggling little feller to perish, so death comes quickly and often in this game.  The object is to move the amoeba around the various squares of the board in search of food to consume, which will aid in the amoebas longevity, development and reproduction.

The game is played in six phases:

MOVEMENT

In order to give those players who are behind on the scoring track a bit of an edge in moving and eating, movement is handled in an ‘ascending’ order … last player in victory points moves first.  Since our poor, young amoebas have very little capability of moving on their own, movement usually occurs in the form of ‘drift’.  Each turn, an Environment card is revealed during phase 2 which indicates the direction of the ‘drift’: north, south, east or west.  A player may opt to allow his amoeba to drift one space in the direction indicated on the card.

If that is not appealing to the player (as the space being drifted into may not contain the necessary ‘food stuff’ for which the amoeba to consume), the amoeba may attempt to make an ‘uncoordinated’ movement.  Basically, a die is rolled and the Environment card is consulted to determine in which direction the amoeba moves, if at all.  A ‘1 – 4’ will move it either in one of the four compass directions, a ‘5’ will force the amoeba to stay put, while a much desired ‘6’ allows the amoeba to merrily move off in the direction he/she/it so chooses.

But why is movement important in the first place?  Food.  An amoeba must eat each turn in order to survive.  At the beginning of the game, two food stuff cubes of each of the four colors are placed on each space of the board.  After an amoeba moves, it consumes one cube of each color other than its own.  It then … ahem … excretes two cubes of its color to take their place.  It doesn’t take much before many spaces are left without the necessary cube colors in which to feed our hungry little amoebas.  If they are unable to consume the required three cubes of the appropriate colors, they suffer a ‘starvation’ point, which equivalent to a damage point.  Remember, it only takes two of those damage points to ‘off’ our little guys.

ENVIRONMENT AND GENE DEFECTS

During this phase, the old environment card is discarded and a new one revealed.  The Environment card serves two purposes:

1) It determines the direction of the ‘drift’, as explained above; and

2) It determines the Ozone Layer in effect for that turn (Al Gore would love this game).

The Ozone layer ranges from 6 – 14 and is vital in relation to gene developments.  Each gene development (which is purchased during Phase 3) has a number on it.  The sum of these numbers from all of the genes a player possesses cannot exceed the Ozone Layer without severe penalties being imposed on the player.  Basically, for each point that the Ozone layer is exceeded, the offending player must pay one Biological Point (BP).  If a player does not have enough BP’s to pay, then he loses gene developments in a sufficient amount to make up the difference.  Ouch.

NEW GENES

Here’s the really fun … and nasty … part of the game.  Players receive ten BPs at the beginning of this phase.  These BPs can be used for a number of different things (including paying the penalty for exceeding the Ozone Layer, as mentioned above).  One of the most important use of these BPs is the purchase of gene developments for a player’s amoebas.

These gene developments convey special powers and/or advantages upon a players amoebas.  They range from special movement allowances (rolling two dice instead of one to determine  ‘uncoordinated movement’; ability to move each amoeba twice in a turn; etc.), better food maintenance (only need to eat two cubes per turn; ability to drag food stuff with you as you move; etc.), health (can suffer three damage points before expiring; subtracts ‘2’ from your gene point total before comparing it to the Ozone Layer; etc.), to the hostile (able to eat opponent’s amoebas if food doesn’t exist; able to eat opponent’s amoebas even if food does exist; etc.) and defensive (can try to escape a hostile amoeba; can try to fight back against a hostile amoeba; etc.).

Of course, these genes cost BPs.  The ‘better’ genes usually cost more, so players are forced to juggle their BP requirements between gene purchases, Ozone Layer protection, Cell Division requirements, and special requirements (certain gene cards require the expenditure of BPs in order to utilize the power conveyed).  So, economics also plays a factor in the game.

CELL DIVISION

Reproduction.  Amoebas can ‘cell-divide’ and produce another genetically equivalent amoeba in an adjacent space, but at a cost of 6 BPs per such division.  The number of amoebas on the board at the end of a turn count towards victory points, so it is usually in a player’s best interest to reproduce often.  Of course, the food supply and neighboring hostile amoebas must be studied to insure that the newly spawned amoeba will have a chance at survival.

DEATH

Sad, but true.  Some of the little fellers don’t make it.  They either die a heart-wrenching death from starvation, or become food for their more aggressive neighbors.  If they die a natural death from starvation, they are replaced by two food stuff cubes of each color, thereby somewhat replenishing the food supply in their area.  If they have been consumed by another, more hostile amoeba, however, only one food stuff cube of each color is placed.  I guess those hungry, cannibalistic amoebas eat more.

SCORING

Victory points are then tallied.  There is a chart for both number of amoebas on the board and number of gene cards possessed.  Basically, the more the better for victory point purposes.  The leader moves his victory point marker first, but a neat feature is that spaces along the scoring track occupied by another player’s marker are skipped over and not counted.  Thus, other players can be bypassed a bit quicker.

The game ends when a player moves his victory point marker into the ‘finish’ region of the scoring track, which requires at least 42 victory points.  Barring this, the game continues until someone accomplishes this feat or until the Environment Deck is depleted.

In the games I’ve been involved in, the lead has changed several times and the final results have been very close.  There are ways to ‘get the leader’, and the game system is designed to prevent someone from getting too powerful.  The temptation to purchase lots of powerful gene cards is mitigated by the ever-changing Ozone Layer as well as the limitation of the number of each type of gene available.  Just when you were planning to purchase that ‘Struggle for Survival’ gene, your neighbor beats you to it and scoops the last one available!

I have found the game extremely well balanced and the genes seem to have been playtested very well so as to avoid the ‘unbeatable’ gene combination.  There is always that one missing card that would insure victory, but, alas, it is not available, or the Ozone Layer forces you to give it back.  And just when you think you’re set for a cruise to the finish line, one of your opponents develops Aggression and is able to eat you at will.  It is, indeed, a game that keeps the butterflies fluttering in your stomach as you struggle to keep your amoebas alive and one-step ahead of your opponents.

High, high marks for Ursuppe, easily the best release to date from the German team of Doris & Frank.

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Responses

  1. Love it. Lots of good ideas. The scoring track keeps the leaders close. 8/10


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