Publisher: Kosmos / Z-Man Games
Ubongo! Ubongo! Ubongo! (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG; Muka@BGG and Nathan Morse@BGG)
At its heart, Ubongo is really just a Tetris variant. Instead of scoring points for each completed row, Ubongo is more of a puzzle where you race to assemble select Tetris pieces on individual boards, each with a fixed, pre-printed pattern. To complete each puzzle, all the designated pieces should fit within the printed pattern. There are six potential puzzles on each board and a die roll will determine which pieces will be used for that particular puzzle. The person who completes the puzzle yells out “Ubongo” before the timer runs out and gets first choice of grabbing gems for scoring. All players who complete the puzzle before the sand timer runs out gets to collect gems. After playing a number of rounds with new player boards each round, the person with the best collection of gems wins the game.
The beauty of Ubongo is that it is amazingly approachable. There really aren’t any rules beyond just: pick up the designated pieces and start assembling them on the board. For basic Ubongo, the square tetris pieces are used for each puzzle and players get a choice between either the 3- or 4-piece puzzle. The 3 piece puzzle is clearly the entry level game. The 4 piece puzzle injects added difficulty, but once you are familiar with patterns, basic Ubongo should prove to be easy for veteran gamers. True, you may get the occasional puzzle that will stump you, but by an large, an experienced player should have little difficulty completing basic Ubongo.
Ubongo Extreme however, increases the difficulty significantly. Here, players assemble pieces which are derived from basic hexagonal units. The patterns on the board are no longer that simple to visualize and the game is certainly a challenge even for folks with good spatial visualization skills. Again, players get either a 3- or 4-piece puzzle to assemble on a pre-printed honeycomb board. As before, the winner yells out Ubongo and grab gems with the most valuable collection of gems being the ultimate winner.
Ubongo 3-D is the final game in the series and is certainly worthy of being the toughest game of the series. Here, players once again have a basic floor plan in which to build a 3 dimensional structure. Each structure cannot be taller than two blocks and all the 3-D blocks must occupy the entire floor plan. Once game, there is the 3-piece or 4-piece floor plan. This version of the game is hard. One must have very good spatial skills to solve the structure and even then, someone skilled in 2D Ubongo may not possess the same spatial skills for a 3D structure. I have sometimes spent almost 30 min on a single board trying to figure out the puzzle. To be clear, at the Ubongo 3D level, it is no longer a game for us. It is even pointless to use the sand timer since most of the time, we would be lucky to complete the puzzle within the time frame. Ubongo 3D has become merely a puzzle-solving activity. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy Ubongo 3D, but it is no longer really a board game.
In basic Ubongo, players grab different colored gems from a board featuring gems distributed in multiple rows. If you yell Ubongo first, you can move your token up and down across several rows to grab two gems from a single row. The catch is, only the gems from the beginning of each row from left to right are available. Players that subsequently yell Ubongo are more restricted in their movement, and hence, have fewer options to collect gems and so forth. The player with the most gems of one type wins the game. No one I know enjoys this way of collecting gems. It is most annoying to yell Ubongo and then having to study the board to decide where to move your token to collect gems. Meanwhile someone else who yelled Ubongo after you grabs the gems in front of you because they happen to know where the gems they want are located. It is needlessly complicated. Thankfully, Ubongo Extreme and 3D simplified the scoring by awarding players with both gems on display and from the bag with the value of each game tied to the color of the gem. That way, players who finish the puzzle will get one gem from the display (a sapphire) plus another random gem from the bag. Subsequently players who complete their puzzle will get less valuable gems on display plus a random gem or just random gems alone from the bag. We now play the entire Ubongo series using the simplified scoring rules.
I have played basic Ubongo the most, Extreme next and 3D least of all. However, I really enjoy every game in the series. It is true that basic Ubongo no longer poses a challenge for me and herein lies the rub: folks who are good at spatial orientation will be superior in this game. They will hands down beat other opponents who aren’t as good with spatial organization. This imbalance has made the game harder to hit the table since I can finish most basic puzzles in under 15 seconds. It is still fun, just not much of a challenge. Playing Extreme or 3D does not solve the issue since the difficulty also scales for each player. While it is harder for me, it is worse for players who don’t already enjoy basic Ubongo.
Overall, the game is good primarily because it is so different and simple to pick up. I was about to get rid of basic Ubongo but thankfully, my five year old picked up the game and has quickly become her favorite (see kid’s corner below).
Initial impressions: Good
4 years 4 months: I totally, totally underestimated my daughter on this one. I pulled out Ubongo just for fun and she quickly mastered the 3-piece puzzle and graduated to the 4-piece version. It’s true that she is slower than me but she could finish the puzzle in a decent amount of time. Moreover, she showed some tenacity by not giving up. She kept on trying even though she struggled on some of the puzzles. Ultimately, it was so rewarding for us, as parents to see her finish each puzzle. She just cracks a wide grin every time she figures out how to complete the puzzle. It was also amazing for me to see that she could visualize her pieces 2-3 steps ahead. For example, after placing the larger piece, I could tell from her reaction the she knew the correct sequence to place the remaining pieces. For this alone, I recommend Ubongo for kids around this age. It may not have staying power once they figure it out, but then, there is always Ubongo Extreme!
5 years 10 months. She continues to excel in spatial skills and almost a year plus later, she routinely pulls out Ubongo Extrem and can easily complete the 3 piece puzzle while taking slightly longer for the 4 piece version. While she can do it solo, she still prefers if we play together as a family activity. She is good and fast enough to be competitive with my wife, but I still have a slight edge over here though, that may not be true soon enough. I can’t say enough about the Ubongo series for kids. It’s just a fun-filled activity.