Designed by Doris & Frank
Published by Doris & Frank
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
It never ceases to amaze me how game subjects come along in waves. Two years back we had the plague of motor racing games, then the empire builders. Now, something somewhere, perhaps Jurassic Park, or Richard Dawkins, or perhaps nothing at all, has prompted a steady stream of evolution/mutation games over recent months. We have had Fat Messiah's Shapeshifters, Sierra Madre's Rainforest and American Megafauna, Dino Hunt, and, on the PC, Creatures, Lost World and Organic Art. Add these to Pyramid Game's passable Evolution, Eon's famous but overrated Quirks, Tyranno Ex, Conway's Life and El Fish from years gone by, and there is a thriving gene pool of these designs. None of this is a problem for me, since I rather enjoy it and feel the theme suits the game format well. And I am so into the idea of mutation that I will happily play around with Convolver, Bryce or El Fish just to see what transpires.
All of which leads me to the release of Ursuppe (Primordial Soup), Doris & Frank's latest 'big' game and one which was deemed the uncontested runner-up purchase at Essen behind the all conquering Tigris. For most buyers, Doris & Frank's new game, big or small, has become a required, sight unseen purchase, which is more than you can say about Karl-Heinz Schmiel or Klaus Teuber these days - how things change... Their signature combination of clever little systems, nice ideas, beautiful artwork and good value is hard to beat and with the commercial impact of Mü & Mehr they look set for continued success.
Ursuppe tackles evolution at the lowest and most primitive level - that of amaebas floating around in the grey ooze or, as we shall see, liquids far worse to contemplate. You control a species of amaeba that is charged with evolving at a faster and more effective rate than your rivals, and winning is achieved by having progressed farthest along the evolutionary track - neatly featuring 'jumps' when overtaking opponents, representing major improvements to your small blobby wards. The struggle, and it can be a struggle, to the end is meant to take around two hours and accommodates three or four players, with the latter being by far the best number. The game is played on a gridded board in which the amaebas live. Their aim in life is to eat, to survive, to multiply and to gain evolutionary advances. Also floating around on the board is food, in various colours, and once the food is eaten, amaeba poo. An amaeba hitting the edge of the board just bounces back into the dynamic serving tray, lavatory and hothouse that is the primordial soup.
The heart of the game, and one of the simpler descriptions I shall face this year, is a traditional, almost wargamey, sequence of play. Charles Vasey would call it a "computer looper", and he would be spot on. Each phase (and there are seven) has important elements, but basically you work through over and over until the game ends. So it is a Repeat Until loop, but a loop nevertheless. Phase 1 is movement - all your tribe, wherever they have ended up, drift, or swim if they can, hopefully towards food. If you eat the proper combinations of colours, you poo blocks for others to eat. If you don't eat, you take a hit point of damage. Phase 2 is mutation and a change in the drift direction. Phase 3 is gene cards. Phase 4 is dividing into new amaebas. Phase 5 is the death of amaebas with too many hit points. Phase 6 scores your turn total and adds it to the track and phase 7 is the end of game test.
The clever part of all this is that during phase 3, you may buy gene cards. Each card has an ability, a cost and a 'mutation' factor which comes into play if you have too many cards, possibly requiring you to reduce the number of cards held. Gene cards, along with the growing population of your amaebas also help you towards the victory criteria and, probably intentionally, echo the recent trend in CCGs for card combination effects. The abilities are the one single factor, nice bits aside, that draw you to the game. Will my amoeboids be better off with armour, tentacles, parasitism or perhaps the ability to move rather than drift randomly? And what about combinations of escape and speed and defence, or what price increased life expectancy? And will someone else get the sometimes unique abilities first, upping the arms race? And then there are Advanced Genes, which are 'level two' cards offering even more potential.
Inevitably, genetic abilities differ in both cost and utility. And in keeping with the wider theme, some are more powerful than others. Especially useful are Streamlining, which makes movement free (it usually costs points like most other actions) and Struggle for Survival which allows amaebas to eat others in the absence of suitable food. Indeed, I have see the latter win on so many occasions, and heard reports from all over, that this card may just be too powerful or at least too inexpensive. But it also the one that spices the game up as, all of a sudden, the previously peaceful pond has a pike in it. Unintentional alliteration there, sorry. The pond also offers another plus point. As the various brightly coloured amaeba multiply, eating and pooing their way around the board, the colours of the wooden blocks shifts in a subtle and pleasing fashion. For instance, areas of red poo might build up due to concentration of feeding red amaebas, which in turn no red amaeba can eat, but which could, in combination with other colours, happily feed yellow or green or blue.
The game works perfectly well like this, repeating over and over until someone wins. And that really is the problem I have with it. The game is great fun for the first couple of plays but doesn't have enough variety to make it very replayable. After the third or fourth game, where you have tried a reasonable selection of gene card combinations, you are of the opinion that the player who gets the Struggle for Survival card will have a good chance of the win and there isn't really enough scope or depth to make it an enduring classic. Add to that the dulling effect of the sequence of play, and I for one started to glaze over in game four. I have played once since, trying to prove or disprove the theory, and it got no better. So, that may be it. Fun to start with, deceptively good ideas, but rapidly declining in interest.
One problem prompted by the system, but not with the game itself, is that one has to carefully choose who plays. If you are often opposed by slow, calculating, abstract game experts, this is unquestionably not a game to pull off the shelf. The downtime is not good at best, even with 'Ten Moves a Minute' Siggins (!), but there is a seemingly infinite capacity for dithering at each and every phase. Shall I choose this card? Shall I move there? Shall I divide and grow another amaeba? Where shall I eat? It is like the post-Essen experience where everyone is walking around in a daze trying to decide on Mexican, pizza, Italian or slaughtered animals in the local pub. It can go on all night, and often does. I have heard of games taking four hours, which is barmy, and beginners games taking longer still. Easy solution chaps. Play to a two hour time limit (we manage less than this, and I'd suggest it is not worth more time), or play to 25 evolution points rather than 40, or play something else. This is not a four hour game, in weight, sustained enjoyment or capability - rules queries or no rules queries.
Which brings me to the next point, which I feel I should mention but which has caused me not a single problem. Apparently, according to the Internet, there are an awful lot of rule queries in Ursuppe, mainly relating to how the gene cards and combinations are used, and the mutation rules. Strange that. I thought the rules (courtesy Webley Translations, Grand Cayman) were exemplary and the bi-lingual cards (we are making progress!), even allowing for the many possible combinations, were pretty tightly explained. Okay, so there are some grey areas, especially on movement, but the intention is clear and a house rule quickly solves it until Frank can be quizzed by email. The questions we have seen raised have been borderline dumb (sorry, but true for once) or cured by that reliable old standby, reading the rule book. No reason for 'delay of game' penalties here.
Where the game scores, on a purely academic level, is in making one think what might have been. Doris & Frank have designed a series of games that lend themselves to variants, new cards, or in some cases completely new sub-systems. One only need see the pages of additional player suggestions for Igel Ärgern and you will understand just how well this feature of these 'open architecture' games is designed. The same applies to Ursuppe and already we are seeing new gene cards from its many fans. It may well be that, as these are vetted, circulated, or even produced officially, that the game may experience a new dawn. I will certainly look forward to that. The other aspect is that, with the mutation rules, the mind quickly turned to a third category of cards that could only be reached by a roll required regardless of how many mutation points you have. These might be good abilities, or negative, but if they were sufficiently exotic, well designed (meshing well with the basics) and there were enough of them, the game could take on almost an exploratory quality. It would certainly be a little more varied and exciting. Simpler would be the ability to buy disadvantageous genes (slow, hungry, tasty!) to balance the mutation level.
The three words 'Production Values' and 'Doris' normally have Siggins running out of adjectives, gushing manfully about lovely watercolour tones and general excitement all round. Not so with Ursuppe. It is rather drab. The box is a sort of dull blue, the board a fetching Panzer Grey, the cards are black and white. The only colour splashes are from the amaebas and the food. Now this sounds like a gripe, but it isn't. The choice of colours is actually spot on for the task in hand. When the board is full, the last thing you want is a 'busy' or distracting background. So, no little gems of Doris artwork, but the game plays well. Counterbalancing this disappointment is the fact that, for a 500 game limited run, with quite staggering heft and wooden components, Ursuppe was very cheap at around £20 at Essen. It is almost worth that in scrap value for the bits alone. And that is that, apart from one warning. The amaebas need to be 'constructed' which will take you twenty minutes - without putting too fine a point on it, this is the first board game that has ever required a small hammer to make it playable. Basically each amaeba base has a hole into which a dowel is inserted. Due to an unfortunate 'small hole, slightly larger dowel' interface situation, you will need the hammer to tap them home and then they stay put forever. Mike Clifford claims to have pushed them in by hand, and he doubtless gargles with bleach and shaves with an old broken bottle, as well. I am not exactly a softy, yet I reached for the tool belt pretty quickly.
Occasionally, if I have been good and eaten my greens, I am allowed to roll out the 'teutonic' adjective. On a scale where Die Macher is totally teutonic, Ursuppe is highly teutonic: the turn structure is rigid, unforgiving, feels highly procedural and not a little false. The game is abstract, the movement/feeding planning ahead especially, albeit spiced with cards and flexible or even random movement. The feel is rather studious and, ultimately, not a lot of fun. It is a game that, once the idea was formed and the theme applied (presumably in that order, slightly unusually for a German Game) the sequence of play and the mechanics followed right along behind. Where it diverts from the teutonic norm is in the cards, which are engaging, and in the light handling of the whole game - a typical Doris & Frank trait.
In conclusion then, Ursuppe is a good game. A game that leaves me wanting much more, that can go on far too long in the wrong hands, and the rigid sequencing is not to my taste. But still pretty good for all that. I have more than a nagging doubt that I am about to contradict myself on notions of 'goodness', but it is also a game that will not get much play here beyond the fifth outing. This has certainly proved to be the case, and each time I am asked to take the heavy box from the shelf it has become progressively more difficult to raise the enthusiasm. So can a game be 'good' for just a few plays and then gradually 'not good'? Yes, I suspect it can which means replayability in the German Game market may not have overriding importance. There has been no shortage of such games over the last ten years and I doubt many would say Extrablatt, off the top of my head, is a bad game. But we haven't played it very often since. I think Ursuppe will drop into the same category, and in my case, as the purge continues in an effort to preserve shelf space, it will eventually miss the cut and be sold on. That in itself tells you that it fits into the borderline 'nice try, but not quite there' category. Which is a shame, and Doris will knock me off her Christmas card list, but them's the breaks.
So, the ultimate evolution system is yet to be designed. It will happen, and because the field is so rich and suited to game mechanics, we will probably sit down and call it a classic when that game appears. But in an industry where someone said "Ideas are the hardest currency" and, surprisingly, got away with it, Ursuppe is another one of the 7 out of 10, 'take it rather than leave it' games where the idea and execution are good but ultimately disappointing. My feeling, oft stated, is that ideas are just the down payment and proper development, gripping gameplay, the interesting twist, testing and getting the product out represents the 25 years of mortgage woes. That Doris & Frank struggle through this procedure at least once a year, and provide us with some of the best graphics in the hobby, is a fact that we should all be thankful for. But considering Ursuppe in tandem with the reception of Fugger, Welser, Medici which fell similarly short, I again wonder if their undoubted talents might be best utilised at the shorter, lighter end of the gaming spectrum?
I don't usually do this, but I feel compelled to jump in here with a counter opinion.
I do think there are several things that are not quite perfect about Ursuppe. It takes a bit too long to play for what it is. The scoring mechanism tends to degenerate into a parade unless all of the players play extremely well. But I don't think the play balance is thrown off or there are any easy win scenarios when playing with experienced gamers. All of these combined make Ursuppe a very gamerly game.
Just to refute even that point, though, one of my friends who hates to play games (despite the fact that her husband is so fanatic that even plays train games!) turned up at our house the other night demanding to play Ursuppe because she really likes playing.
That aside, I think Ursuppe, even given its problems, is spot on the sort of game that many American gamers like to play. There is some light conflict. There is a strong theme, well executed; it doesn't feel like Frank came up with a mechanism then fished around for a theme to lay over the top. American gamers value that highly (often above all else - witness the passion for Cheapass Games that ooze thematic flavor). It takes a long time to play (1.5 - 3 hours, depending on the speed of the participants, mostly) by my standards but most American gamers think of that as a quick game. The scoring may degenerate unless everyone plays well but, hey, it works great if everyone stays sharp.
Given all of that, I think Doris & Frank have the game that will move into the breach in the American market created by Die Seidler. The fact that American game shops and game selling web sites couldn't keep it on the shelves even before D & F ran out of copies seems to back up this hunch.
Finally, Doris & Frank hoped to have the game back in print sometime in March. I must admit I've been remiss in following up on that and will get back to you folks on that as soon as I have any more information.
The Game Cabinet - email@example.com - Ken Tidwell