From: Doris & Frank
Playing Time: 90-120 minutes
Type of game: Gamer strategy
Skill level: 7
Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 5.1 (17), Winter 1997
|Ursuppe 5/6 player expansion||
Move. Eat. Excrete. Divide. Repeat. An amoeba's life isn't a very interesting one. A game modeling the life of amoebas, on the other hand, can be very interesting indeed. Ursuppe, from the talented team of Doris and Frank responsible for the superlative card game Mü, puts players in the godlike role of steward for a clan of amoebas in their struggle to eat, survive, and evolve.
Ursuppe is an abstract game which, by virtue of its attractive components and strong tie between theme and game mechanics, manages to seem less abstract than it is. Combined with what can only be called its "cuteness" factor, this makes Ursuppe approachable even to players who aren't keen on lengthy abstract games. I wish the game clocked in at under 90 minutes, but so far all our games have lasted between two and two and a half hours.
If Avalon Hill had made Ursuppe, we'd get lots and lots of cardboard counters of varying sizes. Since this is a German product, instead we pay a little more and get lots and lots of nice wooden bits: dozens of small colored cubes, purple "biological point" discs, polygonal amoebas, and even some gray plastic "damage point" beads. The amoebas come in two parts, a colored base and a wooden dowel, which resemble Tinkertoys once assembled. Be warned that you may need a hammer to get the dowels into the just-a-shade-too-small holes.
The game board is an irregular 5x4 grid, each square of which begins the game with two food cubes in each of four different colors (one color per player). Forget clothing and shelter— food is an amoeba's prime concern. Players start with two amoebas each, scattered throughout the grid in a Siedler-like setup method. Play is divided into phases.
Phase one is for movement and feeding. Left alone, each amoeba will drift one space in the direction of the current (which changes each turn), stopping at the boundaries of the grid. When it arrives at a new home, an amoeba tries to feed itself by eating three cubes of food— one each of the three colors other than its own (so a yellow amoeba tries to eat a red, blue, and green cube). If such food exists in the space, it is removed (eaten) and replaced (excreted) by two cubes of the amoeba's own color.
If the required color mixture isn't available, the amoeba starves and receives a gray damage bead, slid onto its dowel.
Players move in ascending order (losing player first, winning player last), with each player moving all his amoebas before the next takes his turn. Player order can be crucial to an amoeba's feeding habits, as food can be eaten right out from under you.
But amoebas don't have to drift— they can move under their own power. This costs one biological point (BP), the currency of the game. Amoebas begin with only rudimentary motor control and must roll a die, moving in the resulting direction (which may not be helpful at all). As the game progresses, amoebas can evolve to acquire finer control over their movement.
After all amoebas have moved, the current changes with the flip of an environment card, altering players to the direction of drift for the next turn. The card also shows the new "ozone layer thickness", about which more in a moment.
Phase three, the acquisition of new genes, is the soul of the game. Players may, in descending player order, purchase new genes at varying BP costs. Genes affect all of that player's amoebas, imbuing them with special abilities to help them survive. These range from the simple (SPEED, allowing amoebas to move twice) to the unusual (TENTACLE, allowing an amoeba to drag three cubes of food with it when it moves) to the involved (PARASITISM: if an amoeba shares a space with an opponent's amoeba, it may eat one of the opponent's BPs instead of one of its required food cubes).
Genes range in price from two to six BPs (paid only once, at the time of purchase) and are in limited supply. Generally, the better genes are the more expensive ones, but even the cheap ones are useful. More importantly, the utility of various genes often depends on what genes other players acquire and what the board looks like. Players need to adapt to the environment to succeed. Certain combinations of genes work especially well together, and it is these combinations which players strive for. Perhaps most impressive is that there are many good gene combinations, so if a player doesn't get the gene he wanted, there are other viable evolutionary avenues open to him.
You can't just hoard all the best genes, either. Each gene carries with it a mutation cost. When a new environment card is flipped in phase two, players must check to make sure their total mutation cost isn't greater than the ozone thickness (which ranges from 6 to 14). If it is, players must discard genes back to the gene pool or pay BPs to make up the difference. This random factor is both good and bad. It makes players focus their gene strategy rather than just picking up good stuff because they've got the BPs. It's difficult to maintain a strategy, however, when you never know when the environment will turn against you. If the ozone thickness suddenly drops late in the game, it can completely change the tide. You can hold extra BPs or buy the RAY PROTECTION gene to minimize your risk, but it's hard to eliminate it completely.
Phase four is cellular division. Everyone receives 10 BPs and the opportunity to have their amoebas reproduce. For a cost of 6 BPs each, an amoeba can "split" and produce a new amoeba in an adjacent space. Since more amoebas equals more points, dividing is usually a good thing.
The adjacency rule means that amoebas of a color have a tendency to stay clustered, unless they move off under their own power. And even then, they won't be far away from each other. This causes the food supply in that part of the board to become duo- or monochromatic, resulting in starvation. The decomposition of amoebas provides the major way in which such spaces become capable of supporting life again.
Scoring occurs in phase six. Points are awarded according to the number of amoebas and genes a player has. A key observation to make is that although most of the scoring increases at a 1:1 rate, there's a two point jump from four to five amoebas. Therefore, getting up to five amoebas and staying there is an important scoring consideration which often influences gameplay— especially when amoebas get aggressive.
The STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL gene is one of the most expensive, useful, and feared. An amoeba possessing it doesn't have to starve— instead, it can eat another amoeba (even one of the same color!) occupying its space. The dead amoeba leaves behind one cube of each color as well. This attack costs a BP, so continued attacks tend to make it hard for the aggressive player to purchase more genes. DEFENSE and ESCAPE genes provide a chance of survival for the intended victim. When other players get above four amoebas, it's worthwhile for an aggressive amoeba to hunt them down.
A nice touch in the scoring system is that occupied spaces on the scoring track don't count, so players can leapfrog each other. This also assures a lack of ties, eliminating any player order issues. The game ends once someone scores over 41 points, with the highest score winning.
Every Ursuppe game begins the same way. There aren't many decisions to make in the first turn. The movement phase passes quickly because of this, and you move into the gene phase. INTELLIGENCE is a common purchase during round one— it doesn't give any special abilities, but it helps for scoring and leaves you with enough BPs to buy one of the good genes next turn even if you spawn an amoeba.
If my games thusfar are any indication, the top genes to grab early are STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL and FRUGALITY (which lets you eat one fewer cube than normal). STRUGGLE is my favorite, because not only does it give you another survival method but it knocks out opposing amoebas in doing so. It's better to be the predator than the prey. The problem, though, is that there are only two copies of the gene— which means whoever wound up in the top two positions as a result of the start-of-game die roll gets first shot at them. Of course, the other players can react by purchasing DEFENSE or ESCAPE to protect against the predators.
Ursuppe is a processional game (the same steps are repeated every turn, with the decisions substantially unchanged each time), which may turn some people off. Upon reflection, there are precious few real decisions to be made. Movement options are usually obvious. The tough choices involve BP management— when to save instead of spawn, what genes to buy and when to buy them, etc.— and are localized to brief parts of the game.
A more serious concern is that if you miss out on the genes which let you eat other amoebas, there's very little you can do to impede other players' progress. Once an aggressive player takes the lead, there's almost nothing a passive player can do to slow them down. Theoretically you could eat up their food, but unless you've got protection against attack they'll just move in and eat you instead. And even if successful, this approach is slow— it takes two turns of starvation to kill an amoeba, but an aggressive one can eat another in just one turn.
To give the game the benefit of the doubt, it may just be that we haven't yet discovered the appropriate response. The gene pool does appear to be exceptionally well balanced, with every gene appearing to be valuable in its own way and carrying a cost— biologically and mutationally— commensurate with its benefit. This seems a natural venue for an expansion, and we've come up with our fair share of gene concepts (which we could implement, thanks to the blank cards included). But I'm fearful of any such expansion upsetting the delicate balance.
The viability of different strategies makes experimentation possible. I've seen expansionist policies (breed, baby— breed!) work well, but in one game I won without breeding at all for a few turns, hoarding my BPs instead to get MOVEMENT 2 and AGGRESSION. This approach scored 2 points every turn from then on thanks to my gene cards, while making me mobile enough to both survive and be a threat to others. The predatory aspect of this late-breeding strategy was crucial, as it allowed me to slow down other players' scoring rates while I caught up.
The most common concern about the game is the difficulty trailing players seem to have in catching up (which is related to not being able to slow down the leader). This may even be a terminal flaw in the game over the long term. Two-plus hours is a long time to invest in a game in which the outcome can be decided by the midpoint.
Perhaps the most important thing I can say about Ursuppe is that our first game left everyone excited, filling our thoughts with possible gene combinations and strategies to try the next time. That fascination hasn't diminished with repeated play. It's quite akin to the scientific curiosity a biologist must feel as he introduces new variables into a sample and observes the results. Each game is an experiment in survival of the fittest, which is precisely the model the game was meant to evoke. A success, then, from both a thematic and gameplay perspective.