Ubongo is a speedy game of spatial placement.
Time: 20-30 minutes
Ubongo comes with some very nice looking bits:
The Puzzle Boards: There are 36 of these, each printed on linen-textured cardboard. Each puzzle board is double-sided with an easy puzzle (using 3 puzzle pieces) on one side and a hard puzzle (using 4 puzzle pieces) on the other, which is great because it allows play with players of differing abilities, such as kids.
Each puzzle depicts an odd-shaped gridded area and then list 6 variations, each one of which tells you a different set of pieces to use. (As you'll see you determine a variation, then take the appropriate puzzle pieces and then place them within the grid.)
The Puzzle Pieces: There are 4 sets of 12 tiles. These are Tetris-like pieces which you'll have to fit in the board's grid. Each piece is a different shape and a different color. Like the boards these are printed on linen-textured cardboard.
Board, Jewels, and Pawns: This is the central focus of the game which gives you the jewels that you need to win the game.
The board is more linen-textured cardboard. It depicts an attractive African-themed set of tracks. There are holes which you place jewels in and a space at the bottom to move pawns back and forth. This is generally a nice component that helps keep all the jewels together, though I find that the two halves don't always fit together well due to warping, which can be a minor nuisance.
The jewels are very neat, irregular bits of plastic. I've seen pieces like them in other games, but these are some of the most attractive. They come in a variety of colors, though two of them (yellow and orange) are much too close together, which does cause problems in games. They can be differentiated if you're careful.
The pawns are irregularly shaped plastic bits in white, beige, cobalt, and black. The unusual colors again fit with the overall theming.
Die: A wooden die with six African icons on it, used for selecting which variant to use for a board.
Timer: A minute or so sand timer which seems to generally run well.
Overall the pieces in Ubongo are all high-quality and attractive. The overall theming of this game is light, but nonetheless the African feel to everything is well done.
I've given Ubongo a "5" out of "5" for Style. It's a very nice game.
The Game Play
The object of Ubongo is to finish your puzzle the quickest, then grab the best gems possible.
Setup: The central game board is placed down and the 72 gems are placed in the board. They're arranged in 6 long columns that have 12 gems each. Each player takes a pawn and places it at the bottom of one of the six columns on the central gameboard.
Finally each player takes a set of 9 boards and a full set of puzzle pieces. Usually all players will flip all their boards to the harder side, but by negotiation some or all of the players may use the easy side instead.
A Round of Play: To begin a round of play, each player takes their next board. Then the die is rolled and the timer is begun. The die roll determines which 4 (or 3) pieces must be played in the grid. When they're all played correctly they will together fill the grid precisely.
When a player successfully places his pieces he calls "Ubongo!" and they may take two gems from the central game board. He may first move his pawn a number of spaces: up to 3, 2, 1, or 0 spaces, depending on what place he finished in. He then takes the nearest two gems in the column he landed in.
When the timer runs out the round is over and anyone unfinished is out of luck (unless no one got their puzzle, in which case they get a second chance). Players then go to their next board and a new round of play begins.
Winning the Game: The ultimate object of the game is to collect the largest set of the same color of gem. Whoever does that wins, with ties going to the player with the second largest set of gems, etc.
(In my experience, there are often ties, so it's important to pay attention to a few colors of gems.)
Relationships to Other Games
Ubongo is a spatial placement game. This is a genre that also includes Rumis, Blokus, Pueblo and a few others.
Ubongo is a tighter game than the others with its tangram-like necessity to place all your pieces correctly. It also has a unique timed, simultaneous-action element.
The Game Design
Ubongo is an exciting game. The timer really adds to the tension as you try and spin and flip your pieces to fit them together in the shortest amount of time. Some players find it too stressful, but most had a great time.
The core tangram-like positioning of the pieces is a lot of fun too, because it feels really great when they all fit together. I've played the game about half-a-dozen times at this point, and I had a lot of fun every time. In my last play I had some concerns that it was starting to get a little easy, but I may well have just been having a good night.
Besides that, Ubongo is also a game that will appeal to a lot of players, not just your typical strategist. With its short playing time and its differing level of difficulty, it's a pretty ideal family game that parents and kids alike will probably enjoy.
With my singular caveat about long-term viability I give Ubongo a full "5" out of "5" for Substance. It's one of the most enjoyable games I've played this year.
A great game of spatial positioning that's tense, challenging, and fun.