Monday, 26 July 2010


Ubongo is a real-time puzzle game that Chong Sean introduced to me. It was a game very popular with his customers when he still operated Carcasean as a cafe. His copy of the game has seen heavy play.

Look at how worn out the game pieces are. This copy at Carcasean has seen lots of play.

The Game

In Ubongo, you are given a board and some Tetris-like pieces, and you try to fit them onto the shape on the board within a short time, before the sand timer runs out. If you can solve the puzzle in time, you can collect gems from a central board. There are 6 lines on the central board, and your pawn stands at the head of one of these lines. Gems are placed along these lines. When you solve a puzzle, you can move your pawn a number of steps (depending on how quickly you solved it compared to other players) to the head of another line. Then you collect 2 gems from that line nearest to you (if any remain). The objective of the game is to collect many gems of one colour. You score for only one colour, so you'd of course choose the colour which you have the most number of gems. Gems collected in other colours are only used as tiebreaker.

Gosh, I spend one sentence explaining the most important part of the game, and eight to explain the scoring system...

The central game board with gems all set up to go.

These two photos summarise the game. In this case we rolled the shield icon on the special die, so I had to fit the four pieces below the shield icon (top right) onto the board.

This was how I did it. I collected two gems, red and blue.

The Play

Play was very quick, because Chong Sean is a real shark at this game. He probably has played this too many times when he taught his customers. The game is really fast and furious, because not only the puzzles need to be solved within the time limit, you also need to move your pawn and collect gems before time runs out. Sometimes even if you finish before another player, you may want to wait till he collects gems, because the gem colour that you want may become available after he collects the ones he wants, i.e. they are further down the same line where he collects his gems. This means you also need to be careful not to collect gems in a way that will set the next player up to collect valuable gems to him.

A game lasts 9 puzzles. The timer is less than one minute I think. So a game can probably be finished within 15 minutes.

The Thoughts

The game is quite fun! Definitely there is a strong spatial element, and some people won't like this, or are not good at this (or both). I think the game should be played by more or less equally skilled players for it to be the most fun. It can be very exciting. There is a way to compensate for skill differences. Every board has two sides, an easier side and a harder side. The former uses three puzzle pieces, the latter four. But I don't think everyone will find this a satisfactory way to compensate for skill differences. At least I don't.

There is a lot of variety in the game. There are 36 boards. For each puzzle there are 6 combinations of pieces that can be used, i.e. there really are 6 puzzles on one side of one board. So you have 216 (36 x 6) hard puzzles and 216 easy puzzles. You won't easily memorize the solutions, but of course as you play more you'll learn the techniques to solve the puzzles.

I bought a copy of the game, because my wife saw a photo I took and said "buy it". I've played it with my children (5 and 3), them using the easy side of course. We don't use the timer. My older daughter can manage the puzzles most of the time. My younger daughter usually needs help and encouragement, because as soon as someone else completes a puzzle before she does (which is almost all the time), she stops working on her own puzzle and starts sulking.

Ubongo is a good family game. It's light. And it's such a joy to shout "UBONGO!!" when you complete your puzzle.

Should this be pronounced "you-BONG-go" or "ooo-BONG-go"? I prefer the latter. Sounds more primitive and authentic.


Chong Sean said...

Ubongo means "brain" in Swahili

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Thanks! So I was right about the pronounciation. I didn't know it means "brain" though.

Matt Jones said...

Nice review of Ubongo, it is fun alright! I gave it a 7/10 in my board games review. It's great for non-gamers to pick up quick and have some fun.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Indeed this is a great game to be introduced to non-gamers. I have done that before and have been successful.