UGO is one of the top ten games at the Fairplay magazine polls at the Essen game fair in 2013. I never quite paid attention to it. I only got to try it because Jeff at Boardgamecafe.net did an Essen Top Ten Night recently. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
UGO is a trick-taking card game, similar to Bridge, Hearts and The Bottle Imp. Players are dealt 10 cards at the start of the game (in the 4P game), and every round everyone plays one card. Whoever has the highest card wins the trick and claims all four cards played. The only restriction in playing cards is you must follow suit if you have cards of the same suit (colour) as played by the lead player. Whoever wins the trick becomes the next lead player. So far this is all pretty standard stuff. Where UGO differs is in what you do with the cards you win, and how you score points. To explain this, we need to look at the player board below.
There are five territories on this board, each being able to support one colour. When you win a card, if you already have that colour on your board, you must stack the newly won cards onto the territory with that colour. If you have just won a new colour, then you must open up a new territory (from left to right) for the new colour. At game end, the topmost card in each territory is worth points. Here's the twist - the farmers. The first two territories have farmers preprinted, but from the third territory onwards there are empty farmer spaces. If you use a territory but do not have enough farmers to fill up the farmer spaces, you lose 5VP (!!) per missing farmer. On the other hand, if you manage to fully farm a territory but do not have any card on it, you earn the points printed on the territory (i.e. the 1, 3, 5 in the photo).
Some cards let you earn farmers when you use them to win a trick. Some cards let you earn farmers if you lose the trick. Throughout the game you need to watch out for opportunities to earn farmers.
In this photo, the total score is 14VP. 19VP from the card values. -5VP for the fourth territory which is lacking one farmer.
Some cards have farmer icons. If you use them to win a trick, you gain farmers.
Like all trick-taking games, in UGO you have to do some analysis and planning the moment you see your hand of cards. You need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your hand, and have some rough idea how you want to play it out. Naturally as the game progresses, you will need to make tactical decisions and adjust your plans, and may even want to completely change your strategy. However that initial analysis is always important so that you know what you are doing and you have a strategic view.
The game is a constant careful manoeuvring to avoid taking too many colours. At the same time you are also trying to claim as many farmers as possible. I find it an interesting and intricate balance. More colours means more cards with which to score points, but it comes with the risk of penalty if you don't get enough farmers. Getting three or four colours (with the required farmers of course) seems to be the norm to shoot for, as getting enough farmers to support all five colours seem to be extremely hard. One interesting tactical consideration is losing your low numbered cards to an opponent to force him to cover his high numbered cards. Nasty! Also it is always nice to lose lots of different colours to an opponent to force him to open up more territories than he can handle.
Game in progress.
Card-counting is useful, but there are 5 cards undealt so you can't calculate precisely what cards are left in your opponents' hands.
We played two games back-to-back. We started to understand some of the intricacies when we finished the first game, and we all agreed to have a go again. It was a pleasant journey of discovery.
One thing I still have not figured out is how to manage a hand with lots of 8's and 7's (the largest numbers). It seems to be rather impossible to not take many colours given such high numbered cards, and it might not be easy to collect enough farmers, because the might 8's do not give farmers. In the first game I had many such large numbers. I was penalised so badly that I went into the negative. I'm still not sure how I could have played differently.
Should I just give up when I draw such a hand?
I was pleasantly surprised by UGO. I enjoyed the tricky balancing act of trying to not get too many colours, but also not too few, plus the tactical manoeuvring of trying to earn farmers as often as possible. This little game gives the brain a decent workout. Like most trick-taking games, UGO has good depth. The better you play, the more you will appreciate the unspoken communication and understanding between players. You start to guess what cards your opponents have based on what they have been playing. It is quite a wonderful feeling (although I'm still far from that level of gameplay). It's a pity that trick-taking games tend to be rather lacking in setting and theme, and thus do not attract gamers like other "proper" boardgames with lots of fancy artwork and components do. UGO is rewarding and very much worth the effort if you spend some time to learn to play it well.