Doug Adams writes:
Designer: Doris Mathaus & Frank Nestle
Ursuppe (Primal Soup) is an entertaining game about nursing a tribe of amoebae through the oceans of primeval earth, earning points along the way for keeping your amoebae alive, and adding mutations to them to enhance their chances of survival.
The game comes from Doris and Frank, a German couple who have produced some good, 'light' family games. Probably their most well known being the ultimate hedgehog racing game, Igel Argern. Ursuppe is one of the bigger games they've produced.
There is a lot of wood in the Ursuppe box. First off there are four tribes of seven amoebae. Each amoeba in a tribe is individually numbered from 1 to 7. Each tribe is a different colour, red, green, blue or yellow. Amoebae are represented by a flat wooden disk, with a hole drilled through the centre. Each tribe has a unique shape to their disks, which is a nice way to make each tribe feel just a little different from the others.
A wooden peg has to be hammered into each amoeba before you can play your first game. These pegs will hold the damage beads, of which about 25 are provided. As an amoeba starves, a damage bead is threaded onto the peg. A tip for beginners, find a small cup to hold the beads before you start the game, as they tend to roll around a bit - often off the table.
Lots of wooden cubes are provided to represent the food that floats around the Soup. These cubes are divided equally into the four colours of the amoeba tribes.
Two decks of quality cards are also included. One deck is the environment cards, of which there are only 11. The environment deck controls the drift of the primordial soup, and also indicates the level of ultra-violet light for the turn. The other deck is the gene cards, which can be purchased by players to allow their amoebae to break the basic rules of the game by giving them extra capabilities. These capabilities are summarised nicely on the four reference cards included in the game - in German and English. It's fantastic to see the German game industry, from which emerge the finest board games in the world, start to cater for the growing interest the English speaking world is taking in their products. Even the gene cards have English on one side and German on the reverse. Excellent stuff.
Finally, the game is played on a rather dark playing board. This doesn't harm the game at all, because once you start playing, the last thing you notice is the aesthetic qualities of the playing surface. The board is a dark blue/grey colour, with about 20 large, adjoining squares printed on it and lots of funny Doris artwork all over it. One of the squares contains an island, which cannot be entered and will hold the environment card for the turn.
At the start of the game each player rolls the dice, with the high roller placing his scoring token on the score track, in any of the first four positions. The other players follow suit, until the first four spaces are occupied. This fixes the turn order for the first turn. Each player is handed 4 Biological Points - the currency of the game and something you never seem to have enough of. Finally, in ascending order each player places one of their amoebae on the board, then again in descending order. The game is ready to begin.
The game is ten turns long, but quite often finishes before then if someone reaches the dark zone on the scoring track (which begins at about 40 points). Each turn consists of several phases. During a phase, the players will take their turn in either ascending, or descending order, depending on which phase it is. The order is governed by the positions on the scoring track. Now, astute readers will now be thinking "what happens if two scoring tokens are on the same space ?". The answer is that this doesn't happen. In this game, when a scoring token advances, only unoccupied spaces are counted. Clever.
The first phase is Movement and Feeding. In this phase, each player in turn will move their amoebae. Amoebae are moved in ascending order. When amoebae move, they have two options. They can drift on the prevailing current this turn (this is indicated on the turn's environment card), or they can attempt to move. If they drift, they simply move to the adjacent space in the direction of the current drift, stopping at the edge of the board. However, if they want to move, the player rolls the dice and moves the amoeba in the direction indicated (there is a compass on the game board that indicates the direction for each die roll). Rolling the dice costs 1 precious Biological Point.
After an amoeba has drifted or moved, it attempts to feed. To avoid starving, an amoeba must eat 3 food cubes in its space, one of each of the other three colours. If it successfully eats, it then excreets 2 food cubes of it's own colour. If it can't eat, it doesn't excreet and gains a damage bead which is threaded onto the peg.
The second phase involves simply turning over the next environment card. These cards contain 2 pieces of information. The direction of current drift for the next turn, and the ultra-violet light index for the rest of this turn. The UV index is simply a number that varies between 6 (low) and 14 (high). This is a clever mechanic that puts an effective cap on the number of gene cards each player can hold in his hand. Each of these cards has a mutation index printed on it, from 3 to 6. The sum of these must be below the current UV index. If it isn't, the player must either give up gene cards until it is, or pay the difference in Biological Points (or a combination of both). This is a really good addition to the game as it limits the number of gene cards each player can hold, and ensures that some cards are given up by players - which enables them to become available to other players.
The next phase lets the players, in descending order, buy new gene cards. These cards are the heart of the game, as they allow a players amoeba to have extra capabilities like controlled movement, cheap movement, aggression, more economical eating, etc. Players must pay Biological Points to purchase these. Some examples of gene cards are STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL, which lets a players amoebae take a bite out of other players amoebae, rather than starve! DEFENSE may thwart that if held. My favourite is PARASITISM, simply for the very funny piece of art on the card.
The next phase is cell division. For the cost of 6 Biological Points each, players may purchase new amoeba and place them on the board. If a player holds CELL DIVISION, then these new amoebae cost only 4 Biological Points. New amoebae must be placed adjacent to an existing amoebae, unless you have the SPORES gene card, which allows you to place new amoebae anywhere.
After cell division, each amoeba is checked to see if it's starved to death. Amoebae die if they accumulate 2 damage beads and are removed from the board during this phase. For each amoeba that is removed, 2 food cubes of each colour are placed in it's place. The poor little thing has broken down into the stuff from whence it came which means food for the other players!
The last phase of the turn is the scoring phase in which all the hard work struggling to eat and advance pays off. Players score points for the number of amoeba on the board, and the number of gene cards in their hand. The scoring tracks are linear but don't start scoring points unless you have 3 amoeba or 3 gene cards. One slight anomaly is that if you increase the number of amoeba from 4 to 5, the points earned jumps from 2 to 4, so keeping 5 amoeba alive and kicking is recommended.
As players are scored (in descending order), their scoring markers are advanced along the scoring track. Occupied spaces are not counted when advancing, and this great mechanic ensures there is always a clear turn order, whether it be ascending or descending. If the game hasn't ended due to the last environment card being played last turn, or if someone has reached the dark zone on the scoring track, another turn is played.
That essentially is the game. I really like this one - it is a design that is 'heavy' enough to bring gamers who were born and bred on wargames and the more complex Avalon Hill titles into the land of European boardgames. My only nagging feeling is that it's a little too difficult to catch the leader, once he's broken away. I'm not too sure if there is any substance to my doubts, and the quality of the game far outweighs any doubts I do have. Best try it yourself and see.
In closing, after 4 games the consensus is this game is a very good design. Mechanically it's very simple to play, but the decision making process can get complex. It doesn't have the feel of a game that is going to get played a few times and then left on the shelf. It's better than that, and a lot of the fun will come from learning about the different genes and how they interact. The game just cries out for an expansion pack of new gene cards, and judging from the initial popularity of this game, I don't think it will be too long before they appear.