Want a frantic, fast-paced tile placing race? UBONGO!
# of Players
Ubongo is a polyomino puzzle game from KOSMOS brought to the Nintendo Switch by USM Games. The game centers around finding the correct way to fill in an oddly shaped grid area using a few polyomino pieces before time runs out. A single round may only take around a minute, the number of rounds being played varies by game type.
To start, Ubongo digital plays differently than Ubongo the board game, at least from the one physical game video overview I watched online. They ditched the gem-collection aspect and simply reward the player who wins the most rounds. The app has two main play modes: solo and versus. They are quite different but revolve around the same basic gameplay. In a break from our usual format, I will first explain the basic rules of the game then how both solo and versus work in this section.
A game begins as you are given a board which you will try to fill along with some tiles. You will have three to six tiles, depending on mode, and they will all fit on your board and will combine to completely fill the available space. (Note that some levels/modes will present you with more tiles than necessary as an exception to that rule) A round begins and you grab, flip, and rotate tiles trying to figure out how they all work together to exactly fill the space.
In solo, you play against a timer and can earn more gems by finishing the puzzle quicker. The solo mode is laid out over four different areas, each with eight different games and a “boss” to complete. Earning a certain amount of gems opens the boss, defeating that will open the next area of the campaign.
Versus play has two to four players going head-to-head in a local real-time battle with all players getting a section of the screen to play simultaneously. You select difficulty level for each player which determines how many tiles per puzzle and also whether or not you want to play in “Party” mode. Party mode throws in some goofy abilities that make things a bit more random and silly, these can either help you or hinder your opponent. In versus, players must solve five puzzles to win the round, and the first to win three rounds wins the match. This mode is untimed, after you complete a puzzle the next one is flipped along with its tiles.
Just to wrap things up, the physical game rules are sort of a combination of these two. There is a timer and the player (or two) who finishes first (under the timer) gets a bonus. You collect gems and whoever scores the most gem points after a certain number of rounds wins.
That’s Ubongo. This is our first Switch-exclusive review here. I was approached by USM about a review copy so, having never heard of it, I looked up the game and thought it looked light and fun. It was a little surprising to see the drastic change in scoring from that version, but the basic polyomino/tetris-style race is intact. I should also note that there have been quite a few variants of Ubongo made since the original’s release in 2003, so there’s a non-zero chance that the rules from this version actually match one of those, or maybe an official variant or something.
I like this game. I am a big Tetris fan and I’ve enjoyed the polyomino games I’ve gotten to try over the years. Ubongu comes closest to scratching that Tetris itch in board game form by adding the timer/race aspect. The game is incredibly simple but the concept works. I also want to point out that, despite a very simple concept, the game gets really quite tough even in just adding a fourth tile. Three is pretty simple and you will quickly start to pick up on strategies of how the limited different tiles can fit together, but adding that fourth makes this much more difficult. I won’t even get started on five or six.
Barrier to Entry
Ubongo is primarily taught through a series of tutorial stages at the beginning of the Solo mode. The first one has you picking up a tile and placing it, the next one you rotate a tile, and so on. There isn’t much to the rules of this game but the one step at a time tutorial makes sure you understand each part before moving onto the next. Instructions specific to certain game modes are explained when you go to play them, and can later be accessed with help buttons.
Look and Feel
Control was one of my main points of interest going into this game. It’s a Tetris-style race but you necessarily need to be able to grab, flip, and rotate multiple pieces per round. It seemed ripe for mishandling when being ported to a digital version. Thankfully, things are simple and work well in this department. Move your digital hand with the joystick and press the ‘A’ button to pick up a tile. Drag it over your board, use L and R to rotate and X and Y to flip. It took me maybe three or four rounds (at under a minute a piece) to really get the hang of the controls, but once I did they work really well.
One minor nitpick is that I wish the scrolling were a bit faster as it works by snapping to the nearest grid coordinates. This works perfectly while hovering over the board, but it feels needlessly slow when you are dragging a tile from off the board over top of your board. Of course, everybody has the same constraints so it is forgivable, but that the controls are handled so well everywhere else makes one minor annoyance stand out a bit more than it otherwise might.
Visually, the game looks fine. Docked and handheld, there is nothing visually stunning going on here, but it all looks nice. The theme and look are carried throughout the game. There is nothing extraordinary in the visuals, but it all looks nice.
The game only features simultaneous local multiplayer. This is the versus mode that was explained earlier. I will add that the party mode can get pretty ridiculous with those boosters. You earn them by grabbing them as they float across the screen. Doing so caches them for you and you can play them using the ‘B’ button. One of them has a stampede run over your opponent’s boards, blocking their view for a few seconds. Others will give you the solution for one or all of your pieces. These are really fun and powerful, they add a hefty dose of randomness but I suspect most people will enjoy what they bring to the digital table.
The campaign-style mode described earlier is the primary solo mode in Ubongo. The games in the campaign are fairly easy to earn at least one gem, but oftentimes the time limits for earning the perfect three gems are quite difficult. This leaves the potential for some replay value if you want to chase gem perfection.
There is also a Free Play mode which lets you fill in boards without any time or race considerations. Select to include any of the sizes from three to six tiles and the game will simply spit puzzles at you one at a time for you to complete at your leisure. This can be a relaxing way to spend some time if you want a stress-free Tetris experience.
Starting a party game
A three gem victory!
You can tell this game was designed specifically for Switch rather than being a mobile/Steam game that received a Switch port. The controls here work exactly as you would hope, and carry over easily to a single Joy Con setup, making a four player game achievable with two sets of Joy Cons.
I should note that the list price for this is $13.99, which is lower than most board games we’ve seen on Switch.
The Wrap Up
Ubongo is a fun Tetris-like experience. It is best served in multiplayer party mode. Fighting for boosts and delivering them at devastating times is truly a lot of fun. It is well made, they put a lot of thought into how this game should translate to digital and it shows. The rule changes benefit the digital game greatly, then the two solo modes provide some extra fun if that’s a draw for you.
The only minor implementation nitpick is the desire to be able to drag faster, but that would probably mess up the precision dragging necessary for fitting pieces onto the board, so it’s a nitpick that probably doesn’t make that much sense to begin with. We could also ask for an online multiplayer mode. This wouldn't be quite as fun as local, but I think it would still work fairly well. Other than that, if you think you would have a fun time sitting around a TV with a few friends or family in a sort of battle-Tetris style game, Ubongo is definitely worth a look.