Full disclosure: A preview copy of Ursa Miner was provided by Room & Board Games. Some of the rules and art assets may change before, during, and after the Kickstarter, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game. Please bear with me. (heh)
Eric’s note: I’ve since updated my review with photography from the 2017 Kickstarter copy. Enjoy the new pictures!
Funny story; I’ve actually been trying to play this game for over a year, but due to an unfortunate series of mistakes that involved me trusting my friend to not drag me into any weird games at Protospiel, only for him to drag me into an explicitly weird game when I was about to play Ursa Miner, I haven’t yet. That’s a longer-form story that doesn’t quite fit into the format of this preview, so I’d ask that you leave it to your imagination.
In Ursa Miner, you and your bear pals are mining the famous Mount Honeycomb looking for honey (obviously; what else do bears even do?) and Royal Jelly, to try and discover your fortunes. As you earn honey, you will be able to attract other bears to your cause and use their talents to dig deeper and further to potentially strike it rich. Losing would be un-bear-able (heh), so will you be able to emerge from Mount Honeycomb victorious?
This is a bit involved, which is surprising given how few games have fairly involved setups that I’ve reviewed any time recently (except, like, BrilliAnts, which has an emotionally-trying setup period).
First, you’ll pick a color of bear to be (Red Pandas [yes, I know], Sun Bears, Polar Bears, or Black Bears), and take all the bear cubes of that color:
From those, set three aside, as you will be able to hire them later with sufficient honey.
Next, you’ll find the Bonus Cards:
Shuffle them, and make a stack for the number of players you have:
- Two players: 20 cards
- Three players: 21 cards
- Four players: 28 cards
Then, each player draws a card.
Now for the fun part. So, you’re going to need to take tiles and build Mount Honeycomb. That’s kind of great. So, basically, first you need to form the core. Take the black tiles and form the left pattern for a 2- or 3-player game, and the right pattern for a 4-player game:
Next, surround the core with grey tiles, then brown tiles:
Congratulations! You’ve formed the base. Now, cover every black tile with a grey tile and every grey tile with a brown tile. Repeat this strategy until there are only brown tiles visible:
This is honestly one of my favorite parts of the game, even if it activates weird neurotic tendencies in my brain where I am lightly compelled to make sure that all the tiles face the same way and that they’re all set in the correct positions. But nobody wants to read about that, so let’s keep going.
Once you’ve done all that, you should choose a start player (I believe the rules suggest “whichever player loves bears the most”) and let them choose any spot on Mount Honeycomb to place both of their bears. All players follow suit. After you’ve done that, you should be about ready to start:
Gameplay is the light and easy-to-understand part, here. There are some advanced rules, but I’ll cover the basic game for right now. The game takes place over a series of turns, and on each turn you can take any of these three actions in any order:
- Move Each Bear
- Mine with Each Bear
- Play a Bonus Card
I’ll explain these in order.
Move Each Bear
So, on your turn, you can move every bear up one space in any direction. That’s about it. I honestly kind of figured there’d be more to say about this, so that’s why I made the section heading, but, I suppose not.
Mine With Each Bear
For this action, your bears can exert one pickaxe worth of strength to mine an adjacent tile. This means that if a tile only has one pickaxe pictured (like the left tile), a single bear can mine it, but if it has more than one (like the right tile), it’ll take more work:
Some tiles will have honey pots on them, the standard currency of the game. The crowns on these tiles represent Royal Jelly, which are worth end-game points and are how you win. You should try to collect both if you want to win, as you might surmise. There are, understandably, some caveats to mining:
- You do not have to mine with all your bears simultaneously. You may want to move some, mine with those, and then mine with others.
- You cannot mine underneath of any bear. For one, it’s rude, and two, it’s called undermining, which is strictly prohibited. So don’t do it.
- Do not split Mount Honeycomb. Bear God only knows what would happen if you did that. Mount Honeycomb may never be mined in such a way that it would split the mountain into two distinct components. Bear Geologists suggest that the Mountain isn’t terribly seismically stable, and irresponsible mining could cause a cub-tastrophe and bear-y some miners (heh). Also it’d make the game unplayable, so don’t.
Play a Bonus Card
You can play any one Bonus Card from your hand if you meet the requirements (some require Honey to play). These have a variety of effects like moving bears, moving tiles, destroying tiles, reducing the cost of mining tiles, or even just giving you Royal Jelly. They’re fairly valuable, so don’t take them for granted. Unless otherwise stated, you may only play one per turn.
At the end of your turn, you may spend 3 Honey to recruit an additional bear. If you do, place the bear on a space where you already have one or more bears, making a Bear Pair (at least).
After that, draw a card, and your turn is over.
Once the last Bonus Card is drawn, all players get one additional turn. After that, the game is over, and the player with the most Royal Jelly wins!
For more experienced players, you can add on some advanced rules. The major changes are these:
- Mining is tiring. If you mine with a bear, it cannot move afterwards for the rest of the turn. As someone who once had to dig 27-inch postholes in bedrock, I can agree with this assessment. This restricts players to moving before mining, if they choose to at all.
- You can play more than one Bonus Card per turn … for a price. During your turn, you can spend 1 Honey to play an additional Bonus Card. You can repeat this as many times as you want, provided you have the Honey to pay each time. This is in addition to any costs on the card.
Player Count Differences
I’ve only really tried it at two and three, currently, but the major thing I’ve noticed is that blocking mining is easier at three people because there are just strictly more bears on the board, therefore more spaces could potentially be covered. At four, Mount Honeycomb gets a bit bigger so this might not strictly apply as much. There will also be more Bonus Cards in play, but at three people there are fewer rounds per player (6 rounds each, rather than 9 at two players). I don’t have a strong preference on player count for this one.
- Blocking is a strong defensive play. Moving your bears such that nobody can mine the tile underneath of you is good, as you effectively create a bear-icade (heh) for that tile until other players move off of it. This can be countered by Bonus Cards, so it’s not always unbeatable, but it’s definitely a decent play.
- You can use TNT offensively or defensively. Need to uncover a tile so you can mine it? TNT the tile above it. See that an opponent is going to take a really good tile? Well, TNT will certainly bruin their plans. God, I love bear puns.
- Loose Rock is generally a very strong card. It allows you to ignore one pickaxe symbol on a tile when you mine it this turn, effectively giving you a free loaner bear. It’s a pretty koala-ty card. (And yes, I know.)
- In the same vein, play smart, not hard, with Bonus Cards. They have a lot of useful abilities, so make sure you’re making the most of them. Being able to move bears around, move tiles around, or add dummy tiles back to the mountain are great ways to set up future turns or prevent opponents from making significant gains on their turns.
- It seems generally like a good idea to start near the middle rather than the edges. It allows you access to the same number of tiles, but you can also stop other players from mining “better” tiles if you’re on top of them, and they tend to be concentrated towards the middle.
- Go after the 1-pickaxe tiles first. If you place your starting bears correctly, you should be able to mine two tiles on your first turn. Since all brown tiles have the same number of Honey / Royal Jelly, this seems like a better idea than spending both bears on one tile.
- If you can get 1 – 2 black tiles (the 5-point ones), you should focus on stopping anyone else from getting them. They have a solid number of points, so once you have a strong lead you should spend some bears focusing on other players and preventing them from encroaching on your lead. It’s helpful.
- You definitely want to get at least 3 – 4 bears. You’ll need them for mining later in the game, but generally you’ll have enough bonus cards that you shouldn’t have much trouble getting the 5-cost tiles mined every now and then. There’s no real benefit to Honey after the fifth bear (unless you can get Jelly Throne or want to get extra bonus cards, especially since you’ll only have maybe 3 turns left in the game once you hit the fifth bear, max), but you definitely need enough bears that you can efficiently mine the grey tiles.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Cute theme. Love the art, love bear puns, love the whole aesthetic.
- I absolutely love the mountain-building and mining aspect. There’s a real sense of accomplishment when you’ve built the mountain and when you’ve sort of mined almost all of it during a game. I’d be fascinated by variants that add in more types / versions of mountains. Maybe four separate peaks? I’d just love to see that as a potential stretch goal, similar to the multiple layouts in Emergence or the different types of boards in Captain Sonar.
- Simple to learn. I think this is a fine game for most people. I’d be a bit more inclined to suggest playing with kids if the Bonus cards were less text-heavy, but I’m not sure what audience they’re aiming for. I also appreciate that there are advanced rules; I’ve been mostly playing with those and have enjoyed them.
- Plays pretty quickly. There’s some risk of analysis paralysis, but not a ton unless people are really agonizing over which tiles they mine, which seems pretty rare.
- Seems expandable. I could imagine future parts of this game that have, like, variable player powers or special / new types of tiles or other variants that add even more replay value.
- Would love if the game were slightly bigger. Maybe not Catan-sized tiles (that’d be a bit impractical), but thicker tiles would be amazing and give the game a real sense of depth. Oh well; stretch goals.
- Some of the cards just seem … better than others? Loose Rock (lets you ignore one pickaxe symbol on a tile when mining this turn) seems particularly good compared to a few other cards. A few other cards are highly situationally useful and vaguely useless, other times.
- Building the mountain aggravates me, slightly. I think it’s a consequence of a deep-seated desire to have all the tiles flush with each other and facing the same way. I am not going to suggest that this is a common problem that everyone who plays this game is going to have; it’s just something that I inflict on myself.
- The game can feel pretty luck-oriented, at times. Generally there’s an element of opportunism to the game, in that you want to be near other players when they reveal tiles, just in case they are the two-cost, three-honey / three-point tiles, which are the best points-to-pickaxes ratio in the game. You should almost always go for those, and if you get enough even players getting the core tiles can’t totally stop you. It can be a bit frustrating if one player is consistently getting lucky with those, just as a warning, but if you have the right Bonus cards, it’s not a problem. You just … have to have the right Bonus cards. I’d probably be more concerned if it were a longer game, though.
- The game seems to slightly invite player bias on where they place their bears if they keep a close eye on setup. If you’re keeping an eye on grey tiles during setup, you could potentially see places where there are cheap grey tiles and make a note to place your bears near those / mine those first. I think this is pretty fixable, though; pull a Between Two Cities and instead of having player randomizer cards, have random (maybe even named?) starting placement cards for the bears and draw one each time. It’d be a fun little fix and nobody would get all that mad, in my opinion.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, Ursa Miner is a solid game! I’m a huge fan of the theme, obviously, but there’s a lot of variety for a small game and I can see this being a fun game to try and get people into games with more complexity or a good, solid way to start a game night. I’d love to see what else they could do with the game, especially if it gets funded on Kickstarter, so if this sounds like a game that’s up your alley, I’d recommend checking it out!