Full disclosure: A review copy of Ubongo 3D was provided by KOSMOS.
I’m starting to be in a place where I can have the occasional gaming event, but we’re ramping back up. A lot of folks, turns out, didn’t? play board games for the last two years? Weird. Their strangeness aside, this means that you’re probably going to be seeing a lot more wallet games and gateway / family games out of here for a bit. That’s generally my bread and butter anyways, but I figured I’d mention it. I’m hoping to get the occasional heavier game played, but currently the most complex thing that’s hit the table has been Cape May, and that’s … not all that heavy. More on that later. In the meantime, we’ve got more from KOSMOS! I keep eying Anno 1800, but Lord knows that’s not happening for a while. We’ll see. Our latest game is Ubongo 3D! I think they’re reviving this one a bit, since it came out in 2009 (though I have many questions about Ubongo: Star Wars), so let’s check it out!
In Ubongo 3D, you have, well, 3D pieces. They’re weird, though, so your problems are only increasing. As usual, be quick, complete the puzzle, and earn valuable gems. The faster you go, the better your odds. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily win! Will you be able to solve the puzzles in time?
Give each player a set of 8 pieces:
Next, have each player choose a difficulty level and take nine cards of that difficulty level. Keep the cards flipped over, so that players can’t see any of the cards of their chosen difficulty level. Cards range from Level 1 (Green) to Level 2 (Yellow) to Level 3 (Orange) to Level 4 (Red):
Set aside a row of 9 blue gems and 9 brown gems, placing the rest of the gems into the included bag:
Set aside the sand timer and the die, and yYou should be good to start!
Ubongo 3D takes place over nine rounds, as players try to quickly assemble multidimensional shapes based on the whims of a die.
To start, every player should flip over the top card of their stack and one player should roll the die while another player flips the sand timer. Once that happens, grab the pieces indicated by the die value and try to assemble them! Your assembled structure should be two blocks high and completely fill out the shape indicated on the card (without anything overhanging, either).
If you think you’ve got it, yell “Ubongo!”. If you have it, everyone else keeps going and you take the blue gem (and a random gem from the bag) if you’re the first player to get it, the amber gem (and a random gem from the bag) if you’re the second player to get it, or a random gem from the bag if you’re the third or fourth player to get it. If time runs out and someone’s completed their puzzle, any player who hasn’t doesn’t get any gems for the round.
If time runs out and nobody has gotten their puzzle complete yet, flip the timer again! If time runs out again, return the blue and amber gem for that round to the bag and move on to the next round. All players discard their card.
Play until nine rounds have elapsed, then score your gems:
- Red: 4 points
- Blue: 3 points
- Green: 2 points
- Amber: 1 point
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Generally, there aren’t really any major differences between player counts, especially since the third- and fourth-fastest players to complete their puzzles just both draw a gem from the bag. There’s no player interaction in this game, otherwise. Players just do their own thing on a short timer and if they beat other players out, great. If they don’t, well, less good, but nothing you can do (short of knocking pieces out of players’ hands, which I can’t recommend for logistical, ethical, social, and other reasons). Solo is just “set a timer and see how many cards you can get through”. Beyond that, though, … yeah, there’s no player interaction. So I’d happily recommend Ubongo 3D at any player count! Since it’s effectively the same regardless.
- Remember the constraints of each puzzle. The key pieces are that the structure will be fully-filled, height 2, and will have no pieces outside of the given boundary. This means that there are some places that only certain pieces can be. If you can lock those pieces down there, it reduces the complexity of the puzzle significantly (or just the available combinations of pieces). Try to find those constraints so that you can reduce the puzzle down until it’s solved.
- For the larger pieces, taking a top-down view can be helpful. There are only so many top-down configurations available. For instance, no structure will ever be height three, so you can rule out some rotations of pieces almost immediately. Not many, granted, but some! This top-down approach can essentially allow you to try to flatten the puzzle down to a 2D one. If you can get that somewhat working, you might be able to come up with some configuration of pieces that makes that projection work.
- Generally speaking, having a single-level piece on the edge isn’t great. The entire structure needs to be height 2, so if you have something that’s an edge or corner piece that’s height 1 and it’s surrounded by height 2 blocks, there’s no way that you’re going to be able to make that height 2 (since a 1 x 1 block doesn’t exist). I find that building from the outer edge inward helps me organize, as a result, since I can at least lock down that.
- It’s hard to have much better strategy advice than “go fast”. This is, at its core, a real-time spatial reasoning puzzle happening in three dimensions. You’re gonna need to be pretty quick if you want to be able to get through it and win, and beyond that, there’s not much else to do. Try to keep your area organized so that you can move quickly, try to use both your hands at the same time, and try to think about rotations and flips of pieces as fast as you can. There’s not much you can do about the distribution of points, since it’s somewhat random, so your goal should always be to just be first so that you’re guaranteed at least three points.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- God, I thought the Ubongo mini was difficult. 3D makes things so much more complicated. In a fun, interesting way, granted, but this can melt my brain occasionally. When we played, we would just try and if neither of us could solve the puzzle, we’d say “busted” and move on. I think it might have been us who were busted, but, you know, hard to say.
- The colors are a lot of fun, here. The pieces look great on the table, but thankfully they’re all unique shapes, so even colorblind folks can participate fully. Or, fully, barring the colors of the gems.
- I really like that there are variable difficulty levels, so that everyone can play at their own pace. I particularly like that you can play with different players at different difficulty levels with no adjustments required. My friend and I played at different difficulty levels and she beat me (narrowly), which I think is excellent. It means that everyone can play to their comfort level. If someone wins, make them play the next game at one step up on the difficulty ladder. The player in last place can go down a tier or something. It should rebalance to some degree, though you may not want to let the last place player drop a tier if it was a close game.
- The three-dimensionality of the pieces is very fun. The pieces are also a nice texture and weight; they feel like good components. They’re fun to hold, rotate, and balance on top of each other. Thankfully, they’re also dense enough that they tend to hold their position without much additional effort, so you’re not worried about knocking the stack over all the time.
- I also really appreciate that there’s a dice-rolling component to this, so that even if you play on the same difficulty level multiple times, there are a variety of different options and outcomes so nobody will end up memorizing anything. Even someone who can successfully remember the combination of pieces for a particular puzzle will be hard-pressed to remember 3 – 6 different valid configurations unless they’ve played Ubongo 3D a ton of times. If they have, I mean, at a certain point you do have to just respect the hustle. But I appreciate that the cards are shuffled and randomized and within the puzzle, the combination of pieces used is usually different every game (depending on the dice roll). It’s both a smart way to keep the game fresh and an impressive level of attention to detail that every configuration can be solved multiple ways.
- There’s some part of the random scoring element that I don’t love, but I think I’m just overreacting. I think I just didn’t like that I drew zero red gems during the game I lost, but that’s again, me whining a bit. The random scoring element does a nice job making sure that first place is almost always better than every other possible place (unless they get the worst gem and second place gets the best gem). You would expect first place to consistently score a bit higher than other places, and that’s good! The randomization of it helps make sure that players don’t feel like they’re totally out (unless they’re consistently drawing the worst possible gems, in which case that feels terrible). Thankfully, it’s a bag and not a die, so drawing bad gems at least reduces the supply of bad gems in the bag for subsequent pulls.
- It can be challenging to tell the difference between various pieces in real-time if you’re in a hurry. I have been giving a bit of slack to players so that they can collect the correct pieces before I start the time, but the pieces are a bit small on the cards and you can occasionally mix them up if you’re not totally looking. Yes, occasionally in real-time games, players aren’t always paying rapt attention. It’s a real problem, probably.
- One potential risky part of this game. If you’re running this game or teaching the game, you need to allow players to play at different difficulty levels and I’d recommend allowing players to shift difficulty levels if they’re having trouble. This is the kind of game that some players are going to absolutely love and a game that some players are going to absolutely hate. It’s the kind of game that makes players feel stupid when they’re struggling. You, the host (since I assume if you’re reading this you’re considering the game in some capacity), need to display empathy, here. Remind players that the difficulty levels are about helping them find a level that’s fun for them to play at, and there’s nothing wrong with trying a few different ones over the course of the game until they calibrate what level they want to play at. This is the kind of game that I’ve seen players be jerks about, and that makes me sad, because I like these kinds of games. But real-time spatial reasoning games can be very specifically frustrating for folks, and given the 3D nature of this, it’s certainly no exception. Make space for players to find their own comfort level. It’s not really about winning the game; it’s about making sure the experience of playing the game is fun for everyone.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I like Ubongo 3D! It’s solidly fun, it’s got good, solid components, and I think the intense difficulty of the game is wisely mitigated by some solidly stratified difficulty levels. I think that’s pretty key, for games like this? Playing across difficulty levels rules, even if you lose, since it allows the person you’re playing with to play at a level that challenges them as much as your chosen level challenges you. I like that a lot in games, variable difficulty, and I think Ubongo 3D is a very good and successful example of that. I’m also impressed by the variability of the other aspects of the game. There are a lot of cards, and even on a specific card there are 3 – 6 possible configurations of pieces that can be used to solve it. That’s impressive! I think that helps future-proof the game, somewhat, since you’re not necessarily going to be able to hold every possible solution in your brain, even within one difficulty level. This is a game I’m excited to play a bit more of, and if you’re looking for a clever, real-time puzzle game, I’d recommend checking Ubongo 3D out!
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