Ender Wiggins
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Introducing Ubongo

I'm learning a new language: Swahili. And board games are helping me do it! First it was the word "Jambo", which means "hello" in Swahili. But now my vocabulary has instantly doubled with the addition of the word "Ubongo", which means "brain" in Swahili. Perhaps the idea is that Ubongo is a brainy game? Certainly it does require using your brains, but fortunately it's not one of those ultra-double-think-brain-melt type games that incapacitate the AP types, or require a supply of oxygen close at hand when playing. Ubongo is more of a puzzle kind of game that's played real time, and it's no Age of Steam or Agricola. It's a very different kind of game, and it's precisely this element that gives it its unique appeal. That, and the fact that you get to learn a Swahili word!

Think of it like a kind of simultaneous Tetris or Tangrams on speed. Everyone gets their own puzzle board and 12 different tiles, and simultaneously tries to complete their puzzle by placing their tiles to fit the configuration on their puzzle board. When you're done, you get to shout "Ubongo" and take some jewels from the game board - getting the most jewels of one colour will win you the game. And let's face it, don't we all need to own a game in which we get to shout Swahili words? It's not going to appeal to everyone, and my wife and kids tend to cream me when playing, but I have to admit that Ubongo has a very unique character, attractive components, and is a very satisfying addition to my collection.

Why should you care? Well if you've never heard of this game before, it's worth knowing that it won Best Family Game in Sweden as early as 2003, and almost half a dozen other "Game of the Year" and "Best Family Game" type awards subsequently in Sweden, Belgium, Norway, and Finland. I'm not sure how many people there speak Swahili, but I think these Norwegians and Swedes are on to something - Ubongo a good game! It also has spawned a whole series of other Ubongo games, including Ubongo Extreme, Ubongo: Duel, Ubongo 3D, and Ubongo Mini. Let's go find out more!


Game box

Ubongo was designed by Grzegorz Rejchtman and was first published already in 2003. No, don't ask me to pronounce his first name! This English-speaking reviewer will stick to his Swahili, rather than start worrying about the finer points of pronouncing the name of a native-born Pole who lives in Sweden and publishes games in Swahili. But clearly there has to be something special about anyone whose name begins with the letters GRZ. At any rate, maybe the Z in Grzegorz's name caught the eye of Mr Zev Shlasinger, because he's the one who's made it available in English courtesy of Z-Man Games. For the record, the game itself is language independent, so as far as game play is concerned, it doesn't matter if your five year old can't tell her GRZs from her JCHTs. In fact, five year olds can play this game, even if the box says it's for ages 8 and up. Here's the box cover of the Z-Man edition:

The back of the box shows off some of the lovely components, and summarizes the idea of the game.

"Each player receives their own puzzle board and 12 tiles, all shaped differently. Then one player throws the die and turns the sand timer. Which tiles will have to be placed on each player’s board is determined by the icon on the die. Now each player tries to place their tiles and solve the puzzle as fast as possible. The fastest player shouts “Ubongo!” and is allowed to move their pawn on the common game board and take two jewels. Meanwhile the other players continue to solve their puzzle – as long as the sand timer is running, they are allowed to place their tiles and collect jewels. The player who has collected the most jewels of one color is the winner! And that player won’t necessarily always be the fastest."

Folks, you now know how to play Ubongo! It's really that simple!

Component list

Let's check inside the box:

Kudos for the fantastic box insert by the way! Everything fits nicely! Even though it doesn't really affect the game play, the components all have a lovely African theme and flavour, which really enhances the game and gives it a unique feel.

Here's a list of all the components:
● 1 game board
● 4 sets of 12 tiles
● 1 sand timer
● 36 puzzle boards
● 4 player pawns
● 72 jewels
● 1 special die
● rule book

Rule book

The rule book can be downloaded from Z-Man's website here.

It only consists of a few pages, has a neat and clean look, and illustrates the rules with appropriate diagrams and illustrations. The game can be explained in a couple of minutes, making it ideal for introducing to non-gamers or families.

Puzzle Boards

Ubongo comes with 36 different puzzle boards, which are the heart of the game.

Each puzzle board is double sized. One side has a three-tile puzzle:

The other side has a four-tile puzzle.

That makes for 72 sides altogether. And since each side has 6 different puzzles, that's a total of 432 different puzzles! Lots of replayability here! And even if you do end up doing the same puzzle as on a previous occasion, you're not likely to remember it, especially given the time pressure in which you're completing them!

Puzzle Tiles

There are four sets of Tetris or Tangram looking puzzle tiles, one set of 12 different tiles for each player.

Special Die

To determine randomly which of the puzzles on a puzzle board is going to be used, there's a special die with 6 different icons.

Sand Timer

Puzzles have to be completed within a set amount of time, and for that purpose the game comes with a sand timer.

Here's something strange: out of curiosity I timed the sand timer to see how much time it gave. The sand timer that came with my game consistently allows 45.5 seconds one way, but 51.59 the other way! Believe me, because I checked it carefully - twice! Not that it matters for Ubongo, because puzzles are completed simultaneously, but I never realized previously that sand timers could give different results when turned in the other direction. (For more discussion about this interesting phenomenon, see here.)


In the order that they finish their puzzles, players get the chance to take jewels from the board (since the player with the most jewels of a particular colour is the winner). The jewels come in six colours: red, yellow, brown, violet, blue, and green.

Against a light background, the colours are easy to distinguish. But if you're playing on a dark background or in less than ideal lighting conditions, the yellow and brown jewels can look very similar, and sometimes you can even confuse the brown and red ones. This is somewhat unfortunate, as can be seen in the image below - it's hard to tell, but actually three of these gems are brown, two are yellow, and one is red:

Our solution is to place white paper under the board. There are twelve jewels of each colour, for a total of 72 jewels.

Game board

At the start of the game all the jewels will be placed randomly in the "holes" of a two-piece playing board:

The artwork on the board is really quite lovely, and enhances the game beautifully with a real African flavour!

Even the patterns are attractive and colourful!

Player Pawns

Each player gets a pawn in one of four colours:

These will go on the player board, and will be used to determine which jewels you can take from the board after completing your puzzle.



The jewels are placed randomly in the "holes" on the game board, and each player puts their pawn in one of the spaces at the start of the board.

Decide whether you're going to do the easier 3 tile puzzles or the 4 tiles puzzles. The puzzle tiles are shuffled face-down (you'll need 9 for each player), and each player gets one, along with a set of the 12 different tiles.

Here's how the set-up looks at the start of a four-player game:

Flow of Play

Solving the Puzzle

The die is rolled to determine which puzzle will be used, and the sand timer is immediately turned over to start the frenzy of activity that will follow!

Simultaneously, each player finds and takes the three tiles determined by the die roll.

Now it's a race to see who can fit the three pieces into the puzzle the quickest!

Tada! Here's a completed puzzle:

Completing your puzzle is your cue to yell "Ubongo" (immensely satisfying in itself, and worth the entry cost alone), and also entitles you to take two jewels from the board - as long as you do this before the time runs out! Other players can continue to try to solve their puzzles to get a chance to get some jewels as well.

Taking Jewels

When you've done your puzzle, you can take the two jewels from the front of the row where your pawn is. The first player to finish his puzzle has the most choice, because he is allowed to move his pawn up to three spaces left or right before taking the jewels.

The second player can move his pawn up to two spaces before taking two jewels, the third player can move his pawn up to one space, and the fourth player no spaces. If the timer runs out before you solve your puzzle or before you get your jewels, it's tough luck, the round is over and you get nothing! That's all part of the fun of the game: to solve your puzzle quickly, and then choose jewels quickly.


The game ends when this process has been repeated for 9 rounds, i.e. solving 9 puzzles each. At this point, the player with the most jewels in a single color wins the game (ties are resolved by the amount of their second best colour). It's not likely, but you could end up with a handful of gold!

Here's a scoring example from the rule book:

Note that earning the most jewels altogether won't necessarily win you the game. You may have 18 jewels, but if you only have 3 of each colour, you could be beaten by a player that has only 12 jewels of which four are green. This is a great levelling mechanic to prevent the best puzzlers from running away with the game - the fastest puzzlers will get the best chance of choosing the jewels they want, but there will be times where the colour they are going for won't be available, and this gives other players a chance to catch up.


What do I think?

Ubongo is a game unlike most others, and that means it has something special to offer:

It is quick. Set-up and game can be done in 20 minutes, and that's regardless of whether it's with 2, 3 or 4 players.

It is fast and frantic. A real-time game offers some frenzied activity and competition, and this element alone injects a level of excitement to the game. It also means that the game play time is limited by the clock, so the game won't wear out its welcome too quickly. No room for AP here!

It is unique. I can't think of any other game quite like Ubongo. As any gamer will know, a game collection can sometimes have significant duplication as a result of similar type games. Ubongo stands on its own as a unique game, and so isn't likely to fill a niche that is already filled by another game in your collection.

It has non-gamer appeal. The rules can be explained in just a few minutes. The comparison with familiar concepts like Tetris and Tangrams means that Ubongo is very accessible for non-gamers. It's also very suitable for children.

The artwork has character. Nobody is even going to pretend for half a second that a game like this has any kind of theme, because it's no secret that it's a puzzle type game. But that doesn't matter, and we think that the African looking artwork is rather colourful and attractive. Distinguishing between yellow and brown jewels could prove to be a problem for some players, however, and if you have issues with colour-blindness, Ubongo could just creat some frustration.

It has lots of replayability. You are not going to be doing the same puzzles any time soon. And even if you do, given the time pressure, you won't be remembering anything from previous games!

It has some great handicapping mechanisms. What I really like about Ubongo is that there are ways to handicap good players, so you can still make it competitive for players of different ages or abilities. You could have the puzzle expert play with the 4-tile puzzles while everyone else plays with the 3-tile puzzles, or you could give young children a head start by letting them pick out their puzzle pieces before starting the timer. This is a great feature, so that all the family can play!

It has a great leveling mechanism. It's true that the heart of the game is the puzzling, while the post-puzzle scramble for jewels is really just a way to make scoring more interesting. But the jewel mechanic does more than that: it also forces players to quickly grab jewels and so adds an extra dimension of fun to the game. What's more, often a player that is leading will not be able to get a jewel of the colour he is collecting every turn. This gives other players a chance to catch up. Basically the "jewel" system of scoring prevents super-puzzlers from turning the game into boring blow-out wins. Great concept!

It's not for everyone. It has to be conceded that not everybody likes puzzle games. If you can't stand this genre, then Ubongo probably isn't for you. But the game makes up for this by having a very broad appeal, especially to the non-gaming crowd.

It teaches you a foreign language. You get to learn a Swahili word - surely that's got to count for something! "Ubongo!" Try yelling it out loud. Go on, you know you want to do it! Isn't it immensely satisfying?!

What do others think?

In the Puzzle category, Ubongo is currently the third highest ranked game on BGG! Read that again: the third highest! As far as puzzle type games go, it's clearly one of the very best! But not everyone likes puzzle games, and so as you'd expect, reactions to the game are somewhat mixed.

The critics

"This is not a game. I never want to play this again." - Fabian M.
"Damn you spacial reasoning skills!!! I am horrible at games like this. They frustrate me, more than relax me." - Brett H.
"I'm not terribly good at spacial-perception, pattern-recognition type games, and when you add a clock to put pressure on me, it drains all of the tiny amount of fun potential." - Jeff Boes
"This is parallel Tangrams with an odd, more than a little random scoring mechanism. I have no clue why there was so much excitement around this." - Ken Tidwell
"The frantic competitive puzzling is enjoyable; although for me, success seemed heavily influenced by getting lucky on the first drop. Ubongo plays light and fast enough for me not to care and just go with it. However, the convoluted scoring system rubs me the wrong way. I think it takes too much focus away from what should be a simple test of spatial awareness. The game is fine otherwise, but not my cup o'tea." - Dominic (wlaznak)
"It's a speed game, so not really my style. Curiously, the scoring aspect got to me more than the puzzle-solving aspect, although even with "better" scoring I don't think it would ever be a favorite." - Jeff Wolfe
"Light puzzle game to play with nongamers. Lame scoring mechanism though." - (cradleofmilk)
"Fast fun with Tetris-like pieces that must be fit to a grid. GREAT for non-gamers, but people who are spatially challenged will have difficulty." - Doug Garrett

Actually these critical comments are rather helpful, because they highlight reasons why Ubongo might not be for you. If you don't like puzzle type games, stay far away. The game itself isn't flawed, but it is important to realize that Ubongo is not something that fits everyone's tastes. As far as game-play is concerned, most comments are positive, although some gamers are less than enthusiastic about the jewel scoring system and suggest it's something tacked on to the puzzle making at the heart of the game. Actually I think that is precisely the point - the puzzling is the heart of the game, but rather than just make the fastest puzzler the automatic winner, they've integrated a scoring system that has an inherent levelling mechanism, and adds a small layer of strategy and fun beyond the simple puzzling. The critics are in the minority, because there's also a solid gushing of praise for the game.

The praise

"Fun, accessible, puzzles, real-time... what is not to love?" - Donna Lei
"Great fun for the whole family. Easy ways to adapt the difficulty." - Steve K.
"A fairly light, spatial puzzler that fills a particular niche in my collection. I've taught it to both gamers and non-gamers, and it has always gone over very well." - Chris Jensen
"Like puzzles? Or Tetris? Then you'll really like Ubongo." - Antti Yli-Tainio
"This is a game I like even more than I thought I would. Part puzzle, part game, great combination. This is not like any other game I own or have played. Very unique and adds good breadth to my collection." - Tim Pelletier
"If your a puzzle fan, you'll LOVE this game. " - Ray Jankowski
"Tetris on speed." - A. Morris
"Very neat little speed game, with a handicapping system built in so you can play with kids on an even footing. Reminiscent of Tetris." - Sharon Khan
"Much more fun than I expected." - Matt Lee
"The rules are straightforward, and the tasks (grab pieces, solve puzzle, move piece, grab gems) are relatively easy to accomplish. But imposing a time limit provides a delicious tension to the experience. And please play with the board -- it adds a feeding frenzy aspect that forces you to make split-second decisions, which is the charm of this game." - Phil Alberg
"Wow! If the description of the game seems fun at all, you want to give this game a try. We always have a blast! Competitive, but not directly. Very unique and fast-paced." - NinjaBob
"Fantastic! For all you who played with Tangrams as a kid, this is for you. The puzzle solving under timed pressure is a great way to get the brain going, and the added mechanic of jewel collecting makes this a game where you don't have to necessarily finish first to get what you need. This is one of the better games I've played in a long time." - Jonathan Serna

More Ubongo

The beauty of Ubongo is that there are several ways to play it, and it has spawned somewhat of a Ubongo family. For harder puzzles try Ubongo Extreme, for two players try Ubongo: Duel, for a vertical challenge try Ubongo 3D.

And even that doesn't exhaust everything that the Ubongo family has to offer you! Someone has come up with an XL variant with 6 piece boards. There's also some expansions, and even a younger brother Ubongo Mini. So if you do like this kind of game, there's lots more close cousins and relatives to explore!


Is Ubongo for you? That will depend somewhat on your tastes, and folks who can't stand puzzle type games probably will want to give this a miss. But on the other hand aren't we always looking for something suitable for non-gaming family or friends to enjoy? Ubongo fits the bill quite nicely, because it does have a very broad appeal and can be taught so quickly. And if you even remotely enjoy puzzle-type games like Tetris, and have an innate competitive streak, then chances are you will just love Ubongo. For gamers who enjoy puzzle type games, the attractive components and fast game-play of Ubongo are sure to be an immediate and enduring hit.

The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596
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Ferdinand Chan
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Thanks Ender for another great reviews !!!!

Just bought this last weekend and my wife really enjoy it..

If you're looking for some filler game that you and your wife can enjoy after a long day work, get this one and I'm sure you won't regret.
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Dan Rivera
United States
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To add a little to those who are trying to decide which one is best for you.

in order of dificulty easiest to hardest:
(nice light brain stim) ubongo
(wow this requires some thought) ubongo 3d
(arghh this hard) ubongo extreme
(Oh my God! My brain is going to blow up!) ubongo duel
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◄ əpıʌɐp ►
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Mr. Wiggins,
you should be banned from this website.

This is another case of me not caring at all for a game, then I read your awesome, damned review and I add it to my wishlist. My wallet starts crying. shake
I should sue you.
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Melanie Chauvin
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Wow, wicked review! Don't you always feel like you HAVE to finish the puzzle even though the timer is up?? I drive myself crazy!

Here's my little take at an honest little review:

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