Alexander G.
Germany
Frankfurt Area
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First Impressions – Plus Ultra

Plus Ultra is the new 2-4 player product of a small and rather new Spanish publisher which has reached the German market via local crowd-funding and will be also available at Essen 2016. My game box contains an international version also with Spanish, English and German language. Does the game meet the expectations of its promising Latin name (“further beyond”)? The first experiences of four advanced gamers are described below sharing their impressions of a game session. Please do not understand this posting as a full play testing of all possible player counts and optional rules but as a first idea about this game allowing you to understand basic mechanisms and first observations.


Background & Goals

Each player represents a Spanish noble (“Grande”) during the time of the Spanish 16th century empire aiming for fame (yes… victory points) by playing actions via selected role cards as well as from areas of the board. In the essence, the game is a mix of a limited card drafting mechanism with some worker placement options and aspects of area control in order to grab gold as key resource, create fame points or get other advantages, especially controlling or being in the lead of certain areas of the board.

The game is played in 7 rounds with each round having 13 (!) sub-steps starting from moving resources around the map, bidding procedures, optional purchases, resolution of placed armies etc. However, the selection of cards and execution of related actions is the key mechanism and most time-consuming element. Additionally, the player turn order is another critical topic of the game as it’s linked to available options, triggers benefits including money or fame points.

Beside the fame points accumulated during the game, some areas and positions as well as other possessions provide further fame points as part of a final calculation. The player with the most fame points at the end of the game wins.


Game Play & Mechanics

Each player has a very limited amount of starting resources including 3 gold, 2 armies and 2 housing plus 2 tokens for secondary actions. Gold is rather limited and usually required to pay for actions. Armies can be sent to the European battlegrounds to achieve fame or are used to support activities in the colonies. Housing is placed as area control element in the colonies. The very concentrated and small to medium-sized game board shows different abstracted areas of Spain (king’s treasury, church, market, battlegrounds) and overseas (colonies, Magellan’s voyage, sea trade) as well as an area for 8 secondary actions.

There are 13 role cards (plus one optional role) representing the key element of the game mechanism. Each card offers a unique role, e.g. “Viceroy”. It may have a passive advantage like getting money for own colonies which is always triggered when selecting that role. Additionally, there are always two main actions available and a player must decide in turn order which of these actions will be used as a main action. After having set aside one card randomly, the remaining 12 cards are drafted starting with the first player selecting one card, then the second player in term order etc. and going back to the first player until each player has received three role cards. Again starting with the first player and after some other round steps in between, each player will then select a main action of a card in two sub-rounds, i.e., one card will remain inactive. Using a passive advantage of a card (e.g., changing the player position or getting money for another player’s action) already forces a player to use that card’s main action as well. These main actions mainly create money, manipulate the board (e.g., placing housing, changing armies, pushing up the trade rank) or collect other advantages (like getting other helpful cards). In addition to the main action, players can trigger a secondary action immediately before or after the main action which is usually a bit more expensive or less powerful than a comparable main action and also only available once per round. For example, you can purchase an additional army for 2 gold coins as secondary action while the comparable main action would provide you an army for free.

You can also choose some aggressive main actions which can trouble other players like piracy, taxation or money to be paid to the church, but the destructive actions are viewed as usually not very attractive or efficient compared to productive actionsand have therefore not been used often in our game. However, the main cut-throat element of the game is caused by the limited amount of actions via cards or on the board. For example, there is only one card allowing you to purchase housing and one secondary action field to do a more expensive housing purchase. However, you need housing for controlling colonies (which requires another action), so a lot of available colonies have not been controlled simply due to a lack of available housing material. Especially in a four player game, the player position becomes key as you otherwise will often end up with less attractive cards and definitely less interesting secondary actions, often forcing a player in a low turn order to drop a secondary action. It’s even worse during the second half of the game as some secondary actions simply won’t be available anymore, because the related cards are sold out or options like purchasing estates are not available anymore.

Furthermore, there are some other interesting mechanisms to be found in the game. The armies are usually used to bid for a position in the battlegrounds by a little blind bidding game and can only participate (and therefore achieve fame points) if the rolled number of the war is covered by enough armies and the own army finds a free slot. As all players bid at once, you need to look at all available armies and outthink your opponents. Armies placed in excess of the war number are actually also considered as used and therefore “wasted”. Any used army is tired and needs to be refreshed at the beginning of the round which is only available in case all own armies are tired and one gold is paid. As you also may need armies for colony actions, you always need to balance your engagement on the battlegrounds with future actions of available roles. It should be also noted that the army leader card (“Constable”) allows some manipulation of already placed armies as well.
Another game element is trade resources which are created in the colonies and moved to the market place via several mechanisms. The amount and position of the four different resource types have an influence on the efficiency of main actions (e.g., money created with a Trader main action) and are closely linked to a church sponsoring mechanism moving goods from the market to a cathedral building project and thereby creating additional fame points. Special church window cards (which are available for purchase by a secondary action or a specific role card) can improve the efficiency of such church-related actions.

In a nutshell, you also have to consider a lot of other game options which can only be briefly mentioned in this overview. Housing (to be purchased as resource) placed in colonies (via actions) can create money (as passive advantage of the Viceroy) and provide fame points at the end of the game per housing and per colony majority. Trade goods and colonies need to be explored using the Conqueror main action (creating fame points). Natives can be found as well which could attack colonies, but also provide huge amounts of fame points the more captured by one player. The purchase of Magellan special cards provides one fame point only each, but if all such cards are purchased by the players, the fame point value of each card triples. The sea trade position, if high enough, can provide money and fame points per round and a one-time bonus at the end of the game. Finally, money, remaining armies and housing are also transferred into victory points, but this amount is very low and does not play any relevant role.

A final noteworthy key element are church papers (bulls) which are expensive (3 gold), but allow you to trigger a second main action after execution of a first one which can be mission-critical in view of the limited amount of options and the chances to get the same card again.


Game play & Balancing

Plus Ultra is a tough card management and worker placement game especially for 4 players fighting for the limited amount of available actions. Leaving the possibility of purchasing additional actions with church cards aside, a player has only 14 main actions plus a maximum of 14 secondary actions during the game. However, the total amount of different options plus the busy board and the significant number of steps during a turn make Plus Ultra a rather medium to complex board game irrespective of its below-average sized box and limited materials. There are a lot of mechanisms on a limited amount of room which requires advanced to expert players just in order to digest the game explanation...

Especially, don’t be fooled by the limited number of individual role cards! Most of the play time is actually spent by a player thinking about which card to take while the other players are waiting for getting the remaining cards which unfortunately creates significant downtime during that phase. This topic leads to my first serious issue with Plus Ultra: Our 4 player game to longer than 30 minutes to explain as you need to go through the board, each phase and the card roles. Then the main game itself took more than 3 hours (!) including a lot of downtime created by searches in the poorly written rule book and during the card selection phase. The box mentions 90 minutes for 2-4 players which is definitely an understatement for 4 players, to say the least.

On the positive side, you have to recognize that Plus Ultra is a “meaty” game with a lot of playing content and mechanisms condensed into one game. You always have the feeling that there are too many critical actions required for your envisaged strategy at the beginning of the round and then, especially in case you have a low turn order, your options melt down like snow in the Spanish summer and you have to make the best with the remaining options and act more tactically. However, it’s perfectly possible to have a low turn order in the first half of the game focusing on resources and gold while you jump to the beginning of the turn order in the right moment to ensure the availability of key actions. For example, thanks to a low turn order, I was left with the Viceroy chasing some natives in the first half of the game. When the other players have realized that further natives would actually explode my fame point calculation, it was already too late for them as I manipulated the turn order, secured the Viceroy card again and captured another two natives by using a double action with the bull card.

The game play as such has left my group with mixed feelings. While some ideas and mechanics are really fascinating and there was a high thrill and motivation to pursue personal goals, the significant length and down-time even for experienced gamers together with the feeling of a busy board and too many mechanisms and sometimes artificial and not self-explanatory rules pour some water into the red Spanish whine. The one or other player was also a bit frustrated having rather limited options in the end game also thanks to empty secondary actions (especially in case that player has a low turn order number) which could be better in a 3 or 2 player game, but this depletion of available secondary actions seems to be a key part of the game.

In a nutshell, the negative aspects of the game seem to be linked to the following section of this little review…


Production Quality

First of all, the overall production quality of components and the art work as such is fine and it should be highlighted that the box and play board are rather small compared to the play content which is really a noteworthy exception compared to the significant amount of table-conquering huge box strategy games.

However, the functional icons on the board and cards are sometimes misleading (e.g., two types of a crown are used for state treasury as well as fame points) and sometimes simply not self-explanatory thanks to actions using five or more symbols in a row (especially prime actions). You will have to look a lot into the player help and even the rule book during in order to understand the actions. The same is the case for the different round segments which are actually simple but the total amount requires a constant check of the round summary card.
And the rule book is actually a real issue… Leaving the usual amount of typos and wrong numbering aside, it is simply not well organized. Starting with the unsatisfying board set-up explanation via the turn order explanations (with references jumping around the manual) and the overall structure (final calculation is hidden in the middle of the game) it’s difficult to read for the first time and even worse to find information during the game.

Some “bumpy” game mechanisms, the busy board structure and the rule book leave the impression that a little bit of more polishing via play-testing with different groups would have improved this little gem significantly.


Summary

First of all, Plus Ultra is an interesting, rather complex game with some challenging game mechanisms which are definitely providing you with a satisfying strategy game play including more content than the smallish box may indicate. However, game play and especially the rule book also feels a bit clumsy in some areas, the turn complexity and amount of different mechanisms cries loud for further fine-tuning and finally the game length and downtime of the card drafting segment have to be improved to polish this little gem in order to shine as a very good game.

In a nutshell, this game is in the end still far away from being considered as “plus ultra”, but a “supra average” is also not too bad, right? I’m sure that a second version or at least a rule book update would be easily able to improve some of my current concerns as well. Would I play the game again? I guess so, but I’m thinking about some house rules to speed up the drafting (e.g., giving the first players a selection advantage, but otherwise all players may select from a handful of cards in parallel and then pass on the remaining cards a la 7 Wonders) and/or maybe even playing with one less turn. If anybody has suggestions, please let me know…
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Aman Dhillon
Canada
Ottawa
Ontario
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I had been looking for more information on this one, so thanks for the review.
 
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Antonio D
Spain
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Thank you for your detailed review. You explain very well some of the key aspects of the game. We are glad you enjoyed it and take note of the suggestions for improvements you made.

Regarding the time spent in selecting characters in our experience it become less and less after a few more games when you can read faster the game status and can remember better the characters (14 characters with 2 main actions are hard to remember at first).

We think that the included expansions gave the game even more deep and make it more strategic so you can live new experiences with the game once you have mastered the base game.

Again thank you for the review and for playing Plus Ultra!
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P Jones
United States
New Jersey
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This is a thought-provoking review that had me reflecting upon my 2-player experience.

We are two fairly decisive players in our styles though it is understandable that the complexity of the available actions could slow down persons who may take a good amount of time to contemplate each character card's abilities and potential outcomes. But much like other character-card games such as Notre Dame and Agricola, which are less complex than Plus Ultra, it takes some playthroughs to be able to recognize the characters on sight and to know how their abilities will play out. Having several plays now, and at first helped along by the solid English language player aid posted by andvaranaut, our games take about 75 minutes.

As with a couple of my favorites, Innovation and Caylus, I am seeing that the game rewards multiple plays, this is not one to play once or twice and put aside. New strategies are revealed with each play. We came for the theme---we are Spanish history buffs who reveled in Madrid's El Museo Naval---and stayed for the rich gameplay.

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Alexander G.
Germany
Frankfurt Area
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“Truly I was born to be an example of misfortune, and a target at which the arrows of adversary are aimed.” ― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
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pjoneslawbuy wrote:
This is a thought-provoking review that had me reflecting upon my 2-player experience.

We are two fairly decisive players in our styles though it is understandable that the complexity of the available actions could slow down persons who may take a good amount of time to contemplate each character card's abilities and potential outcomes. But much like other character-card games such as Notre Dame and Agricola, which are less complex than Plus Ultra, it takes some playthroughs to be able to recognize the characters on sight and to know how their abilities will play out. Having several plays now, and at first helped along by the solid English language player aid posted by andvaranaut, our games take about 75 minutes.

As with a couple of my favorites, Innovation and Caylus, I am seeing that the game rewards multiple plays, this is not one to play once or twice and put aside. New strategies are revealed with each play. We came for the theme---we are Spanish history buffs who reveled in Madrid's El Museo Naval---and stayed for the rich gameplay.



I definitely agree that „Plus Ultra“ is a more complex game with rich mechanisms and most likely improving speed from game to game thanks to the learning curve of the participating players.

However, this is an effort requiring motivated players who are willing to play a couple of games which simply take much more time than the amount of main actions (2 per round) indicate. Another hurdle is the challenging iconography and the inefficiently structured rules book forcing you to search around a lot during your first game plays. Excellent game authors usually try to keep this hurdle as low as possible (starting with a good rule book and player aids).

These issues don’t spoil this game, but new players have to be prepared that they need to spend some time to get into it. And 90 minutes for a 4 players game as stated on the box is not an understatement, it’s a myth… If I take your time with two experienced players as a calculation basis for a 4-player game, we still end with a 2.5h lengh.

I hope that my review actually encourages people to play the game several times as the first rounds are simply a “lengthy and rough ride” which could actually hide the nice play mechanisms and options this game offers.
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