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Kory Heath is certainly a versatile designer. From deduction to logic to party games, he seems to be intent on creating games of several genres. And with hits like Zendo and Why did the Chicken?, his games have become fairly successful. So it's really not a surprise for me to see him delve into the abstract strategy realm with Uptown (Funagain and FRED, 2007 - Kory Heath). Apparently, there is some sort of theme if you read the back of the box (I think), but it's an abstract tile placement game for two to five players.
And it's an exceptionally well-designed game! I balked at playing it at first, merely because it looked like a Sudoku board (and I am SO tired of that theme). But it has nothing to do with Sudoku (and Kory told me he had never even seen that puzzle before designing the game), and I've found it quite delightful. There are some elements of luck within the game, but the game counters it by giving players a chance to play almost all of their tiles. The game requires planning ahead and counters deadly competition with an interesting tie breaking rule.
The board is made up of a grid of eighty-one squares. The nine columns are numbered from "1" to "9"; the nine rows are lettered "A" to "I"; and the squares are broken into nine smaller groups of nine squares - each with a different symbol (such as playing cards, a ring, etc.) Players get a set of tiles in their color - one with each symbol, letter, and number on it, and one with a "$" symbol, which acts as a wild. Players mix up all their tiles face down in front of them and place five of them in a tile rack in front of them. One player is chosen to go first, and then play passes clockwise around the table.
On a player's turn, they simply place a tile on the board then draw a replacement. A number tile may go in any space in their column; a letter tile may go in any space in that row; a symbol tile may go in any of the nine squares that have that symbol; and the "$" tile can go anywhere. Tiles may either be placed in an empty space or may be used to "capture" an opponent's tile. Whenever a tile is placed orthogonally to another tile, they become part of the same "group". A player may only capture an opponent's tile, if by capturing it, they do not split a group into two smaller groups.
Play continues until players have drawn their last tiles. At this point, everyone gets one final turn, then the game ends, with each player having four unplayed tiles. The winner is the player who has the fewest groups of tiles on the board. In case of ties, the player who has captured the FEWEST opponents' tiles wins the game.
In a two-player game, players each use two colors and can only capture tiles of the opponent's colors. Other than that, the game is the same.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: The board and box have some deep shades of purple, with symbols and artwork from the American '20s era. The back of the box may feature the most ridiculous back-story to a game ever, talking about people finding the game Uptown and playing it for some strange reason. The tiles are nice and thick, and the colors are easy to differentiate. The tile racks, tiles, and board fit nicely into the small, square box.
2.) Rules: The rules are on both side of one sheet of paper and are extremely simple to understand. Even with color diagrams showing how to play and some details on the changes in a two-player game, there is still plenty of space. A few rules - a simple game, right? Well, that's true for the most part, but I found that several people tend to get hung up on what tiles can be captured. It's a simple rule; and after a couple times repeating it, most people get it quickly.
3.) Strategy: At first the game seems a bit simple, as players simply put together as few groups as possible. But there is a lot more to it than that. A player has to gauge how they are going to lay out future tiles, and watch and respond to what everyone else is doing. It may seem like the right thing to quickly lay down a row of tiles that one manages to get quickly, but you can effectively "paint yourself into a corner" if not careful. Being forced to start new groups that you have no hope of connecting is annoying and can be avoided by careful play. Each player also knows that they WILL see every tile during the course of a game, so they can plan accordingly and choose the four tiles they will not (and possibly cannot) play. I also think it's incredibly important to know exactly when to play the "$" tile. Playing it too soon usually causes regret later in the game - it's too powerful to waste.
4.) Interaction: It's interesting that the tiebreaker is determined by the player who has captured the FEWEST tiles. This is certainly a reason not to capture many of your opponent's tiles, but I've played many games in which I threw caution to the wind and started capturing other's tiles. Of course, not being able to break up their group seems passive at best (and some I've played with have complained about it); but if allowed, it would destroy the game play. Instead, players have to be canny and stop their opponents before they join two separate groups. Even more importantly, they must do their best to foil their opponents without adding a new group themselves. What good is it if you stop your neighbor only to have another group added yourself?
5.) Players: Some people enjoy the game most with multiple players, and indeed it is crowded yet enjoyable with five. Yet for some reason I keep finding myself drawn back to the two-player variant. Three seems a bit easy - many times a good player can get only one group if they play well. But with two, you'll find that your alternate color often chokes off the secondary color, and it adds a very interesting dynamic to the game. My wife quite enjoys the two-player variant, and I foresee it being the main use of my version.
6.) Fun Factor: I enjoy the game because it's fun to gauge what tiles have already been played (although one mustn't forget to look at tiles that have been captured, I've been burned before waiting for a tile to show up that was already played) and deal accordingly. Each space can only have three tiles placed in it (four if you include the wild); and if you wasted those tiles in other spots, one may leave a critical juncture open. In a lengthy game, this might become stressful and tiring, but I find it invigorating in a short game as this (about thirty minutes per game).
All in all, I found Uptown pleasantly surprising. It seems that Mr. Heath can nail the abstract genre also with this light and enjoyable tile laying game. While I found it most enjoyable with two, it seems that the majority I played it with wanted a full complement of players. Small, portable, and fast - Uptown is a great game despite its strange theming.
"Real men play board games"
I like this game too, and I'm not a big fan of abstracts. Maybe it's the short playing time that makes me like it!
One interesting detail included with the tiles are small little icons in the corner of the tiles in order to give color-blind players (there two of those in my gaming group!) a better chance to play this game.