Ursuppe: Survival of the Fittest, or Simply Chores?

Ursuppe box art

Of those digital games which I fail to get into, one of my chief complaints is an unwieldy interface. Ports, such as the Steam versions of Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City, are often the worst culprits, but I’ve recently realised that this problem can affect games of the tabletop variety, too. While the lack of an intuitive control system (or support for a game controller) prevented me from enjoying GTA, my friends and I had similar issues playing the otherwise quite brilliant Ursuppe by Doris Matthaus and Frank Nestel.

The concept is relatively simple: introduce amoebae to a changeable, watery environment and purchase genetic mutations in order to help your single-cell organisms succeed at basic life functions: eating and reproducing. Progress through the game by having as many amoebae and genes as possible, before the game ends and (presumably) forces the unplayed, next stage in evolution. The amoebae are represented by differently-shaped tokens with a pole, onto which you can slide damage counters. Genetic mutations take the form of cards, which are bought using an in-game currency, and changes to the environment are drawn each round from a separate stack of cards. The problem we had is that food – the deciding factor in each amoeba’s movements, life and death – is represented by a large number differently-coloured wooden blocks, which occupy every square on the board:

Without wishing to bog you down in too much information, should you be unfamiliar with the game: food is important because each basic amoeba must eat one block of every colour other than its own on every turn, or else starve and take damage. Each amoeba can move to new food sources, and the choice of where to move to is helped or hindered by a natural current within the environment (seen in the compass, central on the board above).  When food is consumed it is removed from the board, and the player deposits two blocks of their own colour in its place, thus forcing each amoeba to move around. Food is also added back in when an amoeba dies.

As you can imagine, with each player moving up to six amoebae on the board in one go, during every round of play, there is a lot of activity around these food blocks and play quickly descends into a logistical nightmare. We got by using a central ‘poo depository’ from which players would collect their colours after each round, but the process of juggling these coloured blocks caused the game to run for nearly 4 hours. I could think of no elegant way to improve upon this system, but I immediately realised how easy it would be to accommodate in a digital game. I feel it is deeply unfortunate when board games are digitised like that, but I feel rather strongly that Ursuppe‘s otherwise elegant mechanics would be so much easier to focus on if we didn’t have to worry about whether or not all the food has been placed properly. It’s a lack which I feel more keenly than mere controller woes – it’s also a matter of moving past the chores of play in order to work out just what our strategies should be, and then to achieve them.

There was one positive which I did appreciate in this game, in that the act of removing and adding to the food put every player in the position of banker, which can often be a good means of teaching the game’s mechanics. Because we each had a hand in dealing with the food, we all learned – through rigorous practice – just how that part of the rules worked.

Unfortunately I also felt it removed some of the agency in our actions. On the face of it, each player represents a separate species of amoeba. This leads to conflict and competition, and a game whose meta-rule is simply ‘survival of the fittest’. Trouble is, you also become an agent of your own foodstuffs, having to ensure that every death on the board – be it your amoebae or another player’s – leaves a deposit in your colour. You also have to act as caretaker for every other player who’s eaten a block in your colour, clearing your foodstuffs from the board.

At the end of the day I felt a distinct lack of momentum behind my own, black amoebae. My belief is that all of this could be solved if only another entity – ideally an AI – took care of all the food for us. That way, events on the board could just be allowed to ‘happen’, and we could focus on our own play.