Board Game Review: Ubongo Duel – Speedy Puzzles are Best

Among my favorite genres are speed games and puzzle games. And Ubongo: Duel incorporates both. It takes the puzzle aspect from Ubongo, where players use tetris style shapes to fill in a grid, and matches it up with a speed game where the first player to finish wins the round.

The Basics. Ubongo: Duel, a two player only affair, provides each competitor with the same 21 different shapes and a set of identical boards. The game can be played on easy (where puzzles use four shapes) or hard (where puzzles use five). Each puzzle has a set of 20 different combinations of pieces, any one of which will fit in the given grid.

One player rolls a die. The number indicates which pieces the players will use. Both players grab them as quickly as they can and then try to fit them into the grid. The first player to do so yells “Ubongo!” and is declared winner of the round.

The game is played best of nine rounds. But there’s an important catch-up mechanism after someone has won three or four games. If they are ahead of the other player, the leader must solve two puzzles to win the round before the other player solves his single challenge.

The first to win five rounds wins the game.

Any easy way to track your way to five wins

The Feel. Like most speed games, Ubongo: Duel puts you in a frantic rush. Adrenal glands work their magic and your heart rate increases. There is no arbitrary time limit, no count down to failure. Instead, the round could end at any moment because you’re playing entirely against your opponent.

Once the die is rolled, the game is on. There is no grace period for locating and grabbing the particular pieces that you need. That’s all included in the race to finish. And, in the rush, it’s not unheard of for one player to grab the wrong piece. Take it from me, it’s really hard to win when you’re using the wrong pieces.

And there are a lot of pieces to pick from

This puzzle game is hugely entertaining. Without the time factor, the challenge would be much reduced. But it would still be an OK time waster. Especially on the more difficult five-piece side of the board. But with the time challenge, the game is exhilarating.

Unlike the vast majority of games in our hobby, Ubongo: Duel isn’t about min/maxing or combining various powers. Instead, it’s a much more right-brain visual/spatial challenge. Players get to kinesthetically manipulate their pieces as they search for the correct orientation to complete the puzzle. It provides an experience that is relatively unique.

Just fit those pieces into those squares. Sounds easy, right?

Duel, of course, is the two player version of the original Ubongo. But Duel has some huge advantages – the greatest of which is scoring. In Ubongo, the players race to complete puzzles, but the scoring is about picking first from among gems on several rows. It’s a bit of a disconnect from the main challenge of the game and can result in strange incentives where some rounds are less competitive than others.

In Duel, there is no separate acquisition and scoring of gems. Instead, it concentrates on the best part of the game – the timed puzzles. It’s all about finishing first and the extraneous material is wiped away. This keeps the experience cleaner, easier to teach, and generally more fun.

Unfortunately, Duel is hard to come by these days. But if you get a chance to grab a copy in trade, or find a lonely box on a store shelf somewhere, definitely give it a go. It’s exciting, accessible, and delightful.

Just like that

Components: 2.5 of 5. The bits are unimpressive but fully functional. The puzzle pieces are on cardboard that is firm, but on the thin side. The boards aren’t boards at all but paper designs. And the scoring markers are translucent plastic. There’s certainly nothing to write home about here, but it does the job.

Strategy/Luck Balance: NA of 5. There is no luck other than which set of pieces you’ll use to complete a puzzle. But, because both players use the same pieces, it doesn’t have any real impact on play.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. Ubongo: Duel really delivers on this point. The timed puzzle aspect is super fun as you race to complete the task while stealing furtive glances at your opponent. The catch-up mechanism is also a great way to ensure that players stay in the game and engaged. An early lead doesn’t sink the game.

Replayability: 4.5 of 5. This is among my favorite two player titles. Each puzzle has 20 different solutions and you’ll only attempt one on any given game. So the replay factor is huge. Plus, it’s just an enjoyable title overall. If you want to have a good time and get the heart rate up (without actually leaving a table), then Duel is an excellent choice.

Spite: NA of 5. As a two player game, spite doesn’t really exist. Even so, there are no “take that” moments. It’s pure competition.

Of course, the five piece puzzles are a little harder

Overall 4.5 of 5. Duel is one of the funnest two player experiences out there. Of course, you’ll have to enjoy speed games. If you dislike that style, then you should give this one a pass. But otherwise, Duel is great. Huge tension, fun puzzles, and incredible replay value. In the Ubongo family, this is the favored son.

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