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Ultrabrawl: a truly Glorious Wrestling card game

Wrestling is inherently daft. Not in a negative way; the silly costumes, outrageous personas, and soap opera storylines are what make it entertaining. And yet every wrestling related game you've ever seen has a picture on the front of the box where photos of wrestlers have been superimposed on top of one another, each one wearing a serious grumpy face, taken before they had their morning coffee, or their pre-coffee morning steroids. (In recent, more enlightened years, the token woman on the box has been allowed to smirk.)

So along comes Glorious Wrestling Alliance: Ultrabrawl. It's based on illustrator and animator Josh Hicks' critically acclaimed indie comic, Glorious Wrestling Alliance, and when the review copy kindly provided by Tinkerbot Games landed on my doorstep, I could immediately tell from the art that it's as daft as we all know wrestling to be. I mean, the character front and centre of the box is a muscleman with a goldfish for a head!

An overview of the components in Ultrabrawl. At the back is the box, which has an illustration of a muscleman with a goldfish head wearing nothing but black briefs stood in a blue-floored wresting ring. Immediately behind him are Miranda Fury, a woman in a red jumpsuit with a white star in the centre, and Death Machine, a white man with thick ginger hair and beard, wearing a black vest and a tattoo on his head reading 'KILL'. Behind them are a crowd of cheering onlookers, drawn in decreasing detail. Either side of this box are character cards in standees for Horace Kaiser, Miranda Fury, Mask de Chicken, and Death Machine. In front of the box are the deck of move cards face down; the design on the back is a red fist raised against a spiked white background. To the left of the stacked move deck are three example cards, and underneath them are three yellow six-sided dice with black spots, showing a three, four and five. To the right of the dice are the common Pin & Taunt cards and a supply of round Momentum tokens, each depicting a dark blue five-pointed star against a sky blue background.

Players: 2 or 4

Ages: 8+

Game Time: 15-30mins

So how does Ultrabrawl bring the thrills of the ring to the gaming table? Well, once you've picked your preferred wrestler from the six in the box, each player takes it turns to play combos of up to three cards against their opponent. Broadly, these have three types of effect: dealing Damage against your opponent, gaining Momentum for yourself, or forcing your opponent to discard cards.

Damage is your biggest obstacle: to defend against a move, you'll have to roll a certain number of dice depending on the card, and the number you're trying to beat is the number of Damage your opponent has dealt you. The more injured you are, the weaker you get, and the harder it is to defend against further blows to your pulverised body.

Luckily, the amount of Damage you can take is capped at twelve; unfortunately, any Damage dealt after that is branded Overkill Damage. Overkill is discarded at the start of your turn, but while your opponent is throwing you around like a ragdoll in a washing machine, they can force you to roll against higher and higher Damage counts.

This is most crucial when it comes to a Pin, a common card that's always available for any wrestler to play, and one of two ways to win the game. If you've been Pinned, you must roll and beat your Damage count. You roll three dice one at a time, but each time you can reroll the previous die to see if you can get a better result. This method of 'counting out' really builds the suspense - will your flagging opponent really survive another round?!

The special moves side of two of Ultrabrawl's character cards. The left shows Occult Ritual, which costs 3 Momentum and allows the player to draw 2 cards from their damage pile and play one; the image in the centre of the card looks down upon Horace Kaiser in the ring with his hands outstretched towards the 'camera'. The right shows Miranda Fury's Miranda Driver move, costing 4 Momentum; a successful attack deals 4 damage and allows the player to steal a card, a guarded one regains the player 3 Momentum and ends their combo. The image in the centre of this card shows Miranda slamming a larger man head first into the floor of the ring. Some Momentum tokens are visible in the bottom of the image.
Special moves of two wrestlers in Ultrabrawl. Occult Ritual's costs 3 Momentum and allows the player to play an extra card, while Miranda Driver's costs 4 Momentum and allows the player to deal a hefty 4 damage and steal a card if their attack succeeds. Both allow the player to Pin their opponent straight after the special move.

There's further suspense with Momentum. You can gain this throughout the game, either by performing moves successfully or mocking your opponent with a Taunt, another common card available for all wrestlers to play, at the end of your combo. There's a limited supply of Momentum, but don't worry: if the pool in the middle of the table runs out, you can simply steal it from your opponent. You can spend Momentum to increase the number on a rolled die by one, or save it up and pay to use your wrestler's special move.

The special moves can vary but are forces to be reckoned with. Some wrestlers have Submission moves, another way for them to win the game. Unlike a Pin, all three dice to beat your Damage count must be rolled at once (although there's usually a condition that allows you to reroll dice for a heavy penalty, like discarding cards).

One of the things I like about Ultrabrawl is that, even when the odds are stacked against you, and you've accumulated enough bruises that you'd be thrown out of a potato quality control line, it's always worth having a go. That's because even if your defence is mathematically impossible, if all the dice you roll come up as sixes, your roll will win - the game's version of a natural 20 or critical hit. Similarly, even if the maths make you certain of success, rolling a one on every dice means a critical fail.

But it's not a total free for all. Goodness me, of course there are rules, otherwise it just wouldn't be sporting! Ultrabrawl's very clever with forcing players to balance the moves in their combos. Firstly, there are light and heavy moves, represented by one and two dots respectively in the top right of each card. Your opponent can't defend against light moves, but you can't play more than one light move in a row, which means your opponent will always have a chance to defend.

A closeup view of the Ultrabrawl game setup for two players. Miranda Fury is the opponent's wrestler, and three cards have been played as a combo in the centre of the table.

You'll also notice there are coloured bars at the bottom of each card. These dictate the sequence in which cards can be played; at least one colour on the right of the card must be in the colour bar on the left of the next card. These colour rules are reset by a Pin or a Taunt, but otherwise continue across to your opponent's turn. If you've got a strategic mind, you can really tie up your opponent by ending your combo on a card with only one rightward colour, forcing them to rethink and play a more specific card to open their turn.

This mechanic works for colourblind players too, with a circle for green, triangle for red, and square for blue. Bonus points for accessibility! In fact, Ultrabrawl has fantastic attention to detail all round: balancing, accessibility, illustration; all while keeping the fast-paced excitement of its wrestling theme at its core, and having plenty of combos to make the game replayable without becoming repetitive. The cards pack in loads of information for those varied moves, but display it all cleanly & clearly with simple but effective use of symbols. The card stock even has a premium laminated feel!

A close up photo of the Ultrabrawl rulebook. You can see the folds in the glossy paper, including where the folds have caused wear.
Significant creases in the rulebook were already starting to show on our review copy

The component that lets the game down a little is its rulebook. It's written clearly and there aren't any glaring errors, but some things seem missing: there's no advice for what to do in case of ties, like on cards for "the player with the most Damage" when players might have equal numbers. The rulebook itself is effectively a glossy A3 sheet folded up to fit in Ultrabrawl's compact box, when a booklet format would be much more suitable, not just to fit in the box but easier for players to reference. My review copy's rulebook was already looking worse for wear when it arrived...

The unfolded rulebook comes to A3 size. The Ultrabrawl game box, slightly larger than A5 size, has been placed on top of the rulebook to show scale.

If you're looking for even more from your fast-paced wrestling game, then good news! Ultrabrawl also has a tag team mode for four players. Two active players will be fighting, but at the end of each fighter's turn, their inactive teammate can take an action to either gain some Momentum, swap out some cards to their active teammate, or tag themselves into the ring. There's also a tag tracker where players who stay in the ring too long are forced to tag out, although hopefully you can work well enough with your teammate that they don't want to steal all the action (since this never came into play in any of my games).

This adds even more strategy into the game: you can choose to leave one player in as a punchbag, absorbing damage while the inactive one builds their supply of Momentum, only to tag in and use their special move to attempt a sudden final blow. It's not a strategy without its risks: the opposing team can attempt to block the tag, leaving the punchbag player vulnerable to further damage and a fateful Pin. But even blocking the tag isn't clear cut; a failed block will inflict two damage upon the player that attempted it.

The tag team mode, like the rest of Ultrabrawl, is pretty well balanced: the inactive players never feel so 'inactive' that they become disengaged from the game, although it can stretch the half hour estimated playtime a little. It adds just enough that it's a distinct game mode, but not so much that it becomes a whole new set of rules to learn. It's fun to play, but not so game changing that you'd never go back to playing the vanilla, non-tag version.

A view of the Ultrabrawl game setup for two players. Miranda Fury is the opponent's wrestler, and three cards have been played as a combo in the centre of the table.

However, with all this stuff in the game, the thing it doesn't have enough of are basics. In most card drafting games, you'll start off with a reasonably high proportion of basic move cards, with the ability to build up to more powerful moves as you progress. In Ultrabrawl, with all the moves in one big 96 card deck, you'll often start the game with a handful of heavy moves, and very little you can do about it (the game does allow you to discard cards from your starting hand and redraw once, but there are so many heavy moves this often doesn't fix the issue). This means you'll spend your first few turns asking your opponent to defend against a Damage count of zero or one, which they'll almost certainly win, unless they roll that critical 1 fail. A wrestling bout that begins with a round of technically successful blocks is not very entertaining, but an Ultrabrawl bout usually redeems itself by the end.

Those Damage counts are represented by face down cards drawn from the move deck. Some of the players during my playthroughs didn't like that they had to contend with a Damage count that wasn't easy to count at a glance, or that shared a back design with their hand of playable move cards. But I preferred the simplicity of using the same move deck to count Damage rather than stressing about another kind of token (which would surely also add to the cost of the game), and since the Damage count caps out at twelve, it's not like there's a whole lot of maths involved in taking count of your Damage.

So stop moaning and run face first into my knee; the crowd will love it. WWE would just give you UNO! They've made three versions of UNO! Or another reskin of Monopoly (what would you even go to jail for in wrestling? trying to start a union?)

Ultrabrawl is bursting onto the scene with all that wrestling arrogance. It's going to show us what a wrestling game should have been like all these years. In and out in less than half an hour, with Yakety Sax playing as its walk-on music to set the tone; you won't even know what's hit you, but every time it's back at your games night you know you'll have some fun.

Ultrabrawl by Tinkerbot Games, designed by Josh Hicks and Bevan Clatworthy, is available now on Kickstarter and has already met its funding goal.

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