REVIEW

ULUS: Legend of the Nomads
Ankle bones, calligraphy, and Mongolian super heroes

BY CAMERON RASMUSSON

When is a game more than a game?

It’s a question expressed often, and in many forms, over the past few decades as increasingly sophisticated games cemented their place in popular culture. As long as humans have organized in communities, they’ve invented games to pass the time, alleviate stress, and bond with their fellows. But games can also achieve a higher purpose, whether that be sophisticated storytelling, artistic excellence, or unexpected educational opportunities.

But what if a game could help preserve a culture? In the hierarchy of noble purposes, that ranks fairly high by my reckoning. And that’s exactly what ULUS: Legends of the Nomads, a board game for two to six players, aspires to accomplish.

A game created by the nonprofit Endangered Alphabets, whose executive director Tim Brookes is a regular contributor to MultiLingual magazine, ULUS is a game fundamentally concerned with the Mongolian people and their history, culture, traditions — and, of course, their language. The Mongolian language and its beautiful calligraphy suffuse every element of ULUS.

Somewhat reminiscent of games like Civilization, which seeks to capture global cultures, histories, and geopolitical forces through game mechanics, ULUS’ Mongolian-centered story takes place shortly after the death of Chinggis Khan, or Genghis Khan, the conqueror who created the largest land empire in world history. With his death in 1227 CE, the Mongolian civilization found itself at a crossroads. Would it continue the nomadic ways that had defined their culture for generations? Or would it embrace imperialism and the city-based civilization of previous empires? Or perhaps there were yet more paths to consider — new opportunities hitherto unforeseen until the Khan’s death.

ULUS envisions this crossroads as a conflict between the Mongolian gods, each of whom selects a champion in either a historical or mythological figure from Mongolian tradition. Using their avatar of choice, the player seeks to reshape the Mongolian empire according to their ideals, pursuing an agenda of commerce, education and intellectualism, militarism, religion, or nomadic culture. In pursuit of that grand vision, each player seeks to acquire assets aligning with their particular vision for the empire. With each god and champion encompassing unique strengths and weaknesses, it’s up to each player to leverage their resources and achieve the highest score by the final phase of the game.

Speaking of phases, they are central to the rhythm of ULUS‘ gameplay and another reflection of the central goal to preserve Mongolian culture. The first phase of the game will feel somewhat familiar to fans of strategy and role-playing games as players work to collect assets and resources while thwarting their competitors’ plans, leveraging their god and champion’s strengths along the way.

However, the game’s second phase feels decidedly different and quite unique, at least as far as my board game experience is concerned. Eventually, players arrive at Naadam, a historic Mongolian festival of food, sport, and politicking. Players vie to establish their vision for the empire by competing in traditional Mongolian feats of athleticism: wrestling, archery, and horse riding. What’s fascinating is that the minigames players participate in during the Naadam phase, bolstering their chances of success with strength built in the first phase, are based on real Mongolian games using shagai, the sheep ankle bones central to Mongolian games, divination, and music.

In setting up ULUS, the first thing the player may notice is the high production value and attention to detail. The artwork may be the first element to grab one’s attention — it’s undeniably beautiful and brimming with character and personality. I’ve long maintained that good artwork can bring any board game into a new stratum of enjoyability, and ULUS is a perfect case in point.

And it doesn’t stop with the character portraits of the game’s many champions, gods, and monsters. Anyone familiar with Endangered Alphabets and its work in language preservation knows that beautiful portrayals of global scripts are essential to what they do. And ULUS is no exception. The calligraphy that adorns the game’s various assets encourages the player to appreciate the civilization-shaping role that language plays. Every letter is formed as an act of love, and that affection is evident throughout the entire gameplay experience.

And “experience” is generally an apt description for ULUS. As mentioned before, the game aspires to embrace and illuminate (and, in the process, preserve) Mongolian culture, history, mythology, and language in every aspect of its presentation and gameplay. Even the play space of this board game’s deluxe version isn’t a board at all but instead a mat — perfect for sitting on uneven ground with friends and loved ones as happens daily in nomadic cultures.

Likewise, the game features shagai — they look like dice and roll like dice, but they’re far from the same thing. Traditionally made from the ankle bones of sheep or goats, ULUS’ shagai may instead be made of plastic as a matter of modern practicality, but it’s a touch that further roots the game in Mongolian traditions.

“The first thing that happens in the game is you roll to see which face of the shagai is your face,” Brookes explained in an informational video. “This is the face you’ll want to roll, not only to get good luck and propitious adventures but also to communicate with your god.”

“To me, this is an element of gameplay that goes back so far, we’ve forgotten that dice came from this point of origin,” Brookes continued. “We just think of them in terms of numbers — you know, you move two or you move six — but really, they’re about chance. They’re about your ability to survive and to curry favor in an uncertain universe.”

And that’s truly what ULUS is all about: paving a path of survival in an often brutal, uncaring universe. But what makes the game all that more poignant is the fact that its themes extend beyond the game mechanics. It’s designed to perpetuate the player’s knowledge and appreciation for a venerable culture they may not otherwise have encountered, in the process preserving that culture for future generations. It proved an educational experience for this long-time game fan, and it’s a wonderful entertainment choice for anyone interested in history, language, global cultures, or simply the kind of enjoyable evening that has forged communities for millennia.

Cameron Rasmusson  is editor-in-chief of MultiLingual Media and an avid gamer.

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