Ulus: The Rules

Game Play

What is Ulus?

After Chinggis Khan created the greatest land empire the world has ever known, stretching from Poland to Korea, he and his descendants faced a question: what now? What kind of empire do we want? A city-based civilization? A traditional nomadic steppe-based empire? Who are we?

It’s an inner conflict many Mongols still feel today.

ULUS, a Mongolian word that means “land” or “nation,” stages a fictional version of this dilemma, a struggle between Mongolian gods, heroes, and monsters to define the future identity of the Mongol lands—and the Mongol soul.

The Mongol gods play out their rivalry, like the Greek gods, on the human chessboard—in this case, the game mat that represents the Mongol lands. Each god works through a human champion who tries to gather enough assets and strength to be able to establish and maintain their god’s Ulus — that is, their vision for the future of the Mongol people.

Aim of the Game

The aim of the game is to try to achieve your god’s Ulus by having your champion defeat monsters, gain and trade asset cards and win traditional Mongol games so as to end the game with the the most points.

Components

  • Game bag/map
  • 25 shagai
  • 8 sacred site cards
  • 7 god cards
  • 7 champion cards
  • 48 asset cards
  • 12 monster cards
  • 3 Eternal Blue Sky cards • Tuul’ch storyteller card • Scorecard

Setting Up

Lay the game mat on the table or floor between the players. Each of the eight circles around the perimeter has the name, in Mongolian script, of a season. (Starting at the top, and moving clockwise: Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring.)

Deluxe Mat
The Deluxe Game Mat
Regular Mat
The Regular Game Mat

Shuffle the sacred site cards and deal one, face up, to each circle except the Naadam circle in the center.

 

Give each player four shagai, at random. Set aside any unused shagai. Make sure you can identify each of the four shagai faces — Horse, Camel, Sheep, and Goat.

Shagai
Four Shagai showing different faces

Shuffle the god cards and hold them out, face down. Each player draws one, looks at it, and places it face-down in front of them. Players do not reveal which God card they have drawn. Discard any remaining god cards.

Lay out the champion cards, face up. Each player chooses which champion from Mongol history or mythology will represent them, and their god, in the game, and places it face-up in front of them. Following Mongolian tradition, the oldest player chooses first. Discard any remaining champion cards.

Shuffle the asset cards and deal each player three, face down. Place the rest of the asset deck face down beside the game mat.

Shuffle the monster cards. Place the monster deck face down beside the game mat.

Place the Eternal Blue Sky cards face up beside the game mat.

Give each player a scorecard. Attach the clip to the scorecard to indicate the champion’s current level of strength. Each champion starts with 10 strength points.

Phases of the Game

The game consists of two phases.

In the first, the Nomadic phase, the champions travel the Mongol lands together season by season, in a caravan, around the circular game mat, visiting eight sacred sites. At each site, each champion may fight a monster and win the asset it is guarding.

After visiting all sites, the champions move to the center of the game mat for the second phase, Naadam. At Naadam, the annual summer festival, they take part in each of the three traditional Mongol sports before visiting Tuul’ch, the storyteller, for a final encounter that may decide their fate.

Before Starting the Game

Look at your god, champion, and asset cards carefully. They determine your strategy for the game, and your champion’s abilities.

God Cards

Each god card indicates:

(i) the god’s name and a brief description;
(ii) the specific asset cards that will award you points and help your god achieve their Ulus
(iii) your god’s special ability.

Ulgen

Once, and only during the Nomadic phase of the game, you may make a direct appeal for your god to intervene. Do this by flipping their god card face up in front of you beside the game mat, and announce to the other players you are asking for ONE of the following:

EITHER: Divine Protection. If the champion is confronting a monster or monsters, the god protects the champion by slaying the monster(s). The champion’s strength is restored to 10 if it is below that number, and you take the asset card(s) the monster was guarding.

OR: Divine Ability.

The gods’ Ulus and abilities are as follows:

Burkut

Ulus: To make the Mongol lands a wildlife refuge for all creatures.
Ability: Monster-whispering. Add the next monster on the monster pile to whichever monster a champion is about to confront.

Etügen Eke

Ulus: An empire of herding, farming, and nomadic self-sufficiency.
Ability: Coercion. Command another player to help you fight a monster without compensation.

Mergen

Ulus: An empire of scholarship and learning.
Ability: Foresight. When winning an asset, look at the top three cards on the asset pile and choose one. Put the others on the asset discard pile.

Tengri

Ulus: An ever-expanding empire of manufacture, trade and commerce.
Ability: Vengeance. If a god ability is used against Tengri’s champion, make all other players discard one asset card of their own choice.

Ülgen

Ulus: An empire of spirituality.
Ability: Healing. Discard a bone card to restore strength up to 10 points.

Umay

Ulus: An empire where social welfare and justice prevail, and no Mongol child goes hungry or lacks shelter.
Ability: Singing. Sing a monster to sleep and take its asset. The next champion in turn confronts the same monster.

Lobsogoi

Ulus: Lobosgoi has no vision for the Mongol lands other than chaos and disorder.
Ability: Mischief. If Lobsogoi’s player has any FOUR of the mystical object cards — Prayer Flags, Ovoo, Snuff Bottle, Deer Stone, Map, Ink and Brush, Paper, Fire, Tovshuur, Morin Khuur, Shamanic Drum—they may show those four cards to the rest of the players and order one other player to place all their asset cards in the asset discard pile and replace them with the same number of cards from the top of the asset card pile. This is the only god ability that may be used multiple times during the game. Lobsogoi’s player then discards their four mystical asset cards, but does not replace them.

See Asset cards, below, to learn which asset cards are valuable to which gods.

Champion Cards

Each champion card indicates:
(i) The champion’s name and brief description;
(ii) Their special ability and how it can be used.

Zanabazar

You may use your champion’s ability only ONCE, and only during the Naadam phase of the game. (The abilities are explained below in the Naadam section.) When you decide to use your champion’s ability, turn the card sideways to show it has been used.

Asset Cards

In order to establish the Ulus their god wants, each champion needs to acquire asset cards during the Nomadic phase of the game.

Each asset card indicates:

(i) The name of the asset and, in some cases, a brief description;
(ii) The name(s) of the god(s) who value this asset;
(iii) The value of the asset in points.

Some asset cards are so central to Mongol life they have value for all gods; these are known as Bone cards, and are worth 5 points each. Others are more specific and have value only to two gods, or even one god; these are called Horn and Jade cards, and are worth 10 and 15 points respectively.

Bone Cards worth 5 points to any god:
Horse
Ger
Fire
Bankhar Dog
Bow
Prayer Flags

 

Horn Cards worth 10 points to each of two gods: God 1 God 2
Goat Etügen Burkut
Camel Etügen Tengri
Sheep Etügen Burkut
Airag Umay Tengri
Suutei Tsai Umay Mergen
Eagle Burkut Tengri
Tovshuur Umay Ülgen
Morin Khuur Ülgen Mergen
Ovoo Ülgen Mergen

 

Jade Cards worth 15 points to one specific god: God
Snow Leopard Burkut
Wolf Burkut
Ink and Brush Mergen
Shamanic Drum Ülgen
Deer Stone Ülgen
Boortsog Umay
Snuff Bottle Umay
Map Tengri
Fortress Tengri
Reindeer Etügen
Yak Etügen

Look at the three asset cards you have been dealt during the setup of the game. Select one and discard it by passing it off to the player on your left.


Game Phase One: The Nomadic Phase

To start the champions’ journey around the Mongol lands, place one shagai, Camel face up, on the sacred site card at the 12 o’clock Summer position on the game mat. This shagai represents the caravan of champions, and it will be moved around the mat after each turn to indicate the champions’ progress from one sacred site to the next.

Sacred site cards

Each sacred site card indicates:

(i) The name of the site;
(ii) Which champion draws extra strength from that particular location;
(iii) Which asset cards bestow extra strength on the players who hold them;
(iv) Any special features of this location.

Sacred Yurts of the Darkhads

To begin each seasonal turn, each player announces whether they gain any strength points at that site, either because their champion is favored at the site or because they have any of the designated asset cards that have strength value at that site.

Then the oldest player, followed by the other players in clockwise order, decides how they wish to spend their time at that site.
Each player may EITHER rest and recover while the caravan is at that site OR have their champion battle a monster in hopes of winning an asset card. They must make their decisions before revealing any monster cards.

Rest and recovery

If you decide to avoid confrontation and rest and regain strength, you gain five strength points, but you give up the chance to gain any asset cards at that site. You may not engage in combat at the site even after recovering your strength, either on your own behalf or to help another player. The decision to fight or not to fight then passes clockwise to the next player.

You cannot keep increasing your champion’s strength by refusing to combat monsters: choosing to rest restores your champion’s strength only up to its initial value of 10 strength points.

Alternatively, you can decide to try to win an asset card by battling a resident monster.

Monster cards

If you decide to fight a monster, turn over the top card of the monster deck. (At Uureg Lake, the top two cards are turned over.) You cannot change your mind and decide to rest after the monster has been revealed.

Each monster card indicates:

(i) The name of the monster and a brief description of its origins;
(ii) A number indicating its strength.

Shiram Minata

The power of each monster is a number multiplied by the number of players in the game: the more players, the more powerful the monsters. Thus, a 3X monster in a 2-player game will have 6 power, but in a 6-player game would have 18 power.

Most monsters guard one asset; sometimes there may be more than one monster guarding an asset.

Note: monsters at a Winter site are hungrier, and 1 strength is added the multiplier. So a monster designated as 2X will be 3X in winter.

Rolling the shagai for help

If a player decides to confront the monster, they may choose to immediately roll the four shagai to ask their god for assistance.

If they roll four different faces (that is, one of each of Horse, Camel, Sheep, and Goat) their god makes them immune to the monster. The champion takes the top card from the asset deck, and the monster’s attack is deflected at the next player. (Resting players cannot be victim to a deflected attack.) The next player then has to roll their four shagai in preparation for the conflict. If the next player also rolls four different faces, the monster’s fury is again deflected to the following player clockwise, but no asset card is won. The deflection process ends as soon as one player does not roll four different faces.

If they roll four of horse, sheep, or camel, they defeat the monster and take the asset.

The monster card goes on the monster discard pile; the player takes the top asset card without showing anyone.

If they roll three of horse, sheep, or camel, two of a kind, or two pairs, their god has determined that they need to fight this battle on their own, and they then engage the monster in a hand-to-hand strength-to power battle. (See Combat, below.)

If they roll three or more goats, a second monster appears to join forces with the first. A second monster card is dealt from the top of the monster deck and placed beside the first, and the player must fight both of them at once.

Combat

If a player chooses not to roll the shagai, or if the shagai dictate the player must fight, the player pits their champion’s strength against the power of the monster(s).

If the champion has more strength points than the monster has power, the champion defeats the monster. The monster card is placed on the monster discard pile, and the player takes the asset card. The champion’s strength is reduced by the number of power points of the monster.

EXAMPLE: It is a 3-player game. The champion has 14 strength points. The monster is Almas, whose power is 3X the number of players, totaling 9. The champion thus defeats the monster, takes the top asset card, and their strength is reduced by 9 points, leaving them with 5 strength.

If the monster has more strength than the champion, the player may choose to:

1. call for help to fight the monster. Another player may choose to have their champion help fight the monster(s) either (a) from the goodness of their heart, (b) in return for an unbreakable promise of combat assistance in the future, or (c) in return for one or more asset cards that are agreed on and handed over there and then. (The discussion over the cost of assistance is public, so other players hear what cards are offered or demanded.) The two players’ strength points are then combined against the monster’s power points. Each champion suffers half the damage, and the first player wins the asset card.

EXAMPLE: It is a 5-player game. The champion has 19 strength points, but the monster is Atai Ulan, whose power is 4X the number of players, totaling 20. One of the other players agrees to have their champion, who currently has 16 strength points, join in the fight in return for two asset cards. Atai Ulan is defeated, and the card is placed on the monster discard pile. Each champion’s strength is reduced by 10, and the first player takes the asset card.

2. call for divine protection. See Divine Protection, above.

Reminder: you can use EITHER Divine Protection OR Divine Ability only once.

Failing either of these two options, the champion is defeated, their strength is reduced to zero, and the monster’s strength is reduced by the defeated hero’s current strength. The champion can take no further part in the play at that site, and must devote their stay at the next site to resting. The next champion in turn steps forward to confront the (now weakened) monster.

After each combat is complete, the turn moves to the next champion who has decided to fight.

Reminder: players keep track of their strength values by moving the clip to the corresponding square on the scoresheet.

Note: if a player wins an asset card that endows extra strength at a site, that value does not come into effect until the next site at the earliest.

All the champions remain at a sacred site until each in turn has had a chance to either sit out and rest or confront a monster. Then each player discards one asset to the player on their left, and when this exchange is completed, the Camel shagai is moved to the next site to mark the progress of the caravan of champions.

If either the monster or asset card deck is exhausted, the discard pile is shuffled and placed face down as the new deck.

When the champions have visited all the sacred sites, each player has the chance to discard one asset card from their hand and replace it a card from the top of the asset deck.

Then the action moves to the center of the game mat at Naadam. At this point the Camel shagai is discarded.

Game Phase Two: The Naadam Festival

The Naadam Phase features the three traditional Mongol sports: wrestling, horse riding, and archery, plus the tradition of storytelling.

These minigames each represent not only the three major Mongol sports contested each year at Naadam, but are all based on real Mongolian shagai games. The winner of each game earns an Eternal Blue Sky card, a special asset worth 20 points. These games also involve using not only the shagai that have been in use so far, but all the shagai provided with the game.

Each champion has an ability that can be used ONCE during the Naadam sports. Zanabazar’s ability is to be immune to the abilities of other champions at any time during Naadam.

Horse Racing

Based on the traditional “Horse Race” shagai game, the goal of the horse race game is to try to be the first champion to gallop from Naadam, round the Mongol lands in the order they were visited during the Nomadic Phase, and back to Naadam.

The player with the fewest asset cards starts. If two players have the same number of cards, the older player goes first.

All players take a shagai and place it at the starting point at Naadam, Horse side up. This shagai acts as their horse. Each player keeps track of their own shagai.

Each player in turn rolls 4 shagai. For each Horse shagai rolled, they move their horse shagai one site forward.

As Chinggis Khan’s special ability is Horsemanship, he starts two sites ahead of everyone else. Alun Gua’s ability is Horse Whispering: at any point
during the horse race, she can sing her opponents’ horses to sleep so they all miss two turns.

The winner is the champion who reaches Naadam first. That player receives an Eternal Blue Sky card and places it beside their champion card. At this point the sacred site cards are removed from the mat and discarded.

Archery

Based on traditional accuracy-focused shagai-flicking games, the archery game consists of 5 rounds. The goal is to win the most points in all the rounds combined.

The player with the most asset cards starts. In the case of a tie, the older player goes first.

The Naadam site at the center of the game mat consists of inner and outer circles. Each player in turn places a shagai at the edge of the mat and
flicks it toward the inner circle. (Knocking away opposing shagai is allowed.)

After each player has flicked one shagai, any player with a shagai completely in the inner circle earns ten points; any player with a shagai completely in the outer circle or straddling the line between the inner and outer circles earns four points. The shagai are then cleared off the mat.

Next round, the player who won the previous round goes first, and play continues clockwise.

The player with the most points after five rounds wins the match and earns an Eternal Blue Sky card. In the event of a tie, the tied archers have a tiebreaker round.

As Geser’s special ability is Marksmanship, he enters the archery contest with a bonus 4 points.

Sorghaghtani Beki’s ability is Side Switch: she can compel one other champion to shoot with their non-dominant hand, with their dominant eye closed, for the entire contest.

Wrestling

Based on traditional matching-focused shagai flicking games, the wrestling game is one round. The goal is to capture the most shagai.

One player, at random, gathers all the shagai, shakes them, and drops them all at the same time onto the center of the mat.

The player with the fewest asset cards selects one of the shagai and tries to flick it, using finger- or thumb-tip, so as to hit another shagai of the same kind. (Goat hitting goat, for example.) If they hit a matching shagai, they capture the one they hit, take it off the mat, place it in front of them, and flick the same shagai they started with again to try to hit another showing the same face. If their initial shagai has rolled over and shows another face, they must try to hit another shagai with that same face.

Their turn continues until they hit a non-matching shagai, miss all the shagai altogether, or flick any shagai off the mat, at which point the turn moves clockwise to the next player. (Any shagai that flies off the mat is dropped back into the center after the turn is over, and left to lie where it rolls.)

If there are no matching shagai, the player whose turn it is re-rolls all the remaining shagai until a match is present, then continues their turn.

If there are only two shagai left, you can hit the opposing shagai regardless of whether it matches.
The game ends when there is only one shagai left. The player who has captured the most shagai at that point wins an Eternal Blue Sky card.

In the result of a tie, the two highest scoring wrestlers have a tiebreaker round.

As Khutulun’s ability is Wrestling, her player removes two of the shagai and places them in front of them before the game begins, thus starting with a two-shagai advantage.

Jianggar’s ability is Parry. At the start of the contest, after the shagai have been dropped onto the mat, Jianggar’s player may tell each opponent which shagai to aim for.

After the wrestling contest, all shagai are removed from the mat and discarded.

The Epic Tale

The final act of the festivities at Naadam, and the final act of the game ULUS, is an encounter with Tuul’ch, the blind storyteller, in his ger.

NOTE: if Lobsogoi’s player intends to use his Mischief power for the last time, they must do it before the Tuul’ch encounter begins.

Bardic recitals were a key part of Naadam, and a well-told epic tale could bring health, fertility, and a good harvest. In ULUS, the champions each want Tuul’ch to tell the epic tale of their journey through the game.

The Tuul’ch card is placed in the center of the Naadam zone in the game mat.

Starting with the oldest, each player in turn petitions Tuul’ch to tell the story of their heroic quest by rolling their four shagai over the Tuul’ch card.

The bard responds as follows:

  • FOUR DIFFERENT FACES, OR FOUR HORSES, CAMELS, OR SHEEP: Tuul’ch sings the tale of your epic quest, an act that brings both good fortune and healing. Your strength increases by 10 and you may discard two of your asset cards and replace them with the top two cards in the asset deck, or if the asset deck is exhausted you can demand one specific asset card from another player who must give it to you if they have it.
    three horse, camel or sheep: Tuul’ch sings the tale of your quest, but briefly and in a rather uninterested way. Your strength increases by 5, but your hope of more asset cards is dashed by his mocking smile.
  • TWO PAIRS: Tuul’ch pretends not to hear you, and instead sings the interminable epic of Hua Guan Suo. He is still singing and cackling when you give up hope and leave his ger.
  • ONE PAIR: Tuul’ch sings the tale of your quest, making fun of your every misfortune and improvising comic accounts of your battles with what he calls “the feeblest of monsters.” Your spirit sags and you lose 3 strength points.
  • THREE OR FOUR GOATS: Tuul’ch curses you, your children and your children’s children. Boils break out all over your body and you run from his ger in pain and shame, the scornful laughter of the other champions stinging your ears. You lose 10 strength points and must discard one asset card.

Endgame

After the Naadam games and storytelling, players add up the points on their asset cards, plus any Eternal Blue Sky cards, plus the value of their champion’s remaining strength. Example: if a player has 35 asset points, 22 strength points and one Eternal Blue Sky card, their final score would be 77.

At this point, if Lobsogoi is in play and if he has won any Eternal Blue Sky cards, he can use them as weapons: for each Eternal Blue Sky card he holds, he can reduce any one opponent’s final game total by 20 points.

The player with the highest point total wins. However, if Lobsogoi is in play, and no other player has 60 or more points, Lobsogoi wins.

Alternative Versions

Streamlined Asset Variant

In a two- or three-player game, the duplicate asset cards can be removed for a more streamlined version.

Camel Race Variant

Because of the irregular shape of the shagai, Horse can be one of the more difficult faces to throw. For a faster version of the race, by consent of all the players, the horse race can become a camel race.

Trading Variant

In this variant, instead of passing one card to the left at the end of each round, players engage in a round of trading. Each player in turn announces an asset card they want, and the player or players who have the card name their price for it, in cards or gameplay favors. In an even more mercantile variant, one round of trading can take place after each contest at Naadam.


You can download a PDF of the rules here.

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