14th Jun2018

‘The Climbers’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

climbers-8

At first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that The Climbers was just an alternative, multicolored version of Jenga, but in actual fact it’s an abstract strategy game about climbing a mountain by any means possible – including by moving unoccupied blocks, adding miniature ladders and even blocking opponents progress either with specific tokens or as the result of tactically placed blocks. The game supports between two and five players, although in my opinion, it only really comes to life at higher player counts.

A game of The Climbers couldn’t be more simple and on occasion, it can be over very, very quickly. As a result of these two factors, it is certainly easy to teach and to pick up and play at the drop of a hat. Due to its simplicity, it’s not hard for children to play, but it has an occasionally frustrating nature (including deliberate take that mechanics) which I think preclude players younger than maybe six or seven. It’s a good looking game in anyone’s book however, with chunky, colourful wooden blocks, cute meeples and tiny, well crafted ladders to lean in place.

It’s well worth noting that The Climbers is a re-imagining of a German release from around ten years ago, and the new version that I have been playing for the past few weeks is actually part of a “Simply Complex” range from Captstone Games. The objective for games under this banner is to be playable in under an hour, to have simple rules and to offer an unexpected level of depth that players only discover through repeated plays. As far as that particular brief is concerned, it’s mission accomplished in my opinion.

The game structure really is so simple that I reckon I’ll nail it in a single paragraph. Turns pass consecutively, with the active player able to pick up one block, rotate it any number of times and then place it in any legal position. They can then move as many consecutive steps as they can, as long as their pawn only moves upwards one tier at a time and remains on block faces that match are either neutral, or of a matching colour. The player may use one (or even both) of their ladders to move further, as long as she is able to place the second ladder on a flat surface.

At a point sooner or later, a player will either reach the highest point and remain there for a whole turn (at which point they win) or all players will be unable to progress upwards for a whole turn, at which point the player that occupies the highest point will win. The only piece that I didn’t cover in the description above is the blocking disk, of which each player has one. This disk can be used to block one face (and prevent the block it is sat on from moving) for one entire turn. Whilst (and because) it is as effective as it sounds, I don’t actually like playing with the blocking disks, especially at lower player counts, so I sometimes omitted them from the game.

As players edge upwards, the blocks that make up the abstract mountain move and change face in numerous ways, often transforming the playing area completely based on the ingenuity of the players. This can result in relatively tall, vertical structures where each player focuses on their own progress, or it can result in flatter constructs with individual, small peaks that players craft from among the more chaotic multiplayer games where blocking and offensive play is more common.

More often than not, players in my main gaming group enjoyed The Climbers, whilst those who played at my home (which tends to be a smaller, less competitive group) found it a little bit less exciting. I think that might be because you’ll only truly enjoy The Climbers if you are willing to immerse yourself in the higher level, tactical play that will involve blocking and interacting with other players. This kind of game play isn’t for everyone, but I think in war games, for example, it is at least signposted. In The Climbers, I’m not sure people expect such a cut throat style of play.

Considering that it has an excellent board presence and can be played very quickly, within minimal initial teaching, The Climbers does indeed succeed at being a “Simply Complex” game. There are groups and player counts where it is undoubtedly very good fun, whilst at two it feels quite stale, for example, or in a group where aggressive play isn’t welcome it may just fail to click. Ultimately I’m not sure that it has a lot of play left in it for me, but I can certainly see how some people would enjoy it, especially considering that it’s so undemanding – there is an elegance to its simplicity that I can’t deny is admirable.

*** 3/5

You can buy The Climbers online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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