The Cardboard Hoard: Review of The Climbers
The Climbers, designed by Holger Lanz, was originally released in Germany in 2008 as Die Aufsteiger. More recently, in 2017, it was imported to the U.S. as part of Capstone Games' ‘Simply Complex’ line, which "features board games with a beautiful 3D table presence, relatively low rules overhead, and deep gameplay, accomplished in under one hour of play."
The colorful abstract, which plays between two and five, challenges players to reach the highest point of the blocky structure they will help build and manipulate while climbing. In the case of a tie, the first player to reach that highest point wins.
More specifically, on a player’s turn, they may both move and climb, following a few rules.
- Climbers may only climb a height of one, which is just under the height of their climber meeple.
- They may also only move onto blocks of their color or the neutral beige color.
- They may never descend.
- They may move and/or manipulate one unoccupied block in the structure, as long as it wasn't the same block the previous player used.
The specific turn structure is:
- Option to move and/or climb, if legal moves are present.
- Option to move/manipulate a block.
- Option to move and/or climb again.
- Opponents may move and/or climb with their climbers, if legal moves are present.
Additionally, each player has three special one-time-use items -- a blocking stone, a small ladder, and a large ladder. The blocking stone, when placed, prevents players from using that block until that player's next turn. The small ladder allows a climber to climb a height of two, and the large ladder allows a climber to climb up to a height of four. The ladders are not allowed to be used as horizontal bridges, however.
As players manipulate the blocks to help them climb, the structure will become more and more vertically oriented, and players will find less and less available blocks to use in later turns. This creates a natural incentive for players to climb the structure quickly, for fear they will get stranded at lower levels. But they must balance this with when to play their one-time-use items, as using them too early can handicap them for later in the game. However, waiting too long can leave them stranded and beyond the help of their ladders. Using them cleverly, and at the right time, is key to catapulting a player to victory, or extracting them from a tricky losing situation.
Pros: Quality wooden components, including colorful, chunky blocks, meeples, and little meeple-sized ladders. The components fit perfectly in the box, wasting no space. The game is simple to learn and plays quickly, with considerable depth, and an amazing three-dimensional table presence that draws a crowd -- a total success in terms of the goals of Capstone’s ‘Simply Complex’ line. The 3D nature of the game also creates a lot of “stand up” game action. Unlike a lot of abstracts, this excels at higher player counts due to the interaction and competition over the blocks.
Cons: The similarities in the red/pink and yellow/beige colors can cause problems in low light, or for color blind players. When playing with two players, there is much less interaction and tension, and the game ends much quicker, as it is over as soon as the lower player passes once. At three players, there can be some minor king-making issues. While I know I said the game is simple to learn -- and it is -- the rules, as written, made it impossible to play correctly with any certainty, and asking for clarity from others that had previously played revealed a lot of house rules and diverging answers. Fortunately, these difficulties were offset by the comprehensive eight-minute how-to-play video from Watch it Played, which cleared up all the ambiguities and laid out the correct rules.
While I noted above that I love how this plays at higher player counts, I feel obligated to note that in a five-player game, the player using the pink meeple is at a disadvantage (technically, this holds true at any player count, but we don’t use the pink player unless we are playing at the max count). The opposing colors on all the blocks are standardized, and the opposite color for the neutral color on each block is pink. So in the case of the rectangular blocks, every player will be able to play them on their short side or their long side, using either their color or the neutral color, except the pink player, who will only have one height option for the rectangular blocks, as their color is opposite neutral color. I will note, however, that this disadvantage can also be used as a feature to handicap an experienced player teaching new players.
Overall, The Climbers is an excellent addition to the collection of any abstract fan looking to play with more than two players. While I vastly prefer Santorini as a two-player building/climbing abstract, The Climbers really thrives with more than two.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of The Climbers from the publisher. This review copy has been passed around to many board game reviewers, and I have since passed it along to another reviewer.