Simply Climb Block by Block: The Climbers Review
Large multi-colored blocks of varying rectangular shapes lay on the table--stacked to form a blocky mountain begging to be climbed. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the summit; it is here that you must make your claim. You glance down towards the base to determine the optimum starting position and the potential path upward. Looking away from the heap of blocks, you notice your opponents walking around the table and leaning over the mountain to determine their starting positions. You lift a weighty block from the stack and rotate it to your player color, feeling the smooth finish as it slides against your fingertips. The sound of solid wood making contact with the table can be heard as you place the first block and move your pawn upward from the base. You lean back in your chair and begin to anticipate how the mountain may change in shape as the game progresses forward, and then your mind simultaneously concludes two different pieces of knowledge. First, this mountain will become much taller as everyone competes to outmaneuver each other. And second, this has to be the most beautiful looking game you’ve ever seen on the table. This is The Climbers.
Designed by Holger Lanz and originally published back in 2008, The Climbers is hardly new. However, it was out of print or otherwise effectively unobtainable for a number of years. Most recently, It has found new life during its Gen Con 2017 release. The Climbers is the first entry into Capstone Games’ Simply Complex line. Simply Complex promises to offer simple to teach games possessing deep strategy. The sole proprietor of Capstone Games, Clay Ross, first caught wind of this game when hearing Heavy Cardboard’s praise. In fact, Edward from Heavy Cardboard has recently mentioned on his show that The Climbers is one of his most played games of all time. Knowing that Clay holds Heavy Cardboard’s opinion on games in high esteem, it was a no brainer for him to pick this one up. So does The Climbers live up to the Simply Complex promise? Let’s find out!
The Climbers plays 2 to 5 players and stays true to its average play time of 45 minutes. Opening the box, you will first notice how tightly and perfectly all of the varying sized blocks are stacked within. This box wastes absolutely no space. If only other board games could follow suit (**I turn to glare at half of my collection**). Removing the multi-colored blocks from the box, setup is as simple as placing the two tallest neutral color blocks vertically side-by-side and then surrounding them with the remainder of the blocks in whatever way pleases you in the moment. Each player will take one of the five colored meeples, a wooden disc in their meeple’s color, and exactly one small ladder and one tall ladder (pro tip: these three items are your only resources...and they are everything, so use them wisely). The component quality of The Climbers is excellent, just look at any one of the pictures for this review to see for yourself. The blocks have a great weight and feel to them, and everything feels very well put together.
On your turn, you will be able to complete four actions. In order they are climb, move a block, climb a second time, and place your one-time use wooden disc on a block. Any of these actions can be skipped over, at which point said action would be forfeit. To climb, simply move your climber onto a higher adjacent (not diagonal) block. If the block is equal height to your meeple, you are allowed to climb it without the use of a ladder. You may only climb onto a block with your player color (or the neutral cream color) showing on its surface. If you wish to climb a block that is taller than your meeple, you will need to use one of your trusty ladders. The short ladder will help you climb twice your height, while the taller ladder should be reserved to help you climb a block four times your height. When moving a block, you are allowed to pick up, rotate, and/or move any block that is uncovered and has not been moved by the previous player to any spot you desire as long as it is touching another block and does not have any overhang (something we learned the hard way during our first play of the game). Finally, you are permitted to place your wooden disc as a one time use on a key block to prevent it from being moved or climbed onto until your next turn. This wooden disc can be used to deny your competition from being able to climb to an advantageous location as well as an opportunity to “call dibs” on a block you need for your next move. When an entire round around the table concludes with no players ascending higher on the mountain, the game ends. The player who has climbed the highest wins the game.
Let’s start with the few minor quibbles I have with The Climbers before moving onto the positives. First, there will be a lot of moving around the table and standing up in this game to see all of the available blocks to move and spots to climb. This really hasn’t bothered me much during my plays, but it should be noted. Second, in higher player count sessions, there will be times during the endgame where you might be unable to move during multiple turns in a row. This issue typically arises when five meeples are in near proximity of each other near the top of the mountain. Again, this is a minor issue that more or less is unavoidable and clearly part of the strategy that should be taken into account when playing with five people. I don’t expect this issue to arise in a two or three player game, since players will have more freedom and space to breathe when things begin to get tight near the top. Finally, this game has zero iconography, which may cause difficulty of play for someone who is colorblind. No one in my group is colorblind, so it has not been an issue for us, but it is definitely something worth considering if it pertains to you or your gaming partner.
I’m five plays into this game and I do not see an end in sight for my want to explore it further . I can confirm that The Climbers holds true to the Simply Complex title. It required a short few minutes to learn and setup and then I was ready to roll. During my first play, I focused on enjoying the different shapes in which the mountain transformed. I watched the mountain grow wider at the beginning and taller as the game progressed; it is quite a sight to behold on the table, and it will effortlessly draw in passersby. I guarantee if you play this game at a social gathering, a bar, or a local game shop, people will stop by your table to inquire about what you’re playing. I’ve only seen a game or two with comparable table presence (the brand new Photosynthesis from Blue Orange Games being one potential contender). During my following plays, I began to uncover more of the strategy involved in this game. I quickly learned to hold onto my ladders during one game, and then in a subsequent game, I learned to use my ladders before the last couple of rounds to lower the risk of never being able to use them at all. Moving blocks can be a puzzle unto itself as well. Don’t just move any one block that might work for you in your current situation, but instead, try to move a block to your benefit while also blocking or otherwise hindering an opponent. Also, caution can play to your favor in a multiplayer game as well. If you aggressively climb to an early lead, your opponents might team up on you to prevent your further smooth ascension. I have lost a couple of my plays by falling prey to just this. To make strategy even more interesting, you can even use your ladders as horizontal bridges between two blocks with a gap between them. Simply complex indeed.
The Climbers plays beautifully at all player counts; however, the two player game feels drastically different than the higher player counts, simply due to the end game condition. To prevent game end, the climber in second must always climb upward no matter what, even if it is not an optimal move. This results in a much tighter game that quickly punishes one bad move. So for the love of all blocks that are beautiful, please watch where you step--err...I mean climb. For this reason, the two player version is probably my favorite player count when I'm craving juicy head-to-head abstract strategy.
This was my number one anticipated game at Gen Con and it has not disappointed. Casual gamers and hobbyists alike have enjoyed playing The Climbers when I’ve brought it to table. On more than one occasion, people have even wanted to purchase their own copy, which is always a testament to a successful game session in my book. The Climbers is a delight to play. It offers the opportunity to play strategically if that’s your bag, or casually while you chat across the table with friends and family. I am a big fan of abstract games; I love Tak, Yinsh, Santorini, and Hive--the list goes on. I’m happy to confidently say that The Climbers is unequivocally one of the most refreshing and unique abstracts I’ve had the opportunity to play. If this one seems interesting to you, get to climbing already!
Median Score - 6 out of 7
Nick - 6
Joel - 6