Earlier this month, Alex Honnold made history when he climbed El Capitan – a 3000 foot high rock in Yosemite – without a rope. As I watched the reports on this feat, I found myself researching mountain climbers and all the crazy things that they have done throughout history. It boggles my mind that there are parts of this Earth that people still struggle to reach, and I would say that mountain climbers are probably the last true adventurers that we have left.
Stolistic Games wants to replicate that feeling of adventure with its new cooperative card game, Furious Ascent. Two to four players team up as they move from camp to camp, hoping to reach the summit before hypothermia, rope burn, altitude sickness, and other maladies kick in and prevent the team from reaching their goal.
Lend Me a Hand… Or Maybe a Rope
The bulk of play revolves around a deck of rope cards. These come in 4 different colors and are numbered one through ten. There are also some wild cards of each color, including some that can represent any color or number. The goal for players is to move from camp to camp, playing rope cards on their turn to a stack in the middle in numerical order. As you move closer to the end of the game, this task becomes harder, as you are limited in how many colors you can use, until the last climb up to the summit requires card 1 to 4, all of the same color.
We made it to Camp 2!
Players want to add rope cards to the climbing effort when it’s their turn, because if they don’t, they have to draw an event card. And unfortunately, there never seem to be any good events when you’re climbing the mountain. This deck is full of ailments that might befall a trekker on their journey up the mountain. You might get an ankle sprain, or perhaps become exhausted during the trip. Each ailment comes with a point value at the bottom. If any one player has 200 or more points worth of injuries, they can no longer continue and the game is over. Luckily, some cures to these ailments can be found in the deck along with rope cards, like ointment for rope burns or an oxygen tank for altitude sickness. Players may use these cards on their turn to cure sickness for themselves or any other player.
Hypothermia and rope burn. Tough stuff.
Injuries aren’t the only events that might happen on the mountain. Along the way, you might also encounter some natural disasters that will wipe out your progress. Perhaps you get lost and have to start over, or a yeti scares you back to base camp. The worst of all is an avalanche, which not only eliminates all your progress, but also causes all players to discard their hands and redraw.
I’m On Top of the World
I played through some two- and four-player sessions, and both played fairly similarly. Each player’s hand is face up, so you’re able to do a little planning together. Most of the discussion centered around what colors you want to use and when to use wilds. There’s that balance that has to be struck between using a wild and avoiding an event card, or saving it for a later turn with the hopes that an avalanche or blizzard doesn’t wipe out all of your progress. This sort of risk-taking leads to some fun moments of celebration when you make it to the camp, and some moments of deep disappointment when your progress gets wiped out.
Hand management is also a key in Furious Ascent. You can never have more than 5 cards in your hand, and you’ll have to make tough choices. Do you discard a rope card that might be useful in later rounds, or do you discard a cure for an ailment that hasn’t appeared yet, but might later? Not that I have been anywhere close to the top of a mountain like Honnold, but I’ve got to imagine that choices about what supplies to bring along each step of the way are very important. It’s cool to see the theme shine through with this element of hand management.
We made it to the summit!
Waiting for Good Weather
While the strategy is there, there is also another very prevalent element in gameplay: waiting. As the game gets closer to the end, you find yourself waiting for a specific color and number card. This leads to many quick turns in which you draw a card, see that it’s not the right one, and then draw an event card to see the consequences. In all of my games, this would pop up at some point. Often, we would take upwards of 10 turns within 2 minutes because there was nothing else for the players to do. These times led to some frustration, especially when something comes along that wipes out your progress.
In addition, as the game goes on, some of the rope cards become useless as their numbers are too high to be useful. Thus, you end up discarding them right away. All of this leads to some interesting experiences during the game. Once, when we were stuck waiting for a card as we climbed to the fourth camp, an avalanche came along and cleared both of our hands. This was actually good news – now we had 5 new cards and none of those that were useless, so we were actually able to make progress instead of continuing to wait on the draw pile.
This element and others leads me to think that a few additions might make this game a more complete experience. I’m not the game designer and I don’t know what tests have been done, but I think that having each player be a particular climber with a skill that can be used during their turn that helps to make progress. Maybe someone can draw from the discard pile, or use 4 cards of a color to stand in the place of 1 card as you climb. I’m not sure what would work, but I think anything that prevents the players from just sitting around the table and drawing card after card would be an advantage.
Did We Reach the Peak?
This game is currently on Kickstarter, and I’m sure that it’s still in development, so I have high hopes for what can become of Furious Ascent. I love the theme, and I think it’s an incredible game for introducing kids and new gamers to cooperative experiences. I think game endings are a little bit frustrating right now, so I hesitate to recommend the game for everyone. However, if the theme grabs you and you think you can brave the rough terrain of the mountains, consider backing Furious Ascent today.