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Subject: K2 and Mount Everest - Scaling the Heights rss

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Greg Schloesser
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Jefferson City
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A review of K2 and Mt. Everest

Design by Adam Kaluza
Published by Rebel.PL
2 - 5 Players, 2 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser


NOTE: This review was first published on the Opinionated Gamers website.

While I truly don't understand the seemingly insatiable (and perhaps insane) desire for some to climb perilous mountains, imperiling both life and limb to reach an impossibly difficult summit, I am still fascinated by their stories. I have eagerly read numerous books on the subject and seen a movie or two. The terrible ordeals and obstacles they endure certainly make for exciting stories, even though I constantly shake my head in disbelief that anyone would voluntarily put themselves in that much danger and endure that much pain and suffering. My sense of adventure definitely encompasses a far less dangerous edge.

There have not been many board games themed around mountain climbing. By far the most popular is Adam Kaluza's K2, which challenges players to scale the second highest peak in the world. Located on the China / Pakistan border, the mountain is actually considered to be a more challenging (aka, dangerous) climb than its more famous neighbor Mt. Everest. Indeed, its nickname amongst seasoned climbers is "Mt. Savage". Yeah, sure sounds like somewhere I want to visit (said with dripping sarcasm)!

In K2, players must carefully manage their hand of cards as they steadily climb the icy mountain, hoping to summit and make it back alive. Along the way they must deal with often unpredictable weather, especially at the higher elevations. Camps can be established to help weather these storms and reduce the effects of the thin atmosphere. Survival is not assured, but fame and glory go to the player whose two climbers make the best progress.

The double-sided board depicts K2 with possible pathways to the top. One side presents a normal challenge (summer), while the other, more treacherous side (winter) is far more dangerous. Even the darker, stormier artwork on the winter side is more foreboding. Players will move along the various pathways, each of which may be marked with 0 - 2 numbers. Spaces at the lower levels usually cost one movement point to enter, while at higher levels--or at certain hazardous areas--the cost may be as high as three movement points. Players must also worry about acclimation levels, which tend to get increasingly more difficult the higher elevations a climber reaches. This can be aggravated even further by foul weather. Life on K2 isn't easy ... or recommended.

Each player begins with two climbers, a board on which to track their acclimation levels, and an identical set of 18 cards. The two climbers are positioned at the base of the mountain, and each player randomly draws six cards from his deck. Two weather tiles are revealed, depicting the weather for the next six days (turns). Finally, three risk tokens are revealed.

Each player plans their day by selecting three of their six cards and placing them on the table, revealing them simultaneously. In addition to attractive (although sometimes scary) artwork depicting climbers making their way up the mountain, cards also depict one or two numbers, either in green or blue. Green numbers are movement points, most of which can be used for up or down movement. Some, however, are direction specific. Blue numbers are acclimation and help players acclimate to the climate and oxygen levels. Players will need to conserve the blue cards as they will be needed when higher elevations are reached.

Once cards are revealed, the player with the greatest cumulative movement value must take one of the three visible risk tokens. Token values range from 0 to 2, and this number must be subtracted either from the player's movement or acclimation. Thus, the faster moving climbers are at greater risk, but since the three tokens are visible, players can plan accordingly, selecting the lest harmful one.

In turn order, players now begin their climb (or descent). Each movement card may be assigned to a specific climber, who can use those points to move along the path, making his way up (or down) the mountain. Players should be aware that the weather may also make climbing more difficult, particularly at the specified levels. These are listed on the weather tiles.

There are limits to the number of climbers who may occupy a space. These limits generally decrease the further one progresses up the mountain, causing choke points that can result in unforeseen delays ... or worse. The limits are clearly printed on the board.

Players may use movement points to pitch a tent, the cost being the same as to enter that particular space. Tents help reduce the effects of weather and help climbers with acclimation. However, each climber may only pitch one tent during the course of the game, so choose its location wisely.

Acclimation points are used to increase a player's acclimation level on the player's board. Alternatively, it can be used to help offset the nasty effects of weather or the harshness experienced at higher elevations. As with movement cards, an acclimation card may be assigned to a particular climber and not split amongst them.

Once all players have moved, weather and acclimation effects are calculated and applied. The weather tiles depict the elevation levels at which movement and acclimation penalties apply. For example, heavy snow may cause any climber located at an elevation level of 7000 meters or above to suffer a loss of 2 acclimation. Climbers below this level suffer no additional penalty beyond any listed on the board. Sunny weather -- a favorite of climbers -- usually offers no acclimation penalties.

Each climber's acclimation level is tracked on the player board. At the end of a turn, any climber with an acclimation level greater than six will reduce it back to six (I guess one cannot be super-acclimated). Any climber who is reduced to zero perishes, with his final resting place likely being the very spot where he succumbed. No one is going to carry the body down the mountain, an ugly and disturbing practice that exists on K2 and other mountains to this day.

As climbers move to a higher elevation, their matching score marker is moved up the score track, potentially earning the player more victory points. Points begin at 1, but reach a massive 10 points if the climber successfully reaches the summit ... and survives to tell the tale. If a climber perishes, his score marker is reduced to 1, as while there may be glory in perishing in the attempt to conquer K2, there are not many victory points earned.

To begin the next turn, players draw three more cards into their hand, refilling to six. When their draw deck expires, the player will only be able to play the three remaining cards in his hand. At this point, each player's entire deck is reshuffled and another turn is played in the same fashion. Thus, a total of 12 turns (3 cards per turn) will be played, at which point the game concludes. The player who has the greatest cumulative value from both of his climbers is victorious. Ties are broken in favor of the player who first reached the highest level achieved.

K2 is a game of card management. Players must carefully and skillfully play their cards, properly apportioning them between their two climbers. Weather, movement and acclimation levels must all be considered, as well as the pathways being taken by opponents' climbers. Choke points can easily occur, which can cause a player to be stuck in place for one or more turns. In a 12-turn game, this can be devastating. Thus, there is an incentive to break free from the pack and race to the top. However, the risk chips do somewhat mitigate this temptation, but they can still be managed.

The game does cause some players to take quite some time as they ponder their options. I am somewhat surprised by this, as while there are several factors to consider each turn, the choices don't feel that overwhelming or taxing. Players are selecting three of their six cards, and most of the other factors (weather, movement, acclimation, risk tokens) are clearly visible and reasonably easily factored into one's plans. Still, I have seen some players bewildered, causing them to take a long time to make their plans and execute their turn. So, while the game box declares a 1 hour playing time, most games I've played take closer to 1 1/2 - 2 hours.

With the popularity of K2, it should come as no surprise that a sequel was inevitable. Mount Everest followed a few years later. The basic mechanisms are the same or very similar. The main difference is the fact that now players act as guides and must lead their clients -- both seasoned climbers and clueless tourists -- safely to the summit and back. This is so, so true to the actual reality on Mt. Everest, where making it to the top has become big business. The almighty dollar speaks, regardless of whether the client is qualified or not.

The artwork, theme and mechanisms in Mount Everest certainly belie its close relation to K2. Anyone who has played the former will have little trouble grasping the basic concepts and rules in this new spinoff. However, there are additional rules dealing with the clients, especially considering there are two main types: climbers and tourists. Climbers need a bit less care, but those inexperienced tourists require lots of attention and may prove to be the death of the guide. Still, tourists bring more money and fame (victory points), so the additional trouble may well be worth it.

Weather, movement, cards, risk tokens, acclimation...all work in a similar fashion as K2, with the exception that the acclimation cards are kept in a separate deck. Players may discard oxygen tanks to acquire acclimation cards, but must also discard a movement card when doing so. This seems particularly useful when entering higher levels and/or making a push for the summit.

What is also different is that each player receives two player boards, each representing one of their guides. Before beginning the ascent, players must outfit each guide, including clients (climbers or tourists), oxygen and/or camps. Each expedition has maximum limits, so players can vary the mix as they see fit. The more clients in an expedition, the less room there is for oxygen or camps, and vice versa. This player board is a bit confusing and does take awhile to understand how it operates.

Victory points are earned when players reach the summit, with 2 points being earned for an experienced climber and 3 points for a snotty tourist. Successfully returning to base with these clients earns these victory points again. If, however, a client perishes on the mountain, 3 or 4 victory points or lost, depending on the type of client. A very strange (and I hope not realistic!) rule is that clients can be voluntarily abandoned, at which point they perish, costing the player the aforementioned victory points. Dead clients are not good for business.

The game also adds an icefall region to the board, which is located shortly after departing the base camp. These face-down tiles are only revealed when a guide enters the area. Some impede or prevent movement, while others are passable as normal. This is an aggravation, but supposedly represents a particularly unstable area on Mt. Everest.

Other than these changes, the game operates almost identically to K2. It does add more complexity, rules and accounting to the proceedings, which also makes for a longer game. My games of Mt. Everest all lasted more than two hours. While I appreciate the attempt to recreate the actual commercial atmosphere as it exists on Mt. Everest, I find that this unnecessarily complicated a fun and usually fast-moving game. Indeed, Mt. Everest tends to drag as players must handle more rules and minutia. I much prefer to play the original.

So there you have it: a contrast between the two most famous mountain climbing games. Fans of K2 who desire more detail and a more accurate simulation of the commercial aspects of climbing Mt. Everest may well find the game of the same name to be appealing. I feel most others will likely have a similar reaction as me; that is, Mt. Everest is an unnecessary complication of a fairly pure and fun hand management game that recreates the perils of climbing one of the most foreboding mountains on the planet. While I appreciate the designer's desire to expand the system to other mountains and recreate those conditions, I find that the original is a cleaner and more fun design.
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