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I was glad when I saw Sherpa (Magma Editions, 2007 – Marc Beaudoin), because the theme of climbing Mount Everest while avoiding the abominable snowman sounded like an entertaining theme – something different from the trading games we seem to be flooded with. The box cover and pieces caused me to recoil slightly, since the artwork is not good at all, even though the components seemed to be of very high quality. On examining the rules closely, the game appeared to have a mechanic in which players shuffled their explorers around, attempting to have their pieces in the highest positions. I've played games of this type before (Formula Motor Racing immediately comes to mind), and I've enjoyed them; so I figured the game could overcome the artwork.
Unfortunately, while Sherpa seems to have interesting mechanics, it's too dominated by the luck of the card draw and obvious options. There are a few options a player can choose, but the back and forth of explorers became monotonous after a while; and it's the sort of game in which one player can simply suddenly win by having the right tokens and cards. Games take thirty minutes or so; and I might find it an interesting filler, if I wasn't annoyed by complete luck and the constant movement of the tiles.
Each player takes six characters of their color – two sherpas, two guides, and two yaks, along with a corresponding board that shows the characters (the explorers of the same type are differentiated by what they are wearing). Each player takes one of each type and mixes them in the middle, then places them randomly face up in a row that leads away from a pile of cards, forming a roped party. The other three characters are placed on the player boards. Resource tokens of three types (ice axes, oxygen, and food) are placed on the empty spaces on the character board that correspond with the characters in the roped party. (Yaks can carry three things, sherpas two, and guides one.) Each player takes one camp token, and a pile of blizzard tokens are placed near the board. Finally, a flag for each player is placed in a row next to the board, corresponding with the explorers who are closest to the pile of cards. Players are dealt four cards, and the game begins.
Each round, the player whose flag is at the bottom takes the first turn. On a player's turn, they first draw three cards from the pile. After that, the player may play as many cards from their hand as they want. Cards include:
- Action cards: These cards have a number of resource tokens shown on them, which the player must remove from their player board to use. The players' characters are then allowed to move up the group up to the amount of spaces shown on the card (4, 7, or 10). Movement can be divided between characters and will cause other characters to be moved downward.
- Crevasse: This card is played on another player, who must discard one ice axe. If they can't, their highest character is forced to move back the number shown on the first action card drawn from the deck.
- Avalanche: This card is played on another player, who must discard one oxygen token. If they cannot, they must move all of their characters back the number shown on the first action card drawn.
- Blizzard: The player places a blizzard token on the first or last character on the roped party. The player who this player belongs to must discard one food token; otherwise, the blizzard is discarded, and the character is returned to the player's board. If the player does have food, the blizzard stays, but the character cannot move. At the end of the round, the blizzard will move one space in the direction of the arrow on the tile. Each player hit by the blizzard must pay one food to survive.
- Yeti: This card is played on another player, who must move their highest character to the lowest position in the party.
After playing cards, a player has the choice to build their camp, which can only be done if they have two characters side by side in the party. The camp is then placed between the characters. From then on, any character (from any player), when next to the camp, may refill their token slots. Players may also discard cards from their hand to bring a new character on the board, in the lowest position and fully supplied (one card – Guide, two cards – Sherpa, three cards – Yak). When a player has two of the same type of character in the roped party, they get a bonus to every movement card they play. (+ 1 for two guides, + 2 for two sherpas, + 3 for two yaks). These bonuses are cumulative.
After the round is over, the flags are rearranged; and another round begins. As soon as two supply camps are on the board, any player can win if
- they built a supply camp.
- one guide and one other member of their team are in the top two positions of the roped party.
- the two characters have between them one food, one ice axe, and one oxygen.
If this happens, the player wins the game!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: All the tiles in the game from the resource tokens to the large character tokens are thick and easy to handle. Both the tiles and the cards are laminated and very clear and easy to understand. I don't understand the artwork on the game, though; it looks very stilted and quite bad, contrasting with the theme a bit. The game looks good from a distance, but close up it has elicited rather poor remarks. Everything fits easily inside a sturdy box with more of the bad artwork.
2.) Rules: The rules are only four pages and are clear, except they should have made clear about when it matters what character has what items, and when they become essentially "team items". I was able to figure it out, but it doesn't always make sense thematically. Still, the maneuvering of players around makes sense to people – it's a way that they "climb" the mountain without needing a board that covers the whole table.
3.) Obviously: Discarding cards to get more members is a no brainer; there's no reason not to do it. It adds to your movement; it gives the team more supplies and gives the player more characters. I don't see any reason not to do it – and then not to add the Yak first. Sure, you need a Guide at the top, but the Yak gives more resources and a higher movement bonus. Also, when moving people up, they should be positioned near base camps for supplies – this is all so easy that the game has no tension.
4.) Danger: The danger cards ruin the game to some degree for me, simply because they are so devastating. The Yeti in particular is ridiculous because it's powerful and really unstoppable. A player can be almost winning, then shot down. And in a multiplayer game, everyone will be attacking the lead player, so you could have your whole party near the top, then near the bottom and/or off the board on the next turn. The only way for a player to avoid this is to manage to pull off a combo that allows them to win the game in one move.
5.) Strategy and Fun Factor: Well, see the above two paragraphs. Either your strategy is obvious (move to the top of the mountain, build a base camp ASAP) or doesn't matter (got a lot of goods? – I'll Yeti you!) I found it a mixture of bland and frustrating, and it leaves one with a very unsettling experience. I don't mind the maneuvering aspect of the game, but I can't enjoy the resource aspect when it's random. You can have all six characters, with twelve resource slots – yet only one food, or no oxygen. Invariably it seems that I then have the wrong cards, and it just boils down to an annoying situation.
6.) Players and Time: Games are quick, because it usually seems that a player suddenly announces, "I've won." Everyone else sighs annoyedly or happily, because the game is over. A two player game includes a neutral color which usually ends up bunched at the bottom – DON'T play this with only two players. The rest of the time is spent shuffling tiles around and playing bad cards on each other. Games cap out around thirty minutes; but if you play for an hour, well, I'm sorry.
I'm sorry I can't recommend this game, because the theme is original and interesting. But it boils down to a game that isn't realized, because it's mixed up with apparent choices and freakish luck. Bad art basically seals it not getting my recommendation, because there are too many strikes against the game for it to be enjoyable. Climbing Mount Everest sounds like an exciting, unforgettable experience. Playing this game is neither.
"Real men play board games"