Today we're reviewing Ladder 29, a climbing card game from our friends at Green Couch Games, where each player is trying to "extinguish" his hand of 13 cards. It's up on Kickstarter right now, but you probably want to know if it's worth your Kickstarter $. So is Ladder 29 en fuego, or just a false alarm? Let's find out!
Ladder 29, designed by Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle, is for 2-5 players, and plays in about 30 minutes. It's a climbing game, a type of game often confused with trick-taking games, because they're similar. In trick-taking games, everyone plays at the same rate--that is, one person leads one card, and others play one card. So everyone plays the same number of cards and the hand ends for all players simultaneously. In climbing games, one player leads one or more cards, and other players play over those cards if they can and if they choose to. And play doesn't necessarily end once it gets back to the person who led; it can keep going around as people have legal plays. The point of climbing games is (generally) to be the first to go out, so players don't all play at the same rate. Yes, there's ranking of cards in both types of games, and the cards you take are called tricks, but they're distinct games and play differently.
Players want to be the first to go out, and will score points based on the Hot Spot card he or she drafted. The first player to 29 points triggers the end game, and the player with the most points after that wins.
94 cards, including...
- 65 Firefighter cards numbered 1-15 in four colors
- 5 Special Personnel cards that have special powers
- 16 Hot Spot cards
- 3 Score Track cards
- 5 Reference cards
There are also 5 colored blocks to keep track of scores on the cards.
First you place out the Start Player Hot Spot card (which is available every round), and then shuffle up the Hot Spot cards and deal then out so there's one more card on the table than there are players (including the Start Player card). Then shuffle and deal out 13 Firefighter cards to each player, setting the rest aside. Players order their hands however they'd like, and then pass 3 cards to the player on their left. Finally, in reverse score order, players draft one of the available Hot Spot cards.
Hot Spots each have a special condition on them that's only applicable to the player who drafts that card. It might be that any runs you play must end with even-numbered cards, or that you can only lead singles, or that your runs must be of a single color. Each card has a scoring breakdown for how many points you get for going out first, second, and so on. The scores are based on the difficulty of the challenge. So if you go out first and can only lead singles, you'll get a whopping 15 points, because that's super difficult! There's no special restriction on the Start Player card, and you get to lead the hand, so going out first only gets you six points. But note: The last player to have any cards in hand always scores zero points.
So the Start Player leads, and can lead a single card, a pair of cards, a set of three cards, or a sequential run of at least three cards. Players can only play over the card(s) played before if their cards are of a higher number, or if it's the same number but of a higher rank: Blue>Green>Red>Yellow. Play keeps going until everyone passes, and whoever was last to play gets the trick and leads the next one.
If you've played the classic climbing game Tichu, you're familiar with Bombs, which are four-of-a-kind and beat everything except a higher Bomb. That's here too, except it's called a Flashover. The rules are the same except, unlike Tichu where you can Bomb at any time, you can only play a Flashover on your turn and only if you haven't passed.
The only other thing to talk about are the five Special Personnel cards.
- Chief--The Chief can only be played as a single, and has a value of 21--it's the highest single.
- Lieutenant--He can also only be played as a single, and has a value of 18--it's the second-highest single.
- Dalmation--It can be played as a single or in runs, and has a value in those of zero. Or you can play him in a pair, and he mirrors the value of the other card.
- Rookies--There are two Rookie cards, and you can play individual Rookies as a single or in runs, and they have a value of zero. But if you play both as a pair, they're the highest-valued pair in the game.
Everyone scores points based on their Hot Spot cards and order they went out, and you do it all over again with new Hot Spot cards and a new hand of 13 cards. This continues until someone hits 29 points and triggers the end game.
Firestone--I've played Tichu and Frank's Zoo many times over the years, so I'm familiar with climbing games. In fact, after so many games of Tichu it felt weird not to have a partner--but I got over that quickly. While Ladder 29 isn't as much a gamers' game as Tichu, I think it fills a perfect and much-needed spot in the light- to medium-weight category. I can't even imagine introducing the family to Tichu at this point, but Ladder 29 is PERFECT. My kids liked it. My wife liked it. And it doesn't overstay its welcome--like Tichu can on occasion.
Jeremiah--I don't have a lot of games in my collection to draw a comparison to, which made Ladder 29 super fresh for me and my group. Like Scott said, it fills a nice spot in a game night.
Firestone--The biggest twist with this game is the Hot Spot cards. I love them. They add tension and restriction and risk and reward. The one drawback of them is that they make the 2-player (and even 3-player game) less fun, because scores are so swingy. The last player to go out gets zero points, so in a 2- and 3-player game that means often-lopsided scores. Not always, but often. But, and I've said this 1,000,000 times: I'm totally okay with games having a restrictive "correct" number of players. For me, Ladder 29 is a 4- or 5-player game only. And that's not a complaint.
Jeremiah--Agreed 4 and 5 is definitely the sweet spot for this one. A couple bad rounds in a low-player-count game can really sink you for the game. It doesn't necessarily break the game, and you can fight your way back in with a little help from a good hand.
Firestone--The artwork is great, and clearly communicates what it's supposed to. The Fireman cards have both colors and symbols on them for people who are color blind. (I am, but had no problem telling the colors apart.)
Jeremiah--I can't think of a Green Couch game that doesn't look simply outstanding, and they all have their own unique vibe.
Firestone's Final Verdict--Ladder 29 is a fun, family climbing game that brings enough new twists and challenges to deserve a place on your shelf. It packs a lot of fun into a simple deck of cards. Another hit for Green Couch Games!
Jeremiah's Final Verdict--Yet another great title from Green Couch, Ladder 29 is a cool little climbing game that brings fun to the table with a great scoring mechanism! Well done!
You can check out the Kickstarter campaign right here, but as you can see, we recommend this whole-heartedly. Thanks for reading!
Thanks to Green Couch Games for providing review copies of Ladder 29; this in no way affected our opinions of the game.