Full disclosure: A review copy of Unsurmountable was provided by Button Shy.
Yeah, by now it’s become a bit of a thing, but we’re going through some Button Shy games for the near future. That plus the Hanamikoji mini expansions eats a lot of the Available Review Space, but I think that’s fine, to be honest? It helps me get a bit ahead of the writing curve. I find Button Shy games somewhat easier to review, anyways, since they’re a bit limited in component scope, and that’s a bit relaxing from time to time. Maybe this is a vacation? It’s not. It’s still work. But let’s climb that mountain!
In Unsurmountable, you’ve resolved to do just that. You see the mountain, you want to climb it. Thankfully, it’s a tough climb but not an aggressive one. There are cabins and stopping points all over the mountain, and a rescue helicopter in case things get dicey. This solo game’s looking out for you, even if it gets a bit tough. Will you be able to reach the summit?
Not a ton, here. Set aside the Rescue Helicopter card, and shuffle the remaining cards:
Deal five cards face-up to form the Base Camp, and you should be ready to start!
So the core game loop is pretty much this: on your turn, you’re going to take the leftmost card from the Base Camp row and add it to the mountain. It can be placed in the bottom row of four such that it’s the first card in that row or adjacent to another card (creating cut-off / dead end paths is totally fine). If you want to place it above the bottom row, the card must sit on top of two other cards (in the middle), creating a mountain. Your goal? Add 10 cards to the play area, creating a four-card mountain with a path running from the bottom of the mountain to the top. It doesn’t have to run through the top edge of the top card (it can go off the left or right side), but it has to start at the bottom edge of the bottom card. Do that, and you win!
If you don’t want to play a card, you can either use the Rescue Helicopter card once per game to place the First Card (the leftmost card of your Base Camp row) on the bottom of the deck or you can use one of the other four (maybe more or fewer, depending on card effects) cards in your Base Camp’s effects by discarding it and activating its ability. The cards have various abilities that can help or hurt you. Either way, at the end of your turn draw another card, add it to the right of your Base Camp, and slide all cards to the left until you have a contiguous row of five cards.
Should you complete the path, you win the game! Otherwise, if you run out of cards (do not reshuffle the discard pile when the deck runs out; you just don’t get any more cards), the game ends and you lose!
The game has a few difficulty levels that you can try. They’re additive, meaning everything at Level 2 applies at Levels 3 / 4 / 5, as well.
- Level 1: Standard game. Build a 10-card mountain, have a path connecting the bottom of the bottom row to the middle or top of the top card.
- Level 2: Start with a four-card Base Camp, instead of five. This can still be modified by card effects.
- Level 3: Each card feature (Forests / Camps / Lakes / Caves / Yeti) can only appear once per row of your Mountain. You lose if there’s more than one of a feature in any row when the game ends.
- Level 4: Each card feature can also only appear once on each outer slope of your Mountain. The left and right slopes are considered different. You lose, again, if there’s more than one of a feature on a slope when the game ends.
- Level 5: The path to the peak must have fewer climbers on it than the height of the Mountain. You only have to count climbers on (or next to) your path. The Mountain is always height 4, but I assume expansions might allow that to change and they’re futureproofing.
Player Count Differences
None! Purely a solo game.
- Don’t be afraid to use card abilities! There are a lot of them, and provided they’re not the First Card, you can use them for various effects. Card abilities let you swap cards between Base Camp and the Mountain, swap cards on the Mountain, and even refresh the Base Camp or play extra cards. Keep an eye on what’s available to you; for the harder difficulties, you’ll need to leverage a few of them if you want to pull off a win.
- That all said, your mountain needs to be 10 cards, and you have 17 available to you. Plan accordingly. If you use more than 7, you’re not going to be able to build a complete mountain and you’ll essentially immediately lose the game (or, if not immediately, eventually). Keep track of how many cards you can use before you end up throwing the game.
- For the current game, removing a card from the game and discarding it is functionally the same, since the discard pile never gets reshuffled in. Don’t necessarily go discarding cards with reckless abandon just because they’re not being removed from the game! As I said, you only have 17 cards that you can add to your mountain. Discarded, removed; in the base game, it doesn’t matter. They’re still out of play and effectively unavailable to you for the rest of the game.
- Keep track of your cards with pathways heading up the mountain. About half of the cards have pathways going up, and that’s where you want to be heading as well. Keep track of your pathway that you’re going to use to try and reach the peak. There’s no issue if it snakes a little bit, but you don’t want to be in a position where you have to dead end it. It’s also totally fine to have more than one valid pathway; it’ll help you stay flexible, since you only need one to win.
- Don’t be afraid to use the Rescue Helicopter to bury a bad First Card, since you can’t use its ability anyways. Not every First Card is going to be immediately helpful, and you can’t use the ability of a First Card, so … just burn the Rescue Helicopter to bury it at the bottom of the deck. Or use another card ability to get rid of it if you don’t like it. Honestly, I tend to use an ability to swap it into the Mountain, depending on how far I am into the game. Don’t just add a bad card to the mountain because you want to save cards.
- Perfect is the enemy of good, especially here. Don’t worry about building a mountain with no dead ends or fulfilling requirements beyond your current difficulty level (I mean, unless you want to); just focus on doing exactly what you need to do to win at your current difficulty, and you can usually make progress along that front.
- I know we have fun in the Strategy section, but you’re on your own for the higher-level difficulties. This game is no joke! It’s not impossible, but it’s solidly difficult for me, even at Level 2 or 3, so if you’re consistently crushing the game at Level 5, please feel free to share your notes and fully know that I’m impressed by your radiance.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I haven’t bothered with a 10 x 10 since the pandemic started, but this got pretty close! Well, this and The Crew and Mission Deep Sea. There’s something to a game that’s pretty easy to get played. Button Shy, generally, is pretty good for this, but I think the idea of climbing a mountain as a game theme is also fun. There’s probably a Shatner on the Mount joke, here, but I don’t want to age myself by linking to an old YouTube video.
- Refreshingly difficult, with additional levels of player complexity once you get good enough at the base game. There are quite a few additional difficulty levels, including a few I’m not here to mess around with. I appreciate that, though; I like when a game offers a wide variety of difficulty options. Sometimes I just want to build a card pyramid; other times I really want to have to think intentionally and plan and swap. Giving me both options in an 18-card wallet game is both appreciated and unsurprising for a Scott Almes title.
- The art style is pleasant. I find it cozy and relaxing. Somewhere between SkiFree and A Short Hike. I think it’s the lack of jagged edges? It makes everything seem fun and wholesome and soothing, as opposed to an aggressive hike against all odds up a mountain? Both are valid game theme choices, but the art can really take you from one to the other. Christy Johnson did a great job on this, and I’m excited to see what the other expansions look like!
- I appreciate that the pathing isn’t as strict as one would necessarily think, as well. I messed this up the first few times and thought that all the paths had to fully connect to all other paths or off the mountain (No Dead Ends!), and that made the game difficult to the point of being near-impossible? Thankfully, that’s not the case and dead ends are totally fine. Makes the game a lot easier, I’ll tell you what.
- I also like route-building games, and this has a nice element of that. It’s one of my favorite mechanics, I think? Paths are just visually satisfying for me. Add in tile-laying and you’ve got Carcassonne, one of my favorite games, so there’s that. The route here isn’t as critical, but it’s still important if you want to win! So I’m glad there’s an element of that, here. While I also quite enjoyed Food Chain Island, having more route-building is always welcome.
- Plus, building a mountain is fun, visually. I just think it’s a fun thing to do with cards. I’m right, of course, but it looks nice on the table, as well. This is kind of the game I’d want to play on a ski trip while everyone’s out skiing and I’m not because I tend to stay in the cabin on ski trips. We all agree that’s normal, but this would be a nice accompaniment to that.
- Having the Rescue Helicopter as a backup outlet is a smart move. It’s a very gentle saving throw card for players who are stuck, and having it available is a very good idea. Smart game design move, et cetera. I think, especially for solo games, giving players a bit of the tweak that some players would take if they’re losing anyways (and would otherwise cheat) is usually wise, and this seems like the move. Just burying a card doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s out of the game entirely, but it changes up the timing enough to occasionally realign the cards with your strategy.
- I haven’t had this much trouble spelling a game name since Antinomy. I’ve called this Insurmountable more times than I can count. Yes, language is flexible, yes, prescriptivism in language is a functional form of classism, but also, I reserve the right to be gently frustrated. This isn’t a serious complaint, so, Mehs, but, you know, words are hard.
- It’s not an enormous deal, but it can certainly be frustrating when a low-quality card gets stuck as your First Card and you don’t have any further means of getting rid of it. This is a decently uncommon occurrence, though, and it really is more of a problem if you let it get away from you. Generally, the fix for this is using the Rescue Helicopter to bury it until later, but you can also use card abilities to move the cards around. It’s not ideal if you get into a situation where that’s no longer the case, but having been there before, it does leave a bit of a sour taste in your mouth.
- I appreciate them future-proofing the rulebook for more content, but it is confusing when you’re starting the game and there’s a “Discard” pile and a “Removed from Game” pile. Mostly a minor issue in that it messed up my first game because I (mistakenly) assumed that having two piles meant that you reshuffled the discard pile and kept going. While the rulebook says “if the deck runs out of cards, stop adding cards”, I … may have thought that the deck only “runs out” if the cards are removed from the game. Willing to take a chunk of the blame for this, but, one of a couple issues I ran into. The other one was that I thought every path had to perfectly connect to every other available path, but that’s so clearly my fault that I really only have myself to blame. Reading rulebooks! It’s an art.
- Fairly minor complaint, but while the game can be challenging, you can also have an underwhelming game where the first card usually works well enough with minimal alterations. That’s card games, for you; the luck of the draw can matter quite a bit here, depending on when and what and where cards go on your Mountain. Thankfully, this minor Con is dwarfed by the myriad difficulty levels beyond the first tier. I only mention this insofar as a player just trying this for the first time might feel a bit underwhelmed if their first game goes as simply as my eighth game just did, but … if that happens, try upping the difficulty, instead; the game still has some pretty nontrivial challenges.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I like Unsurmountable! I think the wide range of difficulty options available make it appealing for a wide variety of players. That really comes back around to what I think is the most important thing a solo game can have, and that’s scalable difficulty. I like that the Level 1 Unsurmountable is easy. So easy that sometimes I can just crush it whenever I feel like. I’m even, dangerously, of the opinion that every cooperative game should have a mode that’s got like, a 90%+ win rate. Let players win if they want to. Let them turn on infinite ammo. Who cares. But back to my actual point. Unsurmountable also does a few other things I like. It’s got nice, pleasant, and peaceful art, making a winding hike up the mountain a fun little thing, rather than a grueling and death-defying trial. Pleasant games are nice; I have a lot going on right now (January 2022). The game’s also a nice blend of card-playing and route-building, which gives me Sprawlopolis vibes but in a very different context with very different rules; it just makes the same part of my brain light up. That’s something that I like in these solo games, and it’s definitely a major factor in why I like Unsurmountable. Now if I could just get the name right. If you’re looking for a quick and entertaining solo experience or you want a solo game that isn’t afraid to challenge you, I’d recommend checking Unsurmountable out! I’ve certainly had a nice time with it.
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