Can’t get enough of board games like Parks or Settlers of Catan when you’re away from the crag or gym, but wishing there was a tabletop game out there to scratch your climbing itch, too?
Well, the wait is about to be over.
The rock climbing-themed strategy game First Ascent, designed by climber Kate Otte, launched on Kickstarter on June 14th. In just a day, it has already surpassed its $17,000 goal, with over $18,000 in total donations from 245 backers.
The game allows 2-5 players to compete as they attempt to find the most efficient route up a rock wall. Climbers have a limited number of ropes (each pitch requires you to leave behind your rope) and have to optimize their line to get as many points as possible, with technique bonuses, various objectives, random scenarios, and more thrown into the mix.
There are a handful of other climbing board games on the market, of course, but most are mountaineering-centric, and almost none are designed by actual climbers. “The games out there aren’t portraying what I think makes climbing fun and interesting,” Otte told Gym Climber. “With First Ascent, I wanted to emphasize the decisions that we make as climbers.” She added that the game primarily focuses on route-planning, risk management, and decision-making, as opposed to simply having climbers compete to climb the hardest or most treacherous route, “or in any way making it seem like these people are ‘conquering’ the mountain. That’s not what they’re doing,” Otte said. “They’re ‘experiencing’ the mountain.”
The game incorporates a variety of familiar climbing scenarios, from dealing with a “Hangry Partner” or a “Snake on the Ledge!” to having to navigate a “Big, Scary Roof,” to finding out that “You missed the belay station!” A few outlandish events are also thrown in for fun, such as “Peregrine falcon delivers a water-filled cactus!”
Otte also strove to incorporate a sense of progression into the game. “There’s an engine-building component, where if you’re using the same skills and gear over time, you can earn that skill or gear permanently, and it makes harder pitches easier.” She also incorporated a number of symbols in the game to make it easier for first-time players to learn and was heavily focused on the first-player experience (her background in wayfinding strategy played a major role here, she said). First Ascent also features a “guide mode” designed to allow beginners and board game newbies to get a grasp of the basic concepts quickly and easily.
As much as fine-tuning the gameplay and structure was critical, it was incredibly important to Otte that the artwork and characters accurately reflected the climbing community, as well. “It’s not just a bunch of bro-y dudes with their shirts off,” she said of her characters. “I wanted the artwork to reflect the incredible diversity within our community, at the crag and gym.”
The game features 10 different characters, from “Crag Mama,” a climber with kids, to “Bionic Woman” an above-knee amputee. Otte added that many of the playable characters and climbers depicted on the cards were inspired by real people (Irene Yee / Lady Lockoff is clearly shown on the “Camera crew” card, for example).
Otte, a Philadelphia-based climber, designer, and illustrator, did all the game design, graphic design, and artwork for First Ascent herself. A Senior Contributor to The Climbing Zine and a leader in Philadelphia’s American Alpine Club chapter, she spent three years working on First Ascent, inspired by playing board games at the crag with other climbers.
She estimates the game will ship to the general public in August 2022, but climbers can get a reduced price now by backing the game on Kickstarter (a $49 donation currently nets you a copy of First Ascent, while the official release price will be $59).