I love ladder games. I have loved them since I was a teenager, spending every day of my high school economics class playing something that a classmate of mine called ‘Chinese Poker’ (the internet tells me that the game we were playing was definitely not Chinese poker, by the way). The challenge of emptying your hand as efficiently as possible and trying to psych out your opponents is so simple and so accessible that it’s still my favorite plain-cards game to this day.
Andrew: Well, yeah! Economics is all about gambling, and the first player with no cards in their hand is the winner!
Ladder 29 is a ladder game (bet you didn’t see that coming) from the minds of two of Gameosity’s favorite designers, Ben Pinchback & Matt Riddle (much love for Fleet & Fruit Market, among others). Up on Kickstarter now,Ladder 29 is a card game for 2-5 players, and plays in about 15-20 minutes (the box says 30, but we’re fast).
In a ‘ladder’ or ‘climbing’ game, your goal is usually to empty your hand as quickly as possible; the sooner you’re out, the better off you’re doing. The way these games tend to work is that one player is the ‘leader’, and plays a card or cards into the center of the table. Each subsequent player needs to match they type of hand played (single card, pair, straight, etc.), but can only do so if what they play is of a higher value than the cards played before.
If a player cannot (or won’t) beat the current play, they must pass. If everyone has passed, the player who stumped the table becomes the new leader, and can play whatever they want. This continues until all but one player has emptied their hand.
Jess: The Ladder concept is incredibly simple – how can I spend my cards to make sure that a) I can get rid of them faster than anyone else, and b) I do so in a way that minimizes the times I am unable to play, thereby letting other players lead.
Andrew: Exactly. It’s tempting to lead with high-value cards or big, difficult to beat suits, because that will likely give you the lead back to let you play cards with impunity. But spend all your high cards too soon, and you’ll be left staring at a stray 3 that is super hard to play while the other players ladder right past you.
Ladder 29 sticks to this classic formula, but adds a couple of really unique twists.
Most significantly, the Hotspots really change the game up. Each round, players will draft challenge cards which will both give them scoring opportunities and impose restrictions on how they are able to play. And the tricker the restriction, the more points the player will nab for emptying their hand sooner.
These challenges will change every round and only apply to the player holding them. That means there is a huge variety in the sorts of interactions players will have.
Andrew: Are you going to nab the ‘Start Player’ hotspot, which gives you the least dramatic scoring opportunities but imposes no restrictions on your play?
Jess: Or will you grab the ‘Runs must be a single color’ hotspot, forcing you to essentially create straight flushes if you’re ever going to play a straight, but promising huge points if you can make it work?
Once each player has their Hotspot, the round begins, and play continues until only one player is left. That player gets nada, but every other player gets points based on the order they left the round and their personal Hotspot scoring rules. As soon as someone hits 29 points, the game is over and a winner declared!
Another smaller, but still quite fun, twist are the inclusion of the Firefighter crew cards. Some of them have unique restrictions on how best to play them, like the Rookies who are worth 0 normally, but played as a pair are the best pair in the game, or the Chief, who can only be played alone but is the best single card in the game. The complexity they add is minimal, but when they come up, they add a neat little layer of strategy to an otherwise fairly straightforward game.
Andrew: Honestly, I love this game. I love the presentation, I love the art, I love the unique twist on a really great core concept, and I really can’t stop wanting to play it.
Jess: I totally agree on all points. Ladder 29 is simply a great card game, built on rock-solid ideas and innovated just enough that I prefer it to the classic Chinese Poker (or whatever the heck you actually taught me).
Andrew: Yes, totally, vigorous nodding. I loved that game (whatever it really was), but if I have Ladder 29, I will be playing it instead, and I’ll be happy to play it anytime.
Andrew: The theme is nonsense. It’s an abstract card game.
Andrew: Yeah, me too. It’s just the only ‘negative’ thing I can think of. It’s nowhere near a problem for me at all.
Green Couch Games & RidBack are running Ladder 29 on Kickstarter right now. We highly recommend heading over and checking it out – if you’re in the market for a fun, abstract card game with a gorgeous theme and lots of replay value, you simply can’t miss with this one.
(Gameosity received a preview copy of this title. We were not otherwise compensated.)