Kickstarter Tabletop Alert: ‘Ladder 29’ Is a Smoking Hot Trick-Taking Game

It’s a race to get up to the top of the ladder, while trying to be the first to get down to no cards in your hand! This firefighter-themed, trick-taking card game hits Kickstarter today. Get excited: this game is hot!

At a Glance

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Ladder 29 is a trick-taking game for 2-5 players, aged 10 and up that plays in about 30 minutes. It’s from Green Couch Games (Best Treehouse Ever, Fidelitas, Avalanche at Yeti Mountain) and designed by Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle, the duo behind Fleet. Each round, players race to climb the points ladder by extinguishing the cards in their hands.

Components

Ladder 29 is a small game that packs brings some serious heat. That said, there’s not a lot, component-wise — about 95 cards and five score trackers. (Please note, I played with early components that may or may not change, art and quality wise, before mass publication.) There are 65 Firefighter cards: cards from 1 to 15 in four different suits plus 5 Special Personnel cards. There are 16 Hot Spot cards, which provide each player’s challenges and scoring, 3 cards for the score track, and a reference card for each of the (potential) five players.

The artwork, done by newcomer Andy Jewett, is wonderful and ornamental and makes the cards feel enough like a deck of playing cards, while still feeling like something else entirely. The suits are adorned with icons, which will help those who can’t see colors. Helmets, ladders, axes, and hydrants mark the suits and the reference card defines order by the icons, as well as the colors. My only complaint is that the type on the Special Personnel cards is too small for my aging eyes. No matter, though; after a single game, you know what each card does.

It took a moment to figure out how to arrange the scoring track, but when I did I smiled. It formed a high rise tenement with the scoring track and fire in its windows — it’s Physical Graffiti for the four-alarm set. It’s clever and a neat way to add more theme to the game. The reference cards are clear to understand, as are the Hot Spot cards, with their strategy-crippling rules.

How to Play

Each player is dealt thirteen cards, which they examine before selecting three cards to pass to their left. Next, players “backdraft” or draft in reverse order, from lowest to highest on score track, Hot Spot cards. Hot Spot cards have two important pieces of information on them: one is a challenge that only applies to the person that chooses the card. This might be something like “Can’t lead with singles” or “Can’t play pairs” or “Runs can’t include yellow cards.” The second is the point value if the player can win if she finishes in any position but last. Depending on the challenge on your Hot Spot card, these values may differ greatly from your opponents. More difficult challenges are accompanied by a better reward in higher points.

The player who starts also dictates initial play. Play can be led with one of several types of plays:

  • Single – a single card. Single cards can be beaten by a higher number or a higher suit (blue > green > red > yellow).
  • Pair – two cards of the same number, beaten by a pair of a higher number or suit. The highest color card in the pair defines it.
  • Triple – three cards of the same number, beaten by three cards of a higher number.
  • Run – at least three cards of any suit in sequential order. Can be beaten by a run of similar length, ending with a higher number than the previous play.
  • Four-of-a-kind – four cards of same number, only beaten by a higher four-of-a-kind. Four-of-a-kinds can be played as a Flashover, or trump card on any play. When played as a Flashover, only a higher four-of-a-kind can beat them.

Additionally, there are four special cards:

  • Rookies – there are two Rookies. They have a value of zero when played as a single or in a run, but when paired with the other Rookie, they are the highest pair in the deck.
  • Dalmatian – the Dalmatian is also worth zero when played as a single or a run, but paired with any other card, it is a wild card, making for a powerful pair.
  • Lieutenant – the Lieutenant has a value of 18, the second highest card, but can only be played as a single.
  • Chief – the Chief is the highest value card at 21, but can also only be played as a single.

As mentioned, the starting player decides which type of play is going to lead — single, pair, etc. For example’s sake, say she plays a green 2 as a single. The next player must play a blue 2, since it’s the only suit higher, or a single card with a value higher than 2. This play continues until a player can’t beat the previous play. The last player able to play gets to choose the next lead. Players must remember to meet the condition spelled out on their Hot Spot cards.

The first player to get rid of all their cards wins the round. They receive the first place points as dictated by their Hot Spot card, second place gets points according to their card on down to the last player to finish, who gets no points at all. (That’s second place in a two-player game!) Cards are shuffled and dealt again, new Hot Spots are placed and another round continues. First one to score 29 points wins.

Verdict

There’s something that’s pretty universal about trick-taking games, maybe it’s because so many people are familiar with games like Hearts and Spades or because there’s a simple elegance to gently adapting your strategy to counter your opponent’s moves. Ladder 29 builds on these basics by offering several unique challenges to players.

In Ladder 29, the ability for a player to lead the type of play is very important and can really change the outcome of a round and of the game. Control of the rounds is the most important thing because, as long as you are guiding the type of play, you are able to offload cards from your hand. Once someone else is in control, it’s easy for them to carve you out because your Hot Spot challenge is on display for everyone to see. If your Hot Spot prevents you from playing pairs, guess what your opponents are going to try to lead with every time?

The Hot Spots also present a different type of challenge, remembering your limitations in play. Even after a few games, we found ourselves getting excited about a play (and unloading a bunch of cards) … before remembering that they must beat the previous play by at least 2 or that red cards can’t be played in runs … and all of a sudden your dreams are smashed and you’re scoring zero points on the round. It can be brutal.

But it’s also a heckuva lot of fun. You really have to work to try to anticipate other player’s strategies and adapt to what’s being played in order to move your cards. Playing suits first before numbers (when possible) is a great way to unload your hand. The best way to work your way into some points, though, is to retain control of play. If you can somehow take the lead from a low number (or suit) and work your way up to a number that can’t be beaten, you’ll immediately get another crack at extinguishing another segment of your cards.

The special cards bring a fun changeup to the game. There’s nothing like holding on to the blue 15, so sure you are going to win this run of singles, only to be beaten by the Lieutenant, Chief, or both. When playing with less than the Fire Code’s Game Capacity of five, you’re never quite sure which cards are in play and which are in reserve, just waiting for the next round. It’s tricky and can cause some overthinking. And a blazing good time.

Ladder 29, from Green Couch Games, is available to back on Kickstarter beginning today.

Disclosure: GeekDad was sent an early version of this game for review purposes.

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