Q&Play: Climbing the Ladder to the 29th Floor

Find out why The Inquisitive Meeple says that Ladder 29 should be in every gamers collection, and then check out an interview with both designers to learn the story behind the game.

The rundown ^

Ladder 29 is a firefighter themed card game, designed by Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback (the duo that brought you Fleet, Morroco & Eggs and Empires) and will be published by Green Couch Games (Best Treehouse Ever, Rocky Road a la Mode, & Outlawed).

The game of Ladder 29 is a Climbing game, similar to Trick Taking games where you want to win the hand by winning the “trick.” However, unlike Trick Taking games, you are able to lead with more than just one card, you can lead with pairs, sets, and runs (sequences) of 3 cards or more. Players must then follow suit with whatever was lead, so if pairs are lead with, other players must play a higher pair or pass. However, a 4-of-kind can be played at anytime, even if it doesn’t follow suit. This is called a Flashover (in Climbing game terminology it is known as a “bomb”). Flashovers can only be beaten by a higher Flashover. Play will continue until everyone passes, so the trick can go around the table multiple times. The winner of the trick gets to start the next one. The object of round is to get rid of (shed) all your cards before the other players do.

Ladder 29 is played over multiple rounds. At the start of each round, the players are dealt 13 cards, after looking at them they must pass 3 of those 13 to the player on their left. Hot spot cards are then chosen, these cards have a personal rule on them that’s only for you to keep during the round (i.e. No red cards may be played in runs), there is also a chart on the hot spot card that will tell you the number of points you score at the end of the round depending on which position you go out on. The harder the rule you have to keep, the more points you can score if you go out first. Whomever is the last to go out (only person with cards left in hand) in a round always scores zero points. It should be noted that there is a Start Player hot spot card available every round, it has no extra rules you have to follow, and while it let’s the player start off the round, it also gives the smallest amount of points out of all hot spot cards. Once one or more players reach 29 points (or more), the end of the game is triggered. Whomever has the highest score wins.

The play ^

While Trick Taking games may not be my favorite game genre (not even close), I do find their cousins, Climbing games, more enjoyable. So, when I found out that Green Couch’s Ladder 29 by the Ridback boys (Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback) wasn’t a trick taker, but in fact a Climbing game and one that played with 2-players (which isn’t common) I jumped on the chance to preview a copy of the game. On top of that, just look at that awesome art from Andy Jewett!

So does the game play as awesome as the art looks? Does it live up to its publisher and designer pedigree? Let’s find out…

One of the first things that comes to mind when I think about my plays of Ladder 29, is that compared to many other climbing games there is a smaller number of legal plays one can make. For example, there are no consecutive pairs, flushes or full houses. However, in the case of Ladder 29 this is a good thing. Why?  For a number of reasons, first and foremost it makes it easy to teach and to learn because there are not tons of legal plays to learn. Also, it allows the “pass 3 to your neighbor” mechanic to really shine. If there were more options, the wait time between getting your hand of cards and starting the trick could be an issue. Another aspect that is great in Ladder 29 is, if everyone passes you can keep playing on yourself, which is very uncommon in climbing games. This allows some room for players to pull off some satisfying plays. 

Score Track

Now, all my games of Ladder 29 have been 2-player up to this point, which may seem insane to those that are more versed in Climbing games. As usually they do not go hand-in-hand (with the exception of Haggis). So, what are Mrs. Inquisitive Meeple and my thoughts on 2-player?  We find it enjoyable, we do keep coming back to it – but it certainly feels like the sweet spot of the game (due to hot spots ranking system) would be 4 or 5 players. 2-player games can be really swing-y. For example, here are some actual scores of our 2-players games 10-31, 10-35, 6-33, and 13-31. I don’t know if that is because one of us is horrible at the game, or if the other is a Climbing game savant or if it is the game itself. Though I suspect it may be the latter. Playing with 2-players only takes about 20 minutes and yet not a single one of our games feels like it took that long, it seemed like it took only half that time. Which is a sign of a good game, because it shows the game is not lagging on, but instead engaging us in a way that time flies by.

A highlight of Ladder 29 is that it’s not bogged down with lots of hand types that can be legally played (as mentioned above) or advanced rules, this makes it it easy to teach. It is very streamlined for the type of game it is. Not only can I see the game being a hit with gaming groups, lunchtime gaming friends, and families – but also perhaps with extended family that may not be into gaming and won’t even try any of your gateway games like Ticket to Ride or even other Green Couch Games’ like Best Ever Treehouse or Rocky Road a la Mode. Ladder 29 has elements that those hesitant to play games may be more comfortable with since it has that classic familiar feel of winning tricks, making pairs, triplets or runs, things many people grew up with in games they played in their youth (or maybe even currently). Yet at the same time, it has gameplay for those that may be more into more hobby style games. For example, being able to win a trick or go out while still meeting the requirements on your personal hot spot card can make the hand management feel very gratifying.

Side note: I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the release, we will see quite a few variants. Want to play with younger children?  Play with just the Start Player hot spot and use the scoring on the card for everyone. Want to make it more difficult?  Ditch the hot spot Start Player card and only use the other hot spots (there are rules as to who starts the game if no one picks the start card). And no doubt we will see 2-player variants, as well as, partnership rules popping up on Board Game Geek from passionate fans. This game almost screams for variants and house rules not because it’s broken, but because of that solid traditional feel to the game, much like classic card games played with poker decks have variations.

Classic. Fresh. Streamlined. Clever. Amusing. Satisfying. Pick anyone of these words and it describes Ladder 29. Even in only playing the slightly wonky 2-player version of Ladder 29, it is clear this is a gem of a card game. With a very classic and traditional feel, yet fresh with its twists of the hot spot cards, passing 3 cards at start of round, and having the option to play even after everyone else has passed.

If you walk away with one statement from this preview in mind, it should be this:  Ladder 29 is a game that every gamer should have in their collection.

The Qs ^

Matt Riddle (left) and Ben Pinchback (right)

Thanks guys for taking some time out to tell us the story behind Ladder 29. For those that may not know, it’s a Climbing card game with a few twists. Could you share a little bit about the history of the game?

Matt: As we have discussed ad nauseam lol, Ben and I have known each other a very long time. I was a few years older and a few grades ahead of Ben, but we both ended up at Michigan Tech for college. A buddy and roommate of mine, Dan, learned a game called Nook from his favorite electrical engineering professor who had himself learned the game while in the Vietnam War.  I played it my senior year of college with our housemates a lot. Dan stayed up for grad school and as he and Ben had become friends, they played it as well. Ben and I transferred it to our friends back home and played it even more! That was a really long way to say Ben and I have played hundreds of games of Nook and always wanted to “dork-game-ify” it and we finally did.

Ben: So ya, the only evidence that “Nook” ever existed was our friend Dan learned it from his professor, known only to us as “Doc” mind you, who apparently learned it while in Vietnam. It’s just as plausible that Dan made up the game and invented the story so we’d play it with him. The weirdest part is the game is kinda like Tien Len, or Big Two, but not totally. It’s different enough that I still believe the Doc in Vietnam story. I actually thought Doc learned the game from some Vietnamese friends at a wharf in San Francisco. For real, that’s the version I heard. I’m rambling…..

Was there a reason you guys went more German style family card game (colored cards, 1-15) instead a poker deck that is stylized?

Matt: Mostly to keep the German/euro feel and because it was easier for players to think through the powers and hot spots numerically.

Ben: Plus, honestly the opportunity for Green Couch to come back to us with absolutely amazing art and theme integration all around. Green Couch took our idea and totally brought it to life. “Ladder 29” as a theme started as a play on words joke. Ladder game, play to 29 points. Everyone loves firemen. But after working on the special cards, and after seeing the final art, this game presentation really shines. It’s so gorgeous. Also, the Dalmatian is the best. Totally thematic too. Man’s best friend combines with any regular card to make a pair. Come on now!

Hot spots are something that sets this game apart from other Climbing/Shedding games They give each player not only personal challenges, but also decide what points you will get depending the order you go out. How did this come about and what do you think it adds to the gameplay not found in traditional climbing games?

Ben: The hot spots are classic push your luck. Who doesn’t love laying it all on the line to go for max points at the chance of a total bust? It’s honestly a really fun decision trying to figure out just how bad of a hot spot you think you can handle in order to try for the most points possible. OR, you say heck with you guys I’m taking start player and getting out of this one quickly. Counting tricks was never a thing we did here with Ladder 29. It was always about getting rid of your cards for us, and the hot spots were the way we came up with to try and update the basic game structure for the modern gamer. I think Doc would approve.

Matt: Like I said, Nook was a great game we “grew up” on and we wanted to look at ways to make it feel fresh and new while retaining its classic feel. We modified a few base rules to smooth out game play and the hot spots were the core idea on how to twist the game into a “gamer” game. We also wanted to make sure we could play it at all player counts as Nook is primarily a 4 player game. The best part of the hot spots is that while you are playing the same rules and trying to go out, each one twists how you play each round so it keeps the game fresh and different over multiple plays. We also love the special cards. They provide a nice twist as well.

Examples of some hot spots cards found in Ladder 29

Another twist you guys added to the gameplay is the passing 3 cards to your neighbor before you start, like in some Hearts’ variants. What do you think this adds to the gameplay?

Ben: Similar to Hearts like you said, it’s fun to have a little bit of agency to build your hand. It’s fun to get a feel for what is getting passed and then even trying to plan into that. Once you get going, you can often find yourself getting passed into low runs or pairs or trips even than can be huge swings for you.

Matt: The pass makes you try and think through your whole round. “If I lead this, then comeback with this and it rides… then I go play this and go out! Unless Ben passes me 1,3,7”

Getting ready to play a 2-player game of Ladder 29

Trick taking/climbing games are not strong two player games (with the exception of Haggis which was made specifically for that player count). What in your opinion makes Ladder 29 a good 2-player card game?

Matt: We really wanted to make ladder 29 flexible enough to play well at all player counts. Honestly, we started out assuming that Ladder 29 would be 3-5p. We played it a lot at those counts at first. We discussed 2p and decided to only do it if we did not have to change the rules. We did not want a robot or multiple hands or anything like that. So, one day we played it 2p… and it worked. It was fun, the decisions were the same, and the gameplay worked. So we played it dozens of more times to make sure and it kept being fun.

Ben: Two player is definitely more in your face with Ladder 29. It becomes vitally important to manage what your opponent has access to regarding the hot spots. You have to super pay attention to the cards they pass to try and figure out what type of hand they might favor round to round. One tip if you fall behind is don’t be afraid to ride start player for small wins until you catch up. Start player, especially in 2p, is huge. There’s no shame in catching up slowly but surely. Or take a huge risk to try and catch up. Doc would approve.

What was your favorite part of designing Ladder 29?

Ben: Honestly, just playing the game. As Matt said earlier, we have literally played hundreds and hundreds of games of Nook, so Ladder climbing / shedding is in our DNA now. We’ll never tire of it. So taking months at lunch and just cycling this game over and over with our friends was a blast. Tweaking different passing amounts, trying new hot spots, working on special characters. It was simply a joy to do for us. And honestly, that continued right into signing the game with Green Couch. We never actually pitched them. We were hanging out at Origins, and I just said to Jason Kotarski and Matt Wolfe, “Hey you wanna play this fun game we’re working on?” We finished and Jason was glowing. Now we’re here!

Matt: Being able to bring a new twist to a classic game that was such a big part of our college years and our 20’s was really rewarding.

Special character cards found in Ladder 29

Did you guys learn any design lessons with this one and if so could you share them with us?

Ben: This project has further cemented in me to make games I’m passionate about playing. I’ll never to my dying day turn down a game of Nook and now Ladder 29, because I love these games so much. It was never a chore to play or work on this game. Make games you are super excited about and then hope others catch on. Thankfully for us, we’ve been finding that our gaming tastes aren’t exclusive and others are feeling what we like too.

Matt: There is always a new twist. There are so many classic cards games out there, it is easy to think that there is nothing new to do but there is. $3 Rage decks are a great place to start a numbers on cards proto.

Art from back of the firefighter cards in preview copy. This may not be the back of final version.

As we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to add?

Ben: If you’ve never played a ladder climbing / shedding game, then I think we have the perfect one for you. Ladder 29 is an easy ruleset with low barrier to entry. Push your luck going for the crazy hot spots, or keep it close to the vest and make that slow climb to victory. If you already love these types of games, then perfect. You’ll jump right in and have a totally new experience waiting for you. Also, the best feeling in the game is holding onto 1 Rookie and then getting passed the 2nd one. Bam!

Matt: Mine is a game tip. Do not underestimate start player if you are behind. It seems like you want to chase the big points, but taking control of the action – especially at lower player counts – is important. Take your opportunity for a big hot spot when you have it, but do not panic.  

In comparison ^

I thought I touch on some of the similarities and differences of Ladder 29 and three other popular climbing games that can be bought currently on the market. This section isn’t meant to be an exhaustive look, just done in passing. It’s directed more to players of the following games or those researching differences in an attempt to compare.

Gang of Four: Color suits and also the ranking of those colors are something that Gang of Four and Ladder 29 both have in common (though latter has an extra color). Both also offer a 4-of-Kind as a bomb, which in the game can beat any hand, and only higher ranking bomb can beat it. Though it should be mention in Gang of Four bombs can be any X-of-Kind as long as they are four cards or longer in length.

Gang of Four features playable hands of flushes, straight flushes and full houses which are not found in Ladder 29. In Ladder 29, a straight/run can be any 3 cards or more, where in Gang of Four it must be 5 cards. Both also feature a few special character cards. Speaking of such, they even have a card that plays the same – the Dragon/Chief. 

Haggis: Haggis and Ladder 29 both can be played with 2 or 3 players. One of the differences in the gameplay is there are no calling of bets in Ladder 29, all points come from the completion of your personal hot spot card and the order in the round you went out. Cards in Ladder 29 are 1-15 in 4 colors/suits and there is a ranking system to the suits unlike Haggis which uses Poker style cards. There is only a single kind of bomb (4-of-Kind) in Ladder 29, unlike in Haggis which has multiple type of bombs and a ranking system of them. Haggis also offers players some more legal play hands in run/sequence of pairs.

In Ladder 29, unlike Tichu, there is no partnership when playing 4-players. Ladder 29 also has more of range when it comes to player count (2-5). At the start of a round in Ladder 29, players have to pass 3 cards, much like Tichu. However, it differs in that with Tichu you are passing a single card to each of the opponents, whereas in Ladder 29 players are passing all 3 cards to the player on their left.

Both games, offer players a 4-of-a-Kind bombs, but Ladder 29 does not have the second bomb that Tichu offers, which is a Sequence of 5 bomb. Both games have special character cards in common outside of the normal cards. Cards in Ladder 29 are 1-15 in 4 colors/suits and there is a ranking system to the suits. No Sequence of Pairs or Full House are found in Ladder 29. Runs/sequences in Ladder 29 can be made of up of 3 or more cards.

It should also be kept in mind two things that make Ladder 29 stand out from any of the above Climbing games are:

  1. The trick doesn’t end when there is just one player left, that player may actually continue to play on themselves, if they wish.
  2. Points are determined via your personal hot spot card (explain at start of article) and the order in which you went out, along personal rule restrictions you must obey for the round.

The last word ^

Thanks to both Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback for taking the time out to do the above interview. It should be noted that Green Couch Games sent a preview copy of the game for an honest review. Ladder 29 is now on Kickstarter for a limited time. If you like to check it out, you can do so by clicking here. Until next time, thanks for reading and stay inquisitive… 

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