The Complex Board Game Whistle Mountain Is a Tough ClimbGames Reviews board games
Whistle Stop was one of my favorite new games of 2017 for its combination of several familiar game ideas into one cohesive whole. You’re building routes (and the whole map) as you go, picking up and delivering goods, buying stock in all players’ rail lines, and competing for bonus tiles. There are a lot of decisions to make, and a lot of pieces, yet designer Scott Caputo made it all work together and feel less complex than it ought to be.
Caputo’s sequel to this game, Whistle Mountain, has no trains, and in fact has nothing significant in common with its predecessor other than the use of whistles as a form of currency within the game (here, they’re wild resources). Co-designed with Luke Laurie, who was one of the folks behind this year’s Cryo, Whistle Mountain is a worker-placement and engine-building game with even more going on than Whistle Stop. It works surprisingly well, but the sheer weight of the rules bogs down game play in a way that didn’t happen with the first Whistle title.
Whistle Mountain also has players building out the board as the game goes along, but now all players are mining the same mountain, placing scaffolding parts that give access to resources, then covering the scaffolding with machines of varying sizes that can either give new resources or provide new actions when the machines are “activated.” Building is a two-part process in Whistle Mountain—on one turn, you acquire the scaffolds/machine, paying some cost at that time to get the tiles, and then you build them on a later turn for free. However, as the players build further up the mountain, it causes flooding at the bottom, and one row of the board becomes inaccessible every time the top line of the construction goes up another row.
Each player has three airships that serve as the workers they place on the board; there are meeples, but they don’t serve the usual purpose, instead functioning as workers you have to rescue from the flood by placing them on scaffolds and then building machines over them to “promote” them to the tower for points and other rewards. When you place an airship, you can place it on a machine on the mountain to activate it and any adjacent machines or scaffolds, or you can place it on an open space to activate adjacent scaffolds. You gain resources from those scaffolds and may get immediate actions from activating machines. When you’ve placed all three airships, you must bring them back to your own board, after which you get up to four build actions, building scaffolds and/or machines, and then moving one worker meeple out onto the mountain. You can also choose to bring the ships back home sooner if you want to build before using all three ships.
There’s a whole lot more to Whistle Mountain than that, however. Each player starts the game with a special ability only available to them. Players may also buy up to six upgrade tiles, each of which also grants some special power or ability, and which can be worth more victory points at game-end. There’s a deck of cards, which you can draw by placing an airship in that space or gain via multiple other methods (machines, tower rewards), and which give you single-use actions from favorable resource conversions to gaining machines or upgrades without having to use a whole turn. There’s a duplicator token that lets everyone use one player’s special ability as long as the token is on that ability, although we ended up setting this aside completely.
Players gain points throughout the game from placing scaffolds next to other tiles on the board—one point per shared edge—and from placing machines, which can gain you 3 to 15 points. There are also various ways to gain points during the game from award tokens when you move workers to the tower and from some machines that grant immediate points when activated. When all of the workers in the barracks along the side of the mountain are gone, either because they’ve been promoted to the tower or lost to flooding, the game ends. Players add up their points gained during the game plus points for upgrades they’ve purchased and points based on where their workers are on the tower—the higher they are, the more points they’re worth—and lose 5 points for each worker who was lost to the flood, which seems like a low cost on a meeple’s life but is probably an accurate depiction of labor rights in the American west.
The quality of the game design is evident at just about every point during the game and when you add up the scores at the end. It’s incredibly well-balanced, and there doesn’t seem to be a dominant way to rack up points, while skipping any particular action probably puts you at too much of a disadvantage, with the possible exception of the cards. (In one two-player session, I had an upgrade that gave me an extra card every time I got a card for any reason. I ended up with more cards than I could reasonably use, and lost the game by a wide margin to my daughter, who never bothered with the cards.) But it’s been a long time since I played any game that sent me back to the rulebook this often—the way you gain resources or actions from placing ships on the board is not intuitive, and the icons on the abilities, cards, machines, and upgrades need the text references that fill up the last few pages of the rulebook. Some games have high cognitive loads because you have to plan your strategy many moves ahead; Whistle Mountain has a high cognitive load because so many of the rules don’t flow naturally from the game play or familiarity from other games.
If you like Whistle Stop, you may very well enjoy Whistle Mountain, since it came from the same mind (as well as the designer of Manhattan Project: Energy Empire). I own both games and would always choose Whistle Stop over this one, since both have about the same complexity level and playing time (90-120 minutes), as Whistle Stop has some more satisfying mechanics and more intuitive rules. Your mileage, and scaffolding, may vary.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.