Time to go for a hike in the mountains-but do you have the right gear for the trail?
What Is Mountains?
Mountains is a game by Carlo A. Rossi for 2 to 5 players, ages 8 and up, and takes about 20 minutes to play. It’s published by HABA and is available in stores or directly from the publisher, with a retail price of $29.99. The game involves some memory, luck, and planning; the theme and complexity are both family-friendly, and my 6-year-old was even able to join in (though she didn’t always remember who had what equipment).
Here’s what comes in the game:
- Game board
- Cloth bag
- 80 Favor stones (70 blue, 10 yellow)
- 32 Equipment cards (16 blue, 16 green)
- 5 Summit books
- Season Sheet notepad
- Summit stamp (with case)
- Stamp pad
- 62 Hiking cards
The board itself is only used to organize the hiking cards: there are spaces for the card decks themselves, and then spaces off the board for the discard piles. What’s odd to me is that over half of the board is simply artwork that isn’t used for anything else — there could have been room for the decks and discard piles on the board, or the board could have been a narrower strip (and the entire game would have been smaller). The one nice thing about the board is that it gives you some scenery (and a moose!) to look at while you play, which just helps create the atmosphere a little.
All of the cards in the game are half-sized cards; there’s a limited amount of information presented on each card, so the size is sufficient, though not everyone likes handling tiny cards.
There are 16 types of equipment, with two copies of each one (one with a blue background, one with a green background). They range from boots to tents to carabiners — various equipment used for hiking and camping — and are simply illustrated. There’s no text on them, making them language-independent, but I did notice that there was sometimes confusion between the camp stove and the lantern, and some players may not know the names of certain equipment. Fortunately, you can always just point to the relevant hiking card.
The stamp and the summit books are kind of a gimmick, but it’s a cute thematic component. The “books” are actually just a simple cardstock folder that has some notches so you can tuck one of the season sheets inside, and the sheet itself is a simple grid of squares. The stamp shows a mountain with five stars over it, and comes with a small plastic storage case and a red stamp pad. As you play, you’ll stamp your passport for points. Sure, the game could use just about anything for points instead, but the passports are a fun way to track your score in secret.
The favor stones are small plastic cubes, and the cloth bag is just used for storage, not for gameplay. It’s classier than a plastic baggie, but I’ve found that the drawstring doesn’t always stay shut tightly so the stones can fall out in the box.
How to Play Mountains
You can download a copy of the rulebook here.
The goal of the game is to earn the most summit stamps in your passport by the end of the game.
Lay out the board in the center of the table, and place the corresponding decks of hiking cards on their spaces according to the backpack icons on the backs of the cards.
Shuffle the equipment cards and deal out a number face-down to each player based on the player count — the more players there are, the fewer cards each player gets. Each player also takes a summit book with a blank season sheet, and eight blue favor stones. (Yellow stones are worth 5 blue stones and you can swap when needed.) The rest of the equipment cards and stones are placed in a supply, along with the stamp and stamp pad.
On each turn, you may either attempt a hike or take a rest day.
For a hike, choose a hiking card from the board — the number of backpacks on the back of the card shows how many pieces of equipment you’ll need to succeed at the hike; for the two highest difficulties, the starred backpacks indicate that two of the requirements will be the same equipment. Printed on the board below each deck (and also on the face of the cards) are the rewards for completing the hike successfully, which include favor stones and summit stamps. Easier hikes award stones, and harder hikes award stamps.
Once you’ve chosen a hike and revealed it, you must assemble the required equipment shown on the card. If you have all of it yourself, simply reveal these from your hand, and then collect your reward. (Then put your equipment back into your hand.)
If you don’t have the equipment, you can attempt to borrow from other players. Choose a player, give them a favor stone, and then ask for a specific piece of equipment. If they have it, they must reveal it and you may use it for this hike. (Borrowed equipment is returned to the owner’s hand after the hike.) If that player doesn’t have the equipment, you don’t get your favor stone back. You may continue asking any players to borrow equipment, one favor stone per request, until you have all the equipment to complete the hike or you decide to give up — in which case you don’t get the reward.
If you reveal a hiking card and decide that it’s too hard, you can simply discard it and take one favor stone from the supply before requesting to borrow any equipment.
Whatever you choose, the hiking card is discarded at the end of your turn.
If you choose to take a rest day (usually if you’re low on favor stones), then you do not reveal a hiking card, and instead take 3 favor stones from the supply.
Some of the hiking cards have mountain huts on them, which will either allow you to get more equipment for two favor stones, or spend some number of favor stones for summit stamps. (The harder difficulty decks require more favor stones for stamps, but some also allow you to get two stamps at once.) Every player may take advantage of this card in turn order. Then, the card is discarded and you take another turn.
The game ends when two decks of difficulty 3 and up have run out. The player with the most stamps wins, with ties going to the player with the most favor stones.
Why You Should Play Mountains
Mountains is a mix of luck and memory, with just a touch of resource management in the favor stones. Whether you’ll have the right equipment for a particular hike is typically a matter of luck: you draw the card, and hope for the best — though of course if you try for a harder hike, you’re much less likely to find all the right equipment at the beginning of the game. It’s also a gamble if you’re missing equipment: who do you ask to borrow equipment from if nobody has used that particular gear yet?
As the game progresses, you start to see what other players are using from their own hands, and then it becomes more important to remember what you’ve seen and where. Have you seen two helmets, or just one? Who was it that used a rope in their previous hike? Have you seen all of this player’s cards by now?
What’s more, some hikes may actually be impossible with the current set of equipment. You only deal out roughly half of the equipment deck at the beginning of the game, which means that there’s a good chance that there are some items that are still in the deck. Knowing when to ask around and when to sit out and just take one favor stone instead can be crucial.
There’s a little bit of bluffing allowed, too. Once somebody gives you a favor stone and asks you for equipment, you must answer honestly. But until that favor stone is paid, players are allowed to pretend they have something. “Sure, I have a tent you can borrow!” It’s up to you whether to trust somebody. I’ve seen instances where a player ran out of favor stones trying to borrow equipment from the wrong places.
Managing your favor stones is important: if you know where the gear is but you can’t afford to borrow it, you’re out of luck. And you generally want to keep at least two stones around in case the equipment shop hut turns up — woe to those who have spent all their stones and can’t acquire new gear! While it always seems like a wasted turn to take a rest day, it does get you 3 favor stones, which is as much as a level-1 hike. The mountain huts that offer stamps are a bit more expensive, but if you manage to purchase some stamps when your opponents are out of favor stones, it can give you the lead.
The apparent strategy is to go after the easy hikes first — you’re more likely to have the equipment (or know where to borrow it) and you can earn some stones quickly. Then, after you’ve figured out some number of equipment, you start going after harder hikes, which will earn stamps but will cost you stones. Ideally, you’ll also be earning some stones as people borrow your equipment, too. This strategy can work, but there’s still always luck involved: you might have terrible luck and draw a few hikes for which nobody has the equipment … but you don’t figure that out until you’ve spent a lot of your stones asking for it. And I’ve also seen players gamble on harder hikes early in the game and succeed. Ultimately, players who don’t mind a good dose of randomness will enjoy Mountains more than those who want a game they can figure out an optimal strategy; it’s meant to be a casual family game, not a deep brain-burner.
Thematically, it can feel a little weird. On the one hand, I like the idea of trading favors with other hikers, and the idea that harder hikes require more equipment makes sense. On the other hand, I’m not sure why simply asking to borrow some equipment costs you a favor. That’s something that works for gameplay — you have to risk the payment to try — but doesn’t seem to fit the narrative quite as much.
I’ve enjoyed playing Mountains with my kids and some adult friends, even though it doesn’t require a lot of heavy thinking. My kids really like collecting the stamps; for my 6-year-old, remembering who has what equipment presents enough of a challenge that the memory aspect is an important part of the gameplay. For my 13-year-old and myself, the memory aspect is simpler, so it’s more about managing our favor stones and deciding how big a risk to take each turn. It’s probably not the type of game I’ll center a game night around, but it’s a good fit for a family game session that includes a broad age range.