“Mountains are not fair or unfair,” said celebrated climber, Reinhold Messner. “They are just dangerous.” There’s a reason K2 is known at the ‘Savage Mountain’. Dominating the skyline, it sits between the China-Pakistan border, and it glowers down upon all that dare stand before it.
Over 2,700 people have successfully triumphed over Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. In comparison, only 302 have made it to the top of K2, the second-highest. The tragedy is that one in four climbers die attempting to conquer this challenge.
While you might not have the One Ring as baggage around your neck, you’re still made to feel like a helpless hobbit, facing a near-impossible task. You turn back to see your base camp, growing ever-smaller back there in the distance. Are you really going to successfully scale this beast?
K2 is a hand management, point-to-point movement game by Adam Kałuża. While yes, it is a race of sorts to reach the summit, it’s also a game of survival. You need to keep your plucky mountaineers alive for the game’s duration too, or else their strenuous efforts will have been in vain.
Gloves on? Wearing four pairs of socks and your extra-warm underpants? Let’s learn how to play K2…
Gameplay and Rules
Players each have two mountaineers that start in Base Camp at the bottom of the board: one wearing smooth salopettes and one with squiggly, wind-ruffled attire. A duplicate pair sits on the parallel scoring track. As these mountaineeples ascend, so to will their corresponding score marker – if they go above 6,000 feet, they’ll enter the two-to-four victory points territory. A tasty 10 points are available if they make it to the glorious apex. Therefore, 20 points is the perfect score – getting both of team members to the summit.
This is easier said than done.
You’ll earn points for the highest location your climbers have reached – it’s the premium spot upon which they’ve placed their flag, as it were. Meaning, if you can race to the peak and then scoot back down to a safer climate, you’re still on track to scoring 10 points for that climber. But K2 has other plans. Swirling, relentless blizzards and severe, inhospitable camping conditions will push your climbers’ to the brink of exhaustion.
Player mats record your stouthearted heroes’ state of acclimatisation, starting at level one. In addition, players will each have a deck of 18 cards – and it’s these that drive the game.
Everyone shuffles and draws six cards into their hand, and then simultaneously they’ll all select three cards they want to play this day (rounds are ‘days’, and the game lasts for 18 days). Everyone reveals, and then, in turn order, players activate their cards and then re-draw back up to six. You can either play Acclimatisation Cards or Movement Cards. Each has a points value between zero and three.
Movement Cards allow you to spend their points to relocate either Smooth or Squiggly up (or down) the mountain, into adjacent spaces that are connected by a rope. The higher you climb, the more movement points it will cost you to enter that space as K2 tightens its icy grip on their weary bodies.
Acclimatisation Cards allow you to add health points to a climber. Whatever combination of cards you pick – Movement or Acclimatisation – the points from one card cannot be divided between both climbers. Meaning, if you play, say, a two-point Acclimatisation Card, you have to give both points to either Smooth or Squiggly, not give them one point each. Herein lies the agonising choice. Who needs the oxygen more, right now? “Sorry Squiggly. I’ll help you out in the next round, I promise… Just hang on a bit longer!”
Once everyone’s played their three cards, it’s then time to consult the weather, and the hazard level each climber is facing in their current location. Here, acclimatisation points will either be earned or lost – naturally, the higher you climb, you’ll leave Smooth and Squiggly in more perilous positions. And, if either of them drops below level one on your acclimatisation player mat, they’re in serious trouble. They’ll get air-lifted out of there, transported back to Base Camp, where they spend the rest of the game recuperating. They’re out of the game. Regardless of how successful their ascendancy was, their scoring marker plummets with them, too. They’re only going to score you one point, now.
After 18 gruelling days, players tot up points for both of their climbers’ highest pinnacles, and most points wins the game. Ties are broken by whoever reached the peak first, so you cannot afford to ignore the racing element. But that’s only the very start of how players interact with one another in K2…
Depending on player counts, only a designated number of climbers may ever occupy certain spaces at once. (You can pass through maxed-out spaces, but not end your turn there.) You’ve guessed it, blocking can and will occur. And it is as cold and brutal as a snowball being thrust down the nape of your neck.
Turn order becomes crucial in K2 – you could end up wasting all your vital three-point movement cards because Craig just ended his turn one space above you, blocking your path. Or, even worse, Sammie might have descended below you to a safer, maxed-out zone, forcing you to remain trapped in the dizzying 8,000 feet zone – and that could spell doom come the weather influence phase.
Weather tiles always show the next three day’s forecast. These are revealed as the game progresses, so players can plan their moves, to a certain degree. It will either be sunny, in which case, happy days: no one loses any acclimatisation points. But, more often than not, it will be a biting snowstorm, and this will impact certain zones of K2: perhaps only climbers situated between 6,000-7,000 feet will lose one health point each, or maybe all climbers above 8,000 feet will lose two points each. Newsflash: Savage Mountain is savage.
You can expect sharp intakes of breath from remaining players yet to take their turn as other climbers move first – come their own turn, will their cards still be viable? Frosty glares are thrown, and it can all get rather intense. Oh! And talking of in tents…
Players have two tents (one smooth and one squiggly, of course) they can permanently pitch, mountainside. This costs the same movement points as it would to enter said space. Importantly, if a climber ends their turn in the same space as one of their colour tents, they gain back one vital acclimatisation point.
We’ve established that K2 is a race of sorts – but there are also Risk Tokens to consider. At the start of each round, everyone simultaneously reveals their three cards. Whoever has played the highest sum of movement cards has to take one of three face-up Risk Tokens from the pile (a combination of either 0, -1, or -2). This number will then have to be subtracted from their card(s). It can be a colossal, detrimental loss towards their plans for the turn ahead.
This leads to a fantastic meta, micro-game in its own right – you’ve got great cards you want to play, but can you afford to lay them all if it means taking a penalty? The drama only ratchets if you all reveal and then there is a tie: neither player takes the hit. This push-your-luck element will lead to regular, raucous cheering, as well as head-in-hands realisation as it starts to sink in – sounds like those chopper blades are coming ever-closer for poor old Mr. Squiggly.
Components and Artwork
In K2 the stakes are high, and it’s heart-warming how emotionally attached you feel to both of your climbers. Grown man will clutch their cheeks like Edvard Munch’s The Scream and lament the loss of brave Mrs. Smooth. If these were just discs or plastic pawns like in Pandemic, you might lose some of the connection you feel with them. These components are a step up from that – simplistic meeple silhouettes, one with smooth trousers and one with ruffled – but within a round or two they’ll start to mean much more to you than that.
The weather tiles and small player mats are pleasant, thick cardboard (unlike the thinner player boards you get in Great Western Trail or Terraforming Mars). The artwork is, predictably, heavy on the blues and greys, as the phenomenal, grandiose K2 itself dominates the main board’s background. It’s there as a constant, striking reminder that this isn’t going to be a stroll in the park.
Sitting alongside the mountain is the parallel score track, which depicts intrepid adventurers facing ever-increasing obstacles. It’s easy to imagine that these might be Smooth and Squiggly themselves, tackling steeper inclines to the point where crampons and axes are required to scale walls of sheer, intolerable ice. A chilling atmosphere is created in no time at all, straight out of the box. The rule book is logical enough, and there’s a 'Turn Summary' on the final page, for a quick reference guide.
The board is double-sided, with the ‘simpler’ route to the peak suggested for beginners (we assume this is the Abruzzi Spur, on the Pakistani side of the mountain), while on the reverse is a far tougher, bottle-necked passage (perhaps via the notorious North Ridge, on the Chinese side).
In addition, there are summer and winter weather tiles (being kinder and harder, respectively), so there are plenty of ways for you to ramp up the difficulty. This leans towards superb replay-ability, especially if you select a random collation of the elements, creating an unpredictable, and, at times, strenuous scenario: much like real life.
Final thoughts on… K2
K2 is up there as being one of the most tense board games we’ve ever played. The best racing games always emit exhilaration anyway, but the additional thrill here is keeping Smooth and Squiggly alive so they can celebrate their achievements.
The game scales well for 3-5 players, and it’s every meeple for themselves. Even if Damien has erected his yellow tent, you, the purple player, can’t huddle inside it. You’re the one left exposed, at the cruel mercy of the elements. You’ll seethe as he sips hot cocoa the other side of that zip.
You’ll wince as you reveal your hand, desperate not to take that -2 Risk Token. You’ll agonise over your choice of cards, as it becomes a case of second-guessing who is going to play what, how that might impact your own options, and how you can best react to that. Players will also need to ration their Movement and Acclimatisation cards – if you blast through all the stronger cards early on, how will you keep your mountaineeples alive when the snow hits the fan?
You’ll also nod in appreciation when you learn that K2’s designer, Adam Kałuża, has experience in mountaineering, himself. This ripples throughout every single aspect of the theme. You’ll leave the table feeling mentally drained after playing this, finally able to relax after 90 minutes of sheer suspense. After this, walking the dog around the local frosty fields at dawn doesn’t feel quite so arduous. You’re a world-beater now, a champion of the peaks. You’ve stared death in the face and lived to tell the tale.
Messner famously said, when asked why he relishes tackling such treacherous conditions, “I didn’t go up there to die. I went up there to live.” Like so many adrenaline-drenched escapades, K2 is not about the destination. It’s about the journey.