The great mountain calls trolls far and wide, back to their ancestral home. Once dormant, it’s now ripe for the plucking. Hammers blast through stubborn rock. Tunnels meander. Lost statues lurk among the rubble, and subterranean workshops become established. Purple wisps from runes fizz as spells crackle into life. Excavated caverns evolve into grandiose halls, fit for a troll king. New recruits join the dig, ever the more impressive lieutenants. Apprentices leap to attention, with one goal: transport statues to the hallowed heart of the mountain…
In The Hall Of The Mountain King is a Euro-style strategy game for 2-5 players, by Burnt Island Games. The name comes from a music symphony from 19th century play Peer Gynt, based on Norwegian fairy tales. A wide array of mechanisms are at play, here. Resource management, polyomino tile placement, network-building, and pick-up-and-deliver. The way you earn resources in this game is a fascinating ‘cascade’ system. That was the feature that lured me into checking out Mountain King in the first place. Will it be the facet that intrigues you?
I Like Big Rocks And I Cannot Lie
Mountain King, designed by Jay Cormier and Graeme Jahns, is about earning ‘honour’ points (HP). You score honour in-game by digging tunnels. At end-game, you score statues and Great Halls within your network. The board is a stunning drop-down view of the mountain, split into hundreds of grid squares. Everything burrows out of your initial Gate, from the mountain’s edge.
Your turn gets split into mini phases. Warning: this isn’t a quick teach, up-front. Don’t panic though, because it’s rare that you perform everything on one turn. Besides, your list of actions are all listed on your player mat. Some are optional, others mandatory – but it’s these obligations that act as the game’s timer. There’s no set number of rounds, but the game-end triggers once someone recruits their sixth troll. At this point, everyone then has two more rounds, before final scoring.
Fresh Outta Troll College
Everyone starts with four apprentice trolls. These provide your starting resources (coins, runes, hammers, stone or iron.) You draft these, to an extent, so there are decisions straight away. They also state a different resource it provides throughout the game.
In the first step of your turn, you may spend a rune to perform one of three public, face-up Spells. They’re magical, unique ways to manipulate the rules in your favour, this turn only. These work first-come, first-served; after three uses, the spell gets replaced. You may also now activate a workshop within your network. They’re resource conversion centres – swap this for that. You activate one workshop per turn, as many times as you have tunnels leading into of it. There’s always an inefficient trade ratio available of four-to-one, regardless. This should be a last resort, though!
What Skills Can You Bring To The Trollsmoot?
Next, you must perform one of two actions: recruit a troll, or dig a tunnel. Twelve trolls of varying value sit face-up in the public horde for recruitment. You can take any level one troll for free and add it to your trollsmoot – your own construction team. You place it so it sits above two of your ‘apprentice’ trolls. You’re building your own pyramid: a hierarchy.
When you recruit a troll, gain the resources shown on that card. It orders trolls beneath it into action. They then produce the goods on their cards, too. Later, if those triggered trolls sit above other trolls, the command continues down the chain. The rewards keep coming – like it’s raining resources! Early-recruited trolls can pay out many times, across the game. Your sixth troll (tenth, if including your four apprentice cards) sits the head of your trollsmoot. The King. When you place this troll, it means all ten of your cards pay out their stated resources! The catch? You only have two rounds to then spend them…
You can hire second-level trolls with a free pedstal (more on this later). You have to bribe two lower-level trolls beneath them in the horde, though. Want to hire a third-level troll (with your colour choice of pedestal from the draw bag)? You have to bribe all the trolls beneath them in the horde. That’s a pricey five troll dollars, yo! But a worthy investment, because higher-level trolls provide rarer goods, or more quantity. If you recruit lower-level trolls, you also claim any bribed coins that sit on them. It’s like the payment system in Century: Spice Road.
Dig Your Own Troll Hole
The alternative obligation to recruiting? Dig a tunnel by spending resources. Your tunnel’s a polyomino tile, its size being the volume of resources you paid. Smallest is a 2x1 tile worth 0HP – painful; is it worth it? Or should you wait until you have more resources to spend, so you gain some HP in return? The largest, meanwhile, is five squares in size. The rarer the resources you pay – and the quantity – results in ever-increasing honour. A table on your player mat explains this.
Place a tunnel tile down – at first, leading out of your Gate – within the mountain grid. They’re double-sided, for flexibility. Overlaid on top of any resource icons? Claim them! Some squares in the mountain sit blocked with rubble. To ‘dig’ through them, you need to spend one hammer per rubble spot. Placed a tunnel next to an empty workshop square? Place a workshop tile there.
Your tunnel tiles have to link to your tunnel network. You cannot encroach into other players’ tunnels. This is one of the ‘blocky’ traits of the game – it’s not aggressive, but defensive. You can place a polyomino so it sits diagonal to a rival’s tunnel, but not orthogonal. You can place a tile so it enters a player’s workshop. You now have access to it, too! The mountain’s quite large, though. For the most part (in lower-player counts), you might stick to your own corner.
The board’s grid is colour co-ordinated, with circular sections emanating from the centre. Going inwards, the closer to the ‘heart’ of the mountain, the more frequent the rubble squares. But the closer you can get statues to the heart, the more end-game points they’re worth.
Scattered across the mountain (during set-up) are statues to the moon, fire, and ice. Place a tunnel over one of these? That statue now sits within your tunnel network. Hooray! Trolls worship statues. They’re worth end-game points (2-10 HP) depending on their location within the mountain. These are crucial to scoring points and act as a strategical incentive.
Many tunnels have anchor points in them. If you pre-own a pedestal when you place a tunnel, you own can place it onto the anchor. If you can pick up and deliver a statue so it sits on top of a corresponding pedestal type, it’s worth double. (Between 4-20 HP.) You cannot drag pedestals to statues, though; once placed, they remain.
No two duplicate pedestal types can sit within the same section of the mountain. The first player to, say, place a fire pedestal in the brown tier receives a token (ranging 1-4 HP). These tokens get allocated to specific tiers and statue types in a modular set-up. More early targets to consider – especially when recruiting second-level trolls, who come with a pedestal.
Bigger The Hall, Bigger The Haul
Next, you can dedicate a Great Hall. There are six unique shapes of increasing sizes. You can overbuild a Great Hall on top of your tunnel network, providing no gaps lie underneath. Statues within said tunnels now sit in the corresponding space above, in the Great Hall. Any pedestals get removed, though. This is an important decision…
It’s free to build a Great Hall and they reward HP. Bigger the Hall, bigger the haul! Each Hall has an altar space on it. If you drag any statue to it, that Hall is then worth further points. Statues in Great Halls don’t score according to their tier location within the mountain, though. Thus, it’s better to build Great Halls in the outer tiers of the mountain.
“So how in the name of Old King Troll do I move statues?” I hear you cry. Simple: you spend mine carts. Many trolls provide carts as a resource when you hire them (or via the cascade). Most carts carry one of the three types of statues. Others (usually on higher-level trolls) provide ‘wild’ carts. Wild as in they can carry any type of statue – they’re super-flexible to suit your requirements. You can move a statue from one tile in your network to any space in an adjacent tile, by spending one cart. (Great Halls and Gates count as tunnels.) Got numerous carts? You can move numerous statues per turn.
Do Feed The Troll(smoot Engine)
Early-game, you won’t perform those final two actions. Plus, without runes for Spells, and without access to workshops, your turn is quick. Sometimes all you perform is the mandatory action: tunnel or recruit. Your big turns feel big, though. They’re a good few plans in the making.
That’s one of the marvellous things about Mountain King. Your game – and with it, your strategy – is a series of peaks and troughs. You’ll go through phases when you’re forced into recruiting a troll because you don’t have enough resources to dig. But that one troll triggers a cascade of free goodies. You count off the bazillion icons in your trollsmoot and the other players chuckle at the absurdity. You feel spoiled; the prettiest troll at the ball. Your trollsmoot engine splutters back into life, and with it, your options.
No troll can ever hold more resources than shown on their card, though. You can’t accumulate or stockpile goods on them. To squeeze ounces of efficiency out of trolls, you’ll want to spend those resources quick. (Then aim to recruit later at the optimum time to get the greatest return.) Smart recruitment and astute tile placement sees you earn resources that drive you forward. Poor planning leaves you cornered.
There’s a risk with trying to be over-efficient, though. You need to pay attention to what your opponents are doing. If they’re hiring trolls quicker than you, they’re speeding up the end-game timer. There’s a real danger if you don’t heed the warnings (or fail to plan ahead). Your final turn of the game could be worthless…
Can’t afford to place a tunnel on your last turn because you’re out of resources? That means you have to recruit, instead. And if it’s your sixth troll? That means you’re getting a mountain’s worth of goodies… but then no time to spend them. That’s a slap in the face. But it’s by your own hand. You could calculate what your opponents might do. Everything’s public knowledge.
Mountain King? More Like Mountain Bling
In The Hall Of The Mountain King oozes table presence. It’s a breathtaking vista. A Norwegian snow-capped scene sits on one side of the board. Sumptuous trees burst with autumnal vibes on the reverse. (It’s double-sided with a larger mountain for 4-5 players.) The board’s grid, when empty, might appear intimidating, but the iconography is logical for seasoned strategy gamers.
The components are a sheer delight. The wooden statues are chunky silhouettes with crescent moons, flames or ice shards for effigies. The hammers are laser-cut wooden mallets. The carts are weeny wooden wagons. The tunnel polyominos stand out and are a decent thickness of cardstock.
The player mats are impressive, helpful, and come in thicker card, still. One bugbear is the scoring for outer-mountain statues is black-on-black, which is tough to read. The artwork on the troll cards is evocative though, with an enthralling range of characters. If they all had individual troll names for extra personality I’d be giddy with delight, but alas, they don’t. The Spell cards are Tarot-sized, with written powers sitting alongside imaginative, gorgeous illustrations. I’d pay good money to read a graphic novel about these trolls in this art style. Artist Kwanchai Moriya has hit a home run.
There’s a lot of fun decisions, here. It may seem enticing to head for the heart because that’s where the juicy pedestal points lie. But if that’s all you focus on, you’ll miss out on a glut of free resources via tunnel placement in the outer region. If you don’t plan ahead, your inefficiency can, erm, troll you. Everything’s a race. There are limited tunnels tiles. Pedestals in the mountain tiers. Great Halls. Triggering the tenth troll.
Some Spells feel beneficial at different periods in the game. But they’re important and can turn an average turn into a great one. They don’t stick around for long, so having access to runes is vital. Do you hoover them up around the mountain’s edge, then? Or target trolls in the horde that payout runes? In a four or five player game, not everyone will have the chance to cast said Spell. This evens itself out for the game’s duration, but some feel stronger than others.
Ignore workshops at your peril. One allows you to remove resources from troll cards into your general supply. It frees that spot up to earn said resources during recruitment again. Carts removed like this then become wild (they’re no longer associated with a single statue type). This is vital later on when rushing statues to end-game scoring spots becomes a race against time.
The box art bellows atmospheric energy. I adore it, style-wise, but I do wonder if it emits a misconceiving tone? One look at the box and I’d forgive you for assuming Mountain King is an aggressive game. Trolls are so often portrayed as baddies; idiotic fools you tend to fight at some point. But there’s no fighting here. This isn’t Ameritrash. This is an efficiency race. You might be at loggerheads against your rival troll clans – but you’re antisocial. You keep out of each others’ way.
Euro strategy fans will adore In The Hall Of The Mountain King and the range of puzzles it provides. The cascading trollsmoot dovetails in with the polyomino tile placement like a dream. Even at retail-standard, this feels like a deluxe package.