We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Halfway up a mountain, balanced precariously on some scaffolding, trying to direct an airship into place so it can drop off its Gold making machine. Only to have one of your competitors swoop in on a hot air balloon and nab your spot.
To make matters worse, all the machines you have built cause the mountain ice to melt. This is flooding the valley below and washing away your workers. Frankly, the whole thing is a health and safety nightmare. You can be sure that HR will be on the phone after an irate e-mail from somebody’s union rep.
What I mean to say is, welcome to Whistle Mountain. The theme makes no sense, but it could well be one of the best games to come out of 2020.
Whistle Mountain, from Bezier games, is a worker placement, tile laying, engine building, strategy game. It's from designers Scott Caputo and Luke Laurie. Caputo is the designer that brought us 2017’s pick up and deliver, tile-laying game, Whistle Stop. But if you are here because you liked Whistle Stop and are looking for the sequel, then I have mixed news for you. Apart from some superficial similarities, and loose thematic connection, and the presence of whistles as a resource (which at least made sense in Whistle Stop!), this is a completely different game.
Wet Your whistle
In Whistle Mountain, players are taking to the air in blimps, hot air balloons and dreadnoughts to build scaffolding and an array of machinery high in the Rocky Mountains in order to tap into the abundance of resources up there. All the while, keeping ahead of the rising whirlpool from melting ice, because…I don’t know…climate change or something?
Players are collectively but competitively building scaffolding up the mountain. They are then building machines on that scaffolding. If they build near the summit though, the ice on the mountain starts to melt, endangering the machines and the people who work on them.
But this sorry excuse for pretext is the thin veil that covers the cleverest reinvention of the worker placement genre that I’ve seen in a very long time. So let’s talk about that!
Whistle While You Work
Each player controls three different sized airships. On their turn, a player can either Collect, which involves placing an airship on the board and doing the allowed action, or they can Forge, which is collecting all their airships back up and building.
The aim of the game is to earn the most points, and Whistle Stop is a true point salad so there are lots of ways to do that. The primary way to score points is to build machines. Machines need to be built on scaffolding and building scaffolding also gets you points. To do either of those things you are going to need to collect resources.
Collect: On your collect turn you can place one of your airships around the outer edge of the board. This lets you do things like pick up bonus cards. It even lets you buy powerful upgrades, buy machines, and buy scaffolding.
The inner section of the board is the fun bit. This section starts empty and is built by you the players. Placing scaffolding tiles down on the board creates a tower of resource collecting opportunities. Parking an airship next to scaffolding allows you to pick up the recourses on the scaffolding tiles you are adjacent to. Doing this also allows you to activate the machines. These get built onto the scaffolding tower during the game. You will be clambering to get the best parking spot to get the most resources. Once someone is in a space it's blocked until they move away.
Each machine is unique and there is a full list of everything they do in the rule book, but in short, they allow you to exchange the stuff you have for the stuff you need.
Forge: Forging is the point in the game where you get to pull your ships back to be used again and where you build scaffolding and machines to score points.
It also allows you to move a worker. Your workers don’t really do much but hang about drinking tea on the scaffolding before either a machine lands on them. They are then promoted to mountain worker Valhalla, or they are swept to their watery doom. When you build a machine, if there were any workers in that space then the workers get “promoted”, moving along to a tower that runs up the side of the mountain. Getting your workers here gets you points and other bonuses. The higher the worker, more points they get. Be careful not to promote your opponent’s workers too much. Do this while making sure your workers are always in the way of your opponent’s plans.
As you build higher the water levels rise and wash workers into the pool at the bottom of the board. Workers in the drink at the end of the game get you minus four points each. The rising water also floods machines putting older machines out of action as the game progresses.
Tactically timing when to collect and when to forge can have a big impact on who gets the prime building spots and the most resources.
Give A Little whistle
I’ve played Whistle Mountain at all player counts and the game scales well. Adding more players naturally ends up with more scaffolding on the board. This means more options are available but there are more airships competing for those spots. The pace of the game depends somewhat on how the players build the scaffolding tower. Racing up to the top with a narrow tower will speed the game up. It'll also give lots of space for landing airships. While spreading out and filling in all the gaps will slow the game down and create more space for building machines.
The two aspects of Whistle Mountain I love are its variety and how the board is both built and destroyed as the game progresses creating a unique worker placement experience.
Almost every time it is your turn the board will be different. There will be new scaffolding to land next to or build on, or there will be new machines to use. Building a machine gets you points, but it also creates opportunities for your opponents to advance.
Then as the waters start to rise, triggered by machines built above a certain point. Then some machines get flooded and become un-useable. This means that you can’t just find one strategy and keep to it for the entire game. You will need to adapt your plans as the lay of the land continuously changes.
In each game you will select a new special power, these a very strong and should absolutely be utilised in your strategic choices. Upgrades, cards, and rewards you get from promotions all add something to the game, adding more variety to each play and more strategic choices for you as a player.
Whistle Down The Wind
To be honest I’ve struggled to find downsides to this game. After addressing the bizarre theme I’m really clutching at straws here to give you some negatives.
You can be faced with a large number of options. Often the one or two best choices are clear but at times you will find yourself working out if one spot gets you a better deal than another spot leading to analysis paralysis.
After just five plays I’ve not lost a game yet and I feel I could easily beat any new player. This is the sort of game you need to play through once before you can grasp all the options available to you and how best to utilise them. New players will often not spot the importance of forging early to be able to get a building turn in. That's a tip for you for free!
Bezier games have plumped for victory point tokens over a victory point track. Although I completely see the reasoning for that, you will spend a lot of time changing up the tokens with the supply as you gain more points. Collecting and changing up all your new resources and VP tokens can take a while so our group starting overlapping turns to save time.
Whistle A Happy Tune
I really, really like this game! I’m a huge fan of Bezier Game’s productions and here is another winner. Art and components are top-notch, the gameplay is unique and engaging and full of variety, and mechanisms are smooth and easy to learn. I really am struggling to fault this game.
I like it enough to let the bizarre theme slide. The game scales well and I’ve enjoyed it at all player counts. The game does not really get much longer with more players which is a huge plus.
Whistle Mountain is unlike any other game in my collection and is a big hit for me. This doesn’t feel like just another worker placement game. The fact that you both build and destroy the locations available to you is unlike anything I’ve come across. That secures its place in my collection.