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Unsurmountable - Review

Designer: Scott Almes
Artist: Christy Johnson
Publisher: Button Shy
Player Count: 1 Player
Play Time: 10 Minutes

Carry a mountain of fun in your pocket. In this review of Unsurmountable I provide an overview of how to play this bite-sized game of just 18 cards and commend the escalating challenge levels that make the puzzle so continuously exciting to solve.

A black wallet with a white outline of a mountain and the words unsurmountable a scott almes solo game on a bed of messy game cards
Unsurmountable "wallet" and cards

The Gist

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Button Shy games. Whenever a complete tabletop game experience can be crafted with just a dozen and a half components, fit into most pockets, and cost less than lunch, that's a sound offering. So read this review against the backdrop that I believe small, affordable, but stimulating games like this are a positive force for inviting new gamers into the hobby. Button Shy provided a copy of Unsurmountable for review, but the opinions here are my own.

Unsurmountable is a card game where the solo player is tasked to draw and place cards in a way that resembles a triangular mountain featuring a single continuous path from the base to the peak. This puzzle game includes matching-up like-features on cards and optimal sequencing of card placement and activated card abilities. This is the third installment of designer Scott Almes’ Simply Solo series with Button Shy and among the ones I have played—Food Chain Island, Ugly Gryphon Inn, and now this one—Unsurmountable is my favorite.

Game cards arranged in a triangle shape with unsurmountable wallet positioned nearby.
Mountain with continuous path from bottom to top

A Steep Climb to the Top

The player starts with a Base Camp of five mountain cards that are either played to the mountain or discarded to activate their abilities. Only the first card in the Base Camp (far left) can be added to the mountain, but its ability cannot be activated. The other cards in the Base Camp can be discarded to activate their abilities. Once one of these actions is taken and resolved, the remaining cards in the Base Camp slide left and the Base Camp is replenished from the deck.

The mountain consists of four rows of mountain cards with four cards in the first (bottom) row, three in the second, and so on. After the first card is added to the bottom row, all subsequent cards must be placed directly adjacent to an existing card in that row, or on another row so that the new card is exactly halfway between two cards in the next row. In this way, mountain cards are placed to form a triangular mountain from base to summit.

A pile of facedown mountain cards next to a pile of faceup mountain cards
Draw deck and discard pile

Each mountain card features a path that extends from at least one edge to another in all sorts of shapes and combinations and the path segment on each card can be more or less helpful given the circumstances on the mountain. Placing a card on the mountain does not require all of its paths to match up with adjacent cards, but by the end of the game a single continuous path must reach from the bottom of the mountain to the top.

Discarding a card in the Base Camp (except the first) activates its unique ability. These card abilities can impact the other cards in the base camp, cards already on the mountain, or both. For instance, one card’s ability instructs the player “Swap any two cards on the mountain.” Another says to “Increase the size of the Base Camp by 1.” In this way, the player manipulates the arrangement of the base camp in order to place more convenient cards on the mountain, and adjusts the composition of cards already on the mountain to help develop their continuous path. With only 17 mountain cards in the deck, the player must be careful not to discard too many cards for their abilities or they won’t have enough cards to complete the mountain.

A Rescue Helicopter Card can be activated once per game to put the first card in the Base Camp on the bottom of the deck, giving the player another strategic option. The player fails when they run out of cards in the Base Camp without completing their path.

A white rules pamphlet and white mountain cards inside of a black plastic wallet
Unsurmountable components in "wallet"

Ascending the Mountain, Adjusting the Difficulty

The base rules set up a clever, choice-based game, but one the player could grasp somewhat quickly. Subsequence “levels” of gameplay add more challenging circumstances and new dimensions to the puzzle.

At Level II difficulty, the Base Camp is comprised of four, rather than five, cards. This reduces the number of potential discard abilities available to the player each turn. Levels III and IV relate to each mountain card’s suit (Forests, Camps, Lakes, Caves, and Yeti). In Level III no more than one card of each suit can appear on each mountain row. And in Level IV, this suit restriction also applies to both side slopes of the mountain. Finally in Level V the mountain path must have fewer climbers (appearing in the artwork on the card) than the height of the mountain.

The higher challenge levels make victory narrower to achieve, and add more complexity to the puzzle. A player not only needs to place cards so there is a continuous path to the top, but they need to be aware of what card suits already comprise the mountain. This makes the discard abilities of cards in the Base Camp more relevant, especially for reordering and manipulating cards in the mountain after they have been played. And Level V tasks the player to create as direct a path as possible.

Three black wallets with different game titles sprawlopolis, death valley, unsurmountable
Unsurmountable, Death Valley, and Sprawlopolis wallet games

Thoughts: A Suburb Solo Puzzle

Scott Almes is a sharp game designer. His Tiny Epic series and other clever games like the asymmetric So You’ve Been Eaten are among my favorite light strategy games and both uniquely showcase his ability to do so much with very little. That precision is there in Unsurmountable as well. The game consists of just 18 cards, but no two cards are the same. Despite the diminutive size, the puzzle is bound to be different from game to game as many variables (card suit, path direction on each card, and Base Camp rules) impact how and which cards can be placed. Each gameplay builds a unique path.

Sometimes deciding which cards to discard for their abilities is more or less straightforward. For example, why wouldn’t someone discard the Yeti-suited mountain card with the path that goes across from left to right for its ability to increase the Base Camp by one card? Not only is the card’s ability a total positive with no downside, but its path is completely unhelpful for building a vertical path up the mountain. After a few plays a handful of these proven strategies begin to reveal themselves. This is definitely a puzzle game that a player can get measurably better and better at each time they play. 

Solo gamers who enjoy tile placement games will enjoy the mechanics in Unsurmountable and may appreciate the compact size and short game time. I also think the ability to start simple and quickly escalate difficulty through minor modifications makes this a good entry point into solo card puzzles like this. Pick this one up from Button Shy and enjoy the replay value as much as the portability.

black wallet and white game cards from unsurmountable
Unsurmountable "wallet" and game cards organized into a mountain

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1 Comment

Mar 14

Love little games like Button Shy!! I was just organizing all my Button Shy wallet games and mint tin games tonight. 😀


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