Day 1: We have set up our base camp just above the 5000m mark of the K2. Even from here, below the deadly ascend, the mountain is frightening. I know that technically Mount Everest is higher, but looking up the Abruzzi Spur from here I can tell this mountain is a killer compared to the much gentler Everest. A group or nerdy looking German kids have set up their tents next to us. Looking at them, I’m surprised how they even made it here. They say they don’t want to go to the summit, just observe us so they know how to beat their friends if K2 becomes this year’s Kennerspiel, whatever that is. Crazy Germans.K2 is one of those slightly odd (Kenner)Spiel des Jahres nominees that the rest of the world has been playing for years before a German edition was published and could be nominated. Originally published by REBEL.pl in 2010 and picked up by some other publishers around the world, the German edition was released in 2011 by Heidelberger Spieleverlag.
K2 is a game about one of the most dangerous mountains in the world. Your group of two meepleneers has made it to the base camp at around 5000m and you take control of their final climb to the summit. Meepleneers, by the way, are meeple mountaineers. I know it’s not a great word, but it sounds better than meeplinists and I won’t endanger my yearly bonus by not making up a meeple word when I get the chance. Your two meepleneers – we’ll call them the straight one and the wobbly one, because that’s what they look like – start in the base camp, and ideally want to reach the summit, but they’d settle for getting us high up as they can and surviving to tell the tale.
To go up, you play cards. Much easier than real climbing. Each player has an identical deck of cards, of which he’ll always have six in hand and play three at the beginning of the round. Then all players turn their cards and, one by one, take all their actions. There are two types of cards: movement and acclimatization. Movement cards, to no one’s surprise, let you move up the mountain. Or, more often than you’d like, down the mountain when a storm is coming – rope cards are your friends in those situations, they are special movement cards that let you move down the mountain faster than up. Each field of the mountain has a cost to enter it, between one and three movement points. It’s only 13 fields up the mountain, so running to the top should be like a walk in the park. Right?
Well, it would be if it wasn’t for acclimatization. Both your meepleneers have an acclimatization value that goes from one to ten – if it ever falls to zero, that meepleneer is dead. If your playing the family variant you can save them using the rescue cards, but with the rules for real gamers, dead meepleneers will stay behind as a warning for next year’s expedition. Acclimatization cards are on the good side of this game mechanic: they increase your acclimatisation value. The lower slopes of the K2 even have fields with a positive acclimatization value – you can warm up in the sun, drink hot chocolate, still have batteries for your MP3 player. Life is good on the lower slopes. Go further up the mountain, however, and the mountain will try to kill you with acclimatization penalties of up to two points per round.
Day 7: Bad weather forced us to temporarily return to base camp. The German kids are still here. They are asking us if we had bad luck with the cards or if we didn’t look at the weather forecast properly. Their talk makes no sense at all. Situation is made worse by mess-up in our expeditions preparation: turns out all our food is canned sardines and pineapples. Will have to ask German kids for some of their gummy bears.
As if the exposure at the higher altitudes wasn’t enough, there is also the changing weather that you are exposed to. Bad weather can cost you two more points of acclimatization per round – having that weather while on an exposed part of the mountain for a total of -4 acclimatization per round will kill you quickly. But weather doesn’t hit you unprepared, you always know what will hit you for at least the next three days. Most weather effects also only affect a part of the mountain, only between 7000 and 8000m, for instances, and can thus be dodged. Dodging bad weather and then making haste to the summit while the sky is clear is generally the best way to survive your trip up. At least in theory. If you’re alone on the mountain. Unfortunately there are more players – at least usually, you can play K2 solo if you want to – and all mountain spaces have a limited capacity. So what usually happens is that you intend to climb down to a safe height to avoid the weather but all spaces you could reach are fully occupied by other meepleneers and you get stuck in the ice storm of the century. The only way things could get worse is if the Yeti showed up. Don’t panic, there is no Yeti in K2.
When bad things happen and you get stuck in a snowstorm at 7000m altitude it’s probably a good time to unpack your tent. Each meepleneer carries exactly one tent – they are also straight or wobbly to tell which meepleneer built them – that gives all your meepleneers on the same space one bonus point of acclimatization. Tents save lives, don’t forget to use yours. Placing your tents right is one of the many important decisions in K2, together with which route to take, when is a good time to rest and when to race, whether to avoid weather or sit it out and when to try to trap other players in the bad weather – you don’t have to play nice, even in a life and death situation like this. But there is one more important decision in K2 that can save lives here just as effectively as it can in real mountaineering: when to give up, abort and return to the base camp. Points in K2 are not just awarded for reaching the summit. Your victory points are based on the highest point of the K2 each of your mountaineers reached, it’s perfectly okay to go down again afterwards. Dead mountaineers, however, are only worth one point, no matter how high they climbed before. You see, it’s much better to abort and go back down before reaching the summit than dying there. For especially vicious and nasty players, it can also be a profitable strategy to trap an opponent’s meepleneer at the top and watch him die there. Not easy to pull of, but possible. And guaranteed to give you an enemy for the rest of your days.
Day 14: I’m almost there, camped on the shoulder just below the Bottleneck. I wanted to climb to the summit this morning, but everything was cold, so cold. Will prepare for final leg tomorrow, sitting in tent today eating gummy bears. Should have brought sardines after all.
The basic trip up the mountain in K2 is by no means easy, but quite manageable. At least one of your meepleneers will usually make it to the top and if you don’t lose sight of the environment conditions you shouldn’t have any casualties, either. But that’s the easiest way to play, you have two options to spice things up. You could play the backside of the game board that has generally harder routes to the top. Or you could play with the winter weather cards – the K2 has never been climbed in winter – that have much harsher conditions and may reduce your movement speed as well. Or you can do both, but then reaching the summit and living to tell the tale is the exception, really.
This variable level of difficulty is one of the many good things about K2. At every level, K2 demands many meaningful decisions how to proceed and some planning ahead, all that with comparatively simply rules and a very small amount of luck in drawing your cards. It also has meeples, a factor we should never forget. On the other hand, the flaws in K2 are small and few. Really, the only thing I can think of that bothered me while playing was how much your chances to win are improved when you memorize the weather cards and count the cards you already played. I hate counting cards because I’m not very good at it, as all my Tichu partners will attest to. But it’s not a necessity to win in K2, so all I can say is that it is a strong contender for this year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres.
Day 18: I have returned to base camp, defeated but alive. I could not climb through the Bottleneck both days I tried, then I had to return to base camp because of my dwindling food supplies and the changing weather. Germans are trying to cheer me up, saying that at least I scored 6 points for my team. Unsure if I should feel mocked or comforted. I will never eat gummy bears again.