In Focus: Perspectives in Board Gaming’ is an exclusive series from Punchboard Media that spotlights diverse perspectives across the board gaming industry. Our guest this week is Kate Otte, the designer and artist of First Ascent, which launches on Kickstarter on June 15. The interview was conducted over email by Eric Buscemi.
Tell us a bit about your experience as a rock climber. How long have you been doing it, where have you climbed?
I’ve been climbing for a little over 7 years. Philadelphia might seem like an odd place to get into climbing, but we are lucky to have a lot of great gyms here and good weekend destinations. I mostly climb at the Gunks up in New York, but also try to make annual trips to Red River Gorge (Kentucky), New River Gorge (West Virginia), the Adirondacks (New York), and Red Rock Canyon (Las Vegas). I’ve climbed all over the U.S., in Squamish (British Columbia) and the Verdon Gorge (France). Climbing is my favorite reason to travel!
If you could climb any area that you haven’t yet, where would that dream pitch be?
I have a very long to-climb list — there’s so much out there! My favorite climbs tend to be all-day outings on an ambitious multi-pitch route. Our trip to Yosemite was canceled last year, so I’d like to make it there someday, Devil’s Tower, the Tetons, the Cascades… it’s hard to choose!
Tell us a little bit about First Ascent. How does the game play? What is the player count range? And what’s your favorite player count to play at? What kind of board gamers do you think will most enjoy it?
First Ascent is a medium weight, competitive game 2-5 players and takes 45-90 minutes to play. The goal is to gain the most points by climbing the best route up the mountain and becoming the most skilled climber. Each player assumes the role of a different character with a special ability, and throughout the game they will be building their route up the mountain, managing resources, achieving objectives, and increasing their efficiency by accumulating skills and gear! The core game mechanics involve route building, resource management, card drafting, engine building and set matching.
When it comes to player count, one of the cool features of First Ascent is the double-sided board: you play with a smaller mountain with fewer players, and a larger mountain with more players. Having these two setups maintains the right balance of route-building interaction and blocking. I knew when I started that the game needed to work well with 2 players—you’re often on a climbing trip with just one other person—but I also wanted it to be something you could play in a group setting.
First Ascent is great for folks who like strategy-based route-building games like Ticket to Ride, but are looking for a little more interest and complexity in the gameplay. It’s a resource management game, but I tried to make the crux of the game figuring out what to climb and how to optimize your point strategy, rather than being a game where you spend 3 turns accumulating enough resources to do what you wanted to do 4 turns ago. If you like games with many paths to victory, going for objectives, weighing now vs. later decisions, and that smug feeling of satisfaction from plotting and executing a plan, you’ll like First Ascent!
I often ask if designers started with the theme or the mechanisms in mind when creating their games. Seeing your love of rock climbing, I think it’s safe to assume you started with the theme first when designing First Ascent, right? How did you go about trying to capture rock-climbing in tabletop form?
I started thinking about making First Ascent after a few game nights with fellow climbers— “wouldn’t it be cool if there was a game about Climbing?!” It seemed like an obvious theme that would translate really well to a board game; climbing is essentially a three-dimensional puzzle, and people like climbing because they enjoy figuring it out.
I love climbing big, multi-pitch routes, which involve a lot of planning and strategic decision-making. Early on in the design process, I knew I wanted that to be the core experience of the game and focused on replicating those decisions, feelings, and consequences. When you’re climbing a large cliff in real life, there are many ways to the top: should I take the easy but boring route, or the more exciting route that will be fairly difficult for me? If it’s windy, should we try to stay in the sun to be warmer or try to stay in a shaded corner so we’ll be shielded from the wind? Do I want to try to avoid slabs because they scare me, or will I get too tired if I take a route with a lot of roofs? These are the exact same questions I am asking players to answer, although in a more abstract way.
These real-life choices are simulated again as players draw “Climbing cards.” Each of these pose an event or situation, and players must choose how to react. I wanted the game to simulate risk assessment and show how climbers make these trade-off decisions as they climb: riskier behavior has a higher reward and higher consequences.
I also wanted the game to replicate the growth and skill-building that happens as you climb. This lead to the engine-building and set-matching mechanics. Both of these are in effect as you climb—the cards you play increase your efficiency later in the game, and can earn you extra points.
Were there any thoughts about making the game cooperative, or adding a cooperative gameplay mode, given the cooperative nature of the activity?
Originally, I wanted the game to be played on teams, where you and a climbing partner ascended the mountain. It didn’t take long for me to see that having such a specific player count was impractical for my playtesting process. I’ve talked about creating a “Partner Mode” ruleset, but I put that on the back burner so I could focus on the core game rules. I’d still want that mode to be competitive — team vs team. I prefer competitive games!
All I know about climbing basically stems from reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and watching the documentary Free Solo. Do you think these media portrayals are giving me an accurate look at what rock climbing is like? If so, it seems like quite a harrowing activity to do for recreation.
Yes and no. I think something Free Solo did very well was show how much planning and training goes into ambitious climbing endeavors — and something I wanted to emphasize in First Ascent. Most climbers understand what they’re doing can be dangerous if they don’t understand or properly assess the risks. Most of the time, you know when you’re about to climb something above your pay grade, and what a mistake will cost you. Especially in trad climbing (placing your own protection in the rock), you’re constantly assessing your and your partner’s safety. So yes, there are dangerous aspects of climbing, but it can also be quite safe if you know what you’re doing and know how to mitigate risks as much as possible.
My biggest beef with traditional climbing media — and also something I tried to address in First Ascent — is the portrayal of the sport as this super macho, I’m-stronger-than-nature conquest that is dominated by white men. If you look at who is actually in the climbing community, you’ll see that it’s extremely diverse: all ages, body types, races, genders, and abilities. And people have a lot of other reasons for climbing besides trying to “conquer” a chunk of rock. I wanted the game to feature these other reasons — growing your skills, building up your technique, wanting to climb really cool and distinct physical features like roofs, flakes, aretes and cracks. Difficulty grades are a big part of assessing climbing routes, but I left those out of the game because at the end of the day, the quality of the route is what makes it good and memorable, not the grade.
There are a few other games that use climbing as a theme — K2, Summit, Dicey Peaks. Have you played any of those? If so, what did you think of how they approached the theme?
I have not but they are more mountaineering-themed, and while there is an overlap in some of the skills and equipment, mountaineering is a whole different ball game from rock climbing! Overall it seemed like most of the games about climbing/mountaineering were more about chance than strategy.
In addition to being a designer, you also did the artwork for First Ascent. How was it doing the art for your own design?
Overall, making the artwork was just as fun for me as designing the game. It was a huge undertaking though! I had a pretty good idea from the beginning of the look I wanted, but quickly realized it was going to take a lot more time to pull off than I anticipated. Finding good reference photos was challenging — I typically used 3-4 different photos as reference images for a single composition. Since many of the cards show a specific tool, hand position or movement, I took many of my own reference photos or just had climbing gear next to me while I was working.
One big lesson I learned is that just because it’s a good photograph does not mean it’s a good reference photo! Vector styling flattens the perspective — so foreshortening was very difficult to get right, and I didn’t have any depth of field to work with. (Depth of field is what makes the background of images look blurry) Since everything in the illustration is “in focus,” I had to add highlights and contrast to emphasize the more important parts of the drawing, and make the backgrounds be less detailed and desaturated.
A lot of times I’d get pretty far into a composition before realizing the pose was just not working, and have to start over. I recently looked back at some of those older versions and I’m glad I moved in another direction — it’s painful to do after you’ve already invested hours into them, but it’s worth it!
What made you decide to self publish First Ascent through Kickstarter? Do you plan to take backer feedback during the campaign and make any crowdsourced changes?
A few months after I started working on First Ascent, I went to PAX Unplugged, a Board Game Convention held here in Philly. I attended a few of the seminars and it seemed like Kickstarter was all anyone was talking about. I remember the panelists saying that when you self-publish, you have full control over the design, mechanics and artwork, and you have to kind of give that up when you work with a publisher. Since this project is so important to me, self-publishing seemed like the right route so I could make sure it was done right.
As far as crowdsourced changes, I think there’s always room for feedback! I’d especially like to hear people’s ideas for additional Climbing Card scenarios — a lot of those have been crowdsourced from various climbing Facebook groups and Slack threads. If we exceed our funding goal, we’d like to see what kind of upgrades/stretch goals backers are most interested in. We have some ideas for what we think would be cool, but I think I’d rather leave it up to them.
How did you hook up with Garrett to produce the game?
As far as onboarding Garrett as a producer — we’re boyfriend/girlfriend, but up until about a year ago First Ascent was 100% my project. He playtested a bit and of course had to listen to me talk about it, but wasn’t hands on. When the pandemic hit, I lost motivation to work on the project. Most of my motivation and joy in the project had come from playtesting — I was meeting a ton of new people, I loved sharing the game with others, and it felt like the project really couldn’t move forward without that. Garrett was concerned that a break would mean the project would never be finished, so he stepped in to help keep momentum going, and also offload some of the anxiety I was feeling about marketing.
Garrett got me connected with the Philly Gamemakers Guild and Board Game Design Lab group, both of which were immensely helpful in the refinement of the game and rules. Garrett mostly focuses on marketing, but has also learned how to script/upload the game onto TTS, used Adobe Premier to edit our pitch and how to play videos, and even dabbled a bit in Blender to create some 3d stuff. It’s been a lot easier to manage with him on board, and First Ascent has become a much better game because of his involvement.
Did the pandemic make playtesting and developing First Ascent more challenging?
I think the Pandemic marked more of a shift in who we played with and what kind of feedback we needed. Much of my playtesting prior to the Pandemic were with climbers or people who played a lot of games, but not necessarily designers. They were incredibly helpful in steering the big-picture development of First Ascent, but two years into development, what I really needed was help fine-tuning, streamlining, and balancing. Once Garrett uploaded First Ascent to Tabletop Simulator, we were able to playtest with other game designers, who usually gave more sophisticated and pin-pointed feedback. Those conversations helped me prioritize which elements to change and why.
Even though the online playtesting was helpful, I much prefer in-person playtesting with the real thing. It’s much more fun and goes a lot faster!
Are you currently working on any other designs?
I’m not currently working on other board games, although I do have a few ideas knocking around in my head. I’m always thinking about what I want to do next. My next project is probably going to be a follow-up to a Philly-themed coloring book I published several years ago (Drawn Jawn).