Whistle Mountain (Game Preview by Chris Wray)

  •  Designer:  Scott Caputo & Luke Laurie
  • Publisher:  Bezier Games
  • Artists:  Mila Harbar & Taylor Bogle
  • Players:  1 – 6
  • Ages:  12 and Up
  • Time:  60-90 Minutes

Whistle Mountain is a worker placement game designed by Scott Caputo and Luke Laurie.  Published by Bezier Games, the game is one of the more anticipated Essen 2020 titles, and it’ll be hitting store shelves in coming weeks.

Though Whistle Mountain shares some theming with Whistle Stop, a 2017 game designed by Scott Caputo and also released by Bezier, that game was more of a pickup and deliver game, and this one is more of a worker placement game.  Gone are the trains, and in lieu there are airships!

As I recently said in my one-line summary of the game, this is “a fun, heavier-than-expected polyominoes-meets-worker-placement game that is going to have an enormous amount of replayability.”  The game is a nice mashup of several different mechanics, and though I’ve only played a couple of times, I can already tell that Whistle Mountain is going to be one of those games with a lot to explore.  

The Gameplay

Thematically, Whistle Mountain is set in the great American West.  Long gone are the railroad empires, and now, you must invest in new technologies to improve your company and train your workers to use the resources of Whistle Mountain.

The first thing you’ll notice once you set up the game is that there is a cool device holding several strips which represent water.  As the snow of the mountain begins to melt, the water level will rise higher and higher.  You need to build up before that happens, taking advantage of fantastic machines, new technologies, and clever resource gathering along the way.  

Each player has three airships: a small one covering 1 space, a medium one covering 2 spaces, and a large one covering 3.  Each player also receives some starting resources, and a starting ability, which introduces some asymmetry into the game.  

The first option players have on their turn is to collect resources.  One of their available airships can land next to scaffolding — the rising structure emerging from the base of the game board — or on a machine.  Players collect resources for the spaces they are next to, or activate the machine they are on or next to.  There are five types of resources in the game: coal, iron, water, gold, and whistles.  Whistles, in a nice thematic touch, are highly sought after because they act as a wild.  

Machines (which come in small, medium, and large sizes) give various benefits: some give resources or points, while others introduce new mechanics into the game.  

Instead of placing the airship out on the board, players can also place it in a dock.  In these spaces, they can collect machines, cards, technology upgrades, or scaffolding.  They can also rescue workers: there are workers struggling in the whirlpool below, and this allows you to get them out.

The other option — which can be done instead of collecting resources — is to forge.  Players pull back their airships.  Then, they can build and/or move/rescue a worker.  Players can build — machines or scaffolding — up to three times, paying a water for each time beyond the first.  Players can then move a worker up (which costs a gold) or rescue one from the whirlpool (which costs two).  

Players start the game with two workers in the whirlpool and seven in the barracks, and since those barracks will eventually fill with water, players want to move them out onto the scaffolding and then over to the safety of the tower, where they will earn end-game victory points.  The higher they are on the tower, the more points!

Building machines is what moves the game along.  They can only be built over existing scaffolding, with no overhangs allowed.  If a worker is on an empty space on the scaffolding, they get moved over to the tower.  If a machine is built above the bridge, the next level floods, and machines in that portion of the game become ineffective.  Any workers in the flooded area go to the whirlpool.

Along the way, players can earn cards that give them one-time benefits, technologies to make their actions more powerful, and victory points from various activities, primarily from placing and activating machines.

The game end is triggered when all of the workers are out of the barracks — either because they’ve been removed, or because there has been a lot of flooding — and then the remaining players get a turn.

During scoring, players get points for where their workers are located on the tower, but they lose 5 points for each worker still in the whirlpool.  They also get points for their upgrades, and the various materials (machines, awards, scaffolding, cards, and resources) they have gathered.  The player with the most points is the winner.  

My Thoughts on the Game

When I first read the rulebook to Whistle Mountain, I thought this was going to primarily be a polyominoes game.  I expected clever scaffolding builds, intricately-placed machines, and the fight to secure the best space on the scaffolding.  All of that is true — and this indeed is a polyominoes game — but when I started playing it, I realized that it is also actually a worker placement game.  What the game labels as workers — the meeples on the scaffolding — aren’t the in game workers though: rather, your real workers are the airships!

Whistle Mountain is actually a straightforward game to learn, but because it is a clever mashup of many different mechanics, it strikes me as a game that will be quite difficult to master.  In the end, turns may seem pretty straightforward — you either place an airship or pull them back — but making sure you collect the right resources or grab the right machine or advancement can be a tense and rewarding decision.  The end result is a game that is just the right amount of think-y for me, but I would caution against playing this with those that suffer from the dreaded analysis paralysis.  I think the 60-90 minute on the box is fair, but I could see some players making this go longer.  

I thought most of the points would come from moving your workers to the tower, and those are indeed a material portion of the points awarded.  But more points actually seem to come from in-game builds of the machines, so the race towards them is quite critical.  The machines loom over the game: not only are players rewarded greatly for placing them, but placing them above the bridge is what causes the flooding, and placing next to them is often the best move when collecting resources.

What we, as new players, have not yet begun to take full advantage of the in-game advancements, which are likely the game’s best feature.  They are cool, and I’ve seen a few of them used, but it strikes me that they are the key to the game’s high scores, especially if built early on.  Put succinctly, they act as technologies that allow new paths for your strategy.  For example, one allows you to use coal as other resource types (“Black Lung”), while others give you small in-game bonuses, such as the one that lets you gain a resource from any scaffolding you use (“Extractor”).  All of them are worth end-of-game victory points too.

Because the game comes with a thick stack of advancements, and an even thicker stack of machines, no two games will be the same.  There’s going to be a lot of variability between games, and I think that is a good thing, because it means that Whistle Mountain will stand apart as a game of exceptional replayability.  

The rising water mechanic is not only thematically appropriate, but a cool in-game timer.  And it actually introduces strategy variation within an individual game: the earliest machines will become flooded, forcing players to think about where they can get resources in the future.  

Whistle Mountain is a well-designed, well-developed mashup of several cool mechanics.  It is heavier than I expected from Bezier — indeed, I’d say this approaches medium-heavy weight — but it has the engine-building, think-y gameplay that hobbyists love.  I’ve still only had a couple of plays (which is why this is a preview instead of a review), but I look forward to many more, and I’ll likely be back in future months with additional thoughts.   

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Brandon Kempf (1 play) – Yeah, the decision to add Whistle to this title is a bit confusing, there isn’t a lot tying it together with Whistle Stop other than whistles, advancement tiles that look like gears and Scott Caputo. I do agree, I think those advancement tiles are a huge opportunity in the game and in my one play I did not use them to the best of my ability, instead only grabbed them when I had nothing else exciting to do and wanted a few victory points and that seems to be kind of defeating their purpose. They aren’t there to make points immediately but to make sure that you have an advantage over your opponents as the game progresses. The beginning player powers seem to try to direct you in a specific way and I think we each had something wholly unique, but with the need to collect resources quickly we saw a pretty powerful one which kind of made the other powers feel a bit of a let down. That being said, we only saw four of the powers, there are more that we never touched so each game should feel different for players. Whistle Mountain is one of those games that I was utterly confused about what I did the previous hour, not in a bad way mind you, just in one of those ways that makes you want to try it again and do better, and then again, and then again. 

Dale Y (2 plays) – I played this game as an early prototype, and then I was happy to get a chance to play it again with an advance copy from Bezier… The game has certainly evolved through the development process, and I think the designers and developer have done a great job making Whistle Mountain into a nice tight worker placement game.  Yes, despite the fact that it looks like a polyomino tile laying game; at its heart, it’s a worker placement game… with the added complexity that you can drown your workers if they don’t keep moving up the scaffolding as the water rises.   There is definitely a lot going on in the game, and I definitely feel like it’s going to take 3 or 4 games to get a good grip on which actions are best, which advancements are best, etc.  There are a lot of choices each turn, and it can be borderline overwhelming in your first game or two… but i’d recommend that you stick with it because the game is worth the work.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris Wray
  • I like it. Brandon Kempf, Dale Y
  • Neutral. 
  • Not for me… 
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