One summer not long ago, Allison Ong and Dan Birman were on a climbing road trip in Squamish, British Columbia, when it rained. Bored and stuck inside at a friend’s apartment, Ong decided to make a climbing-theme game out of paper ripped from her sketchbook. That was the beginning—prototype number one—of Ong and Birman’s new card game called 5.15.
What started as an inside joke among friends with complicated and convoluted rules is now a bonafide game that you can purchase and play on your own rest days, be they voluntary or forced by weather.
“It feels more like you’re all going climbing together, instead of taking turns one at a time to do things,” said Birman of the new game.
Ong and Birman launched a Kickstarter for 5.15 (which is still going!) to turn the funny little game that they invented on flimsy strips of paper into a professional, polished version, replete with its own thicker printed cards, a tough box and a rulebook. They met their initial $5,000 fundraising goal in six hours. (Next goal is $25k— help them reach it here!)
While the initial idea was Ong’s and she drew the pictures on the cards, Birman was responsible for fine tuning the game’s mechanics. A game-design meetup in Seattle was helpful.
“When we played with the game designers, because they weren’t climbers, they sort of saw past all of that and just looked at how the game was working, and that was really cool,” said Ong.
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Playing 5.15 is pretty straightforward (simpler for climbers, naturally, as the lingo is second nature for them). The goal is simple: become the first climber—er, player—to climb 5.15. The first person to do so—by climbing a route like Biographie/Realization in Céüse, France, for example– wins! (While climbing 5.15 in a card game might not get you closer to the grade in reality, these 8 tips might…)
At the start of the game, players select a style card—e.g.trad, sport, boulder, or alpine—and receive an advantage in their chosen style.
(Not all of the “5.15s” are actually 5.15s, but rather some of the most difficult routes from all the various disciplines—like the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) on El Capitan, Yosemite, California; The Process (V16) on the Grandpa Peabody Boulder, the Buttermilks, Bishop, California; and the Slovak Direct (VI 5.9X M6 WI 6+, 9,000 feet) on Denali, Alaska—which Ong and Birman simply labeled “pretty hard” for those unfamiliar with the more esoteric grading of alpine climbs.)
The game proceeds in rounds, wherein players can choose to either “climb” or take “booty.” All players pick a climb to attempt at the same time.
To succeed on a climb, a player’s token count—their accrued points, essentially—must be higher than the grade of the climb he or she is attempting. One’s token count at any give time is the sum of a climber’s base strength—or what grade they have climbed already in the course of the game—plus bonuses such as a harness, shoes, crampons, or other booty.
At the start of the game, players often team up to conquer climbs they would not be strong enough to complete alone and split booty from the climb. As the game progresses, alliances are frequently broken as everyone tries to reach 5.15 first.
But—gasp!—there are also negative cards players can use to derail other climbers who are approaching the 5.15 grade: a flood card, which affects boulderers more; a wind-gust card, which is worse for roped climbers; and others. Other obstacle cards include tendonitis, peregrine-falcon cliff closures, and getting stuck behind a slow party of five.
Positive cards like a shoe resole, first handjam, and catching the end of the rope, help players rise to the challenge of harder climbs and overcome setbacks. The “day after a storm” card blesses a player with booty. This card was inspired by a time the Ong and Birman found five cams on a route, left by a party that had bailed due to a storm.
5.15 can be played with three to five players and lasts about 45 minutes.
As mentioned, Ong and Birman’s next Kickstarter goal is $25,000; if they reach it, they hope to include more booty cards and maybe even celebrity climbers (with their permission) in the next iteration of 5.15. They also want to expand the game’s presence in retail outlets and climbing-gym retail shops.