Before I begin I was sent a copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. This is not a paid review. If you would prefer to watch a video review of this game you can do so below.
Everyone loves an underdog. Sorry that is not accurate. Everyone other than Patriot’s fans loves an underdog. (See how worldly I am? That was a sportsball joke!) This is not even a recent phenomenon, Mark Twain wrote the popular Prince and the Pauper, and I challenge you to throw a metaphorical rock in the western world and hit someone who has never heard of David and Goliath. (Or if you are a Patriot’s fan, a slightly deflated football…ZING!)
Paupers’ Ladder takes this underdog theme and leans into it in a way that I have not seen in a game before. In the land of Brighthelm the next monarch is going to be determined based on a competition of paupers. Whichever pauper is able to prove to have mastered three of the five core virtues (bravery, generosity, magnificence, bravery, and knowledge) first will be named the heir.
Each of our heroes, and their trusty bird companions (mine was the courageous Sir Tweetums) head off into the wilds to prove themselves. Each of the virtues have different requirements to prove, kills monsters, find items to craft the recipes, earn and give away gems etc. The bulk of the game takes place on here. As you, or your companion enter a different region on the map you can explore. To do so you draw a card from the appropriate deck and claim it, if it is an ingredient; encounter it, if it is something to be encountered; or fight it, if it needs a beat down.
If the card is not discarded, or collected it stays on the map for someone else to encounter later on. If a region is filled with cards, then you have to encounter one of those upon arriving, and if there is a monster, then you have to fight it before you can deal with anything else. First one to claim 3 virtues wins.
So what do I think?
The game does a good job of making you feel like you are a hopeful pauper setting off to prove your virtue. You will find yourself traveling the entire realm on your journey, it does feel like an adventure. I also love the addition of the bird companions. This significantly speeds up play, because your bird operates exactly like you pauper (only it cannot use items or your pauper’s skills). Now you are able to spread across the realm in two directions collecting what you need, or accomplishing quests.
I also find the variety of virtues to be more than sufficient. It really allows you to develop your own strategy to victory. For example, the last time I played my wife had the ability to reroll the “lucky charm” die once per turn. Because of this she parked her bird, Swifty, at the forest gambling den and racked up money until she was able to earn enough to gain the generosity virtue. Meanwhile I had found some strong weapons so I was rather rapidly able to prove my bravery.
Next, I think there is a good variety of encounters on in the decks. You never know what might come out next, and it never feels like you are retreading the same ground. I particularly like the inclusion of the guild cards, which might let you steal a card from another player, or complete a quest, or kill a monster for you…you just have to pay for it.
The final thing that really stands out as bonus is the way combat works. Each character has their own deck of cards with numbers 1-6 for combat. In essence this is the same as rolling a d6 BUT some of the cards have bonuses on them. Perhaps if you are next to a city region you can spend money for a mercenary to help you fight, or if you are near the sea you get a bonus. This takes what is just a simple d6 roll, and makes it a bit more interesting, you are also able to, somewhat, count your cards and know what might be left in the deck.
This is a tough one. Though I like the way the board looks, I like that it is clear and bright, and I like the mechanic of the clear cards, BUT if you start having to put lots of cards out on the regions, suddenly the board becomes very busy with text all over the place.
This is a heavily luck driven game, and you might not enjoy that. You are almost completely at the mercy of the draw decks, when it comes to earning the items that you need. There is a little mitigation in that the recipes have three options and you only have to fill two, but it is possible to find yourself unable to complete something for a while because you have bad luck, and there is equipment that can help here as well…if you manage to draw it. The same is true with combat, once you have drawn through your high level cards you are kind of stuck with low ones, until you have to reshuffle, and, to my knowledge, there is not a way to reshuffle your deck. Additionally, one of the virtues is obtained by defeating a dragon…which could all be at the bottom of their decks.
Second, the game can start to feel a bit long. This is DIRECTLY related to the above comment about being at the mercy of the decks. If you just aren’t getting the draws you need, the game can start to drag a little. That said, I will add it is SUPREMELY easy to shorten the whole thing by adjusting some of the numbers if you want. You can easily make generosity need 25 gems, or bravery require 25 victory points etc if you like.
Bringing it all together
Paupers’ ladder is a fun game. I enjoyed playing it a lot, and am looking forward to playing it again. ESPECIALLY now that I know there will be a solo variant available as a print and play coming. It is a delightful little game, that is simple at its core, but has plenty of options on how to play. It accomplishes its theme, and has a delightful companion mechanic to keep the game moving, and the encounters all feel distinct. The board can wind up being very busy, and it is a heavily luck driven game, though there is some mitigation to this. Combat is simple, not punishing, and has some interesting twists on what is essentially a d6 system. To me this game feels like a modern throwback to old school style games, things like Sorry and Parcheesi, but without feeling repetitive and boring. (Like the Patriots in the super bowl…ya knew there had to be a third one coming!)
Kingdoms have fallen in less time than it would take to read all that
* A cool throwback to games of our youth
* Fun to play, and deceptively strategic
* Feels like you are going on a life changing adventure
* Some nice twists on some basic mechanics
* Board can feel really busy in the late game
* Very luck driven game
* A wonderfully charming game for all ages