Let’s get this out of the way at the top – I’m not a hiker. Walking Katie (my lovely and ever-curious Australian Shepherd) around the neighbourhood is about as adventurous as my footwork gets. But you know who is an avid hiker? TJ Swing, the lead designer of the upcoming Hike It!: The Backpacking Board Game. So you figure that, right off the bat, there’s likely going to be some genuine experience poured into the game.
When I saw Hike It! on display at Toronto’s Breakout convention, it immediately caught my eye just based on how beautiful the game looked. But what made me stop and actually want to learn more was the presence of Nova Scotia-born game designer Ron Halliday.
Why? Because Ron isn’t just an excellent designer, he’s also a professional cartographer!
Bringing Ron’s map-making experience to this map-based game adds a certain degree of legitimacy to the project, especially when combined with TJ’s own background. We first witnessed Ron’s professional crossover in action with Seven Bridges, a well-reviewed roll-and-write game published by Puzzling Pixel Games set in the historic city of Königsberg. The game made it onto my list of 2021’s Top Games, and was similarly echoed by our friends at BoardGameBanter, who raved about Seven Bridges, saying that they “love the fact that this game is based on a real location, made by a professional cartographer. It’s very simplistic yet elegant and every end-game shows the progression around the city that makes it feel like an accomplishment.”
Given all that background, I was keen to learn more about Hike It!, but the opportunity to play the game at Breakout didn’t present itself. Fortunately, Ron wound up spending some time in Nova Scotia later that summer, and invited me to play the prototype before his next adventure called him away.
What follows is not a full review, but rather first impressions coming out of a single play of the game.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
An iconic forest straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina is where Hike It! is set, taking players to the most-visited National Park in the entirety of the United States. Players are navigating a literal map of the Smoky Mountains, seeking memorable experiences and amazing sights, with the aim of having the most epic hiking experience of all, while also making sure to stay safe and healthy.
The map is divided into three regions, and before the game begins, players place a waypoint marker into each of these regions, signifying the scenic spots they’re determined to visit. To achieve victory in the game, a player must visit all three of these public goal posts, and then return to their trailhead. Hikers will also be seeking to complete private goals (called “side hikes”), and visit as many other non-waypointed scenic locations as they can manage while doing their absolute best to maintain their physical stamina.
Movement around the map is primarily determined by how much gear each player is carrying. The more weight in their pack, the slower they will move around the board. While players will want to move as quickly as possible to accomplish their goals, having a variety of gear on hand will help to avoid the negative effects of the shifting weather and unexpected events that inevitably pop up. Developing and mastering backpacking skills (through a set collection mechanic, players gain skill cards by successfully passing weather and trail challenges) will reduce the need for some gear, freeing up some of the load and allowing players to move briskly. The way this mechanic plays out feels very intuitive, and at a glance it’s very easy to determine your own movement, while also scanning other player boards to see how nimble your rival hikers are.
BEWARE: BEARS AND BUMPS ON THE TRAIL!
Of course, no epic hiking journey would be complete without obstacles, and Hike It! offers them in spades.
Before each turn begins, the active player will roll a set of dice to see if that day’s weather will impact their turn. Any die symbols matching that round’s weather card will typically either require paying an item from your pack, or reducing your health (and thus movement) by 1 point.
And at the end of each turn, players will reveal a Trail Card, which might surprise a player with a bonus, but in my game it more often resulted in another item being discarded from my pack. It might not be as critical to keep yourself stocked up for events, but it was a pretty critical tactic for me throughout the entire hike!
Of all the challenges, though, the most striking one is that the forest is also occupied by bears, which act as passive blockades for most of the game. However, in the twist that makes the game truly magical for me, once one player has completed their hiking journey, the bears suddenly begin to show an aggressive streak.
Players who have finished their hike NOW CONTROL THE BEARS, and begin chasing the other players around the board, sending the game’s final act into overdrive! It’s hilariously out of character from the rest of the experience, more in line with a slasher horror film theme, but so utterly perfect that I couldn’t imagine it being any different. For me, the hungry bear mechanic takes this game from really solid to a must-have addition to my personal collection.
WRAPPING IT UP : NOT-QUITE-FINAL THOUGHTS
After one play of the game, my impressions are that Hike It! is a polished project of passion, created by an avid hiker and a professional mapmaker, and the final production copy is going to be something special. Players who adore games with an outdoorsy theme (ie, Parks or Trek 12) are sure to enjoy this game, and its intuitive simplicity and topographical authenticity might also appeal to folks outside of the hobby board gaming community.
Of course, those who aren’t fond of random elements may not be keen on the regular die rolls and card flips. But the knowledge that something is likely coming your way, and that you can prepare for many of those challenges, means that it’s often possible to mitigate the game’s randomness.
Personally, I’m planning on being a day one backer of the Hike It! campaign, and when I have a copy of my own, I’m excited to race my friends throughout the Smoky Mountains, and then hunt them down with an agitated army of belligerent bears.
Of course, first impressions shouldn’t be taken as a definitive review, so please take my enthusiasm with a grain of salt. Still, I remain optimistic that future plays of Hike It! will keep me interested and engaged in the adventures to come!