Paupers’ Ladder is an indie Adventure game that has intrigued me from the start – but when the The Moon Towers and its alluring cover got released, I devoted some more effort to look for a solo mode and justify purchasing it.
The solo mode is a bit hidden, and you have two ways to get it: either by purchasing the One Lonely Pauper expansion, which grants you the solo rules and paper thin cardboard components to make them work (it’s okay, it’s just life tokens basically), or by getting the Moon Towers expansion, which offers a small solo board and tokens to track the life and time you have left.
However, the contents of the Moon Towers do not integrate with the base game (they provide an alternate set of locations to explore during your travels). Personally, I got both, and used the solo rules booklet from the solo expansion, alongside the solo board from the Moon Towers. Which means, after setting up each pile of cards separately and picking the Blue Scavenger Girl and her crow as my character, I was ready to go.
The premise of Paupers’ Ladder is that the good leader of the Fantasy land has died, but she insisted that her successor would come from the lowest fringe of society. So, you, the paupers, are now granted a chance to rise to royalty, provided you can prove that you are truly virtuous. There are five virtues you can boast in the game, and only three of them are required for a win – you need to be good enough, not perfect. Each virtue is acquired by a different means: Generosity requires getting money (and discarding it), Bravery has you killing monsters and villains all over the land, Knowledge depends on you learning new talents (‘recipes’), Fellowship is won by fulfilling quests, and finally Magnificence is for those who slay a dragon. What is nice is that each of these objectives correspond to something you are trying to do anyway during the game, and I like when the victory conditions align with the actual stuff you are interested in.
The game itself is rather simplistic. Each turn, you move your Pauper (your character), and explore the region you land in by flipping a matching card and following whatever is said on it. It may be an event, an ingredient to fulfill a recipe, or a foe to encounter (if you do not decide to hide instead!). Fighting is basically random, you flip a card from your “Outcome” deck, and if you beat or match the strength value of the foe, you defeat it. You can earn a few mitigating trinkets and equip a weapon to get a +1 bonus or so, but overall, there isn’t much more than that. To cover more ground in your explorations, you can also rely on your bird who moves and explores every round just like you, except what the bird finds goes straight to your board, which makes it a rather convenient auxiliary. My very first move was to encounter an Eagle in the Mountains, that got feathered out badly thanks to me drawing a 6 card.
During my play, I decided to focus on getting lots of stuff, because I was playing a scavenger with an infinite bag and I just enjoy getting stuff in general. I focused on learning recipes (i.e. powerful, permanent skills), but soon things got tricky: I was losing life, fighting monsters became too risky, and exploration too dangerous an affair; yet I was broke, with no money left to heal in a city. I desperately fulfilled a quest by delivering two potions with my shaking feeble hands to the city’s apothecary, and the reward for it was enough to get me back on track. I fulfilled two other quests at a quicker pace than expected, earning my first virtue.
The very next turn, I learned my fifth and last recipe, becoming particularly versed in the art of moving around, clinging to my stuff, and finding money everywhere. With two virtues won, I felt that a natural choice for the third one was getting money to distribute it to the good people. The last two coins were obtained by selling a pair of rusty keys I had at the bottom of my backpack since the very beginning (I had never found anything that they could open), immensely enjoying the idea of being crowned the new queen for selling a dirty piece of junk.
So, what do I think of it? The game is pretty easy, even though I nearly lost at the beginning. Indeed, once you start to get interesting items and powerful skills, you know better what you can do and what to focus on, your character becomes much more able to handle the randomness of adventuring, and healing becomes cheap when money is no longer scarce. Sure, you still have a time track ticking, but succeeding at about anything grants you an additional round and I never came close to lose because of it. The race aspect of the multiplayer game is lost, but the game is still a nice and rules-light matrix for some silly narratives to emerge. It plays fast (45 minutes), there is very low mental load, and a nice feeling of empowerment – even when, by the end of the game, my character had no shiny piece of equipment and was still much willing to flee at the sight of a mere brigand. There are different ways to grow your character and they are truly efficient thanks to the variety of win conditions to fulfill.
What is impressive is the huge amount of content. I barely scratched the region decks, and I only saw a handful of recipes. Still, there can’t be too much variety and this sheer amount might be misleading: different enemies are basically different art with a strength value, a lot of encounters are just ingredients to be found, and these ingredients cease to have any purpose once you have learned your five recipes/skills. Luck also plays a strong role: out of the four starting quests that I could try to fulfill, two remained out of reach, one requiring to kill a vampire who remained well hidden all throughout the game, the other to find the fabled underground river – fabled indeed.
But there is an overall likable quality in all of this. It’s a bit quirky, it’s fun, and although the core mechanics couldn’t be simpler, they seem to achieve what they are set to do: to provide a basic and seamless engine for an adventure to go on. The land is getting built as you explore, and ends up feeling quite lively as the cards are placed. Despite the overall feeling of randomness, there is also some true satisfaction in shaping your character’s specialty through recipes and a decently varied set of items to find and equip. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it because I suspect most will be disappointed with its minimalism, but personally, I’m looking forward playing it again, the sooner the better.