I have been a fan of programmed movement board games since discovering Robo Rally many years ago. Due to this I jumped at a chance to check out the latest programmed movement game from The Op, Mountains out of Molehills.
This is a family weight game where players move moles around on the bottom of a two layered board, pushing up dirt and competing to control the most molehills above ground, on the top board.
Disclosure: Thank you to The Op for sending us a copy of this game to check out. No other compensation was provided. Links in this post may be affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and helps support this blog and our podcast.
What do you get with Mountains out of Molehills?
Mountains out of Molehills was designed by Jim DiCamillo and Patrick Marino featuring artwork by Elena Muñoz. This one comes from The Op and was just published earlier this year.
Mountains out of Molehills plays two to four players, with games taking about an hour each. It has an MSRP of $39.99 US, which is a great price point for the production quality of the components in this game.
In Mountains out of Molehills you take on the role of a mole who’s trying to be king of the hill by controlling the most molehills out of all the players. This is done through the use of a card driven programmed movement system on a two tiered board. Every move forward causes a mound of dirt to be pushed upward and placed on the second tier of the board. At the end of each of the six rounds of play, players score points for the hills they control (a.k.a. those having their own clumps of dirt at the bottom).
One of the big highlights of this game is its production quality and table presence. The two tiered board uses the game box in a way that really makes this game stick out. A great place to see this is in our Mountains out of Molehills Unboxing Video on YouTube.
In addition to the notable board, you also get a set of transparent acrylic mole standees, which are really nice, and some somewhat rubbery dirt mounds, which also add to the game’s table presence. Other components include a set of movement cards which are fairly small but easy to shuffle due to their size, some turn tokens, a rock token and a scoring pad.
One nice touch is that everything came punched already, though you do have to assemble the standees. Be aware these have a film on one side that needs to be removed though this isn’t really evident when looking at them.
You will also find a custom silk screened six sided die for determining what happens when a mole hits a rock and, of course, there’s a rulebook. I found the rules in Mountains out of Molehills to be clear and well organised.
The book even offers some background fluff for people who care exactly what species of mole they are going to be playing.
This game really does look and feel great. It’s designed in a way that the height of the two boards actually makes it easy to see both layers at once and design elements like x and y axis markers on both boards make it easy to see which square is over top of another one. The molehill mounds stack well and come apart easily, though you do need a bit of dexterity to make sure you don’t knock over any other stacks while placing new mounds, especially later in the game when some of the stacks are five high.
I really have no complaints about the production quality here at all.
How to play Mountains out of Molehills
The first step to playing Mountains out of Molehills is assembling the two tiered board. This is easy enough. The game boards are two sided, with one side being used for a two player game and the other being used for when you have three or four players. The big thing to watch for here is that you orientate the two boards facing the same way so the coordinates line up.
Next, players each pick a mole to play and they are then assigned a player order token randomly. Starting with the first player, everyone places their mole on an edge square facing whatever way they want. Then they place one mound of dirt on the top board, above where their mole is standing.
A game of Mountains out of Molehills is played over six rounds. Each round starts by randomly laying out five movement cards per player. Players then draft these cards one at a time, in turn order, until they each have four total. This will leave one card per player after all the drafting is done. The leftover cards are discarded.
One interesting thing we discovered after our first four player game is that when playing with the maximum player count every single card in the game will be used. They won’t all be drafted but they will all come up for draft.
Once everyone has their four cards they organize them into a stack. This stack dictates the four actions their mole will take that round. The order here is important, as all players will take the action on their top card first, then everyone will take the action on the card under that, all the way down to the fourth action on the bottom card.
Once a player has their moves planned out, they place their turn order token on top of their card stack. Once everyone’s token has been placed, it’s time to find out what happens.
Everyone flips over their top movement card and then the cards are resolved in player order.
These cards include a few different types. There are move forward cards for one, two and three spaces, turn left and move cards, turn right and move cards, turn either direction cards, u-turn cards, u-turn and move cards, rock cards and mole cards.
While most of these are pretty straight forward in what they do, it’s worth noting that the turn, and u-turn and move cards let you do these actions in either order. You can turn then move or move then turn.
The rock card lets you place the rock token on any empty location on the board or move it to a new empty location if it’s already in play. If a mole would later move onto the rock they instead stay where they are and roll the rock die which determines which way their disorientated mole ends up facing after hitting the rock. The mole cards represent your mole peeking their head above ground. When this happens they topple the hill above them. I’ll get to toppling molehills in a moment.
Every time a mole moves forward they push a bit of dirt up top which is represented by the player placing one of their coloured mound tokens on the board or at the bottom of an existing molehill. Remember this new mound goes on the bottom, not on top of these existing hills.
Note that mounds are only placed when a mole moves forward. No mounds are placed if your mole doesn’t move, which includes turning in place, placing the rock or peeking with a mole card.
Movement in this game is friendly. While you are competing with each other, your moles are good friends and are very polite. If there’s another mole in the way when they go to move, they just patiently sit and wait, losing any further movement. Similarly, if you find yourself trying to move into a wall you simply go as far as you can. I already mentioned rocks once, but as a reminder, if you hit one you will change direction randomly and continue moving if you have any movement points left.
Just because movement is friendly doesn’t mean you won’t be trying your hardest to cut your opponents off and they will certainly be trying to do the same to you. The difference here is that unlike other programmed movement games there’s no pushing or shoving of your opponents.
The only thing left to talk about is toppling. Each round of Mountains out of Molehills has a different topple limit. This starts at two but eventually gets up to five by the end of the game.
If, after you move, any hills are taller than that round’s topple limit, the hill falls over in the order that it was created. To topple a hill you take all of the mounds off of the top, leaving the bottom mound behind. You then pick a direction to topple in and add one mound to each hill in that direction for each block you pulled off starting with the bottom block and moving up. Mounds that topple off the map are returned to their players.
A topple can also happen due to someone playing a mole card. In this case, the hill topples no matter what its height is. Also, a topple can create another topple, leading to a chain reaction where each topple is fully resolved before moving on to the next one.
Once all players have resolved all four of their cards, the round ends. At this point, unless it’s the final round of the game, a new player order is determined. This is done by looking down at the top of the map. The player who has the most mounds visible from the top becomes the first player, moving downwards from there. Here it’s the mounds on the top of each stack that matter, which is the opposite of scoring.
Player order can be very important in this game due to the fact that the first player gets the first card draft which can be huge, but there’s also an advantage in going later in the round. The last player to move has the best chance to steal some hills right before scoring.
Speaking of scoring, that’s the next part. At this point players get one point for every mound in every hill they control. You control any hill that has your mound on the bottom.
At the end of six rounds, the player with the most points wins.
Should You Buy Mountains out of Molehills?
When The Op reached out to see if we were interested in checking out Mountains out of Molehills I wanted to say yes as soon as I saw it. The table presence here really is striking, and as someone who runs public play events, my first thought about this game is that it be would great for playing at a coffee shop, legion, or other place where there will be non gamers. It looks perfect for getting people to come over and ask “What are you playing?”
At the time, our pile of obligation was growing quickly, and due to the on-going pandemic I’ve not been running public play events. Due to this I almost turned down the offer, thankfully, before I did I decided to look into the game a bit more.
The big discovery for me, and what finally sold me on agreeing to try this game out, was the fact that it is a programmed movement game. I love programmed movement games! Robo Rally is still one of my favourite games of all time, I love Lords of Xidit, and programming actions was my favourite part of Wonder Woman Challenge of the Amazons.
One thing I wasn’t able to figure out while doing research and that even had me wondering after reading the rules is what kind of game Mountains out of Molehills really is. I figured this game would be one of two things: It would either be a highly strategic abstract strategy game, up there with games like Azul, or it would be a silly family game with lots of chaos and very little actual strategic depth.
It turns out that the game actually falls somewhere in between these two extremes.
What you have here is a game where you do need to pay attention, especially to the turn order and what other players are drafting. To play well you will be predicting what your opponent will do and you might also end up bluffing and trying to mislead your opponents. These are things that I find in many good abstract strategy games.
Along with this though, Mountains out of Molehills has a high randomness factor. Any long term plans can be ruined if the right cards don’t come up and the rock rules, with its die roll system for changing direction, can add some real chaos to the game. Even with two players, your moles are going to get into each other’s way and due to the friendly movement rules this can often lead to turns where a mole sits there and does nothing. These elements of randomness can combine in such a way that you can have an entire round where you do absolutely nothing. That right there is going to be a turn off to some players, especially abstract strategy gamers.
The secret I found to enjoying Mountains out of Molehills is to realise that these things are part of the game. Chaos happens and you need to laugh about it. The fun in this game is found by embracing the silly family game parts while still trying to play as strategically and tactically as you can.
The strategy game elements here really are solid and pulling off an end of round “move three” that steals three tall stacks from the point leader can be highly rewarding, as can causing a multiple stack topple that moves points from your opponent’s mounds to your own. But you have to be willing to accept that your big three move steal, or expertly planned topple, can be thwarted by a mole moving in a way you didn’t expect or by an unexpected rock placed along your path.
That said, even when you do embrace the chaos, having a round where you do nothing isn’t particularly fun in any game and Mountains out of Molehills is no exception. When another player causes you to miss out due to good play, sure you can laugh about it. It’s when you are stuck with nothing to do because of the cards that came up during the draft that it becomes a problem. While there is an experience aspect to this, in learning to make sure you end each round in a position with multiple moves alliable for the next round, sometimes no matter how well you plan you can get stuck due to the randomness of the card deck.
Over our plays of Mountains out of Molehills we’ve had multiple rounds where no straights come up, or where get a set of cards to draft from with no turns. We even had a round that only had one actual movement card, where the rest were moles and rocks, when playing two players.
This problem is much worse at the lower player counts since you deal out five cards per player. The more cards your draw the better chance you will get a good mix of options. While we saw this problem most often in two player games, it also came up in three player games. Thankfully at the full player count of four it seems like you draw enough cards that no one should end up completely stuck.
I don’t usually recommend house rules, but in this case, I am very tempted to add in something to alleviate this problem, especially when playing with less than the maximum number of players. Ideas we’ve had include making sure there is at least one turn or u-turn and one straight per player in the card reveal or allowing players to use any card as a turn but don’t move card or a move forward one card, as long as they don’t already have another way to turn or move in their hand.
When you don’t have any movement card availability problems, this game really does shine. Mountains out of Molehills is a great programmed movement area majority game that really does have fantastic table presence.
I love the acrylic standees included in this game. They work really well for indicating the direction you are facing and they also look great. The material they used for the dirt mounds seems perfect for their purpose. They aren’t at all fragile, they stack really well and don’t stick together too well. Maybe I would have liked the base of them to be a bit bigger so they are more stable but that’s a minor issue.
I found that Mountains out of Molehills did scratch that programmed movement itch for me. That said, I do I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more if it was more strategic and less random.
On the other hand, my kids love it exactly how it is. One of my daughters is all about planning ahead and long term goals. She’s excellent at making sure she stays first player and has developed a double back strategy that serves her pretty well until her mean father comes in and steals all of her stacks in the last round. My other daughter loves all the chaos. If there’s a rock card she’s going to draft it and end up putting it in the most annoying place possible. She will purposely move to block another mole even, if it’s not what seems like the best move at the time, and she loves toppling those hills.
Our friends Tori and Kat both thought this was a really cool game and are looking forward to playing again, Deanna on the other hand, who’s the heavy gamer in our family, will play when asked but the randomness just frustrates her. She was particularly frustrated when there was nothing she could do on a turn and that wasn’t due to anything she did but rather the luck of the draw.
Overall Mountains out of Molehills is an awesome looking, family weight, programmed movement, area majority board game with fantastic components and clear rules. It features a fascinating balance between a strategic abstract strategy game and a chaotic silly kids’ game. Which I think makes it surprisingly appealing to a wide range of gamers.
Mountains out of Molehills is a game my kids will happily sit down together and play and a game I can just as easily break out with my experienced game group. While it may not be for everyone, especially people who are really into strategic and tactical play, I think this one is going to appeal to many game groups.
I think this game especially stands out as a great game for a local game store or game cafe or for anyone who runs public play events. This is the kind of game that gathers a crowd with people asking, “Oh what’s that?”
This is the kind of game that gets people’s attention and features simple enough rules that non-gamers can quickly pick it up. It seems perfect for introducing someone to the hobby.
That’s it for my review of Mountains out of Molehills, a game with great table presence that is much more than just a pretty to look at gimmick.
What’s a game in your collection that you think has a great table presence? Let us know about it in the comments below!