This Weird Handheld Climbing Game is Actually Pretty Sick

This article originally appeared on Climbing

From climbing video games to climbing board games, for years rock climbers have attempted to replicate the joy of climbing in other mediums. It's a tricky endeavor. The intense physicality of climbing can't really be mimicked without... Well, climbing. The "good" climbing games that do exist are often just re-skins of existing concepts; few efforts have turned out anything with original, inherent quality.

FingerBouldering, a new hands-on puzzle activity invented by New York-based boulderer Jacob Karlin, is probably the best climbing "game" yet. That's because it takes the best of both worlds; a bit of puzzling and a bit of physical effort.

The game involves navigating a series of holds on a volume--usually a sphere, half-sphere, or cone--with one hand. To start a problem, you grab the volume by a marked "starter hold." Then, using your finger, you must navigate around the volume to the finish hold. You can't dyno (jump between holds), apply pressure to the surface of the volume, use your other hand, or drop the volume. You must only use the external holds to go from start hold to finish hold.

The best analogy I can think of is that FingerBouldering is to rock climbing what Tech Deck is to skateboarding. When you're FingerBouldering, your hand almost mimics how your full body moves when climbing a route. You maintain tension between thumb and fingers to maintain contact with the "boulder" and not drop it. As Karlin told Climbing, "The thumb is like your hands, and your fingers are like your feet."

Being a good FingerBoulderer isn't so much about how strong your fingers are, but how well you can contort your hand and fingers into different positions, apply pressure at odd angles, and decipher the best sequence of positions to snag the finish hold.

<span class="article__caption">The concentration….</span> (Photo: Owen Clarke)
The concentration…. (Photo: Owen Clarke)
<span class="article__caption">And the frustration!! </span> (Photo: Owen Clarke)
And the frustration!! (Photo: Owen Clarke)

All told, FingerBouldering replicates the puzzle-like mechanic of solving boulder problems extremely well, while still giving you something to actually touch and hold and manipulate in your hand, unlike a board or video game. It also has good replay value. I managed to solve the V2 (Moon Unit) and V3 (Space Donut) problems that I received fairly quickly, but a week later, I still don't get tired of trying them again and again, with different variations and handicaps (putting certain holds off-limits, only using three fingers and a thumb, swapping hands, and so on). Karlin also says he hopes in the future to foster a MoonBoard-esque community, allowing climbers to "set" their own problems and share them with other climbers.

"[FingerBouldering] is intuitive," Karlin said. "That's the best thing about it. It's just like climbing because there's really only one rule. Get from Point A to Point B. Every time you do [a problem], you can make it a different experience."

(Photo: Jacob Karlin)
(Photo: Jacob Karlin)

FingerBouldering--at least in its current form--isn't going to test or train your grip strength in the vein of Tension blocks, hangboards, or Gripmasters. In Karlin's words, "It's supposed to be a fun game, not a workout."

It does require grip and dexterity, and working the problems over and over feels like a bit of a workout, but that's more because you're stretching your hand into unique positions than actually challenging your muscles and tendons. The volumes are simply too light. The prototype models Climbing received to test were made from a lightweight, fragile EVA foam, but Karlin plans to upgrade to a heavier, more durable material for the FingerBouldering problems he'll ship to the public later this year.

The concept does have therapeutic potential (Karlin came up with the idea while working on a therapeutic device for people with arthritis), and heavier materials would make the activity more of a workout, but it's still safe to say that FingerBouldering doesn't have much training value for climbers. This is sort of a good thing though, because anyone can hop on these boulders and have fun, but they remain difficult and nuanced enough to take a while to solve. Climbing correlates enough that a strong, experienced climber will likely be a better FingerBoulderer than a non-climber, but it's certainly accessible to anyone.

I can see FingerBouldering quickly becoming a go-to knickknack to take camping, to the climbing gym, or to fool around with at the crag.

The colorful boulders are also eye-catching and make for great conversation starters and coffee table decor. My non-climber roommate walked in the other day, immediately picked up Space Donut, muttered, "What the hell is this **** thing?" and didn't stop fiddling with it for the next 45 minutes. Later that day, he asked me if he could go with me to the climbing gym next time. Almost everyone who comes into our apartment asks about these little boulders and gives them a go.

But my favorite thing about FingerBouldering is how unique the concept is. It's hard to explain, but when you pick up these mini boulders and start playing around on them, you truly have the feeling of doing something new. It's not derivative of any other game or activity out there, except maybe actual bouldering.

Sometimes it seems like everything in climbing has to make you stronger, lighter, faster, blah blah blah. It can be easy to forget that climbing isn't just about sending. It's about having fun. And FingerBouldering is fun. Cheers to that.


Check out designs and pre-order your own FingerBoulders from the FingerBouldering Kickstarter, which is slated to ship in December 2023. Unlike the prototypes, which have one problem per volume, these official volumes will have three problems on each. You can purchase one for $50, two for $90, and three for $130. Stay tuned on the FingerBouldering website to catch limited-edition releases of new problems.

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