Buzzworthiness: Rattus

The 14th century was the time of one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.  Over the course of about six years, half of the population of Europe died.  So, let’s make a game about it!

image by BGG user Nekrataal
image by BGG user Nekrataal

Rattus was originally published in 2010 by White Goblin Games (Z-Man in the US).  The game was designed by Henrik and Åse Berg, plays with 2-4 people (more with expansions), and takes around 45 minutes to play.  During the game, you are trying to build your population and avoid the ravages of the plague, but you just can’t save everyone.  Only the person with the most population on the board when the game ends is the winner.

In the box, you get a map of Europe divided into 12 regions.  You also get 80 cubes (20 in each player color), 6 class cards, 49 rat tokens, and one plague marker.  To set up, you randomly place the starting rats in different regions of the board, then randomly place the plague piece in one of those regions.  In turn order, each player will get an opportunity to place two cubes in a single region; then, in reverse order, each player will place two more cubes in a region.

On your turn, you will place cubes and may possibly take a class card and/or use special abilities.  These can be done in any order.  To place cubes, put as many cubes as there are rat tokens in a single region (there can never be more than three rats in a region).  To take a class card, you simply take any class card (even if someone else currently has it) and place it in front of you.  It will stay in front of you until someone takes it.  You can have multiple classes, and you do not have to take one during a turn.  Each one has a special power:

  • King – You may move one cube from a region containing no rats to the palace area.  This cube is now safe, and cannot be removed from the board.
  • Knight – You can move the plague piece up to two regions instead of one.  If you wish, it also counts as two people for counting purposes.
  • Merchant – You can move up to three cubes from one region to a neighboring one.
  • Monk – You can move one rat token from one region to a neighboring one.
  • Peasant – You may add one additional cube to a region when adding.
  • Witch – Look at two face down rat tokens on the board, then switch them if you wish.

These powers can be used once per turn.  Once you’ve finished moving cubes and claiming class cards, it’s time for the plague to spread.  Move the plate piece into a neighboring region.  If that region has no rat tokens, nothing further happens.  If it has one, place a new rat token in a neighboring region.  If it has two or three, place two rat tokens in neighboring regions, either together or split up.  You then reveal any rat tokens in the affected region, and resolve them.  Rat tokens give a number (2+, 4+, etc.) that tell you how many cubes must be present for the plague to affect the region.  There are then a number of symbols, and any eligible player then must discard a cube from that region for each symbol.  Symbols either affect one of the six classes, or whoever has the majority, or all.

The game ends when either one player has placed all 20 cubes on the board or when all the rat tokens have been used up.  At this time, all regions suffer one more round of plague, and the game is over.  Whomever has the most cubes remaining on the board wins.

image by BGG user EndersGame
image by BGG user EndersGame

COMPONENTS: I would say the components in Rattus are largely unremarkable. I don’t mean they’re bad – they’re quite functional for what they are.  But they don’t really stand out.  Your population is represented by cubes, which you place out on a fairly bland map of Europe.  The plague piece itself is a black pawn with a little hat.  The character cards (which is kind of a misnomer since they are really oversized cardboard tiles) are well illustrated with the person, and also have a symbolic description of what the character does.  The symbols on the characters could be clearer – I usually have to look at the rules to double check that I’m using them correctly.

Everything is a really good size in this game.  The board isn’t huge, but it’s just big enough that nothing feels cluttered (that is, until you get to higher player counts).  The character cards are big enough that you won’t have trouble telling what they are from across the table.  And the rat tokens manage to fit all pertinent information in a small amount of space – there’s never trouble telling what the plague does to a region.

Overall, these components are fine.  Not necessarily anything to write home about, but definitely a case where the publisher emphasized function over form, and it all works well.

THEME: The Black Plague is one of the darkest periods of time in human history.  A deadly disease obliterated half the population of an entire continent, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.  This was the 14th century, they didn’t know NEARLY as much about medicine as we do now.  And so it’s a little odd that, seven centuries later, we’re simulating it in a light-hearted family game.  I wonder how the victims of the plague would feel about that.

That said, it’s not like you’re having to actually kill anyone, or do anything to clear away the bodies (I’m not dead yet!).  Using cubes really abstracts the theme out.  You also have to suspend some disbelief as it’s not really realistic that you’d be able to direct how the plague moves.  However, the random way cubes leave the board is a reasonable representation of how the plague just hit everyone.  It might even be a good springboard for some discussion about that topic.

MECHANICS: Rattus offers some interesting twists on some familiar mechanisms.  Area control games are very popular, and while Rattus IS technically an area control game, the entire board is the area you’re trying to control.  People familiar with the mechanism may look at the map and think that they need to have majorities in areas.  To an extent, this is true…you definitely want as many cubes as possible on the board at once.  However, the presence of rat tokens makes that a risky maneuver – having a majority gives you an extra chance that you will lose a cube.  The different regions basically serve as a way to get your cubes on the board, but you want to gather them as safely as possible.

The process of placing your cubes is fairly easy to grasp – one per rat token.  This provides a strange impetus to go into plague-afflicted regions.  If there are three rat tokens in a zone, you can place three cubes there (four with the peasant).  However, once the plague is sent to that region (as it inevitably will be), you’ve got three rat tokens to sweat through.

This game also falls into the role selection category.  Players are choosing different roles to give them advantages.  Most role selection games have players choosing roles that will be theirs for the remainder of a round, meaning that those roles are unavailable to other players.  In Rattus, roles are always available, even when in front of someone else.  The powers are all useful at different times – they’re all pretty well balanced.  The rat tokens help provide a check on the powers since the more you have, the more likely you are to lose cubes.

The arc of the game is basically a push-and-pull, trying to manipulate the plague into taking out your opponents while getting as many of your people as possible to safety.  The endgame can be pretty climactic as you reveal all rat tokens left on the board to see who is going to get knocked out of contention.

Overall, the game is very simple to learn, and doesn’t have a ton of things to keep track of from turn to turn.  It works very well.

STRATEGY LEVEL: There is a lot of luck in this game.  There’s no two ways about it – the rats provide a ton of chaos.  However, it’s all about playing the odds.  You want to limit your roles, and try to have the plague hit regions where your opponents have a lot of cubes, or conversely, where you have few.  The numbers on the rats go from 1+ to 6+, so a region with six or more cubes has a higher risk of getting ravaged by the plague (if symbols don’t match, you’re safe).  If you have one cube in an area, you have a much better shot at not getting hit, though it’s by no means a sure thing.

There is strategy in where you place your cubes, and strategy in where you move the plague piece.  But the best source of strategy in this game comes from the roles.  It’s critical to know when and how to use them.  The king is great for getting cubes to safety so they never disappear.  The witch is great for finding rats and trying to position them to your advantage.  The monk is good for getting rats out of a danger zone, and the merchant is great for getting cubes out of a danger zone.  The knight is good for attacking someone across the board, and the peasant gets cubes out much quicker.  Knowing when to use them, and how to use them together, is critical.

ACCESSIBILITY: Rattus is a very simple game to learn and understand.  The subtleties of the strategy may be beyond you at first, but you can at least be playing quickly.  I would say this is a pretty good gateway game, though maybe a bit on the more complex side.  Maybe a next step.

REPLAYABILITY: Because of the different ways you can use the roles, as well as the distribution of rats, each game will play out differently.  However, those differences aren’t always noticeable, and games can feel the same.  The interaction between players helps to increase the replayability, and the game is fast enough that I don’t think people will mind playing it again and again.  Plus, it has a fairly fast set up – you just have to randomly distribute 12 rat tokens.  The expansions add more boards, roles, and rats, which definitely increases the replay value.

SCALABILITY: This is a 2-4 player game, with more players possible in the expansions.  I don’t think it plays well with two – you aren’t bumping into each other as much, making it easier to avoid the plague.  It may be a little less chaotic, but I happen to like the chaos in this game, so I prefer it with more players.

FOOTPRINT: Rattus is a relatively small game.  The board is not huge, though it is just big enough to fit everything.  The roles are on big tiles, but they still don’t take too much space.  This is a game that could be played on a fairly small table.

LEGACY: I don’t know a lot to say about Rattus’ place in the pantheon of games.  It’s fun, and it takes a different look at role selection and area control.  I don’t know how revolutionary it is, but I like it.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  It’s a fun, quick game that can be used to start off a night, and provides some good strategy among the chaos.  If you don’t mind a lighthearted look at the Black Plague, I’d recommend you check it out.  Thanks for reading!

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