Buzzworthiness: Rattlebones

After all the reviews I did in 2014, it feels odd that this is my first one of 2015.  Nevertheless, here’s my review of

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Rattlebones is a 2014 game designed by Stephen Glenn and published by Rio Grande Games.  The game has apparently been in development since 2009.  It’s a game for 2-4 players that takes around 45 minutes to play.  The game is a dice-building game – not a deck-building game with dice, but a game where you actually construct your dice during the game.

At the start of the game, you set up the board and deal out cards to all the empty spaces.  There are 14 total spaces, with 7 preprinted on the board.  Each player gets three monkeys that begin on the start space, a mouse that tracks score, and three dice – one gray, one black, one white.  The game also comes with a Rattlebones figure, and he begins on the score track on space 55-60-65, depending on how many players you have (2-3-4).

On your turn, you may roll one die.  You can spend 1-2 gold to roll 1-2 extra dice.  Once rolled, you’ll then do one of three things depending on the result (dice can be resolved in any order).

If you roll RATTLEBONES: You move Rattlebones one space on the score track towards the mice.

If you roll 2-6: You move one of your monkeys the exact number of spaces in a clockwise direction.  You may then take the action of the space where you land.  In all but one case, this action involves replacing one of the sides on die you used to move.  The only exception is start, and I’ll explain that in a moment.

If you roll an action side: You then take the corresponding action.

  • Gold: Take a gold piece.
  • Star: Take a star.  You can sell these at the start space for points.
  • Stock: Take a stock tile.  If all five have been taken, the person with the most gets 10 points, and the person with the second most gets 5.  If only one person has stock, they get 15 points.  The stocks are then returned.
  • 1234: You get points based on your position on the score track.
  • Nine pips: You can a monkey move 1-9 spaces (your choice) and take whatever action is there.
  • 1-5: You score the number of points shown.  When you land on the +1 space during movement, you have the option of adding a one point side to your die, or increasing a number that is already there by one.  You can’t go higher than five.
  • Gamble: Roll the gamble die.  This could get you 2-5 points, or it could move Rattlebones.
  • Train: Score points based on the train’s current position (0-5), then move the train one space.
  • Reroll: Pick up the die with the reroll symbol and one other die you haven’t rolled yet and roll both.  If you’ve rolled all of your dice, this has no effect.
  • x2: Get double the points, gold, or stars indicated on another die.  Only works if you have rolled two dice.
  • Arrow: When you place it, point it at a particular side of the die.  When you roll the arrow, you get to do the action it points to.
  • Thief: Steal a gold, star, or stock from each other player.

When someone catches up to Rattlebones on the score track, the game ends and they win.

image by BGG user Stephen Glenn
image by BGG user Stephen Glenn

COMPONENTS: This is a game that lives and dies on the quality of its components, specifically on the quality of the dice.  And I have to say, these dice are fantastic.  They are large plastic cubes with indentations on each side.  Each side is a little plastic disc that can be removed by use of a tiny pink plastic crowbar.  Even Rattlebones is removable, even though it never gets removed.  I’m guessing this is a balance issue – if it was permanently in place, it would probably affect how the dice roll.

The discs used as the sides are well labeled, and it’s easy to tell what each one is.  The symbols used for the game are fairly descriptive, and it’s easy to tell what they do.  They correspond to the symbols on the cards, which are large and made out of a thick card stock.  They’re a little too thin to be tiles, though you do have to punch them out. The board has seven symbols printed on them, and the cards fit into empty spaces between them.

The wooden pieces used in the game are pretty chunky.  The monkeys are large, and don’t crowd the board as much as they seem that they would.  The mice are much smaller, and do pretty well for marking the score (a track around the board).  Rattlebones is a nice tall meeple.  There’s no indication on the board as to where he’s supposed to start for 2-3-4 players (65-60-55).

Overall, I think the components in the game are great.  The insert doesn’t do much to store anything, and you need to get baggies or some other sort of container to store your bits, particularly all the different sides.

THEME: There’s some nice creepy art in the game, but the problem is that the game never gives you any indication of what the game is actually about.  This is all the flavor you get:

“Welcome, girls and boys. My name is Rattlebones, and you have been cordially invited to spend the day at my Fabulous Festival of Dice! Play games! Win prizes! Ride the train! I’ll be wandering about the park, and if you’re the first one to find me, you win! Won’t that be delightful?”

So why do we have monkeys and mice?  Who is Rattlebones?  Where are we?  WHAT IS GOING ON?!?  The game does nothing to clue you in on what’s going on, so you’re left to come to your own conclusions.  Here’s what I think – Rattlebones is the proprietor of some sort of Pleasure Island (a la Pinocchio).  He has turned all the children into mice, and has made a deal with them that if they are the first to find him, they can be turned back into children and can go home.  Everyone else has to be mice forever.  So the children get some help from the other cursed employees, who happen to be monkeys.  The monkeys have grown to resent Rattlebones over the years, and are all too eager to cause some mischief.

That’s how I like to look at it, anyway.  It feels like Rio Grande missed a real opportunity with the theme.  The art is very evocative, and the implied theme is pretty unique.  However, with the lack of effort, it just seems pasted on.

MECHANICS: The main mechanism in this game is dice building.  When Quarriors came out in 2011, it coined the term “dice building” to describe how it was a deck-building game with dice instead of cards.  And now, with Rattlebones, I don’t think Quarriors should use the phrase anymore.  This is a literal dice building game because you are constructing dice as you play.  Sides are assigned as you land on different spaces, and you can choose where they go.  The dice building ends up being very reminiscent of a deck building game as you try to construct you dice in such a way that it gives you maximum points.  You still have to roll those points, but you can replace sides as they become less useful for you – the 1234 is really only helpful if you’re not in first place, and the x2 is only going to work if you’re rolling multiple dice at a time.

The sides themselves are pretty varied and give you lots of different opportunities for points.  The train has an interesting building mechanism as it gives you points equal to its current space.  It starts on zero, so the first person to roll it gets nothing.  But then it gives you 1, 2, 3, 4, and even 5 points before heading back down the scale to 0.  The stock adds a little set collection to the game as you hope to get the most.  Stars also can be collected and traded for an increasing number of points.  Gamble is not really a gamble – you have a 2 in 3 chance of scoring points, and a 1 in 3 chance of moving Rattlebones.  You don’t lose anything for it.  Gold can be helpful if you want to be guaranteed to roll extra dice, and rerolls give you the possibility of rolling more.  1-9 gives you flexibility in movement.  The thief adds some direct interaction as you rob others of what they’ve worked so hard to collect.  Everything is different, and gives you different opportunities.  Some may be better than others, but they all have their benefits.

But you still have to roll the sides to get their benefits.  And that brings me to the fact that this is a roll-and-move game.  This mechanism is almost universally shunned by most gamers, so it’s odd to see a hobby game using it.  But I think the game uses it very well.  Having three monkeys gives you some choice – you roll a three, and you could potentially have three different spaces to choose from.  They still may not be ideal, but you don’t HAVE to take a new side.  So this is the type of roll-and-move game I will happily support.

The last thing I want to mention is the way scoring works.  Or, more specifically, how the endgame works.  The game turns into a bit of a race as you’re trying to reach Rattlebones first.  But at the same time, Rattlebones is moving towards you.  So you don’t know exactly when the game will be over, but as he gets closer, you can get a pretty good idea of how much time you have.

Rattlebones is not a complicated game mechanically.  But what it has works very well.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This game is highly luck-based, but there are still strategic opportunities throughout.  This is largely due to the three monkeys you have to move.  The first time you move a monkey, you have no choice, but once that monkey is off the start space, you begin to have multiple choices about where you can move.  This leads to decisions about how you want to build your dice.  Do you want to concentrate on certain symbols, or do you want to have a wide variety of actions?  Which side should you point that arrow to?  Do you really NEED another reroll on the same die?  So while the dice rolling really does make the game highly dependent on luck, there still is some strategy, albeit very light.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is a total gateway game.  It’s very easy to learn and play, and the luck involved keeps everyone competitive (unless you keep rolling Rattlebones every other turn, which happened to my wife in one game).  I was able to teach this to my parents over Christmas, and my dad (who has a hard time learning my games) almost won in both games we played.  It’s also an entry point to other engine building games, particularly deck-builders.

At the same time, I think the theme is going to hinder its acceptance into the market.  I think the creepy box art will turn off the market that really should be playing this game, and the lack of story will turn off more seasoned gamers.  I think everyone can enjoy this game, I just hope it can get enough good buzz that people give it a shot.

REPLAYABILITY: Your dice will be different every time you play, and the board will be different every time, so that means the game has very high replayability.  I hope some expansions are forthcoming with new sides because that will increase the replayability immensely.  As it is, though, there’s plenty in the box.

SCALABILITY: You can play this game with 2-4 people.  I’ve played with 3 and 4, and it’s worked very well with both.  Theres not much downtime in the game, depute being turn-based.  The reason is that when you take your turn and get a side for your die, you can just pop it on while others are taking their turn.  However, turns go so quickly that you’re often finishing up just as your turn comes back around again.

INTERACTION: There’s not a whole lot of interaction in the game.  Monkey position doesn’t affect anything – spaces aren’t blocked if a monkey is there.  Same goes for the mice.  The only direct interaction of the game is the thief side where you get to rob your opponents.  There is some indirect interaction, however – the train scores more or less points depending on its position, so two people with the train can jump in and grab some points that the other has been working on.  Stocks, too, have some indirect interaction – if only one player is collecting stocks, they’re going to get 15 points, but another player can also collect stocks and decrease that reward.

image by BGG user Joe Casadonte
image by BGG user Joe Casadonte

FOOTPRINT: This game takes up some table space, though it’s not more than just the board and the various tokens.  You’ll want some space to roll your dice, as well as a pile for discarded sides.  A small table should be able to accommodate everything, but bigger is better.  You’ll also need some storage solutions for all the little bits – this image from BGG shows that someone has put all their bits in pill caddies, and I totally need to do that.

LEGACY: This is a very unique game that still feels very familiar.  I can most liken it to a deck-builder like Dominion, but this game has its own personality and adds something new to the genre.  I don’t think it can really be compared to Quarriors because, though both are dice builders, this one is a literal dice builder and takes away the luck of the draw that Quarriors has.  This is my third Stephen Glenn game, and I’ve loved them all – he’ll have to be in my next installment of Designers You Should Know.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  This is a great game.  It’s light enough for the daily enjoy, and unique enough to give you a completely new gaming experience.  I wish the theme was better, but the game is so good that I can overlook it.  So, on my new YEAH-MEH-BLEAH Scale, I have to give this game a solid

Yeah

Thanks for reading!

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