Off the Shelf #5: Rattlebones

It’s the fifth post in my series of games that I randomly pull off the shelf and re-evaluate. This time, I’ll be looking at

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Rattlebones is a 2-4 player game from designer Stephen Glenn that was published in 2014 by Rio Grande Games. It’s a dice-building game, and if you follow my blog, you know I don’t use that term lightly. You’re actually building dice – taking the face of a die off and replacing it with something else. Apart from a few Lego board games, this was the first to use this system. Probably the best known other game to use it was Dice Forge from Libellud, but Rio Grande has also used it in the 2019 expansion to Roll for the Galaxy called Rivalry, as well as the 2022 game Dice Realms from Thomas Lehmann. It’s not a super popular mechanism for a game yet, probably due the difficulty of producing the pieces.

I got this game in 2014, and have played it twelve times since then (according to my logged plays). This is one of my parents’ favorite games to play when they visit, and we’ve played it a couple of times with my seven-year-old daughter as well. The game is pretty intuitive, and features the familiar, but often taboo in hobby circles, roll-and-move mechanism.

The general theme of this game is that you’re wandering around a carnival, looking for the illusive Rattlebones. The first one to find him wins. It’s played on a board with fourteen large spaces. Seven of these have a preprinted action, but the rest are blank and are filled with random cards that give you some variety in actions. Each player gets three monkey figures, which are placed at Start, and a mouse, which is placed on the score track. Rattlebones himself goes at the end of the score track.

At the start of your turn, you’ll roll ONE of your three dice. You have a white one, a gray one, and a black one. At the start of the game, they’re all the same – they’re numbered 2-6, with a silhouette of Rattlebones where the one should be. Once you’ve rolled the die, you’ll move one of your monkeys forward the number of spaces rolled. When you land on an action space, you can replace one of the faces on the die you rolled with a face that matches that action. You can never replace Rattlebones, but you can also choose to pass. Play then passes to your left.

On your next turn, you’ll have more of a choice. You can roll any one of the dice, including the die with the new action face. If you roll a number, you’ll be able to move either the monkey you moved at first, or another monkey from start. You can then replace a face (including one previously replaced) with the new action.

If you roll an action, you get to do that action. You only do that action when rolled, not when you replace a face. There are a bunch of possible actions:

  • Gold: Gain a gold. On your turn, you can spend 1-2 gold to roll 1-2 extra dice.
  • Roll Again: Self-explanatory.
  • Star: Gain a star. If one of your monkey lands on start, you’ll be able to turn in stars for points.
  • Train: Score points equal to the number currently next to the train, then move the train one space clockwise. These points increase from 0-5, then back to 0 as you travel around the track.
  • 9 Pip: Move a monkey 1-9 spaces, your choice.
  • +1: You score a point. Any time you land on this action space, you can add a new +1 point face, or you can increase the point total of one already on the space.
  • Stock: Gain a stock token. When all five have been taken, the person with the most scores ten points, and the person with second most scores five points. Stocks are then returned.
  • Thief: Steal a gold, star, or stock from someone else.
  • Arrow: Gain the benefit of the face the arrow is pointing to.
  • 1234: Gain points equal to your place on the score track – one for first, two for second, and so on.
  • x2: Double the gold, stars, or points you would earn on the other die. This only does anything if you’re rolling two or three dice.
  • Gamble: Roll the gamble die. You could get 2-5 points, or have to move Rattlebones.

So, what happens if you roll Rattlebones? He moves one space back on the score track (towards zero). When Rattlebones meets a mouse on the score track, the game is over and that player wins.

The game in play

Let’s start the discussion here talking about the theme. Rattlebones is set at some kind of weird carnival, The official description has Rattlebones genially welcoming you to his Festival of Dice, but the whole tone of the game seems kind of creepy. Even Rattlebones seems like a sinister figure, making his way slowly towards you the whole time. In the end, he’s more like a Willy Wonka, but even his figure is this dark, shadowy silhouette.

The board itself is very nicely laid out – the spaces are nice and large, with plenty of room for multiple figures. The cards and spaces are nicely illustrated with different carnival attractions – games, exhibits, shows, that sort of thing. But there’s still this unmistakeable creepiness to it all. The game does absolutely nothing to encourage this, maybe it’s just in my mind. If doesn’t help that your piece are monkeys and mice. Which, by the way, if you don’t know what they are, it’s going to take you a bit to figure it out.

Let me be clear – I don’t mind the theme. I think it’s kind of cool. I think carnivals are good settings for board games. Just trying to be thorough in my examination of the game.

Moving on now to the mechanics, and there are two big mechanisms to discuss here – the dice building, and the roll-and-move. Roll-and-move is a mechanism that has mostly fallen out of favor in modern board games, and that’s likely because of the abuse it suffered at the hands of games like Monopoly and its knock-offs. “You roll dice and move” is far less exciting to people than “you get three movement points, and can choose your direction, and even interrupt that move to do other stuff”.

Personally, I’ve never felt roll-and-move is an irredeemable mechanism, it just has to be approached in the right way. Rattlebones approaches it in the right way. The big twist here is that you have three monkeys to move, and can choose which to move. They have to move clockwise, and have to move by exact count, but once you’ve got a monkey off start, you have more choices you can make. It’s a pretty simple change, but one that makes all the difference in making the game work.

The biggest problem here with the roll-and-move mechanism is Rattlebones. Each die has one Rattlebones face, and it’s the only face you’re not allowed to swap out. If you roll Rattlebones, he moves, and your turn ends. So you have a 1 in 6 chance of not being able to do anything on your turn. And that can stink if you’re in last place, watching everyone else race towards the end while you can’t move anywhere. It would be nice if there was something else you could do when Rattlebones moves, but alas. Still, turns are pretty quick (unless someone has rolled more than one die), so it will be your turn again soon enough.

On to the dice building, and I’ve ranted before on that blog about using “-building” as a suffix to indicate the similarity to deck building. Quarriors was the first to use the term “dice building” when you were drafting dice and putting them into a bag to draw. You aren’t building dice, you’re building a pool of dice. The most egregious offender of the suffix, however, is “bag building.” Games like Orléans, Quacks of Quedlinburg, Altiplano – you’re taking tokens and putting them in a bag, not building bags. In Dominion, you’re building a deck of cards, so “deck building” makes sense. “Bag building” doesn’t make sense. Just call them “bag games”. It’s more accurate and doesn’t send me into a rage.

I digress. Back to dice building in this game, which is accurate because you are building your dice. You remove faces and replace them with others. The game comes with a little pink tool to pop the faces off, and you just have to make sure you’re not shooting them around the room where you’ll never find them again. Each number you replace means that you have a lower chance to replace a face on that die, so you have to balance what you have. And you can roll any of your three dice on a turn, so you can customize your experience how you like. You do have a limited choice in what faces to use (only what your monkey can land on), but you can also replace faces.

There are some faces that are better than others. The “x2” face is almost worthless, because you can only use it if you’re using two dice. The “thief” face is one that I don’t ever use, because it adds an element of meanness to a game that doesn’t otherwise have any. The “roll again” face is kind of dumb, because it doesn’t give you any further benefit. I mean, if it gave you a point and then you rolled again, that would be something. But no, it’s just roll again. I’d rather have something else there. The “1234” face is a good catch-up mechanism, I guess, but it’s got a low yield if you’re in first, and you can only ever get up to four points if you’re last place in a four-player game. I very rarely take this.

Personally, I think the best faces to get are the “train” and the “gamble”. ” “Train” moves you around a track, with increasing then decreasing point values, plus you can make train sounds as you do it. Getting “gamble” gets you 2-5 points, but you do have a 1 in 3 chance of rolling Rattlebones.

I find the other faces to be fairly situational. The “9 Pip” face is good so you can basically choose wherever you want to go, but if I use this one, I eventually replace it with something else as movement becomes less important. The “+1” gets you points when you roll it, and you can increase the value of the points, but it’s a lot of work. “Stocks” and “Stars” require some collection, but get big dividends. “Gold” gets you money, which can be spent to roll more dice. Someone always seems to want to horde gold. There is no point, it’s only good for allowing you to roll extra dice. The “arrow” face can double your chances of getting an action you really want, so it’s pretty deceptively a great face.

There are a total of 12 faces in the game, which is cool. But it’s not as much variety as you might think. There are fourteen spaces on the board (including the start space), and seven are preprinted (including the start space). So while you can vary what the other cards are, and can double up on some faces that are available, these twelve are all you’ll ever get. There are no expansions to Rattlebones, and I think the game really could have used some. At this point, nine years after publication, it’s a pretty good bet that we’ll never see any. And it’s too bad. Adding things for Rattlebones to do and some more faces would have livened this up a lot.

But, in the end, I do really like this game. It’s a very good light and casual game, and the dice building gimmick is something people have likely not done before. It can be a lot of fun, and if you can check it out, I recommend it.

In terms of ranking, I’m pretty comfortable slotting Rattlebones between Morels and Lost Cities on my list. That means it’s currently #3 out of 5 so far. If you want to see the full ranking of games covered on Off the Shelf, check the brand-new tab at the top of the page.

That’s it for this one. Thanks for reading!

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5 comments

  1. If I may wade into the semantics debate, a “deck” is a collective term for a large number of cards and cannot refer to individual cards. In that sense, “bag” is the equivalent term for dice, chits, and other items that cannot be stacked in a deck. So “bag building” is actually a better equivalent to “deck building” than “dice building” is. You are not building dice, you are building a bag of dice.

    • I see your point, but bag building still sounds like I’m going to be stitching together some fabric to make my own bag. If anything, I’d rather call it “pool building” because you’re building a pool of dice to draw from.

      • Bag is just a metonym for its contents, like when we say “drink this cup” during the eucharist, we mean the contents of the cup. When we talk about the British Crown, we mean the people who wear the crown and not the crown itself. Pool building is non-metonymic term you could certainly use, but it might be less confusing to players to use a term that has a direct relationship to what they actually see.

        At any rate, I’m not trying to say one label is right and one is wrong, but just hoping to diffuse the annoyance-verging-on-rage (which I understand) at bad or incorrect use of language by offering another perspective.

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