I love to watch a tried and true “common sense” design paradigm be shown false. If the broader board game community said the sky was blue, I would glom on to the carefully detailed report by the guy who took the trouble to actually go outside and confirm the sky is purple as it always has been.
Stephen Glenn’s Rattlebones is a completely neglected board game from 2014 that deserves love heaped on its plate. It sure wasn’t on my radar back then, and I still don’t own a copy now. But watching the latest Game Night reveals a fascinating artifact. Conventional wisdom says it shouldn’t be any good. But the more I think of it, the more every aspect of this game is amazing and alluring for that fact and more.
Roll and Move
For starters, Rattlebones is a roll and move game. Just like The Game of Life. You might think the game does something clever with the rolling, like allowing you to pick from different dice or use the same number in different ways like with Castles of Burgundy. But no you roll a die and move your pawn by exact count around a TRACK. Then you hold your head in your hands and think “Oh, no. What have I gotten myself into!”
Building your Dice
Of course there is an innovation here, in the dice themselves. You can take the faces off and add new faces you earn from landing on spaces around the track. Each player has 3 dice, and gets to select one of those die to roll. Gold pieces (which are earned by rolling the relevant die face) can be cashed in to roll more than one die, but the default is always that one lonely roll. Each die is like its own tool for the turn, you decide which one has the best chance to help you.
Being able to roll multiple dice in turn sets up devastating combos of powers. For instance: the “2X” face doubles whatever points are awarded on the other die, but it requires you to be rolling another die. If you roll a “2X” by itself, you get zero.
Soup of the Day: Determination and Luck
Rattlebones is a dense broth containing 2 contradictory ingredients. You can steer the game in a certain direction, but you never know exactly how the dice are going to turn out. And the random movement of the game means you always need to be ready to change your plan.
Slowly developing your position is all well and good…and much of this game seems to be that. But what I hunger for is the occasion JACKPOT. When the dice show exactly what you want and huge piles of points come rolling out the machine. And you can take pride in this payout because you had to both build the framework, and take the ultimate risk to get there.
You can’t really “gun” for certain abilities. Both the randomness of the die roll and the fact that the spots on the board are randomly assigned before every game mean you will never be able to develop and optimal pattern to success. Each game will have its own unique pluses and minuses to weigh as you move around the board.
Racing to the Finish
I’ve railed against set numbers of turns in games. And I respect the dedication of a designer who finds a way to encourage movement towards the end game condition just through players acting normally during their turns.
Every time you roll a 1 on any die, a “Rattlebones” character runs backwards down the scoring track. Running into Rattlebones causes the game to end, and paradoxically the person who is caught is not ritually murdered but actually wins the game. Rattlebones is friendly!
As the powers of the dice increase, players are hurtled faster towards Mr. Rattlebones as well. Earning the aforementioned jackpot of points (from the train, stocks, stars, ex.) doesn’t just make you lap the score track, it actually ends the game quicker. If you get too far ahead of everybody else, at least they can take comfort in the fact the game will soon be over.
Dr. Caligari: The Dice Building Game
I just finished a post railing on Batman for turning up the creepy clown vibe to 11.
In contrast, absolutely nothing about the twisted reality of Rattlebones seems cheap, lazy or phoned in. The board is obviously some kind of crazy carnival attraction. The player pieces are the monkeys from Wizard Of Oz wearing party hats. Rattlebones himself reminds me most of the Buick Driver only briefly seen in Stephen King’s From a Buick 8. Try to imagine another intellectual property that has leveraged any of these concepts together in this way and you would be hard pressed.
The one thing you WON’T find on the Rattlebones board, no matter how hard you look, is a scary clown. And I am so very thankful.
When Randy Buehler started tweeting that he was playing Rattlebones at the World Boardgaming Championships, it sort of sealed the deal. As a game that’s been out for more than a year the hype train should be at an all-time low. Yet to see people continue to give it press has put the game firmly in the crosshairs of my basement-mounted periscope.
Additional Reading from The Examiner