Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time (two years ago), a young, aspiring board gamer (me) decided to go on a journey to an unknown land (a gaming convention). This trip would be full of new, wondrous experiences (games), and odder, wondrouser smells (smells). As he wandered through the catacombs (halls) and caverns (rooms) of this land, he came upon a more experienced traveler (gamer) singing the praises of a new treasure (game) which he had acquired. He asked our new adventurer (me) if he would like to share in the bounty of this glorious find (play the game with him), and the echoes of the adventurer’s excitement reverberated throughout the land (I said yes).
As the adventurer began to enjoy this treasure and understand the true riches that had been discovered (learn the rules and play the game), he realized that this was unlike any other treasure (game) that he had encountered before. The mystical prisms (dice) which guided his every move were constantly changing and evolving as he spent more time with the treasure, and the trinkets resembled creatures not often found within a treasure (the meeples looked like mice and monkeys). He knew that this was no ordinary treasure, and that he would one day need to find this treasure, perhaps in another land of mystery and odors (a local game shop).
Okay, enough of that.
Put out by Rio Grande Games in 2014, Rattlebones is a game for which I have very fond memories. Indeed, it was the first “different” game I ever played at a convention, and I quickly fell in love with it. I spent the next few months seeking out my own copy, and I was able to snag it as a Christmas present two years ago. But am I just being sentimental? Is this game actually any good? Let’s find out.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls!
While the name is somewhat ambiguous, the theme of Rattlebones quickly comes across when you look at the box. Open it up to check out the components, and this theme hits even harder. The little meeples are mice and monkeys with party hats, along with a tall carnival barker. The board is decorated with tents, letter blocks, and lots and lots of color, all helping you feel like you’ve really stepped foot onto an awesome fairground. Everything is fun, playful, and just a little bit wacky. It almost feels like Entry of the Gladiators should be playing as you begin setup.
But once you get into the rules and the action, you’ll begin to wonder what a carnival has to do with any of this stuff. You won’t be trying to win a goldfish or using a giant sledgehammer to ring a bell. Instead, all of your gameplay will center around a unique and intriguing mechanic: dice creation. You see, the dice in Rattlebones start out looking normal, with the regular sides covered in pips to which we are accustomed. However, you’ll quickly notice that they’re a bit different. That’s because all of the faces are actually removable!
This is the center of gameplay for Rattlebones. On your turn, you’ll choose one of your three dice to roll. If you get a normal dice face, you’ll move one of your monkeys around the center area of the board, which is covered in carnival tents and attractions. At each of these stops, you have the opportunity to add a new face to your die, most of which lead to actions for you to take should you land on that face in a future roll. Some faces will give you victory points, either directly or through a little risk-taking. Others give you stars or stock, which you will collect and turn in later in the game for more victory points. Other faces might let you steal from opposing players, roll additional dice, move a train around a track, and more. The variety of actions is made even better by the fact that some of the tents and attractions are on cards, which are shuffled and randomly placed on the board at the beginning of the game. More than likely, no game of Rattlebones will ever be the same.
Step Right Up!
The victory condition of this game is also fairly unique, and it comes in the form of the namesake ringmaster. You see, when I said that your dice start out looking fairly normal, I forgot to mention on little change – the side with a one. Where normally you would have a single pip in the middle of the die, you now instead have the outline of Rattlebones himself. Anytime your dice land on this face (which can never be removed), the Rattlebones token moves backwards along the victory points track. Whenever one of your mice point tracker tokens meets or passes Rattlebones, the game is over! This mechanic of an adjustable goal is pretty cool, forcing you to often deal in the short term rather than making grand plans. In a game as heavily reliant on dice as this one, I think a little more chaos and unpredictability adds to the enjoyment of the experience.
The Greatest Show on Earth
When you first start playing Rattlebones, you’ll likely be intimidated by all the dice face options. Factor in the randomness of the dice, and it will be difficult to develop a strategy. Even when you’re slowly constructing your dice, you’re never quite sure if a new face is going to be helpful.
As the game progresses, though, you begin to embrace the randomness while simultaneously finding ways in which you have control. You are given three monkeys to move around the center track, so you often have three different faces to choose from when it comes to adding to your die. You’ll also be choosing which of your die you want to roll each turn, and this can lead to some deliberation as well. You don’t want to leave one die out, but you also want to be able to use those cool new faces that you have added to others. Again, it’s not rocket science, but it does make you feel like you have some impact on whether you win or lose.
I do love the variety in the different faces, but there is definitely some imbalance between the faces. The train, in particular, stands out as a fairly useless face. Landing on it gives you a gradually progressing number of victory points, but it seems to never happen enough to be as helpful as other faces. The Thief face, on the other hand, allows you to steal materials from other players. In one move, you might be able to get 11 points worth of stuff! While these setbacks can be overcome by simply avoiding (or not using) these faces, I do wish that there had been a little more tinkering to the rules to iron out these issues.
Fun For All Ages
With its fun carnival theme and really cool meeples, I believe that Rattlebones will appeal to gamers young and old. I haven’t played with kids yet, but I would think that they would love the idea of being able to pop off the sides of their dice and add new ones on as the game continues. There are quite a few rules to learn given the number of faces, so that could be difficult for some kids that don’t game quite as much, but it’s not a dealbreaker. And given the random nature of the dice rolls, it truly can be anyone’s game in the end. However, a very detailed warning: when removing faces, they have a tendency to fly all over the room. I would triple this likelihood when children are involved. Make sure you’re playing close attention so that everything makes its way back into the box.
Rattlebones is by no means a perfect game. It’s not even something that I often consider when people come over for a game night. However, with the right group of people and with the right environment, it’s a really good time. And even though there are quite a few random elements involved, you are still able to have some of those great board gaming moments. One of these was found in our last game with another couple a few days ago. My friend Rebekah was in third place on her turn, but managed to roll her 2 dice to be exactly what she needed to get 17 points in one turn and pull off the victory. We all said a collective “Whoa!” and cheered for her as her little mouse moved around the track to hang out with Rattlebones. To me, that’s what gaming is about: the memories together with friends that have you laughing and cheering, even when you lose. For that reason alone, I believe my feelings of connection with Rattlebones are justified, and I’ll be keeping this one in my collection for a long time.
Check your local game shop for a copy of Rattlebones or order it through Amazon today.
- Unique gaming mechanic
- Several different ways to win
- An overall fun time
- A fun and entertaining theme…
- … that really has nothing to do with the game
- Lots of randomness