One of the most remarkable things about being a parent is that you sometimes find yourself using words in combinations that you would never have imagined employing prior to the arrival of the kinder. It’s always a bit shocking to find yourself hollering things like: ‘It is never ok to hit your brother with a firetruck!’ Or, ‘The noodle went up your nose how?’ Now, what’s curious is that playing Rattus can occasionally generate similarly surreal moments. How else can you describe a game in which players will find themselves making statements like: ‘I am so going to send the plague your way next turn!’ Or, ‘I’m going to use my witch to increase the risk of rats in your territory!’ Or, `So first you take my peasant, and now you're doing what exactly with my people in Germany?' And let’s be honest, a game that can produce moments like these has surely got to be worth a look! February 2011 marks the first anniversary of its release of Rattus, and with one expansion already on the market and another one slated to debut later this year, now is an ideal time to see how it stands up a year after its release.
Rattus is a lighter euro-style game for 2-4 players that plays in about 30-45 minutes, and was designed by Ase and Henrik Berg (pictured above) – otherwise known for designing the 2007 game Oregon. In Rattus you will be transported back in time to the year 1347 – the year that the Black Death struck Western Europe with a virulence and violence that continues to defy imagination all these centuries later. Your job will be to try and survive the onset of this brutal scourge – and how better to do that than by herding the carriers of that disease towards your opponents? You will be supported in your efforts at survival by representatives drawn from the various ‘classes’ of medieval society – be they the brave knight who will defend your territories or the mysterious witch who wields supernatural power that can direct the spread of the disease. Are you prepared to do whatever it takes to survive – even if it means sending the spectre of death in the camp of your enemies? Read on to learn more about this unique and entertaining game!
As usual, let’s start with the game box itself. There is something pleasant about the slim and compact design of this particular box. Like most games being produced today, the box for Rattus has been durably constructed and well illustrated. Remarkably, the rats on the cover of the box (rats who are about to bring death and destruction down upon the residents of the unsuspecting town in the background) look down-right neighbourly! That’s probably reflective of the fact that, despite the rather morbid theme, Rattus really is a lighter, filler style game that was designed as a family friendly game.
What we find on the back of the box initially sounds rather sinister and even morbid: "Europe, 1347. A disaster is about to strike. The Black Death reaches Europe, and during the next 4 - 5 years, the population of Europe will be halved. The players settle in the various regions of Europe, while the plague spreads throughout all of the continent. The players gain help from the various classes of the middle ages: The Peasants provide population growth, the wise Monks keep the rats away, the rich Merchants flee when the plague approaches, the warfare conducted by the Knights spreads the plague to new areas, the Witches control the spread through magic and witchcraft, whereas the Kings avoid the plague by staying in their fortified palaces. But the plague does not make any distinction: When the rats arrive, no one can feel safe. When the plague withdraws and the game ends, the player with the highest surviving population wins." But despite the dark sounding theme, what's inside is actually very suitable as a strategic and yet easy-playing family game or filler.
When you crack the cover you’ll find the following components inside: ● game board ● 80 wooden population cubes (in each of four player colours) ● 49 rat tokens ● 6 class cards ● 1 wooden plague piece ● 1 rulebook
Now for some comments about the quality and function of each of these various components.
The board depicts in a general way the geopolitical divisions of Europe in during the Middle Ages.
Several things need to be noted about the board. It has been well and clearly illustrated, and also solidly constructed. Additionally, the board has also been designed to scale depending on the number of players in the game. In a two player game only the lightest coloured regions are used. In a three player game the medium colour regions are added, and in a four player game all of the regions will be used. A number of arrows have also been placed on the board to indicate territories which are considered to be adjacent even though they do not share a common border. Finally, there is an area known as the palace area in the upper left hand corner of the board where, as the game progresses, players will be able to safely locate some of their population.
Be still, my Eurogaming heart, there be cubes in this game! There's even a different colour for each of up to four players! In this case the cubes are going to be used to represent the populace of a given player. They will be placed on and taken off the board through the game and they will ultimately represent the game’s victory condition - the player with the most cubes on the board and in the palace area at the end of the game will be the winner. Each player gets twenty cubes in their colour.
There are 49 rat tokens, each of which features a rat on one side.
These solidly constructed cardboard tokens are double sided, and depict a plague event on the reverse side. They will be placed in the various regions on the game board and will determine which population cubes will be effected by the plague from turn to turn – as well as how severe the outbreak in a given region will be. The number at the top indicates the minimum population cubes that have to be in this region before the plague will have effect; the letters and symbols at the bottom indicates which players will be affected by the plague in such an event. Here's a sample of some of the rat tokens:
12 of them have been marked with a purple circle to indicate their use as starting tiles on the board.
There are six nicely oversized, solidly constructed, and aesthetically pleasing tiles which represent individuals drawn from the ranks of the various classes of medieval society. Respectively these are in clockwise order the King, Knight, Merchant, Witch, Peasant, and Monk.
Each of these individuals will provide a particular advantage of power to the player who controls them – advantages that can often influence or redirect the spread of the plague during the course of the game. These class cards are, however, something of a double edged sword. That’s because while the player who controls them receives certain benefits, possessing these class cards also has the effect of making the plague more likely to impact your population negatively – more on that later.
This black pawn will moved about the various regions on the game board and will be used to indicate the regions which will experience outbreaks of the plague on a given turn. If you have played Notre Dame and are familiar with the trusted friend "Steve" from that game, then you will recognize this guy as Steve’s Spanish cousin, whom we've affectionately named "Ramón"!
You'll find the complete rules at the publisher's website here. Overall the rules for Rattus have been very well done, and are a splendid example of rules done right. The prose is crisp and clear and there are plenty of good illustrations. On the basis of this well written rule book, Rattus has proven to be straightforward to both learn and teach.
In summary, we are pleased to report that the components are functional, attractive and solidly constructed. Of course that’s what we’ve come to expect from ZMan games and Rattus proves to be no exception.
General set-up: Begin by placing the board on the table in a convenient central location (doesn't it always have to be convenient and central?) and lay out the class cards beside it. Next, each player should choose a colour and receive all of the wooden cubes of that colour. Get the twelve rat tokens designated as starting tokens (indicated by a purple circle on the outside edge of the tiles), shuffle them face down and distribute them randomly onto the board. Remember that, depending on the number of players, only certain colours of regions will be used – and thus, the starting rat tokens will only be placed in the relevant regions (any extras are added to the supply of regular rat tokens). With less than four players, in order to shorten the game you'll also need to remove some of the regular rat tokens. Shuffle the remaining rat tokens together to form a supply. The Plague Piece (Ramón to his trusted friends) is placed randomly on a region on the board.
Initial population cube placement: Beginning with the youngest player and proceeding clockwise from there, each player places two of their cubes into any region on the board. Then, starting with the final player and proceeding anti-clockwise, each player will have the opportunity to place two more of their cubes onto the board. You are now ready to begin play!
Flow of Play
Beginning with the start player and taking turns in clockwise order, you will play through the following phases on your turn: Phase A: Pick a new class card – an optional choice. Phase B: Place new cubes on the board. Phase C: Move the Plague Piece
Phase A. Pick a new class card
During this part of the turn, you have the opportunity to take one class card and place it in front of you. You may take that card either from any of the unselected cards that remain beside the board, or you may even take that card away from any other player! There is no limit to the number of class cards that you may possess, however, you may not divest yourself of any of those cards unless they are taken away from you by another players. Quite simply, if you take ’em, you keep ’em. And that can be a double-edged sword because, as was noted above, each card provides a specific advantage or bonus to the player who possesses it, but at the same time each card you possess also increases the likelihood that you will be affected by outbreaks of the plague. The picture below shows the early stages of a two player game - the red player has the peasant card, while the blue player has the monk, the witch, and the knight.
Phase B. Place new cubes on the board
During this phase you may place cubes of your own colour into any one region on the board. You may place as many cubes as there are rat tokens in that region – meaning of course that you may not add any cubes to a region where there are no rat tokens (an exception to this rule occurs if you happen to have the Peasant class card in your possession, in which case you get to add one more cube than the number of rat tokens in your chosen region). In the picture below, you couldn't place any cubes in Polonia since there are no rat tokens there, but you could place three cubes in Hungaria, because it currently has three rat tokens (one is only partially pictured):
Phase C. Move the plague piece
Ramón is a wandering soul who doesn’t like to stay too long in one place, so during this phase of your turn you will move him from his current location to an adjacent region - whatever region Ramón is located in will be known as the Plague Region.
The Plague spreads...
Ramón’s travels, while they might be pleasant to him, often prove less enjoyable for those in the surrounding regions. If the region into which the Plague Piece moves has no rat tokens in it – well, nothing happens at all. If, however, the region into which the Plague Piece is placed contains one rat token, then you will be required to spread the plague to an adjacent area by placing one new rat token into a neighbouring region of your choice. If, however, the region which the Plague Piece entered contained two or three tokens, then two new rat tokens need placed on the board in regions adjacent to the Plague Region – either two tokens in one region or one token in each of two different regions. Note that at no point in the game may there be more than three rat tokens in any given region.
The Plague ravages the Plague Region...
And then, to make matters more interesting yet, if the region into which the Plague Piece moved contained at least one population cube and at least one rat token, then all of the rat tokens in the region are revealed one at a time until either all of the tokens have been flipped, or no more cubes remain in that region. The flipped rat tokens are used to determine who is affected by the outbreak of plague in that region. To that end, several pieces of information are revealed on the tile. In the first place, at the very top there will be a limit number. This limit number indicates minimum number of cubes (regardless of colour) that must be in that region before there will be an outbreak of plague. In the middle of the token you will find one or more symbols which correspond to the different character cards in the game, to indicate who will be affected by such an outbreak - it will strike the populace (cubes) of the player currently holding that particular class card. For each class symbol depicted on the flipped token, the player currently holding that card removes one of their cubes from that region and returns it to the supply. At the bottom of the token, the letters ‘M’ and ‘A’ may also be present, which stand for "Majority" and "All" respectively. If an M is present on the flipped token, the player with the majority of cubes in that region at the moment the token is flipped removes one cube from that region (all tied players in the case of a tie). ‘A’ stands for all, and in this case each player with a cube in that region removes one cube from that region when the token is flipped. It doesn't matter in which order you resolve the symbols on each rat token, as long as the M for Majority symbol is resolved first.
The example below shows our friend Ramón visiting Gallia. Given that there are two rat tokens here, he first spread the plague by distributing two rat tokens to neighbouring regions. Now he causes the plague to ravage Gallia itself: the first rat token has been turned up, and triggers a plague because the minimum number of cubes is present (4+). The two players with a majority in this region - in this case red & blue - both lose a cube. In addition, if any player has the king, the monk or the merchant character, he will lose a cube for each that he owns. Sometimes a couple of rat tokens can completely obliterate an entire region of its population in one foul swoop!
Using the Class cards
At this juncture a brief word should be said about each of the various class cards and the specific benefits that they provide:
● The Monk: The monk represents the clergy - if you possess the monk card you may move any one rat token from one region to a neighbouring region. ● The Knight: The knight represents the nobility - if you possess the knight card you may move the plague piece up to two steps during phase C. Additionally, before the rat tokens are revealed you may decide to let the plague piece count as two neutral population cubes in the affected region when the population limit is evaluated on a flipped tile. This increases the chance of the plague triggering in the plague region, and is a good way of devastating the population of your opponents! ● The Peasant: The peasant represent the common people in rural environments - if you possess the peasant card you may add one cube more than usual when you add cubes to a region in phase B. Possession of the peasant also allows you to place a single cube in a region where there are no rat tokens. This is a good ability to help increase your population rapidly. ● The Merchant: The merchant represent the slowly growing urban middle class - if you possess the merchant card you may move up to three of your own cubes from one region to a neighbouring region. A good way to move your population from plague infected areas to safe regions that are free of rats! ● The Witch: The witch represents the medieval interest in magic - if you possess the witch card you may look at any one rat token on the board and then look at a second rat token in a different region and, if you are so inclined, you may switch the locations of those rate tokens. ● The King: The king represents the royal class - if you possess the king you may move one of your cubes from the board to the palace area on the board. This cube must be taken from a region in which there are no rat tokens. Cubes placed in the palace area are safe from any subsequent outbreaks of the plague and they will be counted towards your final tally of cubes at the end of the game.
These special abilities are actually quite thematic, and have varying advantages, particularly when a couple of them are combined. Remember, you may hold any number of the class card at one time, and you may use their abilities once per turn, at any time before moving the plague piece on your turn, and in any order. So once you have one of these character cards, you can keep using its ability from turn to turn, over and over, until another player takes it from you.
Game End and Scoring
So how does the game end? The game ends after the turn during which either: 1. The supply of rat tokens has been depleted. 2. A player manages to have all of their cubes on the board at the end of their turn (which is very rare!). In the example of a two player game below, the end of the game has just been triggered, since the supply of rat tokens has been exhausted, and red is about to inflict a crushing win!
After the end of the game has been triggered, a final round follows during which all players (except the player having the last regular turn) may in anti-clockwise order use the abilities of their class cards one final time (but not place cubes or move the plague marker in the regular manner). There are a couple of additional rules regarding the play of the peasant and the king at the end of the game – but you can check this out for yourself.
Finally, there's the grand finale, as the plague ravages all 12 of the regions one at a time, until all the rat tokens on the board have been revealed and resolved. When all of this has been completed the player with the most cubes still in play on the board (including those located in the palace area) is the winner. In the case of a tie, the game is won by the player that would have had the next turn if the game had not ended. Here Green wins a close three player game with a final score of 10, beating out Yellow with 9 and Blue with 8.
What do we think?
A macabre theme and yet suitable for families: The idea of spreading the plague and attempting to survive its ravages isn’t exactly the sort of thing that one would immediately gravitate towards as a theme for a family style, filler game. But remarkably it seems to work out fairly well in Rattus. Perhaps that's somewhat because - in a rather ironic way - it’s kind of a reverse Pandemic, and a game of about the same weight and complexity, arguably even more accessible. But it's all about confrontation rather than cooperation in this game! It’s abstract enough not to be disturbing, and present enough to be engaging.
A tense and tight battle for survival: To a large extent the game is a battle for survival, and sometimes you feel that your fate is at the whims of other players and of luck - but in that regard it is also quite thematic. There is some randomness, but it fits the theme, and learning to deal with random events in certain games can be a good character building exercise, and equip us for dealing with the adversities and unfairness that life sometimes offers, as both rich and poor experienced in the time of the plague. It often happens that although you start the game with 4 cubes, you end the game with less than 10 cubes on the board, so you can wonder if the effort expended is worth it. It's the nature of the game, and it's good to be aware of: in Rattus there's not a sense of building up an economy or efficiency engine that reaps big rewards in the end game, as is the case with many euros. This is a battle just to breathe, and is like trying to feed your family in Agricola and keep those babies alive but never getting a chance to expand the family farm. Sometimes you wonder if it's really going to make a difference when the game ends, because either way you won't have many more cubes than you started with, and adding extra time is not going to make much difference to your final score anyway! On occasions it can be really hard to make any progress, as you see cubes disappear almost as fast as you add them. Like it or not, that's the game, and either you'll appreciate the thematic feel it evokes or you won't.
Class card combos and pushing your luck: What makes the game particularly interesting is the kind of push your luck factor that the class cards provide. Individually their benefits can be quite useful – but things really start humming when you start combining them to form particularly advantageous combinations. The trouble is that once you have those cards you’re stuck with them until someone else takes them – and that can be a real liability at times. You’ll find yourself breathing a sigh of relief every time a flipped rat token doesn’t have the symbol of the character card you’re holding – and muttering under your breath when things go the other way! There's even been a suggestion that the liabilities of having characters exceeds the rewards they benefit, but you'll have to weigh up for yourself the relative advantages of each character in the course of a game, and as circumstances change.
Quickly-changing and very tactical: Your fortunes can change very rapidly, especially if other players conspire against you and get a helping hand from particularly vicious rats. This game shouldn't be taken too seriously, so AP-types should be warned not to drag the pace to a crawl at the risk of killing the fun. The fact of the matter is that it's very hard to make any long-term plans, and there's always going to be a strong measure of apparent chaos and chance. The plague can move rapidly across the board, so often you'll just have to respond to the situation at hand at the start of your turn. Living day by day, so to speak, just as those afflicted by the real plague must also have had to do. Placing cubes in the corners or sides of the map can be somewhat of a viable strategy in games with less players, as you then proceed to keep the plague marker on the other side of the board (assisted by the Knight, for example), and it does seem that the center regions are more vulnerable to frequent ravaging by the plague. But for the most part gameplay is very tactical and the board can change quickly.
Self-balancing and highly interactive: To a large extent it's up to the other players to keep the leader in check. "Pick on her, she's winning!" This can evoke a certain amount of animosity, and yet the level of viciousness doesn't run higher than it should, because in the end it's not moving the plague marker that kills your population, but the rats, and so the final damage is going to be determined by what turns up on the rat tokens. Some might argue that the class cards are not entirely balanced, although they do all seem useful in their own way, especially when used in tandem. In the end, it's up to the players to determine their value in any given situation. The witch might not seem useful initially, but if one player is given the opportunity to use the witch's ability the entire game, it could be game winning - there's rarely any character tile that you can afford to let one player keep too long. If you think a player has abilities that are too powerful, then it's up to you and your opponents to do something about it - which you can do by taking those characters for yourself.
Tightly contested and evenly matched: Due to the self-balancing nature of the game, scores are often very close, since at any given time it's usually quite clear who is winning (the player with the most cubes on the board - duh!), so it makes sense to send the plague their way. I've wondered to what extent the timing of the game end determines the winner. Because the nature of the game is so volatile, with the wildly swaying fortunes of the game there can be quite a difference between the number of cubes you have on the board at the end of your turn, compared to the start of your next turn. Surely this advantages the player who triggers the game end, given that he has the last opportunity to add a generous supply of his own cubes, while potentially decimating those of his opponents? Other players do get some final benefit from their class cards in a final round, but sometimes you wonder if the disadvantage of not being the player who ends the game more than any such potential small gains. But these finer points of strategy can remain the subject of the debate, and in the end the game should be accepted what it's for: i.e. as a filler and a lighter family game, which has room for clever tactical choices, but is far from being the pinnacle of a heavy or deeply strategic game.
Scalable and satisfying for 2-4 players: The game plays well with anything from 2 to 4 players. With two players there's a greater sense of control, because it's a head to head battle of intuition and wits, and it plays quickly and smoothly, with the game state changing less between turns of each individual player . But the game shines with more players at the table, leading to more interaction and competition - and the battle to survive will often be toughest in this format!
Easy to learn and quick to play: This game can be taught to an eight year old with no difficulties, making it great for families, or even teaching it quickly and playing it quickly as a half hour filler with gamers. Basic game-play is really very simple: on your turn you take a character card if you wish, then add cubes to a region, use character abilities as needed, and then move the plague marker (spreading rats to surrounding regions and resolving rat tokens in that region as applicable). Once you're familiar with that simple flow of gameplay, you can knock off a game in 30-45 minutes very easily, which is just the right length for this kind of game.
Ripe and ready for expansion: From the outset the game was begging for expansion class cards, and it appears that this was the designers intent all along. Given that all six characters that come with the game are all always in play, you'll quickly come to discover your favourite combinations and even perhaps have a sense that you've exhausted what the game has to offer. As a gamer, after about a dozen plays I feel that I've seen everything that this game has to offer, although children and families will be content to play it to death - as they do with many other games that gamers have long moved on from. So it's great as a casual game for families and even non-gamers, as a very accessible and quick-playing euro with a clever design and good theme. But for most readers it really needs the injection of life offered by the expansion. The Rattus: Pied Piper expansion provides exactly that, by adding 12 new character cards that can be used in a multitude of combinations with the original characters of the base game, thus offering room for a multitude of new possibilities and strategies to explore. Another expansion has been announced for the third quarter of 2011. It's somewhat of a pity that more character cards weren't included with the base game, to offer more variety out of the box, but it is good to know that expansions are available to give the game a fresh lease of life, and increase its replayability significantly.
What do others think?
Browsing through some of the negative comments associated with low ratings, a clear pattern emerges about two main reasons why some people didn't like the game: 1. Gameplay is quite abstract and the theme is pasted on. 2. Limited control and considerably luck-driven and chaotic. There's some merit to these observations, but since it's a light euro game, they're not necessarily criticisms, and you'll have to decide for yourself whether or not they'll keep you from enjoying what is otherwise a good and clever little game.
For the most part Rattus has received a positive reception, and has been finding favour on game tables around the world, particularly when combined with the Pied Piper expansion. Here's some comments about the base game: "Very fun and never overstays its welcome." - Mark Taylor "A unique strategy game that combines roles and rats into something fresh." - Doobermite "Very strategic game which nonetheless flows very quickly and fluidly. The art is fantastic as well. I highly recommend this game." - Jess Newman "A short and sweet euro in a small box that ticks a lot of the boxes that I like. Neat role-selection and area control aspects. The rat tiles even add in a bit of luck, so this is a true winner." - Rick Baptist "I'm amazed at how good this game is. It plays within 1 hour, lots of interaction and interesting decisions to make." - Deeevorce "This area control/survival game surpassed my expectations. The game is a meaty filler, and one of the best in the category that I have played. The role mechanic is a blast: Getting the benefits that specific roles provide is always extremely tempting, but the more roles you have the more susceptible you become to the plague. And you can only get rid of a role if another player takes it from you, which leads to some very interesting and meaningful choices.... one of my favorite games of 2010." - Boris Lock "This is a nice, clever little game. The rules are easy to understand and the game is short enough, but everything (roles and infection mechanic) works very well. Luck is largely involved, but chaos remains within reasonable limits." - Schuk "Addictive & very fast game, the more you play the more you'll like it." - james_bond "Enjoyable area majority game but less heavy than some of the classics in the genre, with a little more luck. A good length, this is a great little game." - (boltongeordie) "This is a clever and fantastic little gem of a game!" - Gunter D'HOOGH "Family Gaming: I really like this game. I liken it to Pandemic with NO CO-OP component." - Eric Johnson "Smooth and quick game play, easy and clear rules with enough game depth. The game become more interesting when all players get to know the cards better. Excellent quality of components." - Henk Rolleman "Wonderful filler that is more thematic in gameplay than I had expected." - Jeroen van der Valk "Fun, quick and strategic ... the perfect combo!" - Grognard David
So is Rattus a game for you? One year on from the time it first appeared is a great time to get introduced to this clever and quick-playing little euro, if you haven't already tried it. With the benefit of a full calendar year of experience since its initial release, and the addition of a solid expansion (the Pied Piper) in October last year, a careful and well-considered assessment of Rattus results in a thumbs up. It's not going to be for everyone, but if you are the target market and are looking for a quick-playing euro that's easy to learn and fun to play, offering significant interaction, an interesting theme, and good components, Rattus is certainly a good choice.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596 Subscribe to this list to be notified when new reviews are posted.
I don't want happiness by halves, nor is half of sorrow what I want. Yet there's a pillow I would share, where gently pressed against a cheek like a helpless star, a falling star, a ring glimmers on the finger of a hand.
Awesome, as always. Ender you are THE written reviewer on this site imo.
I'm so glad that this game is getting the praise it deserves. (And with an awesome pictorial review from Ender it is bound to get a lot more looks!) I found this little gen at BGG.CON in the library and after two quick plays I was hooked.
Perfect for what it is, a fun, tactical, and sometimes funny filler to get you warmed up for gaming. Pied Piper expansion highly recommended.
Ender, great overview and review of a fun game which will hopefully help others to discover this gem.
I also found this at last year's BGG.CON. What initially interested me was the odd theme and quality components. What sold me on it was the quick, enjoyable gameplay and opportunity for variety with the additional expansion. My only unsatisfactory experience thus far concerns the tie-breaker rule but that's a very minor complaint.
This game has been a hit with my gaming group - the role selections and tight finishes receiving favorable reviews - and has proven itself a nice gateway game as well. This game is definitely worth checking out and one which I look forward to playing more of in the future, especially when the next expansion arrives.