A review of the game RATTUS by Z-Man Games
I must admit, I enjoy games about plagues and pestilence. Everyone has their buttons to push, this is one of mine. Of course the most famous one in recent years is Pandemic but there have been a few others now and then over the years, and Z-Man has recently (as of 2010) created an addition to the list, Rattus. I bought a copy directly from Z-Man Games at the World Boardgaming Championships this past Summer of 2011, but hadn’t had a chance to play it yet. A recent boy scout overnight event provided me with an excuse to break out some moderate to light strategy multiplayer games in case the scouts wanted to jump in and play instead of climbing rocks. We ended up setting up Quarriors, and it totally intimidated the scouts there. So I pulled it and set up Rattus.
Rattus is a game of moderate complexity that games (in lighthearted fashion) the outbreak of the Black Plague in Europe in the 1400s. The objective of Rattus is to protect as many people (represented by little wooden cubes) as possible. Rattus sports a nice generalized map of Medieval Europe (sort of), broken into spaces, 6 role cards that provide an (optional) nomic element for changing the rules of the game, a large amount of Rat Tokens, a single Black Plague token, and multiple colored population cubes.
To start the game, the players choose a color (out of the primary usual game colors). Then they may choose (but are not required to) ROLES which give the players unique abilities that change the way that the game is played. I find the powers almost essential to victory, but only if played in a certain combination. Their powers are directly related to moving either rat tokens, moving the plauge, adding more population, or saving population cubes. There are six powers that came with the game and I received four more promotional cards at time of purchase. After roles are selected, the players put an initial population on the board and set out RAT TOKENS. Rat tokens represent the spread of disease by the insect vector, hitching a ride on the familiar rattus norvegicus.
Rat tokens have a variety of informational tidbits inscribed on them.
Essentially they interact with the little population cubes. At one point during a player’s game turn he or she must move the plague token (which looks like a black chess pawn) to a new adjacent map section. This forces rat token(s) to be turned over, and the effects of the token to decimate selected populations inside that map space. Reading from start to bottom, there is a LIMIT (in the parchment style graphic). If the number of the population tokens inside the space exceeds the limit, then every faction loses a population. Then there is ROLE LIMITER, which indicates someone’s current role(s) and if they match, they lose another token. Lastly, there is MAJORITY or ALL (M or A). Majority means if someone has a Majority of population tokens, they lose one. All means that everyone loses one. As you can see from the random selection above, there are plenty of ways for a player to lose population quickly– more often than not a particularly burdensome rat token will remove every population marker in a space.
After all that is set up , the players make their moves in this sequence:
The active player plays through the following phases:
A. Pick a new class card (optional)
B. Place new cubes on the board
C. Move the Plague Piece
Phase A and B may be done in any order, but phase C (moving the plague piece)
must always be done at the end of the turn.
Moving the PLAGUE PIECE triggers an infestation (turning over rat tokens) which often spreads to the surrounding map spaces. The decimation of rat tokens, particularly in 2-player games, can be quite devastating. One can also see from the example above, that playing roles are useful, but extremely risky, as the rats single out population groups (Witches, Kings, Merchants, etc.) individually, which is just another way to lose people in an already deadly game. The game is played until the rat supply runs out and at that point we count all the population on the board and declare a winner.
Thoughts: I loved this game and most decidedly will play it again. It’s sort of the anti-Pandemic. Instead of being a cooperation game, it’s an in-your face game, but pretty much handling the same subject matter in a smaller geographical scope. The theme is very strong and the art work bright and lively, which supports the theme nicely. I played a few times with the basic edition and have not played the bonus (promotional) role cards yet, but they don’t appear to break anything in my opinion. My take is that it plays very well with 3 or 4 but 2 is a bit of a chore as it funnels players into a repetitive strategy. Don’t let the almost goofy art fool you, this is a game with some depth and very clever design work. At the very moderate price being asked for Rattus ($40 retail but you could find it online in the mid-20s*), this is a great bargain. Very entertaining and very much recommended.
*There are expansions to the basic game out already, one being “The Pied Piper Expansion”, but I have not played them and cannot comment.
Related: Designer Interview on Boardgamegeek