If you are a big fan of strategic depth and deplore games that rely heavily on luck - well, Rattlebones probably will not be for you. However, if you look forward to short bursts of gameplay that are fun if incredibly random? Rattlebones by Rio Grande Games will probably prove to be right up your alley.
The game board itself consists of two tracks (technically three, but the middle one with the train is not part of the game's core mechanics). The outer edge of the board starts the players with a single character that moves around the track in a clockwise direction as the numbers ascend square by square. At or near the end of the track is a tall black piece - Rattlebones. Every time a player earns points, they move around this outer track that many spaces. Every time a player rolls a 1/Rattlebone, the Rattlebones piece works its way one space counterclockwise along this outer track. The game ends when a player's piece reaches the space Rattlebones is on. In theory, this player will be the one furthest along the track with the highest score, so they win.
The inner track is where the actual meat of the gameplay comes in. Here each player (this is a two to four player game) has three tokens that they move around this inner track in a clockwise direction. Each player also has three different dice. The dice all start off innocently enough, with standard pips marking values ranging from two through six (with the Rattlebone indicating a one). By default, only one die is rolled per turn. The game board itself is also designed in a way to create unique matches. Every other space on the inner track is a 'set' type of space (coin, star, re-roll, train, etc - I will talk more about some of these later). The alternating spaces are defined in purpose by a card randomly placed on them. There are more cards than there are spaces so not only are their positions on the board unpredictable, but the types of cards on it as well.
Unlike many board games where landing on a space tends to trigger a specific action, I think of it in Rattlebones as triggering a specific opportunity. If you land on say, a re-roll space you have a decision to make. You can choose whether or not you want to customize the die you just rolled with to match that space. You can remove any of the five sides with pips (not the Rattlebones/one side, however. Those must always remain in place). and replace that side with the ability of the space you just landed on (such as re-roll in this example). If you pull off a side with pips, it is removed from the game. You have to be careful. Loading up on special abilities can be very useful - you need them to win the game. However, too many sides with nothing but special abilities also means you cannot roll big numbers and make your way around the inner track.
Essentially you want to gain points. Points allow your token on the outer track to advance. The fastest way to earn points is to land on the star spaces and add them to one of your dice. When your next turn comes about you will either get one of your powers or a number. If it is a number, you move one of your three tokens on the inner track that many spaces. If it is a power. you do not move, but you trigger that action. Stars in and of themselves are worth no points, but having more stars in your possession when looping around past the starting space will give you points. This is probably the fastest way to gain points towards your score along the outer track. There are other ways to gain points, however. There are sides to the dice that straight away give you some points, or let you move the train around the board's innermost track (which yields varying points) and even has a gamble die - which might give you points or might cause Rattlebones to move closer to your characters.
Because of the building nature of the game, you can go around the inner track two or three times and gather almost no points in the process. However, once you have a handful of stars, passing the start point means you can earn several points for each lap. My daughter won both times we played, and both times she had amassed enough stars that she was gaining eleven points towards her score along the outer track comprised of sixty-five spaces. This means that the game actually concludes rather quickly - usually in less than twenty minutes.
The dice are of excellent quality, with small plastic levers for popping off a side and replacing it with a new one. After a couple of dozen games, I never saw any sign of wear and tear on either the edges of the dice or more towards the internal parts where the sides wedge into place. We never had a side pop off in rolling either. In a few years? Maybe those will loosen up and lose some of their effectiveness, but at this point they seem quite durable.
While I do love this mechanic (it is one I have never seen before - so props for originality), this is a game that is almost all about luck. The only decision making to be had comes in two forms. One: which sides do you keep on which dice? Two: which of your three tokens do you choose to move around the inner track? Games are fun and somewhat frantic at the end usually, though the beginning tends to be a bit more subdued. I think that is because early on you have only numbers, which is fun - but also because I think more time is spent switching faces off of the dice than actually rolling them.
Rattlebones has created a spectacular mechanic to serve as a foundation, but it feels like a game begging for something a little meatier waiting to be built around it. It is a great filler game, with quick setup and play times, but does lack depth. Also, the directions to the game were a mixed bag. On the one hand, I appreciated the colorful design and icons used to show what ability spots looked like. On the other, a somewhat lengthier illustrated description of how turns work and the board is to be laid out might have been easier since t his is a very visual game.
Rattlebones is a charming title has proven popular enough around here in short bursts to serve as a suitable distraction, but seems to lack the pull of more deepertitles like Dominion that keeps players coming back for more. Rio Grande Games has a unique mechanic in place and for fans of roll and move luck-heavy board games, they will probably get more out of Rattlebones than people looking for a more strategic tabletop experience.
Review by Nick