Rats got a bad rap in the 14th Century. It wasn’t their fault they carried one of the most lethal pandemics in human history. Yes, they’re dirty, disgusting, and general creepy-looking, but our venerable ancestors were ignorant nitwits – blaming bubonic plague on the foul rodents. When all along it came in an infinitesimally deadly disguise: Xenopsylla cheopis. The rat flea. An organism that, despite its microscopic size, proved greater than any weapon ever devised by man. And because our historical cousins were backwards, Dark Age-dwelling simpletons, the poor rat took the fall.
How it Plays
The goal of Rattus is callously simple. There are no victory points. You do not take over territory. You’re not constructing buildings, erecting farms, chaining combos, connecting routes, or creating efficiency engines. Nope. In a game about the Black Death, there can only be one winning condition, really. Survive. Although acted out upon a map of Europe, players do not represent any particular nation. Rather, your nondescript population – as represented by colored cubes – will scurry about the continent like rats to get away from the, well, rats.
Players begin the game with four population cubes, two territories with two apiece. Each region is also seeded with a starting rat token. These determine how the pestilence affects players when plague breaks out in a region. The dreaded Black Death itself is represented by a large pawn that you and your opponents will move about the board. Finally, there are six role cards set out which will be available for players to select.
On a turn, you take three quick actions and then resolve the Plague, if necessary, which it generally will be. First, you select one role, if you wish. You can take one of the class cards from the center pool, or one from another player. That card remains with you until taken by an opponent. These grant special rules-breaking abilities, but also increase the likelihood that you may loose population to the Plague. Next, you add one or more population cubes to the board. Simply choose a region and place a number of your cubes equal to the amount of rat tokens present there.
In the third step, you must move the Plague marker to any region adjacent to its current location. If that territory contains a rat token, you’ll place a new one face-down in a neighboring area. If it contains two or three tokens, you’ll set out two more rats, either together, or in two separate adjoining regions.
Lastly, if the region to which you moved the Plague has at least one population cube AND one rat token, people may succumb to the pestilence. To resolve the Plague’s affects, flip over a rat token. If more than one is present, reveal them one at a time, as necessary. If the process decimates the population before all of the rats are resolved, then any leftovers remain hidden. These chits have two pieces of information. The top number indicates the total population which must be present to trigger an outbreak. If there are not enough cubes, the token is removed from the game with no effect. However, if the pre-requisite number is met, then you refer to the icons at the bottom to determine which players lose cubes. For each ‘M,’ the majority player loses one population. An ‘A’ means that everyone with a cube in the region must kill one off. Then there may be one or more symbols corresponding to the class cards. If you own that role and have at least one cube in the infected region, you lose a cube per matching icon.
This simple turn structure continues until one of two scenarios: the supply of rat tokens is depleted (most likely) or one player manages to place all of his/her cubes on the map by the end of a turn (two chances – slim and none). At that point, each successive player gets one final spin, but may only use the abilities on class cards currently held. Following that, the Plague ravages the entire continent as every remaining rat token on the map is resolved. When the carnage subsides, the player with the most population wins. Meanwhile, the disease is named after the player with the fewest…
Stone Dead in a Moment? Or I’m Feeling Better?
This review is unintentionally timely for a couple of reasons. One, there has been an Ebola outbreak in West Africa which is heart-wrenching to read about. Yet it’s also scary when you grasp just how real these incidents are and how close the world is to such a deadly pandemic! Then there is the new TNT drama, The Last Ship, which follows the mission of a US Naval destroyer and its crew racing to find a cure for a virus that has wiped out over half the world’s population and essentially eradicated all organized governments, businesses, and societal institutions. The show began as pure action-packed, popcorn-style, summer escapism, but has since developed into a very interesting, tense, and emotional human-interest story, though still with its share of hokey and far-fetched plot points. Thankfully, both of those stories are about other people trying to help, aid, and cure the afflicted amidst the suffering. In Rattus? Well, you’re actually kind of doing the opposite!
Rattus has been out for several years, now, and has spread in its own right. Not bad, as in a plague, but rather as in expansions. With three main expansions and two mini add-ons, plus a card version with its own expansion, Rattus may now be considered a “universe.” The expansions primarily add new class cards, but also throw in extra bits and a few interesting mechanics. These certainly increase replayability and variety – yet they also ramp up the complexity. However, if you’re looking for an affordable, still available, and easily accessible title to hook non-gamers or casual players, look no further than the base game.
The term “gateway game” often gets bandied about within our circles – a simple design that is accessible to hook those uninitiated in the hobby, yet still provides a glimpse of the strategy and depth that designer games have to offer. Rattus is one of those designs. The actions are straight-forward and repetitive. There aren’t a lot of fiddly parts. You can easily teach this one “while you play.” After a couple of turns, even non-gamers will be up to speed and cruising right along. Plus it won’t bore them, because turns move quickly and it all wraps up in well under an hour.
Although it’s simple, the design still offers smart decisions and requires some thought. Most of your cubes will inevitably perish to the epidemic – this is a game about minimizing your losses. A corollary objective is to spread disease where it will cause the most damage to others. As odd as it sounds, you’re essentially trying to manipulate the Plague to your best advantage. Landing the marker in a highly populated area with two or three rats can devastate the land. Or it might end up killing off just a couple cubes. The rat chits are all arbitrary and many of them depend on which player holds what roles in the infected region. That randomness is another of the game’s little charms. It provides some mystery, risk, and hope, all wrapped up in a tiny, round counter. And it’s kind of thematic, actually, representing the historic Plague’s unpredictable dissemination.
As a result, the character roles account for much of your strategy and decision-making. And they present a challenging balance. The more class cards you possess, the greater chance you risk losing population in an outbreak. Yet, their benefits are tempting. Flooding the map with extra cubes using the Peasant is an attractive option. You can avoid some of the Plague by moving population or rats with the Merchant and Monk, respectively. You can take a more aggressive role with the Knight, which gives you more freedom to trigger outbreaks where it least affects you. The Witch is sort of a combination of the Monk and Knight. Then there is the King, who is essentially immunity, allowing you to move cubes off the map into safety for the rest of the game. With multiple characters you can manipulate more of the situation, but you make yourself vulnerable to the Plague. At the same time, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to hog a bunch of roles simultaneously, because there is a lot of trading between players. Since you can only take one class card per turn, it’s rare to have more than a couple at a time – unless other players are so deathly afraid of the side effects that they avoid the roles like the, well, plague.
For a Euro-style game, it is shockingly spiteful. You are deliberately spreading the pox so that it will eradicate your opponents’ population. This generally translates to moving the Plague pawn to a region in which you have no cubes, but hopefully the other players have plenty of their own. Oh, and preferably more than one rat token to increase its lethality. The wonderful aspect to the spite in Rattus, however, is that it doesn’t feel personal. I mean, the Plague is going to spread and break out, anyway. And believe me, there is more than enough work for the Grim Reaper – everyone’s going to lose plenty of people. Plus the game is light and moves at a good pace. As such, this delightfully cutthroat design is a good introduction to player interaction, spite, and even as a lead-up to getting one involved in, dare I say, war games.
Another great aspect to Rattus’ accessibility is that is scales very well. Two sections of the game board are shaded in a couple darker hues. The game utilizes the entire board when playing with four, and then downsizes each increment with three or two. You’ll also remove some rat tokens from the supply with a smaller compliment. That said, I prefer the game with three or four, as it enhances the design’s interactive personality. There is more competition over the class cards and there are more opportunities to infect your opponents with the Plague.
While spreading horribly contagious bacteria may sound like a comic book super villain’s nefarious plot, it works surprisingly well as a theme in Rattus. Yes, it is a game about a malady that killed off over half of Europe’s population. There’s no denying that and the subject matter could likely turn-off some people. However, historically aloof and ambivalently abstract, the unique design is light enough to distract you from those facts. It’s certainly never graphic or in-your-face.
The components play no small role in sanitizing that theme. They are solid – very solid – but also quite basic and simple. The board has a small footprint, but is never crowded. The map uses subdued colors with a Renaissance-style text font. The regional place-names are also pretty broad – still historical, yet sweepingly general, so as not to be nationalistic. It’s solid with a great linen-textured finish. Unfortunately in my version, the quad-fold board doesn’t lay flat, but that is the only components flaw. The class cards are durable and heavy-duty with a classical art style depicting the character roles. The rat tokens are also thick and easy to interpret for Plague resolution. Finally, there are cubes. After all, it is still a Euro game, despite its aggressive nature. More than that, though, the cubes take the “humanity” out of the theme – it’s hard to imagine gangrenous, festering sores on a cube. That could be good or bad, I guess, depending on how you want to analyze it. However, just removing generic cubes makes the notion that you’re helping spread a horrific contagion to millions of souls more palatable.
Rattus is a simple, straight-forward design with an interesting premise. If people can look past the whole idea of trying to infect and kill each other off with a fatal pox, it’s a great game to introduce interaction and spite – maybe even a good title before launching into war games. Once you dive into Rattus, you’ll see some hidden depth with fun choices to make and plenty more to explore with several expansions. Don’t let this diminutive title, like the fleas that really bore the Plague, go unnoticed. Easy to teach, easy to play, and fast, this light Euro with fun interaction will prove a good gateway to infect those you love who are not yet bitten by the board gaming bug.