Solo Contest: Rat Catcher

Fairway starts a series of posts as the judge of the Solo Game Challenge at The Game Crafter. In this post, he looks at the seventh-place finisher: The Ratcatcher.

The Ratcatcher by Platypus Industries (via The Game Crafter) is a one-player, adventure game in which the player must rid the medieval towns of Gruyere of a nasty rat infestation and kill the rat king. In reviewing the game, I applied the rubric from the contest – instead of my standard rubric – and that scoring is below:

Total Theme (5) Art / GD (10) Solo (15) Game Play (10) Creativity (5) Other (5)
52% 3 7 8 6 2 0*

* we zeroed out the points in this category on account of having to rely on the online rules which were different than the printed rules.

Initial Impressions ^

  1. The rulebook we received as part of the game was a mess: pages appeared to be out of order or missing. Key concepts were buried deeper in the rules than we expected them. We had to rely on the PDF version. We deducted points from what have might have otherwise scored in the “Other.”
  2. The randomized city maps was well-executed.
  3. The spawning rats and catching them while seeking out magic cheese to increase your character’s power was a neat idea. But it came with so much extra baggage. This is game that might be well-suited for someone to take a paring knife and cutting it to the bone.

How to play ^

In The Ratcatcher, the player takes on the role of a town ratcatcher charged with ridding a town of a rat infestation and killing the king rat. The game is played over a series of rounds in which the player uses actions, new locations are set out, and the rats take actions.

The Setup

To start, first, the player takes one of the ratcatcher profile boards. Each ratcatcher has different combination of powers and abilities, but a core set of actions: move and whack (i.e., attack). The profile board shows the base statistics for the ratcatcher for number of actions, speed, attack, accuracy, armor and health. In addition, each profile board includes two special abilities (unique to the ratcatcher) and have a limited number of uses.

Next, the town is setup by arranging township cards to form a starting city.  The township cards have locks and keys that are used to show proper orientation of how townships are connected. Each township is also divided into various zones. These zones are used to signify how the rats and ratcatcher can move through townships and, during placement, what game elements to place in each sector. For example, some sectors include rat spawning points or warrens, others have sewers or tokens, and yet others have magic cheese.  The player’s token is placed on the first township (in any sector) and special tokens and magic cheese are placed on the board.

Finally, all of the rat tokens (black, white, and brown cubes) are all placed into a bag. Cubes are drawn from the bag and placed on all the township spawning locations.  Now the game is ready to begin.

The Turns

The game is now played over a series of turns until one of two things happens: the player dies or the player kills the rat king.  Each turn consists of three phases: player actions, location placement, and rat actions.

The player starts by taking actions up to their action count. Typically, this means the player will get to take two actions (the base action stat for most ratcatchers). The basic actions are “move”, “gather” and “whack.” To move, the player may move their pawn up to the number of sectors indicated by their “move” stat (two or three sectors) as a single action. The ratcatcher is generally free to move wherever unless a zone includes a “bitey rat” or an obstacle. E

A “gather” action lets the player pick up any magical cheese (blue cube) in the current sector so long as their are no rats and place it into an open space on their profile board. The profile board has places next to each state that, once completely filled, allow the player to take an upgrade in the base stat. Once all of the spaces are picked, that stat is immediately available.

When a ratcatcher is in a sector with one or more rats, then the ratcatcher can “whack.” To do this, the player rolls the number of dice equal to the “whack” stat. A whack is successful if the die roll is greater than or equal to the accuracy (“hit stat”) on the profile board. Each hit is then assigned to the rats in that sector. If the number of hits meets or exceeds a rat’s health, the rat is destroyed and placed on the player’s board and will be used for the “tallyman.” The tallyman exchanges caught rats for magic cheese. The first occurs when the player destroys fifteen rats.

Finally, the player can take one of their limited “special actions” by expending one of the tokens.  These special actions vary by ratcatcher, but can include things like re-rolling dice, moving rats from one adjacent sector to another, or placing tokens on the board to limit the rats’ expansion.

After the player takes all of their available actions, a new township card is placed if possible. The township is placed next to the current location of the ratcatcher and the new township is set up like in the beginning: rats, cheese and tokens are placed on the board.

After placing the township card, it’s the rats’ turn. The rats’ actions are limited to “active” townships: where the ratcatcher is present, where a rat sow (black cube) is present, or where the rat king is located. On their turn, rats do the following: eat cheese, if they can; move the rats in active townships toward available cheese or the ratcatcher; and then to spawn new rats.  Rats spawn on each rat warren and then one for each rat sow (black cube) in a location.

Rats will eat cheese if there is a total body weigh of rats equal to eight or more. Most rats weigh just one, except the fat rats which have a weight of two. If they get the cheese, a roll of the dice determines where it gets placed on the rat tracker board which typically increases the stats of the rats. Rats will also bite if the total rat attack value in a sector with the ratcatcher is greater than the armor rating. The only rats that can attack are the rat king and the sows and bitey rats. A successful bite means the ratcatcher takes a wound.  The Rat King will also attack with a king bite. This king bite mechanic works like a whack attack, in reverse.

The rat king will spawn whenever either the player or the rats get 7 cheese.  That rat king works similar to other rats and has a special set up mechanic.

The game essentially continues this way until either the player wins by destroying the rat king or dies.

Where it shines ^

The attack mechanic. One of the more interesting game play features was the thoughtful whack mechanic. The idea was simple enough: roll dice equal to your whack and count only those dice that equal or exceed your accuracy. That number is now the number of hits you can assign to rats.  Other than increasing your number of actions, putting magic cheese on whack and accuracy was the focus of many games.  The magic in the early game is definitely the whacking of rats and collecting those tallyman bonuses.

Balanced incentive to grow individual stats.  One interesting outcome of the tight set of player choices is that there was a good feeling of balance of powers: actions, whacks, accuracy, etc.

Unintentional leveling?  The individual ratcatchers’ special abilities created a perhaps unintentional leveling. What was a more winnable game with Professor Fume was hard (impossible?) to win as Miss Black.

The art style. We really liked the look of the township cards and the black-ink character art. It really fit well with the theme.

The townships. The game includes a good number of township cards. That meant that every game was a little different with different combinations of things happening. We struggled a little with how to construct the townships properly (mostly because of difficulty discerning the rules about how to place them)., but once we decided on a set of rules ourselves, this wasn’t an issue.

Where it struggles ^

Rules. I think that this is one of those times where the lack of good rules in the box resulted in a lot of frustration. The online version was much clearer, but that violated one of the contest rules. Once we got through the rules, the game played better.

Play time. We never got a consistent play time out of this game. The biggest factors in that play time were the number of sows and the player’s play style. If there are lots of sows, then there are lots of rats. Lots of rats meant the game tended to be slow-going and the townships difficult to navigate. And with characters only able to take two actions (as a base), it seemed particularly hard to do any reasonable amount of clearing out of the rats.

Theme. We went into the game thinking there was a really clever gameplay-theme connection. In the end, it left a lot to be desired. Among other things, a game about a plague-ridden city didn’t really address this. The rats themselves weren’t vectors of infection. If the rats were winning by gathering the magic cheese first, it was still possible to beat the rat king even if the rats initiated it.

Super fidgety & inconsistent. The game has a lot of those: “do it this way, except for these times when you don’t moments.”  The rats were like this in a bunch of places. The movement AI was like that: active township is the one you’re on, except for all the ones with black rats; move some of the rats toward the cheese, others toward the catcher; count body weights which are mostly one except for the fat ones or leveled-up ones; etc. It really broke the rhythm of the game.

Another issue was that games difficulty turned much more on the number of sows a player drew than pretty much any other factor — sows spawned extra rats and made townships that would otherwise be inactive, active.

Game avoidance mechanism? So the game also had lots of “game avoidance” mechanisms. That is features in which players could avoid the actual game strategically for their advantage. One of those was the “Active Townships” mechanism which was obviously designed to avoid having to move dozens of little cubes around lots of different townships.  But it had a very unfortunate consequence: players playing the game in a way to avoid adding new townships.

Conclusion ^


The Ratcatcher takes the seventh-place prize. Of the games, we probably collectively tried variations of this game more than the others. With a dark theme and time-period-appropriate art, we were entranced and willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt. And while it had moments of entertaining gameplay, it needs some tender-loving care with a focus on balancing, stream-lining.

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