Although we haven’t covered many solo board games here at B3, when we have come across them we’ve enjoyed them. Nemo’s War, Cities: Skylines and The Rise and Fall of Anvalor all managed to put a smile on my face, but The Ratcatcher, which will be coming to Kickstarter soon, looks like an entirely different experience.
The Ratcatcher is, as a couple of the games mentioned above, entirely designed for solo play. There’s no cooperative mode, and no option for a second player to take on the role of the rats that the titular ratcatcher will be chasing down. In my experience, games designed specifically for solo play tend to do it better than those that feature a “solo mode” and in this time of isolation, that might be just what’s needed.
The version I’ve had access to is a prototype, but the artwork and components are quite good, and if the standard is maintained or improved upon in final production, I think most players will be very happy. In the box you’ll find a number of wooden figures representing various choices of ratcatcher, as well as a couple of “nemesis” rats.
In addition, you’ll find a cute hessian bag filled with tiny wooden rat models of black, white and brown, each of which has its own slight rules variation once the game begins. There’s a deck of cards that makes up the modular city in which the game takes place, and there are a few ancillary components such as magic cheese wedges, life and movement point trackers and character boards.
The instruction manual is obviously not finished yet and there were probably two or three rules that I had to stare at for a minute or two, but in general, this feels like a well thought out game that has been lovingly described and crafted by a passionate designer. The artwork, in particular, is striking and I am really looking forward to seeing it in its final form.
The game itself is quite straightforward, and on occasion, very tough. I’ve found this to be the norm for solo board games and — dare I say it — I think there’s quite an expectation that a player is supposed to lose at least their first few attempts at such a game. In this case, the player is attempting to track down and defeat the nemesis rat who in turn, is attempting to collect enough magical cheese to meet their win condition.
One of the things that I really like about The Ratcatcher is how it uses a really simple (and easily memorable) set of AI rules to drive the behaviour of the enemy rats that also links to the nemesis win condition. To summarise this, as rats begin to spawn on the board (either when a new location is added, or on a regular spawn point) then depending on what colour they are, they’ll do one of two things.
Brown rats will always move towards the player character via the shortest path, whilst white and black rats will head towards the nearest magic cheese wedge. Black rats spawn a second rat when drawn but are otherwise the same as white rats. What’s really clever about the system is that whenever the enemy claims a magic cheese wedge, it is added to the nemesis board track, potentially causing an event (which will almost always be bad.)
What this might mean is that the first few cheese wedges (which you’ll always lose to the rats because you won’t be able to cover enough of the board to stop them) won’t bring any penalty, but pretty soon things will start to happen. Peculiar rats (which are kind of like mini bosses) can show up, or large numbers of rats can spawn in previously cleared locations.
To combat this, the ratcatcher characters each have different methods. In the main, the player will use traps (placed in adjacent spaces, effectively expanding the player’s reach) and direct attacks to deal with the rats. Attacks are made by spending dice, with a roll of four to six usually meaning a rat is killed. Traps work a similar way but will act on the rats turn, allowing the player to move elsewhere without fear of being overwhelmed.
If the player is able to prevent the rats from getting to certain pieces of magic cheese (which will happen about half the time) then they will be able to take the cheese and add it to their own board, levelling up their skills. Movement points, attack dice and a few other things can be improved, and this is invaluable should you want to be successful in The Ratcatcher.
A big part of the challenge here is that as the existing areas of the map are cleared, the game dictates that new cards be drawn and added. These cards must be added via connections between the cards that are (generally) uneven, meaning that the board can become a bit chaotic later in the game. It also means that sometimes, you’ll need to add a new card to the opposite end of the map at which you are placed, which is bad.
Ultimately, of course, that’s the point — the nemesis rat is supposed to spawn on every game and of course, it does. The key thing then is to focus your efforts on defeating it. There are two rats in this prototype version, essentially representing the King and Queen of rat society. Again, each has its own ways of fighting back and surviving the ratcatcher, and the challenge presented by both is stiff. I’ve lost more games of The Ratcatcher than I’ve won, although I did finally prevail against both opponents.
As a solo experience, I do recommend The Ratcatcher and when it comes to Kickstarter, it’s well worth a look. If you’re after a solo experience that is perhaps slightly lighter in terms of setup and AI than many, but with most of the depth of experience, then it’s a very good choice. In addition to solid mechanics and gameplay, it also looks good and has very unique art and components that really bring it to life. This is certainly one to watch.
The Ratcatcher is currently on Kickstarter.