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Rattlesnake City (La Haute Roche, 2007 Sylvie Barg) held for me a lot of potential. Not only was the theme about the Wild West, something that has spawned several terrific games, but the artwork and components looked neat, and the game offered chances to fight, play poker, and more from the Old West. I was very excited about the game; and after a quick glance at the rules, I was eager to get it to the table.
But the simple truth is that Rattlesnake City was a huge disappointment to me. I was eager to play the game, but I soon realized that the game was just one gigantic mound of luck. The varied buildings had very few differences, the special cards were completely random, and - even in the advanced game, which added poker - it still was just an unnecessarily bland game attached to some poker. The problem for me most was that I could see the potential in the game; but sadly, it wasn't realized. Rattlesnake City is a simple game that yearns to be something more.
The board has six groups of seven squares - each forming a city, with one spot for a train station next to a network of railways that connect the cities. There are a few squares of broken track on the railways as well as four squares for mines on the board. Eleven prairie zones are also on the board, and the entire board is surrounded by an income track, that goes from $0 to $29,000. Players place a token on the "0" space and start with $10,000 cash. Players then take turns placing their saloon token on an empty square in one of the cities, which becomes their city. A pile of tokens is shuffled in a cloth bag; and two decks of cards, Action and Shot, are shuffled and placed next to the board. Players draw five action cards, and the game begins with the last player to place their saloon.
On a player's turn, they first draw a tile from the bag, placing it on the board. Railroad tracks must be placed on a broken spot on the railway: mines in the appropriate spot, train stations at the end of a track, ranches in a field, and most other buildings in an empty space in a town. Most buildings give the player whose saloon is closest a boost of $1000 a turn, although some buildings (like schools and churches) give no benefit. Mines also give a $2000 income boost to the player whose bank is closest; Cemeteries give a $1000 boost to a player if they are the Undertaker; and Train Stations give an additional $1000 for each other station in the rail network. Rulers are provided with the game, in case players aren't sure which saloon is closest.
After placing the tile, all players adjust their revenue tokens accordingly; and the player, whose turn it is, draws either one Action card or two Shot cards. Action cards are either a numbered card, which is associated with a specific Poker hand, or a card that allows a special action to be taken. Shot cards simply show one to three bullets on them. Players may then play as many cards as they can, each with a different effect. Some can be played in front of a player, giving a benefit or disadvantage. For example, Slippery Joe gives a player +1 shot in each combat, while the Mexican Cook causes a player to lose $1000 a turn. Players may also trade or sell cards to other players.
Players then have the option of robbing an opponent's bank and/or starting a Poker game. When robbing a bank, a player picks an opponent who has a bank; and "attacks" that player by placing a Shot card face up in front of them. The attacked player must either give up or fight back. To fight back, they must play Shot cards that have a total of at least one more bullet than the opponent. This continues to go until one player can't/won't win, and all Shot cards are discarded. If the attacker wins, they get half of the banker's money; otherwise, nothing happens.
When playing Poker, the player picks an opponent and places an amount of money on the table, challenging that player for the money. If the challenged player happens to have no poker card in their hand, they may draw the top action card; and then the match beings. Other players may join in by throwing the amount of money on the table. Each player places one card face down in front of them, which are then revealed simultaneously. The player who has the best hand (highest value) wins all the money. However, if an Action card played by a losing player has a picture of a revolver on it, that player can declare a fight, which happens in the same manner as robbing a bank. The winner of Poker (or the ensuing fight) gets all the money in the pot, and all played cards are discarded. There are some special cards, which affect Poker.
The last thing a player does on his turn is to collect their revenue, with play passing to the next player. The game continues until either the last tile is placed, or if a player reaches a certain amount of money. The player with the most money is the winner!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: I'm especially happy with the artwork of the game; Gerard Matheiu does a nice job portraying the Wild West in a cartooney way. The cards and board are of high quality, although the paper money is a bit flimsy (I really wish people would stop using it!). The rulers seem like a nice touch, but it's almost always obvious whose saloon each building is closest to. The tiles themselves are functional but are fairly small, and we often had to squint to see what they were. The game is not in English, although you can download a translation of the rules and card descriptions online. Everything fits inside a medium-sized box with more of the great artwork.
2.) Rules: The seven pages of rules, which are translated on the 'net, explain the game but do so in a sometimes, disjointed way. Most rules are only mentioned one time and are in different places, so it was a bit before I was able to completely understand how everything fit together. Still, once I got the game down, it was fairly easy; people who have played Bang! before will pick up on a lot of it fairly easily.
3.) Luck: I can tell you right away that my biggest problem with the game is luck. If a player draws better tiles than their opponents (or better special cards), they are simply going to do better. If I draw the biggest Poker card hand and have a lot of bullets, what's to stop me from betting all my money against an opponent? We just found that one lucky Poker hand or gun battle can really change the face of the game, and drawing the tiles was more frustrating than anything else. To draw tile after tile that doesn't help you, while your opponent builds up their town, is really quite frustrating. Then to finally build a building, only to have an opponent dynamite it can really raise one's temperature. Sure, I don't mind luck in a game, but here it seems a bit overdone.
4.) Buildings: When initially going over the rules, this was the part of the game that I was really excited with. Placing buildings and having them have affects on the towns that they were in sounded like a neat mechanic, and I thought the rule used to find proximity to the nearest saloon was a nice touch. But in game play, it really is quite boring. Almost all of the buildings are identical, and a player simply puts the good ones close to the saloon and the unnecessary ones near the opponent's. Railroad stations are tremendously difficult, as most of them need at least four tiles to even start working; and that's often too late in the game to matter. The only building that offers a player a real choice is the bank. Taking a bank is fairly lucrative but offers a real danger, as other players will want to rob it. Many times it may be a better deal to place a bank in an opponent's town and then rob it. If only all of the buildings offered this kind of choice, this would dramatically improve the game, giving it a feel to Way out West by Martin Wallace.
5.) Poker and Gunfights: There are advanced rules that allow players to use a real deck of cards for the Poker matches, supplementing them with "cheating" cards from the Action deck. This dramatically improves this phase of the game, and indeed, the Poker and fights are the most fun and interesting part of the game. The only problem with them is that the stakes are high enough to completely put one player out of the game, and therefore, not fun if you can't compete. The dueling concept is fairly simple, but a player can simply save bullet cards for many, many rounds, and then simply unleash on an opponent. There are some action cards that change things slightly, but the game is mostly straightforward, and it's usually obvious who's going to win a duel before it starts.
6.) Fun Factor: I love the Wild West theme and am always glad to see another game pick it up. Rattlesnake City tries to cram a bunch of this theme into the game via Poker games and gunfights. But even though the theme seems to work on the onset, the game really becomes a drudgery to play because of the luck factor and the feeling that everything is really the same. I wanted to see combinations of buildings and people who offered real strategy, but instead I got a bunch of named buildings that were all identical. Even role-playing the character of a gunslinger from that period just didn't do it. The Poker concept was fun, but why not just drop the game trappings and play ordinary Poker then?
It really pains me to not recommend Rattlesnake City, because I believe with a few modifications it could have some real potential. As it is, the funny artwork and Western theme are not enough to fix the blasé feeling the game evokes. The designers tried to pour a lot of the Old West into the box, but they also forgot good game mechanics and fun.
"Real men play board games"
Although this is not my habit, I would like to make a few comments on this review, which I find altogether unfair and insulting.
I would of course have nothing against the fact the game does not please you personally, but the fact that it does not suit your expectations shocks me. You do not review it as the fun game it is but as the strategy game you would have liked to discover. It is obvious that from this point of view the game is a failure, because I did not intend it to be a strategy game. All the mechanics you describe as lacking in Rattlesnake City amount to exactly what I did not want to use : a collection of buildings and characters with special powers or effects, a game system which relies upon shortage and creates frustration, a tile laying strategy which lengthens the playing time, about twenty pages of rules which a seasoned gamer can guess without reading them through… In my opinion, there are enough games of this type just now, some very good, some redundant, and unfortunately the themes are often artificially glued-on and lack depth. I could have designed this kind of game but it does not interest me.
When I design a game, I like to give it a special flavour and I want its mechanics to support the story I want to tell and the atmosphere I hope to generate around the table. I am happy if it gives pleasure to women, children, gamers, wether they are geeks or not, who will share it for the duration of the game.
I regret that nowadays, each game must be labelled in a rigid and dull way which enables the gamer to know which part of his brain he will activate, which script he will run to be able to win. Party game, action game, management game, conquest game, development game, strategy game… I regret the times when it was possible to discover Darkover or Acquire, Hoax or Bazaar, Cosmic or Dune, Quirks or Civilization. It seems to me that in these days, one did not expect anything else than the discovery of new mechanics, the building up of thought processes each time different and to experience each time a new and different pleasure.
To come back to Rattlesnake City, I wanted to try something different and maybe I was wrong. To be different seems unfashionable, and what’s more, is very risky for a small publishing outfit faced with reviews like yours : « The designers tried to pour a lot of the Old West in the box , but they also forgot good game mechanics and fun ».
It is not up to me to judge the quality of the game, but I did not « forget » to do it.
Concerning the mechanics, I picked with great care those wich generated what I was looking for : allow players to fantasize being in the Old West, six-shooter by their side and a hand full of poker cards. I suppose it’s due to my unyielding love of RPG.
I’d rather hear a player tell another : « Let’s play poker, dude ! » and another exclaiming « Count me in ! » than see him thinking during five minutes to get the most out of a tile placement, while the other players are free to make some coffee or whatever.
Everything possible was done to convey the fact that Rattlesnake City is not a « heavy » game. First of all, the artwork, which doesn’t suit a « serious » game, then the texts you can find on the box and on the cards. The playing board and the tiles’ size also : they are small so they won’t get in the limelight and leave the focus where it should be, on the interaction between the players. The buildings are mainly there to increase the amount of cash circulating in the game, to increase the tension. The game core lies not in the playing board but in the exchange between players.
Of course, a certain amount of luck exists in the game but it is largely balanced by the simple fact that you cannot be unlucky at the same time drawing tiles, drawing action cards and shot cards. If you optimize your hand, you can always get a new start, and whatever your hand and income are, there are ways to win. Nothing is sure until the end of the game. I personnally like that better than knowing, in the middle of a three hour game, that I’ll never be able to win.
Bluff, psychology and role-playing are intimate parts of the game. To look smug just after drawing a rotten action card or two low-value shot cards, and inducing your opponents to think you have a high-powered hand can greatly increase your winning chances…
As a matter of fact, Rattlesnake City is fun if you acknowledge the game to be what is is and not what you would like it to be.
With « a few modifications » this game could maybe have had the « real potential » you expected, but it would definitely not be the game I, its designer, wanted to it to be.
Kamen / Unna
I sat in front of my monitor for I don't know how many hours scouting each new game anounced for 2007 before going to Essen. Even though it's just a 30 minutes travel away.
And during my "scouting" I stumbled across Rattlesnake City... and after reading the rules I was... well I try not to use terms like "intoxicating" if I haven't played a game for real. But it sounds great to me.
BUT I have to agree on one point with the reviewer: Rattlesnake lacks of a real important thing... availability / internationality. Maybe I walked blindly through those Halls in Essen but I couldn't find a box of Rattlesnake City.
Well until my Gaming Group get's to learn english I'll keep my fingers crossed for a german edition to be released some day.
@Mrs. Barc: Judging from the rules I'd say you did a really good job in catching the "ol'western feeling" and turning it into boxed fun.
And I'm looking forward to playing it one day.