Rattle, Battle, Forever and Ever
There’s something to be said for brazenly occupying a niche nobody knew needed filling. For example, I was entirely unaware of my subliminal desire to outfit my own pirate ship with cartoon characters and kamikaze monkeys, agonize over lengths of rope and barrels of rum to afford the favor of the Pirate King back in port, and conduct naval warfare by chucking big handfuls of dice into a box — and then having their positions represent the chaos of battle.
I wasn’t aware I wanted this. Ignacy Trzewiczek was; and thus Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot took its niche by storm.
The one thing you aren’t going to hear me say is that Rattle, Battle is a good game. It’s finicky, capricious, and sometimes gets drunk and makes fun of you. If board games were movie characters, Rattle, Battle would be the free spirit, and it’s got a whole speech prepared about how it isn’t looking for anything serious.
On the other hand, it’s fun. Silly. Memorable. A little bit wonderful, though it would scowl at me for using that sort of word.
Each game of Rattle, Battle is made up of two major halves, the first of which is the least-serious naval warfare simulator of all time. As pirate captains, you and your friends sail out on quests to gather gold and loot. This is done by flipping over a card that says what your current adventure will be: maybe raiding a flotilla of merchant ships, having a knife-point battle amid a bunch of islands, attacking a fort, or coming to the Pirate King’s aid under threat of punishment. You take the adventure’s listed set of neutral dice and everyone gets a chance to send some of their own dice-ships along. They fill your hand with these until your fingers are stretched wide. Then you waggle your hand in an approximation of randomization and drop them at arm’s length into the box.
It’ll kick up one hell of a clatter, but it should get the job done, pirate ships mingled with merchants and frigates. Then…
Well, then you start going through a whole bunch of phases. Enemy ships attack first, provided they’ve rolled special actions. Sometimes they’ll blast you out of the water, or move around, or just run away before you get a chance to sink them. Then players can take actions, sailing around and firing cannons, using a tiny ruler (or a card’s long and short edges) to measure the distances. Eventually, if anything’s left, it comes down to a huge battle where almost everything dies. Then players get gold and loot for the ships they’ve sunk and boarded, pay loot to repair the ships they’ve lost, and on you go to the next adventure.
The second half of the game couldn’t be more different, but it continues Rattle, Battle’s tradition of being high-maintenance while still insisting it’s whimsical and carefree. After a string of adventure, players sail into port and start managing their resources. You can make trades, impress the Pirate King with your wealth, or maybe spend a bunch of cash on commissioned portraits and sexy manservants, all of which translate into extra points at the end of the game. There are sailors to recruit, sails and guns and cargo holds to install, and special equipment to laugh at. All these cartoony bits are added directly onto your ship, represented by modular cardboard pieces, your flagship gradually transformed into an unwieldy behemoth with a parrot who distracts enemy ships with its squawking, a huge cannon with unlimited range, boarding hooks to drag enemy ships to their doom, and maybe some buzzsaws on your hull to just sink everything while you jet around with your turbine.
It’s weird. Unlike anything I’ve played before. And a little bit wonderful, though don’t tell Rattle, Battle I said so.
It’s also terrifically incongruous. It feels more than anything like a kid game, one where the action is simple, the strategy minimal to nonexistent, and the upgraded cargo holds represented by hamsters cramming their cheeks full of supply barrels. But then it goes full-blown neurotic, full of careful resource management and special ship components that trigger at unclear moments (unaided by the travesty of a manual), lots of specific phases that it insists must be completed in order — ten in all for the battles alone — and then it goes and takes a surprisingly long time. Sometimes too much of a long time.
If I had to use a single word, I’d choose persnickety. It insists it just wants to have a freewheeling good time, but then it goes and makes sure the party is tailored exactly to its liking.
As I said at the beginning of this review, I can’t rightly call Rattle, Battle a good game. Full of good ideas, sure. Lots of fun, at least most of the time, yeah. A good choice for an evening of light gaming, absolutely.
For anything else? I don’t even know what to say to that.