While I spent my youth dipping my toes in the ocean, loving the beach for its recreation, I’ve since planted my feet on solid ground as a contented land-lubber. I’ve never been to sea, I’ve never woken up and looked outside without seeing land. I can’t imagine such a desire. Perhaps it’s the understanding that the water is not my native habitat. Perhaps it’s knowing that all manner of sea creatures also know that the water is not my native habitat. Perhaps it’s knowing that if a shark ever entered my home—as unlikely as that sounds—I would probably offer him a greeting as inhospitable as he would offer me. Maybe it’s just a fear of sinking.
Random mortal considerations aside, I’ve mustered the courage to board a sinking ship with a bunch of rats to see if they could properly entertain me amid the rising waters.
RATS: High Tea at Sea is a print & play roll-and-write adventure in which some high society rodents are attempting one last fancy party before their wounded luxury vessel gurgles its final breath. Joshua Debonis (Dice Miner) and Eric Zimmerman (Quantum) brought the design with charming illustrations from Lucie Ebrey and a touch of help from Matt Lees and the folks at Shut Up & Sit Down.
Take only what you need to survive
RATS asks only a simple inventory: Player sheets, writing utensils, two dice, good manners, and a fancy hat. Granted, the last two items are optional, but the game will be far richer should they be present.
Of supreme importance, the game begins with assuming a rat name and boarding a communally agreed upon fictional and dysfunctional rat vessel. At the outset, players roll to determine the first host and, if desired, unique Vocations for all that will serve as player powers throughout the party. The host dons that fancy hat and sets the party in motion, claiming one of each of the game’s goods while the other players claim two of a single good.
The action begins with the host rolling to reveal the first of five Banquet Goals, which are the end-game objectives that will fuel player scoring. Eleven possible goals mean enough variety to keep each game fresh. Round-by-round revelations mean each game will swing and sway like a runaway cruise ship as folks reorient towards new goals. All but one objective revolve around the crafting of delicious dishes and delightful decorations.
The host then rolls three more times, with each roll providing a chance for all the rats to scavenge the sinking ship in search of various celebratory items. Players then choose how to apply the dice, with one die serving as the quantity, and the other determining which of the six objects to acquire. In the case of doubles, players may claim one die’s worth of any item.
Here’s where things get polite. Good by scrappy good, the host declares their current inventory levels in the gentlest of tones: “Your host has but one cocktail sword,” to which the other players either reply “RATS” (indicating that they have not outdone the host) or kindly exalt in their superiority. Any player who out-does the host then exercises the ability granted by the object—for example, those intimidating cocktail swords allow a player to request a specific number of any other object from any other player. “Dearest friend, could you possibly bestow two crumbs upon me?” Players are obligated to share if they are able, otherwise they offer a meek “RATS.”
The six treasured objects include:
- Cocktail Swords for sophisticated intimidation
- Baubles which can be traded for five of any other good
- Straw for building nests which allow for doubling future scavenged items
- Crumbs used for assembling dishes of various size
- Rags used for sewing quality decorations
- Flowers which aid both dishes and decorations, and allow one to become host
As players exercise the various abilities, they wipe their inventory to zero. Any player not given the green light to action holds onto their goods for the coming round, in hopes of fruitfully out-doing the next host. This cycling of goods creates hope—and occasionally dashes hope upon several sharp jutting rocks.
Once the competition with the host is complete, the next host—which may be the same host—takes their privilege of one of each good before launching the next round. If you happen to engage the two-player duel, the non-host also collects two precious goods as at the beginning. After five rounds, the game ends. The final host walks the raucous rodents through the scoring of the Banquet Goals to determine a winner.
In keeping with the theme, the victorious rat obtains the ship’s only lifeboat. The group’s biggest loser flips a coin to see if the remaining rats swim away from the wreckage or if they, in fact, go down with the ship. How lovely!
In order to ratchet up the drama, players may adopt one of the game’s seven vocations before embarking, most of which grant a power related specifically to one of the party goods. Steal more efficiently! Collect more fruitfully! Fail more happily! Vocations make the game more interesting and offer up strategic advantages.
Celine Dion should write a song about this one
RATS: High Tea at Sea is worth playing. I say this because it is all but free. I love that the folks at Shut Up & Sit Down have committed to a pay-what-you-like model with half of the proceeds going to charity. It is worth far more than nothing, and I am a sucker for campaigns that adopt a noble cause.
I also say this because RATS immediately became one of the most flexible games in my collection. It was designed during the pandemic with long-distance play in mind, so it thrives away from the table. Even at home among family we play in the living room rather than in the dining room. Paper secrecy is a feature of the game, and as long as someone can roll dice, there is nothing wrong with everyone being cozied up inside their own pillow fort. A quick mock round will teach the game and get the crumbs rolling.
There is an interesting balance in the ship’s goods. Swords, Baubles, and Straw are useful for obtaining goods, but spending too much time increasing capacity could mean less time crafting the all-important dishes and decorations. Figuring out which iron is hot is part of the fun, and the danger. Even as I write down every dice combo on my sheet, my errors in judgment lead to misspent requests and lost opportunities. Oddly, I’ve found this to be enjoyable.
Like any good tea party, the slow reveal of Banquet Goals allow for each experience to take on a personality all its own. It is entirely possible to be failing miserably for most of the game, only to have a Banquet Goal pop up in the final round that seems to reward a certain level of ineptitude or bad luck, opening the door for the weak to feel like they accomplished something. In large part, I’ve adopted this as my personal strategy.
Perhaps the greatest testimony in favor of the rodents is that I’ve horribly lost all but one game of RATS that I’ve played, and still I heartily recommend the experience. I’ve attempted multiple strategies and found myself deficient at every turn. I’ve even lost most of the coin flips, meaning I’ve condemned dozens of whiskered furballs to the depths of Davy Jones’s locker, but I’d play again right now if invited. Each game features a dramatic reveal or two as someone plays an insanely large Dish or steals a ridiculous number of Baubles from Dad. We’ve laughed. I’ve cried. But for the last couple weeks, we’ve had ready copies sitting on the coffee table.
There are undoubtedly better ways to spend a half hour. But there are also far worse. If given the choice, I’ll take anything that lends me a few dainty laughs with my family or a friend across the country. And if it keeps me off a cruise ship, even better.