Dale Yu: A Euro-Gamer’s Take on Too Many Bones

Too Many Bones

  • Designers: Adam Carlson, Josh Carlson
  • Publisher: Chip Theory Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 1-4 hours per session
  • Played with purchased copy

There are times in my life when I look back at the things I planned to do… and then suddenly realize “Damn, I never did that thing I thought I was gonna do…”.  I had planned to have a Too Many Bones review be my final review in the run up to SPIEL 2018. After all, I had bought the game back at GenCon (August 2018), and I had had a chance to play it a few times by then.

As things often do, real life got in the way of my plans, and a number of those mid-October reviews just never came to be.  Over the past few months, I’ve been interspersing these older games into my review cycle, and I honestly thought that I had caught up.  And, then, I was looking for a solo game to play this weekend and I pulled out Too Many Bones – and then I realized that I never did get around to writing the review for the game!

There are a number of reasons why this review has been a long time coming.  First, a few issues at work really cut down on my expected writing time in October.  Second, I was admittedly lukewarm on the game back in October, and I have had a chance to play it twice more since then, and I have found that my opinion of the game has risen with multiple plays.   But, speaking from multiple and repeated experiences, it’s is easy to put off a review about a game that you’re not in love with.

I had actually been on the fence about getting a copy of Too Many Bones because I’m really not an RPG sort of guy.  But, after getting a nice demo of the game at GenCon as well as some encouraging reviews from other Eurogamers that I know, I was convinced to give the game a chance.  Admittedly, I didn’t get off to the greatest start with this one. It took me almost a month to get the game to the table. I’m not sure if the problem was with the rulebook or with the person reading the rulebook – but I tried to read the 32-page tome of rules a number of times and I simply couldn’t get a grasp for how to play the game… and without that understanding, I was loathe to try to bring this to the table if I didn’t understand how it worked, even at the most basic of levels…

I chatted with my friends who had recommended it to me, and they were surprised that I hadn’t watched any of the videos online from Chip Theory Games.  They told me that I should watch a number of videos – an overview, a more detailed look at how to play, specific videos for each of the different Gearlocs, etc.  TWO HOURS LATER, I had a better understanding for the game, but the Eurogamer in me had some serious issues with the necessity of videos (and the time it takes to watch them) so that I could even play the game…   Here is a link to the directory on YouTube with EIGHTEEN different videos that you can watch just to understand the rules! https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLoPCvPQMwbQdcrhfxUOoiOw8wQttoUUd2

In retrospect, the rulebook does a decent job of giving explanations for all the different little things that happen in a game turn, but as far as I can tell, nowhere does it really integrate those disparate pieces of information into a cohesive “this is how the round is played” sort of thing.  Super frustrating for me as I’m not used to this sort of ruleset.

However, once we got the game to the table – I’ll have to admit… it was a lot of fun.  In any game, the TL;DR goal is – reach the Boss Tyrant before the timer runs out and defeat it.  There are seven different Tyrants in the box, and you can choose one for a particular style of game or level of difficulty.  Each player chooses a Gearloc and takes the sweet neoprene mat for that character, the skill dice and a number of health chips.  

There are four basic stats for each character with a number printed on the mat and a space for a die next to it (which will then add to the base number).  Health – this is the number of health chips you get. The other three stats: Attack, Dexterity and Defense all refer to the number of dice you can roll on a given turn.  Dexterity determines the total number of dice you can roll at any time (Attack, Defense and Skill dice). Attack and Defense dice are generic and pulled from the supply.  Skill dice are unique to each Gearloc. There is a chart – which takes up the bulk of the player mat – which can be thought of a sort of tech tree. Each Gearloc starts with a few basic Skill dice, and then over the course of the game, players can train themselves and gain more dice.  Oftentimes, you will need to have one or more dice as a prerequisite for a more complex die. Each of these dice has unique skills/die faces, and the abilities of your Gearloc can change drastically depending on which Skill dice you have available to use.

As the name of the company might lead you to believe, Chip Theory Games are all about the chips. Just about all of the components in the game which are not dice… are made of poker chips.  They have a nice heft in your hand, and they stack easily which is useful in all sorts of different game situations. The components are superb. The chips are thick and weighty, and are a pleasure to handle.  The multitude of dice are awesome. Each player mat and the battleboard is a thick neoprene with sturdy stitching around the edges as well as nice clear laser cut holes to hold the dice in place.

Even the player aids are a nice satin/linen finish plastic material which will hold up to all sorts of use (and even an occasional drink spill!).  All of the bits go into custom plastic trays that hold everything nicely, and everything packs up in the box into foam inserts so that all is snug as a bug in a rug. I know that there is a high pricetag for this game, but you definitely get your money’s worth with the components…

OK, back to the game – There is a battleboard which is placed in the center of the table.  A selected set of bad guys (on chips) worth 1, 5 or 20 points are chosen per the rules of the Tyrant and placed into stacks near this board.   There is a timer (on a chip also) which is set for the number of days specified for the tyrant. A deck of Encounter cards is constructed, and you’re ready to go.

If this isn’t enough detail for you – have a gander at this 63-minute long video where the designer goes thru set up and the first few rounds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZawZ7dpJqw

(and yes, this is the video that I had to find online and then watch before I really grasped WTF was going on – the rulebook simply doesn’t explain things in a way that I could understand).   And for what it’s worth, the rules are really bad in this regard – they actually don’t even give you all the rules in the “rules” section. Instead, they have a four page mock game that you’re supposed to set up and go thru to learn the “rest of the rules”.  Which is maybe OK for learning, but then makes it a bitch to go back and find something if you have a question later. This nearly was enough to make me stop trying to learn the game…

At the start of each round (one day in the game), the first thing to do is to draw and resolve an Encounter card.  Read the card aloud, and learn about the situation that your group faces. There will be two options on the card – generally a Peaceful solution to the issue as well as a Combat solution.  The rewards for each option are clearly delineated on the Encounter card, and the group should decide which path they want to pursue. If you choose the Peaceful answer, you generally just read the outcome and take the rewards/penalties (though this isn’t always the case).  If you choose to fight, then the action moves to the battleboard . The card will tell you how to set it up.

In battle, the enemy strength is usually determined by the Battle Queue, or BQ (which is the product of the current day # multiplied by the number of Gearlocs in the game).  So, on the first round of a 4 player game, the BQ would be 4. You take the smallest number of chips you can (from the 1, 5, and 20 pt denominations) and then put them in the starting positions in the four columns of the battleboard (color coded for your pleasure).  Your Gearlocs then are placed in their starting places, usually at the other end of those columns. Each of the enemy columns has a matching color die, and you look on the chip of the enemy in that column to see what the initative number is. You set the die to this color and then place those dice in the cutout for initiative dice at the side of the battleboard. Each Gearloc rolls their initiative die and then they are placed in the column to keep everything in order – the highest numbers are at the top and steadily decreasing as you go down the column.

Now, going in Initiative order – you fight.  For the Gearlocs, when it is their turn, they first see how much dexterity that have. They can spend some to move their chip, and then they roll one die for each remaining Dexterity they have – they can choose for attack dice, defense dice or their personal Skill dice.  These chosen dice are rolled and then you can apply the results as you see fit. You can use positive attack points to cause damage to enemies. You can take shields from your defensive dice and place them on your mat to protect you from later attacks. You can use any of the special skill results that you roll.  You can also choose to ignore any results that you want – if so, that die is not considered as “used” and, if it is a skill die, it can be placed back into your mat. If you roll “Bones” you can choose to keep them in your Backup plan row – you can collect and save these Bones results, and once a turn, you can turn in some or all of them for a special backup plan action – think of this as a consolation prize for getting an otherwise neutral Bones result from a previous roll.

Enemies follow a simple formula.  They first move towards the closest opponent if not already adjacent.  Then it rolls its allotted dice and automatically uses the faces rolled – generally to hit a gearloc or to generate shields for itself.  Continue this until every die in the initiative row has had a chance to go. If there are still combatants on both sides, set up the initiative dice again for all surviving fighters and go again.  Keep going until only one side is left standing. Yes, I know that I’ve glossed over some of the details on fighting – but, don’t worry, if you need more info, there’s a semi-short video that you can watch to learn more!

If you win the encounter, then you get to go to the Reward phase. There are up to four different types of rewards that you can get:

1] Encounter Rewards – you might get stuff simply for making the choice that you made.  If the Encounter card portion that you chose gives you stuff, then take said stuff

2] Loot cards – draw cards as directed. These cards could give you special abilities or other wondrous stuff.  Some of the cards, Trove Loot, come in chests, and these chests must have their locks picked first. There are numbers on the backs of the cards that tell you what sorts of things you need to roll on the special lockpicking dice. I’d give you more details, but this is all that the rulebook tells you.  If you really want to know how to pick those locks, unlock your phone first and go watch this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD5fYq4xE7w&index=18&t=0s&list=PLoPCvPQMwbQdcrhfxUOoiOw8wQttoUUd2

Seriously, these rules aren’t anywhere in the rulebook. They are listed on the one player aid that all players have to share.  But this fairly important part of the rules IS NOWHERE to be found in the actual rulebook. Egads!

3] Training points – if you gain training points, you can use them to add to your HP or Dexterity stats.  This happens automatically. If you want to add a Skill die to your mat, you can use these points for that as well.  You can also attempt to increase your Attack or Defense skills – but you must roll the dice to see if you succeed it that.  Again, the actual mechanics of this are not in the rulebook and only on the shared player aid. Since it wasn’t deemed important enough to include in the rules, I don’t feel like I need to tell you them here either – anyways, just look at the player aid, it’s all right there.

4] Progress Points – If you get a Progress Point, put the card denoting this underneath the Tyrant Card.  Each Tyrant has a minimum number of Progress Points needed before you can try to fight it. Whenever you have the required number, your team can choose to fight the Tyrant – this turns out to be a battle like any of the Encounters, with the setup for the final battle printed on the Tyrant card.

Finally, your team gets a chance to Recover.  In this last phase, the Gearlocs can trade Loot cards amongst themselves.  They can also now read the player aid and try to pick the lock on one of their Trove Loot cards.  Finally, each Gearloc can individually choose to: recover all HP, try to upgrade their loot cards (based on a die roll) or scout out the enemy stacks to reveal an enemy and either leave it face up on the appropriate stack or place it at the bottom of said stack.

Now the day ends.  If you have reached the end of the final day of your adventure and have not yet defeated the Tyrant, then you lose.  If you have defeated the Tyrant, then you win. Otherwise, turn the day marker one spot forward and play another day.

Now that I’ve played the game a handful of times, I understand the flow, and I have found the game surprisingly enjoyable.  The different Tyrants (and their encounters) give each game a slightly different feel, and I like the way that combat is simplified onto the small 4×4 battlemat.   However, I would estimate that my comfort with the game comes with the investment of about 4-5 hours of video watching, multiple readings of the rules and maybe 10-12 hours of playtime.  I know that for many RPG players, this is a drop in the bucket – heck, I know gamers that might spend this much time just painting an army of miniatures prior to their first play of a game.  But for a Eurogamer, it’s a rare bird to need this much time to grok something.

So, I know I’ve been harping a lot on the videos… but for a Eurogamer, it was a completely foreign and generally unenjoyable experience.  In addition to the three-and-a-half hours of rules videos, setup videos and a semi-playthoughs, I should also make mention that the game is somewhat unplayable without knowing what the different Gearlocs can do.  You can either experiment for two or three games (at the cost of 4-6 hours) or.. guess what, you can watch another video. For each character, there is a twenty to thirty minute rundown on what they can do, and what their different skills can do.  Examples of two of these are below.

https://boardgamegeek.com/video/126668/too-many-bones/tantrum-overview

https://boardgamegeek.com/video/126876/too-many-bones/picket-overview

And, as much as I hate watching videos to play a game, I’d pretty much recommend these as mandatory viewing prior to a first play because otherwise you’ll end up wandering around without a cohesive plan for your skills, and this will make your character pretty useless by the midpoint of the game.

I’m glad to have learned how to play the game, and for now, it’s one that I plan on keeping around – it might serve as a nice middleground when I have my few gamer friends over that would rather play wargames or RPGs.  The components are wonderful, and I have not played anything else like it before. But man, I really wish there had been an easier way for me to understand the rules and the play. I also wish that I didn’t feel like I was spending at least 1/3 of the total gameplay time looking stuff up.   Again, I could be the problem here – and not the rules/videos – but this game could have been so much better if I had figured out how to play it sooner. Too Many Bones has been a nice change of pace but I think that I’ll return to my world of peaceful pushing around of wooden bits and cardboard chits.  Unless I play it twice a month, I’m sure not to remember all the little rules and whatnot, and I just don’t have enough time in my day (nor battery in my phone) to keep watching videos to re-learn how to play.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Alan H: An alternative view:

When I first heard about the game I had already bought two other Chip Theory games so I knew what the production quality would be like. The character development aspect of the game excited me and the story/goal aspects of the game had me even more thrilled. So I backed the Kickstarter as much as I could as I suspected that the game would be as good as I imagined. It was my most anticipated Kickstarter for 2017 delivery.

When it arrived I had already watched Youtube videos so when Dale complains about long videos I relish them. I get more views, get to double check rules and become more inspired to play.

The gameplay is at least as good as I expected but more difficult to win and master. Repeated play does help but the combination of characters (several more with expansions), range of decisions and choices of how to develop your character mean I won’t be replaying the same old options anytime soon. I no longer look up much at all and the latest rules are better than the first edition, but I have played 25+ times now and will be adding to this in the coming week.

The combat system works and is challenging. You can easily lose by not making good decisions. The options for baddies are usually easy to see and which one you focus on killing first is a good planning discussion for the Gearlocs. Once you have some knowledge of how to play your Gearloc well you generally clear fights more quickly but during the game there will be many tense moments which I love.

I’ve also acquired the follow up set Undertow adds new ideas, characters and baddies.

I’d also add the learning of what each character does is an investment in time for the game so if you want to play better you do need to study the characters and even then there are more areas to explore. Not surprisingly I rate this a 10 on BGG scale and a love it for OG.

Ted C:  I have played 4 times and have suffered the videos as Dale suggests.  The key to make this game work is to tell people to watch the video on the character they want to play.  Each character is so different that it is hard to take the time for each player. They have to do homework.  How to play at this point is pretty straight forward and with the right characters that can complement each other, you get a fun action game.  One of my biggest hang ups is the play time at 4-6 hours per game. And, it does feel a little samey in the waning hours. I am still hanging on to it…just not sure when it will get back to the table.

Frank Branham: This is a superb adventure-y game at the top of its form. If you ever wanted a classic 90’s era JRPG in boardgame form, this is the one to pick. The small tactical board, and strong focus on initiative and picking the right target are a perfect match for the front-row+back-row setup of older JRPGs. The quirky setting and odd events mixing up combat with banter and minigames definitely gets the right feel across.

For our games, I went straight to reading the rulebook, and pulled all of my detail from there. No videos or anything. Our first game was 3-4 hours as we slogged a bit with the rules and characters. Now we are at 2-4 hours, depending on the scenario length–but we adore every single play, and Sandi prefers this to Gloomhaven.

As to the rulebook, the organization is clunky, and the layout is a mess. It is just a wall of text covering the rules. Stuff gets lost and is tricky to find. The game is a breeze to teach and learn once you get it down, with the character quirks being the tricky part.

Which is the awesome thing about the game. Like Gloomhaven, each character has some twist or extra rules which make them both vastly different in playstyle and confusing at first. We have always approached this issue with a “Try to figure it out. You’ll screw up, but we’ll cover your back.” Invariably, first time players end with the feeling that they wished they’d developed their character like….  Like classic Diablo 2, each character has 2 or 3 solid ways they can develop their build, and you have a good 9 characters to work with if you’ve invested heavily in the game.

One odd thing is that the Baddie AI often picks on the character with the least health. This isn’t something you see much in coop adventure games, but it is the most common tactic used by players. Combine that with the fact that your ranged dudes are often the most powerful hitters and with the least health, and it really promotes coordination and planning.

Mark Jackson: This is yet another really good game design that is also a giant time sink. If I was back in high school or college, we’d have played this until the faces rubbed off the dice. Now, not so much… but I had fun the one time I played (with Ted C.!).

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Alan H, Frank Branham
  • I like it. James Nathan, Ted C., Mark Jackson
  • Neutral. Dale Y
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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5 Responses to Dale Yu: A Euro-Gamer’s Take on Too Many Bones

  1. Paul Grogan says:

    I have Undertow. I have tried playing it 3 times now and struggled each time with the rules. I watched some of the videos and they helped a bit, but videos shouldn’t be needed. I also found that some rules were hidden away on the reference card / character sheet.
    I really want to play the game, it looks great, but I just don’t have the time needed to invest to learn it. :(

    • Dale Yu says:

      Paul, sounds like you’re in the exact same boat that I am! It is actually a really good game. but man, if every game took this much effort to learn how to play…

      • Paul Grogan says:

        I will be at many events this year. Please can you teach me? ;)
        But seriously, I have a few people in the UK offering to help me, but boy, does it need a revamped rulebook – and I know how much of a that makes me sound like, since I write and edit rulebooks for a living, but I am also a gamer :)

  2. Rodney Somerstein says:

    The game doesn’t seem that tough to learn to me. However, I will readily admit that the rule book is a real mess. That definitely seems to be their one downfall as a publisher. The one thing that I had trouble with when I first started was lockpicking. As Dale mentioned, that is pretty much just on the player aid and watching the video, which is short, is almost required.

    Their earlier games, the Hoplomachus arena combat series, are likewise just as fun to play. Those games are much simpler, so the rules being a mess are a bit easier to deal with there.

    If anyone catches me at an event, such as the upcoming Gathering of Friends, just ask and I’ll be glad to teach this or Hoplomachus. I’ll have both with me.

  3. ozone811 says:

    Dear all, unfortunately I live in Italy and could be very unlikely for me to participate to any convention in US or UK, because I’d like to have the opportunity to share with you what I learn about this game.
    I am really in love with ite and I confirm that the learning curve could be very steep, but I cannot be more happy to have overcome it (consider also that for English is not my native language as you can easily understand also reading this comment 😊 ).
    I can suggest a channel on YouTube, belonging to a person that now have been hired by CTG (but was not when she recorded the videos). after those videos for me everything became a lot clearer

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMBv9K-xGseizBmN1sT0h4g

    Have a great day!
    Sandro

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