Too Many Bones is one of those games that’s been on the periphery of my interest for a really long time. I saw people streaming it, I heard how good it’s meant to be, and how amazing the components are, and I really wanted to be enthused. I wanted to want it as much as everyone else seemed to. My apathy meant it slipped me by for a long time while I fed my worker-placement addiction, like a Euro junkie getting his cube fix. This summer I finally got the chance and the renewed impetus to play it, after talking to the rather fabulous Chip Theory Games.
Chip Theory Games, who make Too Many Bones, have a reputation for putting premium games with massive replayability out in the market. Was the hype justified? And maybe more importantly for my readers – is it a good game to get, even if you’re a die-hard Euro gamer? Can you still have fun without farming or running a fishery?
Too Many Bones? More like Too Many Dice! Jeez, this game has a billion dice in the box. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. It has 130 by my reckoning, but it’s still a lot of cubes to throw. Dice fans, this game is practically pornographic, you’ll love it. Rolling dice, rotating dice, plugging dice into perfectly fitting holes in neoprene playmats – it’s enough to get anyone hot under the collar.
Too Many Bones is an adventure strategy game full of fantasy, steampunk and monsters. Although it’s staged as some kind of grand adventure, RPG-style, in truth the flow of the game is driven through a deck of encounter cards. Yeah, there’s flavour text, and the monsters and Gearlocs (your player characters) have great artwork and feel fleshed-out, but it doesn’t really feel like you’re going anywhere. Each turn of a card feels more like just finding out who’s next for a ride on the pain train.
As you work your way through the encounters, battling creatures and monsters, you unlock abilities in the form of new dice to add to your pool. This part of the game is incredibly satisfying and it’ll really get its hooks in you. Each of the Gearlocs has its own set of custom dice, and the player mats chart the upgrades and skill trees. Winning a fight is pretty cool, but the dopamine release that comes from picking a new dice and plugging it in to its hole, unlocking something new – hoo boy – that’s the good sh*t right there.
Too Many Bones is a co-operative game about fighting baddies. It’s a full-on skirmish between the good guys and the bad guys, and it all takes place in a small arena. When I say small, I mean small, there’s only 16 spaces available, arranged in a 4×4 grid. That might sound a bit too compact, but it’s perfect here, because it means no running away. Your movement and placement is paramount in your quest to survive and smite yourself a few monsters. It feels like a fantasy bar fight.
You know, despite what I said about this game not feeling like a proper RPG, the combat and upgrading really feels like a Tactical RPG video game (TRPG). There’s this feeling of choosing how you’re going to upgrade your character, then getting into scraps with increasingly-dangerous monsters, and then upgrading again. Rinse and repeat until you’re ready to square off against the boss monster. In fact, the game stops you from even fighting the bosses – called Tyrants – until you’ve got enough Progress Points (think Levels, in RPGs). This all pulls together just like a video game RPG, with players battling mobs over and over until they feel ready to tackle The Big Nasty. It’s a very satisfying reward loop.
There’s some really clever game design in here to keep things feeling sharp. You can’t just keep smacking little things until you’re overpowered, as there’s a round limit. The Tyrant’s got to shuffle off this mortal coil within a pre-set number of rounds, or you lose. Each Tyrant has a different time limit, which in turn dictates the length of the game. This is great, as you can choose to play a shortish game of an hour, or really make an evening of it and play out an adventure that lasts two or three hours.
The small play area is the other thing which keeps playtime down, and forces your hand to an extent. There’s none of these ‘give them a quick poke then run away’, kiting antics. Take a couple of steps in any direction and you’re likely to feel a wall at your back. At the same time, the close confines mean you can work between yourselves to keep anyone with ranged weapons or healing abilities, behind your tougher Gearlocs.
What really strikes me about Too Many Bones is how it takes this action battle formula, but turns it on its head. If this was a video game, all of the focus and glitz would be poured into the fights. Elaborate graphical effects, combined with Leeroy Jenkins style action and hilarity. The abilities and tech trees you invest are only present in hotbars on the side of the screen, or upgrade screens after fights. In Too Many Bones, the player mats are where your interest lies. The rows of dice tracing your progress from grenadier newbie to lord of explosive stuff, for example, are really satisfying. There’s a big illustration of your chosen Gearloc, and you feel a huge investment in them. Combat, on the other hand, feels very abstract.
There’s no visual extravagance on offer when it comes to the fights themselves. There aren’t even any minis on hand. Absolutely everything from hit points to the biggest, fiercest Tyrant, is represented by poker chips. They’re nice, heavy chips (apart from the health ones, unless you upgrade them), and have pictures on them, but they’re still just poker chips. All of the action, if that’s what you want to call it, is moving piles of chips around a 4×4 grid. A grid that doesn’t even make an attempt to add scenery to proceedings.
It can be quite underwhelming to start playing your first game of Too Many Bones. To see all of the lore, and these amazing characters and baddies, and to have it all transmuted into rolling dice and moving poker chips around. If this sounds like it would be you, I urge you to go into the game with an open mind, and take it as it comes. If you do that, you’re going to have a brilliant time with it. Too Many Bones is very, very good.
I probably could have just said “Too Many Bones is great, go buy it”, and saved you five minutes of your life. It’s hard to articulate exactly why it’s great. Is it the ridiculously high production values? No, but it’s nice to have. Is it the beautifully refined close-quarters tactical skirmishing? No, but it’s really well done. How about the clever character investment and skill trees? Again, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. What Too Many Bones does so well, however, is to take this individual pieces of silk and filigree and to sew them together like an artisanal dressmaker, with not a seam in sight. The whole is so much more than the sum of its pieces.
My worries about dice imbalances, with my Euro hat on, were completed unfounded. Yes, you can get bum rolls when they land on the bones symbols, but these get invested into the Backup Plan section of your player mat, meaning you can save them up for something really useful. Sometimes your Backup Plan will swing the fight at a crucial point, and you’ll be grateful for every last one of the polished turds.
There are loads of expansions and extra characters available for Too Many Bones, and initially it sounds like the included four Gearlocs and seven Tyrants would get old, quickly. They don’t though, the way different characters interplay, and the different tactics you need for each encounter really keep things feeling fresh and exciting. Even if you just stick to one Gearloc for your first few games, there are so many ways to tailor their skills that no two games will feel the same. There’s a ton or replayability in the base box.
I’m not going to lie to you and say “Even if you don’t like combat and direct interaction, you’re going to love this”, because you probably won’t. It is what it is. But if you enjoy strategy, and if you’re even remotely curious, you’re going to have so much fun with it. Josh and Adam Carlson have created a beautiful, rich, vivid game. A game that eschews all of the RPG cruft of something like Gloomhaven, and boils it down to a dice-flinging explosion of instant action, with a boss fight crescendo which will see your table cheer or groan collectively. Too Many Bones is brilliant. Pretty expensive, but for once, you really get what you pay for.
Review copy kindly provided by Chip Theory Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.