Full disclosure: A review copy of Rollecate was provided by HOT Games.
I think this is probably the last review I’m going to write as part of the big End of 2020 Review Push that I made, which means that this could literally end up anywhere in 2021. Hopefully on the earlier side, but after 12 reviews, my brain is a bit burnt. Plus, scheduling stuff gets a bit weird when you write that many reviews in advance, being real. You end up having to move planned stuff around for Kickstarters or trying to pivot around launch dates for new releases and it’s all a headache. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that; I’ve got some interesting stuff I’d like to try in 2021 as we start moving closer and closer to that coveted 1000th review! We passed 700, so who knows what things will look like when we get there? One way to find out!
In Rollecate, you need to help Rollecate get back on the rails! You’ve got an older steam locomotive, some track, and a dream. If you build it, they will … show up to ride the train. You’re pretty sure that’s an original thought and legally distinct from other, similar-sounding sentences. And legal distinctions are your first priority. Your second priority is fixing this train. It won’t be easy, though; Rollecate likes to jump off the tracks if you start moving too quickly, and you’ve heard rumors of vandals breaking tracks and sowing chaos. Will you be able to help Rollecate ride again? Or will your best attempts just end up going off the rails?
Not much, here. You shuffle the deck of cards:
And then, in turn order, flip cards and attach them to each other to create a path until there are four cards in that path. Place the train on the third card. If you get any Chaos Cards (they don’t have track on them), set them aside and shuffle them back in once you’ve created the four-card path. Shuffle the deck and remove cards according to your player count:
- 2 players: Remove 11 cards.
- 3 players: Remove 9 cards.
- 4 players: Remove 7 cards.
Set the dice aside, for now:
Give each player 2 cards, and you’re ready to start!
Your goal in Rollecate is to get the locomotive moving without taking too many penalties. When the deck runs out, add up all your discards and the player with the lowest score wins!
To start your turn, draw a card. You can then do one of three actions.
When you pass, you do nothing. Move Rollecate forward one space, if possible. Either way, take a Penalty Card.
When you take a Penalty Card, take the card farthest away from the front of the train (the earliest card played) and add it to your discard pile. If it matches the top card of your discard pile, you can remove the pair of cards from the game. Note that if this would make you take the card under Rollecate, don’t. You just take nothing.
If you choose to play cards, you may play one or more cards with the same value, adding them to the front end of the rail. You can add them vertically or horizontally as long as they fit and don’t overlap any other cards. Also, importantly, the difference between the front card and the cards you’re playing cannot be 2. So you can’t play 4s on 2s or 1s on 3s, or vice-versa.
Once you’ve added cards, it’s time for Rollecate to move! Roll dice equal to the total value of cards you played. For every wheel, Rollecate will try to move one card forward. If you need to roll more than 4 dice (you played 3 3s or 2 4s or something), just roll the dice again as much as you need. Then, move Rollecate. If Rollecate would move off the end of the track, you have to take Penalty Cards equal to the number of spaces you still need to move. Just like in the pass step, you take from the back of the rail, but you take them all at once and can add them to your discard pile in any order you’d like. Again, if you create a matching pair with the current top card of your discard pile, they are removed from the game. Additionally, if you pass over or stop on a broken track card, you must take an additional penalty card.
Discard Chaos Cards
If you have one or more Chaos Cards in hand, you may discard them instead of taking a turn in any order you want. These can also cancel out cards of the same value in your discard pile. Unlike passing, you do not have to move the train forward and you don’t have to take a Penalty Card.
End of Game
After the last card has been drawn, the game ends! Players immediately discard their hands into their discard pile without removing any matching pairs. Sum the values of the cards in your discard and the player with the lowest score wins!
Player Count Differences
The major difference here is in expectations. A lot can change from turn to turn, and at higher player counts, you’re going to be seeing that chaos pop up a lot more often than not, as players play big and rip up track to try and get rid of their own penalties. At lower player counts, this still happens, but to a reduced level as there’s only one player between your turns. This is sort of a common refrain of games where players work in a shared area; with more people, there are more changes to the shared area. If you like high-chaos games, that might be more your speed. I tend to prefer lower-chaos games, so I typically stick to lower player counts for these kinds of games, and Rollecate is no exception. Generally, I prefer it at two, and I probably would shy away from it at for.
- Passing when you don’t need to take a Penalty Card is a great way to stall until the right cards are at the back of the track. There are going to be a few times in the game where Rollecate is on a card all by its lonesome. When that happens, if you pass, you cannot take a Penalty Card. So it may be worth passing until you can get more cards in hand or plan out your next few turns better so that you have a good sense of what you want to do.
- Making big plays is a good idea if you’re trying to take a lot of cards. You might want to take a lot of cards if they’re all the same value, or if you have a large mix of cards in your discard pile. That will allow you to match the incoming Penalties with the top card of your discard pile several times, hopefully getting you pretty close to 0 cards. That said, a lot of that depends on you rolling essentially exactly the right number, which may be a lot to ask for given how fickle dice are, by nature.
- It can also work if there aren’t many cards on the track. If there aren’t many cards, then you’ll likely take some of the cards you played and everything else. That might be what your goal is! If so, then go for the big play and let everything else work out.
- Having a few Chaos Cards in hand can be helpful to get rid of certain cards from the top of your discard. You can essentially wait until you have exactly the right value on top of your discard pile, and then discard the Chaos Cards that you need to burn those cards off of your discards and out of the game entirely. They essentially provide you some control over your discard pile, so use them when you think they’ll be most effective; it’s difficult to get that level of precision from taking Penalty Cards.
- When you take Penalty Cards, try to anticipate what the most likely value you’ll get next is. This is key, because you want to have your top discard be the card you expect to get again so that you can cancel it out and remove it from the game. Don’t necessarily put your highest Penalty on top; if you can get a 2 first and cancel out your 2, you should leave the 2 on top. The 4 can wait until later.
- Don’t rely on the dice to give you exactly what you want. They’re finicky, as dice are known to be, and they will occasionally really mess you up if you’re relying too hard on expected value. Assume you’ll get roughly the number you want, or save up until you have enough cards that you’ll get far higher than you need. If a specific number greatly changes the amount of points you’ll take as Penalty Cards, it may be worth waiting or trying a less aggressive strategy.
- Be careful with an empty hand too early in the game. It seems like a good idea to get rid of cards and bring down your discard pile, but that essentially reduces you to drawing a card and playing a card or drawing a card and taking whatever Penalty Card is at the back of the track, which may not gel with your strategy all that well. Having a couple options is pretty helpful, especially if your only card ends up being unplayable or not particularly useful for you to play.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- It’s fairly low complexity, which I always appreciate. You kinda just draw a card and play it, if you can. If you go off the edge, you take cards off the back as penalty points. Fewest points wins! It’s the combining penalty cards to remove them that’s particularly clever, but more on that in a bit.
- It’s also very portable. Small box game and it’s just a bunch of cards and a die. While portable, you do need a decent amount of table space to actually play it.
- It seems like the perfect kind of game for a time lapse, as the train kinda moves as the tracks get played and pulled again and it charts its path around the table. I’d be interested to see one of this. I suppose I could make one, but who has the time? Either way, the effect of the train moving by moving onto new cards as the old ones are removed is very cute.
- This seems like a really good / quick family game. I think the theme is light and the gameplay is low-complexity enough that I could see younger gamers taking to it nicely, and it has the “train construction” aspect that I grew up with. Worst case, you could simplify the Penalty Card rules for younger players if that’s too complex.
- The dice are a nice pseudo-press-your-luck element. I like that you need to rely on them to move, rather than just moving. It makes the game a bit swingy because the dice are unpredictable (particularly because the range of possible outcomes rises as you roll more dice, but, probability blah blah blah), but it does keep it interesting.
- Taking a big turn and having it work out is interesting. I really like dropping 3 4s and just trying to pick up every card and hoping that I can combine them and end up with nothing in my discard pile. It doesn’t always work, but it sometimes works, and that’s really the goal.
- I also like that you can both roll higher and lower than you wanted, depending on your goal for that turn. It’s a nice touch, honestly. Usually, rolling lower isn’t bad, but here, it might mean that you didn’t get the card that you needed to take to cancel out a bunch of cards in your discard, and are now stuck with a ton of points you don’t want. That’s interesting!
- Allowing players to combine cards in their discard pile to get rid of them is an interesting strategic touch. This is a lot of the game, right here; you need to strategically take cards so that you can pull cards out of your discard pile in order to not score. It leads to big turns where players try to take exactly the right number of cards so that they can end up clearing out their discard pile, and it’s super cool when it all works out.
- It’s also a nice and colorful game, so it looks great on the table. Having the bright green backing for the rail is very good. It kind of makes me wish there were a few other features, like rivers or ponds or like a snowy area, but, you know, I’m a sucker for detailed backgrounds.
- The hint about which cards can’t be played on which cards is in an inconvenient location. This is a fairly specific problem, but when I hold cards I tend to hold them such that my left hand has them with my thumb centered. This often blocks or obscures the hint that I can’t play a 3 on a 1 or vice-versa, so if I’m not thinking I might inadvertently misplay. Having that located elsewhere might be … more helpful? This is a fairly specific problem, so, meh.
- This game can be a real pain to reposition if you started too close to an edge of your play area or played too many of the wrong cards. I know a lot of tile games have this problem, but they don’t move quite as far quite as quickly as this little steam engine seems to. It’s just hellbent to go off the edge of the table and it cannot be stopped. Try to have your players also commit to playing cards such that Rollecate will stay on the table; it may mildly affect a player’s strategy, but, it’s a pain to move a bunch of cards at once.
- I’m not sold on the Chaos Cards. I get that they’re junk, but … they don’t feel great to draw if you only draw one card a turn.
- The broken track and Chaos Cards should have specific symbols on them, rather than just relying on looking different than other cards. This one is a bit more pertinent. A few of the cards for a cute effect are missing a railroad tie or two, which makes players think that they might be the broken track. The Chaos cards, on the other hand, are completely trackless. That’s fine, but then the actual broken track cards are confused for Chaos cards, and that causes downstream issues. Having “Broken Track” and “Chaos” on the card is less visually appealing, granted, but it’s a lot clearer about what should be played where.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, I think Rollecate is a cute little game! It’s bright and colorful and fun, and challenges my thinking about the idea of “progression” in a game. I usually like it most when you can look at a board and see the grand, sweeping things you’ve accomplished over the course of the game, but Rollecate specifically subverts that. A lot of times, there’s just one card with the little locomotive on it. But you know you accomplished a lot! You watched it move! And that’s interesting, to me. It’s essentially like watching a little stop-motion video in parts, as the train rides across cards that players play and donates old cards to players’ discard piles as unhelpful Penalties. It’s cute. That cute factor seems to be what the game is playing into, and that largely works. I think, as a result, this would also be a nice game to play with younger / less experienced gamers, as it’s got a low barrier to entry, ramps up well, and is generally lower on the complexity scale. The strategic elements (choosing how to organize your Penalties) can be abstracted out or gradually introduced in order to keep things interesting, as well. I do wish a few things were clearer about which cards are what type and where they can be played, but hopefully that will get addressed in the second edition, whenever that happens. Beyond that, though, it’s a very cute game! I think I’m gently a fan of train games, as well, so this appeals to me in the “idyllic train ride” sense, as well. If you’re looking for a small path-building game, or something quick and a bit chaotic, I’d say you may enjoy Rollecate! I had fun with it.