Running with the Bulls is the third title in Calliope Games’ Titan Series, family friendly games by some of the biggest designers in the industry. You can see my thoughts on the other games, Menu Masters and Hive Mind, by clicking on the links.
Matt: What are you doing!?
Marc: I’m a bull in a china shop!
Matt: What? No! This is my house!
Marc: Then I’m going to bulldozer it to get at all the bullion you have hidden down there. I’m quite capabull.
Matt: This is bulls-
Running with the Bulls draws upon all the imagery of the famous Pamplona bull run, a desperate flight down the hillside, chased by giant, angry, spotted cows, and dice! Many dice. It’s always amazed me that the Pamplonans were able to train Bulls to roll dice. The Titan Series’ stated goal (of which this is the last entry for the time being) was to take a core gaming mechanic and produce a family game that showed how board gaming has advanced. For Running with the Bulls that mechanic is Roll and Move (!!?#%$!) But wait! Don’t run away yet! Because whilst you certainly roll dice, and you undeniably move, the game is not what you first expect…
Roll, and move
Each player gets a hearty handful of dice in their preferred player colour and rolls them to determine which spot along the top of the board they’ll start in. Far from being a single track race to the bottom, this city is a chaotic mess of crisscrossing streets with numerous routes to the bottom of the hill where you will find the delights of scoring locations, giving you something to aim for on your mad dash down.
A round plays out straightforwardly. Each player chooses a card from their hand of action cards and plays it to do various chaotic things, re-rolling dice, moving stuff around, screwing with other players, the usual. Then everyone’s dice move down the slope to the next junction space. The trick is that many of these junctions have 2 routes leaving them, an Odd route (for odd people) and an Even route. As you might have guessed, the value on your little runner die determines which of the routes it’ll take. So you’re trying to manipulate your dice into taking the routes that will lead them to the highest scoring locations.
Of course, someone mentioned Bulls at some point and you won’t be forgetting about those in a hurry. Because each starting roundabout has a giant red die in it that represents the them. These bad boys will move with your dice (following the same rules for junctions) and try to gore any die that has the same value as them. A goring proceeds thusly: any matching runners are rerolled and if they come up showing the same value as any of the Bulls in that roundabout they are viciously removed from the board for this run down the hill. After you’ve reached the bottom and scored points you reset the board with all of your dice to try again (for a total of three runs down the hill). Turns out your dice only got a thorough scare and they’re alright now, really.
Feeling a little board?
I want to talk about the board. Look at that crazy board! Have a picture and take it all in.
There is so much on this board. At first it looks like chaos, but at least the even routes are colour coded blue and the odd routes are colour coded red and if they’d thought to colour the “no choice” routes grey or something then you could fairly easily make out how all the routes link together once you know how to look. As things are it’s not too bad and all that characterful chaos filling in the gaps is a real treat to pour over, full of little gags and Easter eggs to spot. And that’s a good thing. Because, my God, are you going to have a lot of free time to look at it!
The action cards, combined with how the dice move, make for a killer combination. You look at one of your cards and think, can I do anything good with this card? Then you look at the positions of your dice, your opponents dice, the Bulls, what are their values? Where will they all end up next turn? Then you do that with 4 more cards, thinking about whether you’d prefer to save some of them for later. Doing that with up to 6 players gets crazy, especially as all these cards change the board state, preventing you from really planning your turn. The game involves less running and more standing around staring at a map.
That’s bad. But what makes this worse is that few of the options are remotely appealing. There have been numerous turns of this game where I’ve looked at my cards and thought, “I don’t want to play any of these cards”. Most involve rolling dice in various combinations. Maybe all the dice at a roundabout, or 3 specific dice or one die from every roundabout. You can try and use these powers to correct the values of your dice to send them down the right path, or the opposite for your opponents. Perhaps try to get them targeted by Bulls. But it’s a dice roll and the impact you have is often small. The fact that charging Bulls give you generally excellent odds at avoiding them makes trying to get your opponents caught a borderline pointless effort. You often find yourself playing a card only because you have to, and where’s the fun in that?
Perhaps I’m playing this too competitively. But if you give me a hand of cards to choose from I expect to be given an interesting choice. Instead, maybe I should be playing randomly, using my cards to sow as much chaos as possible. But screwing up other player’s plans presupposes they have a plan, or at least some investment in the outcome. And what should be the teeth to this game’s screwage, the Bulls, are surprisingly mild. Even working out where would cause the most disruption is not obvious as it requires evaluating the spread of dice and their position on the road network. There are moments of silly back and forth, but not enough to fill 90 mins of shuffling dice around.
I am immensely disappointed in Running With The Bulls. At the very least, this is not a game designed with gamers in mind. But even for families, there are much better games out there. Like with kids TV, the best family games offer something that both kids and adults can enjoy! Even the appeal of being able to screw up your parents stuff is dulled by just how unlikely it is to have any effect, or how hard it is to measure. I feel like this is an example of where “eurofication” has gone too far, filling down the rough take-that edges and randomness but inadvertently loosing the fun and excitement in the process. Shame.
Rating: Run Away