A Tumble of the Dice — Too Many Bones

I’ve made a habit of having a weekly board game night for the better part of a year, running through some campaign/legacy board games with some friends in order to have a chance to try out some of the headier games that wouldn’t fly with my usual board gaming group — namely, my parents. We started with Gloomhaven, and moved on to Clank! Legacy and, most recently, Too Many Bones, a self-proclaimed “Dice Builder RPG” from Chip Theory Games. I must admit, after the first play or two I was a bit disappointed, but mainly because I went into the game expecting something other than what TMB provides. Once I was able to temper my expectations I came to discover that Too Many Bones is, in fact, a rich and well-developed RPG in-a-box that manages to hide a substantial amount of depth behind a handful of mousepads, a bunch of poker chips, and a mountain of dice.

Why Are We Here? Because We’re Here

If you’re expecting a level of progression on par with games like Gloomhaven, or a rich and well-written narrative like the ones you’d find in games like Pandemic Legacy or Clank! Legacy, you’re going to be in for a bit of a rude awakening in Too Many Bones. Apart from its so-called “campaign expansion”, Age of Tyranny, there’s no carry-over from game to game. Too Many Bones provides a short and sweet (for a given definition of “short”) RPG campaign out of the box, and each time you sit down to play you’ll be running through an entire adventure, replete with daily encounters, character advancement in the form of Training Points that let you increase your stats or gain new skills — which all come as new dice unique to your character of choice — and loot, both of which you’ll be gaining from the completion of your random daily events.

Too Many Bones almost feels like an adaptation of a larger work none of us has read, with its encounter cards, tyrant descriptions, and flavor text all hinting at a vast world full of interesting lore that we never actually get to see. We’re introduced to places like Obendar and Daelore, characters like the Gearloc Council, the Mohlnor, or our myriad tyrants, and struggles and tribulations going on, ostensibly, behind the scenes, but we never have any real idea of what we’re doing, who we’re doing it for or to, or why any of this is happening. It makes some of the encounters feel half-baked or just plain strange, and doesn’t supply us any motive beyond “hey, go kill that guy.” That said, the “kill that guy” part is a ton of fun.

At the start of each of your treks, you and your fellow players will largely have the same abilities and stats, and your turn-by-turn gameplay will be nearly identical. However, as you rack up Training Points from your encounters, which take the form of both battles and narrative decision points, your chosen Gearloc (a sort of cross between a goblin and a gnome) will have access to a completely unique set of skill dice that will drastically impact your choices in combat. By the time you’re facing off against your tyrant of choice, everyone will be filling completely different roles in the battle.

The defense-heavy Picket will be fully covered in shields, and will be tanking big hits, sharing his defense with his allies, and using massive Shield Bash attacks to debilitate his foes. The barbarian-expy Tantrum, on the other hand, will be managing his deceptively complex rage dice each time he gives or receives damage in order to pull off massive attacks, disabling enemies, and eating body parts to replenish health (ick). Patches, the healer, will essentially be present to buff and restore his allies while putting some debuffs down on the enemies on the mat. Boomer, the last of the four that come with the base game, deals with an intricate dance of finding components, building bombs, and tossing all manner of different grenades that can damage enemies and allies alike, provide defensive bonuses, or debuff foes.

Roll the Bones

Turn by turn, TMB smartly reduces your action to simply selecting a handful of dice available to you (how many you can choose is limited by your Dexterity stat), picking targets for your various abilities or attacks, and tossing them all, hoping for a good result. Being a dice game, there’s naturally a lot of luck in Too Many Bones, with every die having at least one side with the game’s titular bones upon it. Luckily for those of us with terminal bad dice luck, bones aren’t simply a useless roll, they can be stored in your play mat’s “Backup Plan” area and used later on to great effect — each use of which is naturally unique to each Gearloc. Additionally, most skill dice can simply be replaced to their position on your mat if you don’t like what you roll.

While the mechanism of play is itself as simple as can be, the minutia of adjudicating every die roll and every enemy turn becomes an enormous feat of memorization, planning, and constant referring to rules — which not only come on full front-and-back sheets for each Gearloc, but also on another sheet describing how to unlock chests and what all of the dozens of different enemy abilities do, the massive rulebook, and even on a whole playlist of lengthy YouTube videos which are linked in the rulebook to better explain some of the more headscratch-y events. It was not uncommon for us during our various plays through the game to choose an encounter option based simply on the fact that we didn’t want to sit through a half-hour YouTube video to figure out how to throw darts.

Too Many Bones boasts a wide variety of types of “baddie”, each lumped under one of six categories, only some of which will be present in each adventure based on which of the final boss “tyrants” you chose to deal with. Thankfully, their actions on each turn are much simpler to negotiate than in similar games, and the rules for TMB flat-out state that the players can judge any and all ties that ever come up in whatever way they deem fit. It felt much nicer to simply make decisions like that based on player fiat rather than following a complicated flowchart to figure out who the hell an enemy would be attacking in Gloomhaven.

The initial setup for a game of Too Many Bones is a bit daunting, but eventually you will be able to simplify and build your encounter deck — which always begins with the same three encounters, unfortunately — pretty quickly, shuffling in the appropriate encounters unique to the tyrant you selected, and setting up your Gearloc mats and the battle mat that sits in the center of the table. The battle mat, obviously enough, is where battles take place, and is a simple 4-by-4 grid with basic enough rules for placing units, moving around, and targeting enemies. Each combat, you construct a “Battle Queue,” which cleverly has you face off against increasingly tough and numerous enemies determined by how far along in your adventure you are.

As you progress, you’ll pick up Loot cards and Trove Loot cards, which in my experience tended to be almost completely useless apart from a select few items, which were usually Heavy items that took up most of your slots or were instant-use cards that gave you access to special Consumable dice that went away permanently after use. We almost always opted for whichever encounter option gave us Training Points over loot, especially in instances where we had experienced a party wipe on a prior battle and were in a deadly game of catch-up as we faced off against ever-stronger Battle Queues and were already behind in our progression.

At times, Too Many Bones can feel a bit like an exercise in futility if you make poor decisions early on, and it can swiftly become completely unwinnable without a lucky streak of encounter draws to pick up some free Training Points. Some of the non-combat encounters take the form of simple narrative choices that can have impacts like adding other, special encounter cards to the encounter deck, and some of them are bafflingly weird scenarios like physically flicking dice across the mat or killing rats represented by single health chips.

Cylindrical Adventures

Right out of the box, it’s hard not to be struck by how gorgeous and well-made every single component in Too Many Bones is — and they better be, considering the game’s hefty price tag. The dozens of dice are well-weighted and feel satisfying to roll, and all of them have distinct enough iconography to quickly pinpoint what their different faces are (so you can look them up in one of half a dozen different places). The player mats and battle mats are made from nice neoprene, and the punched-out holes to slot your various dice into are tactile and satisfying, as well. Enemies, Gearlocs, and health are represented by glossy chips, which also feel nice and have incredibly substantial weight. Health being represented by stacks of chips is a bit of an odd design choice, and has the visual effect of each battle being a conflict of giant cylindrical towers.

The general decision behind this seems to be an effort to make the entire game … waterproof. Indeed, even the instruction booklet, reference sheets, and cards are made of thin plastic. I don’t know who, exactly, is playing Too Many Bones in the bathtub, but I guess it’s … nice to have the option? It certainly makes the game feel of a superlative production quality, but one has to wonder if it wouldn’t be worth it to have some cardboard in there in order to get that price tag at least down into the double digits.

As far as the rest of the game’s quality is concerned, the rules are certainly a bit lacking in depth — providing little icons that are shorthand for “go look this up on YouTube, where we actually explain it” at a rate of three or four a page. That certainly makes for a steep learning curve and a disheartening first impression. That said, the rulebook is quick to empower the player to make judgment calls that make sense to them in the case of any ambiguity, and though it feels a bit like cheating the first few times, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s absolutely necessary in order to keep those longer adventures from taking seven hours.

Campaign Manager

The Age of Tyranny expansion, the only one I’ve purchased thus far, serves to add a handful of mechanics to the game that seem like they should’ve been there from the start. Perhaps the most important among these is the addition of several new encounter cards for the first three days, which add some much-needed variety to the beginning of each adventure. Additionally, AOT adds a “campaign” option, which takes the form of you and your party essentially fighting all seven tyrants in a row, carrying over a couple of trained skills, loot cards, and debuffs between each adventure, and … not much else.

Each campaign card provides a tiny bit of lore, along with each epilogue you get to read after defeating a tyrant, but again, much of this is obfuscated and indecipherable, and still feels like the prologue to something much bigger. Perhaps it’s provided in some of the other expansions, or will be in the future, but it’s still a disappointing coda to an already somewhat lackluster attempt at a campaign.

While it is fun to carry over some of your skills and to have a chance at unlocking the use of your defeated tyrant’s unique die, it’s hardly a true campaign and essentially feels identical to just playing the game seven times in a row. As I say, much of this feels like it could have easily been included in the base game, and should have. While the four included characters in the base game are entertaining enough, I’ll certainly be venturing to purchase some of the much more interesting-sounding expansion characters, and eventually I’ll probably also pick up the Undertow standalone expansion since it seems to provide some much-needed clarity to the game’s flimsy lore.

On the whole, Too Many Bones provides a unique experience and manages to cram the feeling of a full-fledged RPG with lots of cool character progression, fun decision points, and tense tactical battles into a relatively short time frame (but still a significant one). That said, the base game can and will get repetitive; there’s only so much fun to be had in its relatively scant encounter deck and the four starting characters, and while the expansions will add some clever variety, it’s a somewhat big ask when you’ve already dropped a buck and a half on the game alone. Still, if you like rolling dice and want the feeling of a fast-paced D&D campaign in three hours or less, it’s hard to go wrong with Too Many Bones.