Author: Lutz Pietschker
Version: 1998

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Plague!: A Very British Boardgame

This game is also known as Rats!


Remarks: I want to thank Steven Barsky (the author of the game) and Christopher Dearlove (former Weymouth resident) for their help and advice in getting this page right.
The background image of this page has been made up from a scene of the 15th-century fresco "Danse Macabre" in the Abbey of Chaise-Dieu, Haute-Loire, France.

Bring Out Your Dead!

Bursby Around June 24th, 1348, two ships arrived at Melcombe Regis harbour quay. They carried goods, some passengers, and... the plague. Rats scurried ashore, and within a few days the first victims had succumbed to the Black Death. High fever, buboes, pain and coughing of blood are some symptoms of the "Black Death", and certain strains of the disease brought death within 24 hours. Infected persons carried the bacillae, as did rats, fleas and other vermin.
In those times, ordinary people and even "learned" ones knew little about hygiene or about the way diseases spread. Accordingly, the plague struck regularly and ferociously, without prejudice. In some regions 60% of the inhabitants died, and Europe lost about one third of its population in the plague of 1348-1350. The deceased would be collected from their houses and brought to mass burial sites, the houses would be locked and marked "Keep Out!", and those who were left alive as often as not had to face death by starvation. We cannot really imagine what life must have been in those times.
Or can we? Perhaps a game about the topic will do the trick by concerning us with one of the gruesome tasks at hand? But remember, this game originates from the country that gave us Monty Python's Flying Circus, so... "always look at the bright side of death", and try to earn a few pence by roaming the streets for bodies, hopefully dead by the time they hit the grave!

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The Game: Abstract

The original game is out of print since end of 1996, alas, though it may still be available at some game shops. The Avalon Hill Game Company, USA, had announced to re-publish it under the name of Rats!. Now that TAHGC has been sold, maybe Hasbro will take up this game? The changes between both editions would have been only marginal I have been told: AH planned to use two 6-sided dice instead of the one 12-sided, and the number of Black Death Cards would have been reduced to 48.
However, this description refers to the original game by B&B Productions.

If you like to take a more global view you may also want to try the game "Black Death" (Blacksburg Tactical Research Center, USA, 1993). In this "tasteless and pestilential game for 1 to 30 million players" you play the part of the plague on a stylized map of Europe, trying to bag more victims than the competing "diseases" (players).

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Game concepts

Troy The game is explained quickly:Take your wagon from the stables, use the points rolled on a 12-sided die to move your wagon and to collect bodies, and the points of a 6-sided die to march an army of fleas and rats against your opponents. Rats block the road and may possibly trap your wagon. The fleas, well... nobody ever said wagon drivers were immune to the plague! (Don't panic- all you lose is one load of bodies.) Try to keep the cats in your vicinity to devour a tiresome rat now and then, and attempt to hoover away the deadly fleas with "Mac the Vac".
Visited houses are marked "out of bounds", and since some houses yield a higher-than-average number of bodies the race is on to get your share of those preferred sites to clean up. Of course, you still have to transport your passengers to the burial site before the fleas get you! Points are only scored when the victims are "dead and buried", and whoever is first to have delivered 99 bodies to their cold grave wins.

Just one more "race" game? A race, certainly, but with a vengeance (and a twinkle in the eye), and also a game of sneaky strategy and robust "hit the leader" mechanisms.

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Game components

Proud Cat The box cover art gives a first impression what you might expect: Rats (lots of them), a somewhat haunted atmosphere, and a solid preference for anachronisms.
A beautiful large map displays the towns of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, in what the rulebook admits to be a not-quite-historical bird's view. I certainly cannot argue with this since I've never spoken with a bird that hovered over those towns in 1348. Sadly, the parking lot is missing which allegedly was initiated many years later by Henry VIII himself (you know, that monarch who had only two of his six wives beheaded, a fine example of noble British self-restraint). Also, a bridge is there that was built much later. In short, history was cheerfully muddled with, and not only while drawing the map.
Cats, rats, fleas and "Mac the Vac" are represented by round cardboard counters, with each rat individually named (did you know that rats had names?), and dispensed from the "Rat Bag" that makes a nice change from the usual "opaque cup" used for random draws. (To quote the author, "Why doesn't every game have a Rat Bag?". Why, indeed?)
One (red) 6-sided die and one 12-sided die play fate. The "wagons" are normal playing pawns. A set of 55 professionally-punched event cards (also known as Black Death Cards) is responsible for random events that may be good or bad, depending on your point of view. Scorekeeping is done with the aid of a scoring pad piously titled "In Remembrance".
The rules recommend to have a watch at hand (or wrist), and two pence per player. If the pence go missing you may call the watch (sorry, folks! My friends call me "Pun the Hun"), otherwise the coins are only needed if you take the event cards literally which is something you should avoid anyway.

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Game play

Hank If you are fascinated by maps, this game has a nice one, big enough even for the "optically challenged" amongst us. Watch out for by-ways and always plan an escape route when you enter a location!
A few hints: If you follow Melcombe Wharfe to the east you will come to Pleasure Pier and to the Channel Islands Ferry And Hydrofoil Terminal. The Radipole Lake Bird Reserve is to the north-west. On the north part of the beach a public convenience can be found near the King's Statue. To the east, you may pass by El Rondo's Caf' and use Nothe Walk to reach Nothe Point and the Fort. The greater part of St. Mary Street is now in fact a pedestrian precinct. (To be sure, these hints are quite irrelevant for the game. For further information please contact the Weymouth and Portland Tourist Office.)

As you can imagine, the game turns out to be a race for the best sources of victims and the remorseless attempt to futilise your opponent's efforts by stopping him with some rats and possibly setting him up for the kill by a well-placed flea. Though strategy planning is required and useful, Lady Luck can (and frequently will) spoil the best-laid plans of men and rats through the fall of the Black Death Cards.

A few unofficial answers to questions that popped up while playing:

The game changes its character somewhat with the number of players. It is best played with 3 or 4 players I think, but a 2-player-game is quite possible. However, with two players it is likely that the map remains rather "clean" if you do not play aggressively. You might try the following unofficial variant to speed the Nasties up a bit:

Another, more elaborate variation would be to

Those who are not afraid to tamper with providence and who think that the Black Death Cards bring an altogether too heavy random element into the game might consider to roll an additional die immediately before the draw of the Black Death Card, and to take a card only on an odd die roll (odd things happen when you draw those cards). If you do this you probably also prefer nice clean hexes on a mapboard over twisted city streets. Beware, Black Death strikes as it pleases!

Finally, I should mention that the rulebook gives two bibliographical references: One book about the plague, and another about the town staging this game, Weymouth. Which brings me to the highly speculative assumption that the whole game might be a hoax of the local Tourist Board.
Well, it is certainly not, for there are some critical remarks about modern reconstruction schemes hidden in the rules. But even if it were (Steven, please accept my apologies :-), it would be of the elaborate kind. I never before knew that much about the plague and the time when it had its hey-day, and I would have had difficulties to exactly locate Weymouth on a map. Today, I hope never to encounter the first but I am seriously planning to visit the latter.

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Dead And Buried?

Silly Cat A lot remains to be said, but I won't. I am not going to explain how "Mac the Vac" stretched its power cord across unknown distances and 700 years to de-flea the medieval streets of Weymouth, and I won't even mention why El Rondo's Caf' is such a favourite den for the hearse-driver. "Two beer or not two beer" is not the question that concerns its customers most! Find out for yourself, and if it makes perfect sense to you please tell me.
For me, the game so far was responsible for some wonderful if morbidly weird evenings, and for a glimpse into a world that is long gone. Not so long, on second thought: Infectious deadly disease has not left us to this day, but our readiness to see things from the light side is obviously increasing with a distance in time or space.

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Nice Cat Did you catch fire on the topic of plague, medieval times, or Weymouth? Then I recommend a look at my Medieval Links page.

A convenient way to find other books that deal with the plague topic are bookshop catalogues. Look for title keywords "plague" and "black death".

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Weymouth and Melcombe Regis

Blazon Just a few remarks concerning the towns of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis: For the purpose of the game, both names are used synonymously. This, however, does not do justice to their tangled history.
Weymouth is the older of the towns, taking its name from the small river Wey that runs into Radipole Lake north-west of the town. It was granted its first charter in 1252. As Melcombe developed on the north side of the inlet (mentioned as a licensed wool port in 1310 and carrying the suffix "Regis" since 1336) both settlements soon became competitors for importance. At times, this competition became real hate which was not ended when the towns were amalgamated in 1571 or when the first bridge was built between them in 1593. In 1645 a cannonade was fired across the harbour by Royalist Weymouth into Parliamentarian Melcombe; a cannonball stuck into a building wall can be seen to this day; Melcombe repaid in kind by sending fireships across to the southern quay. Until 1832 both towns sent their own MPs to Parliament, some of them as famous as Sir Christopher Wren (for Weymouth) and Sir Francis Bacon (for Melcombe).
Today, Melcombe Regis is a part of Weymouth, incidentally the part that is still referred to as "the Town" by elder citizens. Recent government re-organisation combined Weymouth and Melcombe Regis with Portland into the Borough of Portland and Weymouth.

Weymouth and Portland, which lies to the south of it, have a distinctive naval history (witness the Arms of Weymouth (GIF 20k)). They supplied ships for Edward III against Calais, for Elizabeth I against the Spanish Armada, they harboured men-of-war in the Napoleonic wars, part of the Channel Fleet in the Great War and in World War II, and ships of the invasion fleet before D-Day. Actually, two "Mulberry Harbour" caissons are still lying in Portland harbour.
Coastal and Continental trading have been there since the early Middle Ages, the latter evidently not always legal. That this profession is not without risk is proven by the graves of sailors that can still be found on cemeteries of Portland, Wyke Regis and Weymouth.
Today, Weymouth harbour supports a fleet of a few fishing vessels and a notably larger number of private yachts and cruisers. It is also one embarkation point for the Channel Islands Ferries, though this business has largely moved to Poole and Southampton because of the better street and railroad connections available there.

A new era began for Weymouth when in 1773 the first notable holiday resort was opened. However, business really picked up only after George III spent some time for convalescence in Weymouth in 1789. It must have been a marvellous sight to behold when the King emerged from the bathing cart (the latter still to be seen at The Timewalk exhibition) into the water while a band played "God Save The King"! For the next 15 years he visited Weymouth regularly, and in 1809 the thankful citizens erected a statue of the King near the beach, at the expense of 200 guineas (which price included a lion and a unicorn).
The town still is a holiday resort with some 4500 hotel beds though it never could re-gain 19th-century glory. Current development and construction work tries to link up, in up-to-date style, to the days when the town claimed to be the "Naples of England". One notable event is the annual Carnival Day in August which is one of the largest such festival in England. The old Weymouth harbour still is one of the main attractions of the town. Here is also Brewers Quay where once was The Hole, including not only shops and pubs but also The Timewalk, the history experience (presented by Ms. Paws the Brewery Cat) that replaced the town museum.

For further information I recommend the excellent website of the Weymouth and Portland Tourist Office.

At last, a collection of graphics and historical pictures of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis (all links open in new pages or tabs):

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, last change 2011-03-12