First things first, this is a very short game in terms of how many decisions you get to make. It's not like PR or SJ where you can spend some time building up resources and then use those resources to power out VPs in late game. There is no late game. There are three different resources you have to juggle in addition to collecting VPs, and you have to take that into account while you're playing. Those resources are cubes, gold, and rats.
Rats: The order of the bribe cards is random, but at the end of the game the same ones will always have come out. As such, there are a finite number of rats. In the first stage (A) there are 12 rats. In the second stage (B) there are 13 rats. In the third stage (C) there are 12 rats. As such, if you don't want to get plagued you will have to deal with 37 rats over the course of the game. Note, you get 9 for free, as your rat marker starts on the 0 space.
Ending the game with the rat marker lower than on the 9 is wasteful. There is no intrinsic benefit to having killed extra rats. (Extra money is a tiebreaker, so it does something. Rats, not so much.) The time you spent killing those rats could have (and likely should have) been spent doing something better. In fact, the only time a low rat count is particularly good is the beggar king, a phase B card that turns rat spaces into VPs.
Now, how do you deal with rats? There are a few ways. (Remember, if you're trying not to get plagued you need to deal with 28 rats over the entire game.)
- Hospital: Every cube in the hospital is worth 1 rat, plus one rat for every turn left in the game. Note:If you are at 0 you don't get the initial benefit of the hospital, so a turn 1 hospital only deals with 9 rats, not 10. A turn 2 hospital also deals with 9 rats, so delaying a turn doesn't hurt, not that you really get that choice.
- Park: Placing a cube here is worth 1 rat. That is all. (And potentially a ton of VPs...)
- Buggy: Not always possible, but often you can get 3VPs and kill 1 rat.
- Guesthouse: Kill 1 rat. Sometimes you could kill 2 rats. I can't imagine you winning with that many cubes in the guesthouse though.
- The Doctah: Score 0 rats for the round. Your hospital still kills rats this turn, so you actually can move backwards. Some games this will be worth 7 rats, some games it will be worth 1. This guy is a general dude, so he can be bribed all 3 phases if you want.
- The Wench: 3VPs and 1 rat for a gold. It's like driving in your car!
- Getting plagued: After you lose 2VPs and a cube from the board you go down to 9 rats. Sometimes this can deal with a lot of rats, if you get a big rat turn with 7+ rats. Of course, in order to have this work you need to be pretty high up in rats as it is. Try not to use this tactic every turn!
In addition, a few of the bribes let you move cubes around. Moving them into the hospital can deal with rats! In particular, the mistrel lets you move 3 cubes without activating the building. This still deals with 3 rats a turn!
I had one game recently where turn 2A had 8 rats. The Minstrel was available to be bribed, and both Josh and I used it to move 3 cubes into the hospital, allowing us to both barely not get ratted. The other two players just got plagued. However, because we'd used up 8 rats on B1 there were only 5 left for B2 and B3, and this meant they were able to recover. Josh and I, with our 5 cubes in the hospital, were going to drop in a hurry. On turn C1 the Mistrel came up again, and I threw 3 cubes back out of the hospital into the park instead of claiming big VPs from whatever the round C bribe was. I ended up ending the game at exactly 9 rats and the extra cubes in the park really came home I think. (I scored The Queen with 8 cubes in the park for 12VPs!)
I won that game, but if the Minstrel hadn't come up in C1 I probably would have lost. Maybe a 33% chance at winning is a good play, but it's not clear and certainly won't be right every time, but it is an example of a less straightforward way to deal with rats.
At any rate... We need to handle 28 rats and the vast majority of our options only kill 1 at a time. We get to take 27 actions total in the entire game. 18 card plays and 9 bribes. It should be painfully clear that taking 1 rat actions can't be good enough. We need to take a couple actions which deal with many rats, and there are really only a couple of those that are ever available. As such, it's pretty important to take advantage of them when they arise.
Visit the doctor if he's going to kill a bunch of rats. Everyone can figure out to take him on a 7 rat phase but what about a 4? The fact that we're even considering a 4 rat doctor should make a phase A hospital look really good. It kills 8-9 rats! Even a phase B hospital kills 5-7 rats.
I strongly believe a phase A hospital is so good that I will first pick it every time. I can't think of a situation where I'd rather have anything else. Even if I know doing so will guarantee my opponent a solo-Notre Dame, I think it has to be done. The alternative is giving him my hospital and his, pretty much dealing with his rat problem for the whole game.
What about Balki? (Good Buddy!) The problem with putting Balki in the hospital is that for a hospital guy to be really good he wants to stay there the entire game. I have a similar problem with Balki and the park. I've put him there early before and always been sad when I have the option to draft future Balki's later in the game. It feels like sticking Balki in the hospital or the park is condemning him to live there forever. (Not always a bad thing, but something to keep in mind!)
One important thing to consider is the Bishop. You can bribe him to put a guy into the hospital for you if you haven't drawn or played your hospital yet. It is quite possible passing your hospital is ok if your plan is to just bribe the bishop, especially in a multi-handed game. (Though you can always play the hospital and then Bishop into anywhere else but ND.) Personally I like bishoping into the park so I can end up with 2 guys in the park and 1 in the hospital, but I could be way off base there. Bishoping into the hospital and then playing your own hospital card the next turn is awesome. That coupled with a couple parks and one doctor should be good enough.
Guesthousing a rat seems horrible. It's like the hospital or the park without any of the upside. Driving your car over a rat is a good number of VPs and can really be worth it in a pinch. If you need that rat dead it's way better than driving into 4 VPs.