Thanks to The City of Games for providing a review copy of this game.
Before we start today’s review, a little musical interlude: “Duetto buffo di due gatti”, commonly attributed to Gioachino Rossini, though more likely compiled by another source in 1825, based on Rossini’s 1816 opera Otello.
Now that we’re in the mood, let’s look at
The Isle of Cats is a 2019 game designed by Frank West and published by The City of Games. In this 1-4 player game, you are trying to rescue as many cats as possible from a legendary island. The evil Lord Vesh will be there in five days to take the casts for his own nefarious purposes.
Each player gets a boat board at the start of the game. Each boat is a little different – the layout is the same, but the positioning of rats and color of treasure maps is changed for each one. Players also get one permanent basket. The island board itself is placed in the middle of the table, with Lord Vesh’s boat on the number 5 and a colored cat for each player on the turn order track. Common treasures are set nearby – there are four types, and you’ll have different numbers of each type based on the number of players. Supplies of fish, baskets, and wooden cat pieces are set nearby for easy reach, as is the deck of 150 discovery cards.
At the start of each round, you’ll first fill the fields with cats. You’ll draw two cats per player to place on the left side of the island, and two cats per player for the right side. Any rare treasures you draw should be placed with the common treasures. After this, each player gets 20 fish for the round, which is added to any they may have had left over from the previous round.
Next is the exploration phase. Each player is dealt seven cards. You look at these and decide on two to keep. You then pass the rest (left in odd rounds, right in even rounds). You’ll select two more from those you were passed, and pass the rest. You’ll do this one more time, then keep the last card you were passed so you have seven cards left. Once you have this hand, you can decide which of those you want to actually hold onto. Any cards you keep must be paid for with fish, and you’ll discard the rest. These cards are added to your hand and kept secret.
Once everyone has their hand, it’s time for lessons. You must play all blue cards in your hand. Public lessons are played face up and are essentially a scoring condition that all players will be able to take advantage of. Regular lessons are scoring conditions that are just for you, and are played face down by your board.
In the next phase, it’s time to rescue some cats. Beginning with the start player, each player chooses as many green cards as they want from their hands to play. These are all revealed simultaneously. Green cards show baskets and boots. Boots are your speed, and having more speed will put you higher in turn order. Baskets are used to rescue the cats, with half baskets needing to be put together to form a whole one.
Once turn order has been determined, players take turns rescuing cats. You can only take cats if you have the baskets for them, including the permanent basket you got at the start of the game. Cats on the left side of the island cost three fish, and cats on the right side cost 5 fish. Cats must by played when taken. The first cat can go anywhere on your boat, but all subsequent tiles must touch a previously placed tile. Your boat has a few features – rooms, rats, and treasure maps. Rooms must be filled, or they will lose you five points each at the end of the game. Rats must be covered, or they will lose you one point each at the end of the game. Treasure maps will earn you a common treasure when covered with a cat of the same color. You can freely cross walls with your cats, they just can’t go outside the white border.
When all cats that are going to be rescued have been placed, players can take turns playing brown or yellow cards. Yellow cards will get you treasure. Brown cards will get you Oshax, a special cat that serves as a wild. When you place one on your board, you decide what color it is as well. There are also purple cards in the game that can be played at any time.
At the end of the round, Lord Vesh’s boat will move forward. After the fifth track, you’ll score everything. Cat in groups of 3 or more are known as families and score based on their size. Lessons are scored individually, and you’ll lose points for rooms that aren’t completely full and visible rats. The player with the highest score wins.
I’m going to lead off this review portion with a little bit of a disclaimer – we are not cat people in my house. I really don’t have anything against cats. Im fact, I really like them. But my wife is allergic, so no cats here. This isn’t going to affect my review at all, just thought I’d bring it up.
Components in this game are phenomenal. The box itself is one of the thickest boxes I’ve ever encountered. I’m assuming this is partially because the top lid comes with a spot to place your cat during the game. The boats are well illustrated, and slightly different from each other so each player is playing a slightly different game. The polyomino cats are all really well illustrated, and the polyomino format puts the cats in positions that it makes total sense for cats to be in as they lounge around the ship. The score pad includes enough for four games on a single sheet (front and back). The art is great, the component quality is great, everything is great. The only small complaint I have is that there are six steps on the island for turn order, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a game that only goes up to four players. Yes, I know there’s a 5-6 player expansion, but I would have preferred four steps and some kind of cardboard piece to add on in the expansion. (I have not played the 5-6 player expansion, but my experience with those is they tend to make the games a lot longer with more down time rather than enhancing the game play at all).
Thematically, the evil Lord Vesh ties the game to The City of Kings, the first game published by Frank West and The City of Games. It’s a very loose connection, however – really, all Vesh does is act as a timer. If you don’t know any of the lore from the first game, it won’t matter to your experience at all. I usually just say that Vesh needs the cats for some nefarious purpose, and let everyone create their own narrative around that.
The Isle of Cats is a polyomino game. These have been incredibly popular lately, largely thanks to Uwe Rosenberg’s success with games like Patchwork and A Feast For Odin. The idea using polyomino pieces to fill a space is of course older than that – Blokus used them in 2000, Tetris used them in 1984, and they first started showing up in puzzles back in 1907. And the concept hasn’t changed much since then – flip the piece so it fits in a spot, and then try to fill in around it. You’ve got the extra restrictions of placing only next to other cats, and also the scoring conditions of trying to fill rooms and avoid leaving rats revealed. The rats and rooms can be pretty stiff penalties if you’re not paying attention, and it’s very likely that you’ll lose a few points in this way.
The card draft phase is a very cool take on drafting. You get a hand of cards, keep some and pass the rest as in other drafting games. However, just because you drafted cards doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them. You only keep what you’re willing to pay for. This is a little different than in something like 7 Wonders, where you pay to put things in play (maybe). Here, you buy them first, then decide when and if you want to play them later. Also, by drafting two at a time, it can cut down on the frustration of having to pass up on multiple cards you might need at once.
There is a great variety of cards themselves. It’s a huge deck – 150 of them. There’s a really nice variety of lessons and special action cards. I kind of wish there were more Oshax in the game – they seem like really cool cats, and there are only six. Games could go by without seeing any of them pop up, or it’s possible someone could get them all. The cards are pretty expensive, however.
The cat purchasing seems a little arbitrary. The cats you can purchase are either 3 or 5 fish, but it’s random how much each will be. The same cat shape in different colors can cost two different things in a round. Apart from having specific three-cost cats and specific five-cost cats, I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know that it actually NEEDS to be fixed, however – it’s just a thing that doesn’t always make a lot of sense to me.
Overall, gameplay is very smooth and not too complicated to understand. But one of the best things about this game is that it is packaged with a family mode. This takes out the card draft and the fish, and is just about placing cats on your boat. Players get secret objectives beforehand, but are mostly trying to make families and avoid leaving rooms/rats revealed. This is a great way to introduce the game to people, and it made it so I have another game I can play with my five-year-old daughter. She totally held her own in the game we played, too – my wife and I were trying to help here with some of the strategy, but at one point as we were trying to make suggestions to her, she said in a very fierce voice, “NO! It goes here!” We left her alone after that, and her final score was only one point below mine (my wife crushed us both).
There’s also a solo mode where you are playing against a bot that removes certain cats from play and scores points for random colors and lessons. You have to place things in a specific order when setting up for rounds, and it’s a fairly fun mode. I have not yet played with the advanced solo lesson cards, and clearly I should – I won my first solo game 103-57. But it’s a fun one I would definitely play more solo.
The game takes up quite a bit of table space, and it’s in a giant box so it’s not super portable. But there’s a lot packed in there, and it all works really well. I’ve only played solo and with three players, but it feels like it would work really well with all player counts.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I really really REALLY like this game. It all feels very familiar while feeling like something different, and the fact that I can play it with different levels of gamers is a great feature. The Isle of Cats is a game I can definitely recommend.
Thanks again to The City of Games for providing a review copy of The Isle of Cats, and thanks to you or reading!