08th May2020

‘The Isle of Cats’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

When it comes to game design, theme is hugely important to me. I know a lot of players prefer the mechanical or mathematical puzzles that games provide, but I honestly can’t engage my brain in the same way when a game is absent of theme. Thankfully for The Isle of Cats, the theme is everything, even if the game (like so many others) would work just as well with almost any other setting.

One of the especially cool things about The Isle of Cats (especially in the current circumstances) is the fact that it comes with several modes of play. The core game is a card and tile drafting game that uses a few fairly advanced mechanisms, whilst a lighter Family Mode is also included and has its own manual. In this mode, the drafting portion is removed entirely, and younger (or more casual) players are encouraged to use spacial awareness to maximise their point scoring ability. The last mode is a solo option against an in-game AI that offers a fairly stiff challenge, and an opportunity for a bit of training in advance of the main game.

As the title may suggest, The Isle of Cats is built around the idea that each player will visit an island inhabited entirely by cats, and, thanks to a loose plot about an evil tyrant aiming to conquer the world, will need to rescue as many of these felines as possible. Each player is given a random boat that acts as their player board, and during setup, they will choose a colour and receive a handful of components including fish tokens and a basket. Some of these steps differ in the Family or Solo modes, but for the purpose of this review, I’ll focus mostly on describing the standard game mode.

The first player will then begin to draw cat (and treasure) tiles from a huge cloth bag, which they will then place on the left and right side of a small, central island board that is used to track turn order and round number. A fixed number of common treasure tiles (dictated by the number of players) will be placed beneath the island board, as will the tiles representing a special kind of cat, known as the Oshax.

As the player draws cat tiles, you’ll begin to notice how beautiful the artwork in The Isle of Cats is, and this is where I think the theme begins to really shine through. There are six different colours of cat, and each comes in a number of different sizes and shapes. Essentially, every tile shows one cat that might be stretching, lounging or curled up in a ball, and it is these different postures that dictate the shape of the tile. These cats will ultimately be drafted and placed onto the player boards (ships) in families, with one of the main objectives of The Isle of Cats being to collect and place cats of specific colours into rooms on the boat.

Once the setup is done, each player is dealt a hand of seven cards. From this, the players will each choose two cards to keep, then pass the remaining five to the next player on their left. Each player should therefore receive a new set of five cards, and again they will draw two and then pass the remaining cards on. Eventually, this will mean that the players will be handed a single card back from the last pass. I should also note that in rounds two and four, the drafting goes to the right instead of the left, but otherwise it works in exactly the same way.

With a new set of seven cards now in hand, each player needs to decide which ones they will keep. Each card has a cost in fish that must be paid, and bearing in mind that players draw a value of twenty fish at the beginning of the game, this is an important choice. Any cards not retained in this way are then discarded face down into a share pile, meaning that no one knows which cards were kept and which were taken by the other players. With this done, the players will then begin to resolve the cards they hold based on their types.

Firstly, the players study Lesson Cards. Public Lessons (which are always marked as such) must be read aloud and then placed somewhere on the table where everyone can see them. In some cases, a Public Lesson will also ask the player who uses the card to make a choice about which colour of cat the Lesson is to relate to, and if that is the case, the player will place a cat token of the correct colour onto the Lesson Card. Any Private Lesson cards the players wish to play will simply be put face down in front of whoever plays them. The purpose of all Lesson Cards is broadly the same – each one will allow the players to score points for achieving whatever conditions the lesson sets.

After all Lessons are dealt with, the players will begin the next phase, which involves the actual rescue of the cats. Each Rescue Card is bordered in green and will usually depict at least one cat, as well as some combination of boot and basket symbols. Players can use any combination and number of Rescue Cards – and saving cards you hold until a later round is allowed. All Rescue Cards are flipped simultaneously, and speed (the number of boot symbols you have) is calculated. The player order (represented by cats on the main island board) is now set based on the fastest player down to the slowest – and it takes effect immediately.

Players now begin taking turns to draw one cat at a time, starting with the fastest player. Each player simply draws a cat token from either the left side of the island or the right, and to attract them, the player will need to pay either three fish (left side) or five fish (right side.) In addition to fish, each cat must be caught in a basket, which can come from either a permanent basket (remember that each player starts with one) or by discarding Rescue Cards that show baskets (or two Rescue Cards that show half baskets).

As players take cats, they will need to add them to their player board, which by now you’ll have noticed depicts a large boat split into several rooms. Each room is split by a solid border that indicates a wall, but if that looks a little indistinct to you, it’s worth noting that each room has a small symbol in the corner of each square (a parrot or a moon, for example.) The boat also has an edge, indicated by a white line. Some cards (Lessons, for example) refer to rows, columns, edges and rooms, and therefore this all needs to be considered when placing cat tiles.

The placement rules for cat tiles are interesting and in my opinion, a little weird. Firstly, there are a few things to consider on the board such as rats and treasure maps, which can be covered for points and to gain treasure, respectively. That all makes sense and seems fine, but the bit I am less keen on is that cats can be placed across walls, effectively meaning that from a visual perspective, a cat may be laid in one room, through the wall, across a corridor and into a neighbouring room. By contrast, players must place each tile after their first in an adjacent space, which feels like an odd restriction to me.

The placement of cats continues until players either run out of fish or baskets, forcing them each to pass in turn. The only limits on the number of cats that each player can take are the number drawn, the number of baskets and the amount of fish the players have. In most cases, the number of cats available exceeds the amount of remaining fish or baskets collectively among the players, and so there is often an excess of 2-3 cats per round. Because players can see which cats are available on either side of the island coming into the round before choosing cards, it is on them to make decisions about what to prioritise their spending on.

Finally, after all players have passed, the play moves onto the rare finds phase, where each player uses one of their Treasure or Oshax cards, if they have one. Treasure tokens are special tokens that can fill up some straightforward spaces on the boat, whilst Oshax cards are odd shapes (like all cats) but when placed, will have a cat token placed on them to show that they belong to a specific family of cats. This allows players to maximise their score by keeping family groups together, which is the real focus of The Isle of Cats.

The players repeat the drawing fish, drafting, placing Lesson Cards and then drawing and placing cats five times, with each round moving Vesh’s boat (Vesh is the evil tyrant that I mentioned earlier) closer to the end. Once the final space is reached, the players will perform a final scoring in order to determine a winner. Firstly, the players will need to deduct some points for each rat (one point) and each room (five points) that have not been covered. Then, it’s time to check treasure – the brighter rare treasures are worth three points, the regular treasure are worth nothing (but they do cover rooms and rats).

Next, the players will check each family of cats, which are basically different groups of cats of the same colour. A family will count if at least three cats of the same colour are orthogonally adjacent to each other (and diagonal connections do not count.) The larger the cat family, the more points it will be worth, so it is definitely worth looking out for specific cats during the earlier rounds if you have the chance to grab them. Next, both Public and Private Lesson Cards will be scored, and whilst it goes without saying, all players can score Public Lessons, whilst Private Lessons are for whoever played them only.

And that, as they say, is The Isle of Cats. There’s a lot to like about this game, and only a few things that I think bring it down, so let’s get the negative points out of the way. Firstly, I’ve already mentioned my preference for thematic games, and I’ve already moaned about the fact that walls mean nothing in the regular game of The Isle of Cats, but the reality is that the lack of physical barriers between rooms lessens the immersion for me dramatically. Mechanically, it makes sense because there are already a number of things players need to achieve to get a cat onto their boat, so making placement harder would just be punishing – even so, I wish there was another way around this.

Another negative about the standard game is its sheer fiddlyness. Draw cat tiles, draft cards, pay for cards, take cat tiles based on baskets and boots, pay for them, place lessons and consider them, very occasionally draw a Treasure or Oshax card that you really want. This combination of things results in a lot of situations where you simply won’t get the outcome you want or need, or when you can see a route to something good, you likely can’t afford it, or will miss out to another player. That is a big part of the game in The Isle of Cats and it’s clearly intentional, but it can still be frustrating.

To bring that back a bit, let’s talk briefly about the Family Mode, which simplifies the game down to something a lot closer to a classic polyomino placement game. Players can draw tiles much more freely in this mode (with no drafting included) and I like to use house rules to bring the room walls back into play and to allow placement of cats anywhere. This makes for a much, much simpler game that appeals to children and casual players, and in some ways it follows logic (in terms of walls being walls) so that teaching it becomes a lot more sensible.

Regardless of which mode you play, The Isle of Cats is one of the best looking and well produced games that I’ve played in ages. The boards are gorgeous, as is the cat artwork and the little wooden cat tokens. The cards are clearly laid out and well detailed both in terms of information and supporting artwork, and the manuals (there is one for the main game and one for the family mode) are clear and concise, with examples in all the places where you might need them. There is a solo mode as well, and since lockdown I’ve been able to play it a couple of times, and I can say that it certainly feels like a “full fat” experience, as opposed to an afterthought.

The Isle of Cats is going on my long term keep shelf, that is for sure. It sits there as both the heaviest (for the normal mode) and the lightest (for the family mode) of polyomino games, with others like Copenhagen and Barenpark sitting right in between those modes in terms of complexity and challenge. It’s an easy game to convince people to play because it looks so good, but the main mode is fairly hard to teach to casual gamers, and the light mode is very light – to the extent where I play it with my three and five year old children.

**** 4/5

The Isle of Cats is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator


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