Isle of Cats

Designer: Frank West

Artist: Dragolisco and Frank West

Publisher: The City of Games

Isle of Cats is another one of those Kickstarter success story that I suspect owes as much to theme as it is to the game play itself. For some reason, people are just obsessed with cats: whether they need rescue, or you just want them to explode. We just cannot make up our minds. As you might suspect, the Isle of Cats has a boat load of cats, literally. The goal of this game is to go pilot a boat into the isle and save as many cats as you possibly can by loading them all on to individual boats. The person who does that the most efficiently will be awarded the title of Cat Savior Extraordinaire and win the game. Isle of Cats is not normally a game I would enjoy, but I was sufficiently persuaded to give it a shot by enough people around me who claim that it is a decent game. Plus, my daughter really wanted to try a game about cats….. since we told her no pets are allowed in our apartment. So, Isle of Cats it is.

To start, let me say that Isle of Cats is firmly in the take-and-make category of games where players pick up a card, tile or chit from a common pool of items and assemble them on individual player mats, boards or tableau to score points. Usually, the assembly of these items trigger multiple ways to score points and players must figure out ways to maximize scoring across as many categories as possible in order to win. For the most part, player interaction is incident and often emerge from a race to pick up items and deny others in the process. There are plenty of hobby gamers who tend to shy away from these solitaire experiences as they can be long-drawn affairs where every sits silent on the same table staring intently at their own pieces, barely uttering a word during the entire game. I confess I am not a huge fan of these games. That said, there are some exceptionally well-designed games that have blended mechanisms really well and created a hybrid experience that highlights the best of what this genre has to offer. I think Terraforming Mars is a good example of such a design.

Isle of Cats is most definitely not Terraforming Mars, but it does borrow the card drafting mechanism, right down to the payment of cards with fish instead of coins. Players choose 2 cards from a starting hand of 7 and pass them around until all cards are drafted. After that, players decide which cards to keep by paying the cost with fish. Since you start each round with 20 fish, you need to allocate some for card purchase and some to lure the cats. So, it is usually not wise to purchase all 7 cards at hand unless you have plenty of fish to spare. In general, all cards are useful, and can be broken down into several types, as per your staple Euro card play. The key ones to drive the game forward are the cards that are needed to rescue the cats off the island. You need to play one of these during your turn to take a cat polyomino tile from the common pool to place on your boat. To lure the cats, you also need to have an unused basket along with fish to lure the cats. Depending on whether the cat is situated on which end of the isle, it will cost 3 or 5 fish to recruit them. I’d say that most of the interaction from the game comes from the race to pick up the cat tiles you want, while denying others. There are only a limited number of cats available to be saved each round.

Once the cats are on board your ship, you need to spread them out of the boat. Here, you will see many common elements of a polyomino tile-arrangement Euro in terms of scoring and tile placement restrictions. Tiles come in various tetris-shaped pieces and by placing them in groups of the same color, you will score points. The more you chain together these tiles, the more points you get. Certain elements on the board will also give you bonuses or penalties if the square is covered. For instance, there are specific rooms on the boat that if left uncovered at the end of the game, will give you a -5 points penalty. Similarly, there are rats on the boat and if not covered by the cat tiles, will give you a -1 point penalty. There are also squares that if covered with a particular cat of a specific color, will give you treasure tiles. You can think of these common treasure tiles are your standard “filler” pieces to fill in the holes on the boat to meet scoring requirements. All in all, the scoring matrix should be very familiar with veteran gamers already exposed to this take-and-make genre. Really nothing extraordinary apart from the cats.

I think what really differentiates the game from the field and provides a fresh look, is how the drafted cards drive polyomino selection and placement on the boat. Besides cards that are needed for rescuing cats, you also have your usual selection of “anytime” cards that will gain you instant benefits such as procuring more fish, altering placement rules or obtain permanent baskets. Some cards will also allow you take common or rare treasure tiles that are also polyomino pieces that can be placed on the boat. However, only rare treasures will count for points at the end of the game. Regardless of the treasure type, these pieces all act to fill up space on the boat to complete scoring objectives. Perhaps the most intriguing, and maybe the most divisive aspect of the game, are the lesson cards. These lesson cards come in two flavors and are played just like any regular card. The public lessons are scoring objectives that impact all players. Again, this is somewhat similar to the scoring criteria in Terraforming Mars where players who pay money will determine which scoring criteria will be unlocked for end game scoring. The difference here is that the public lesson cards are played from the drafted cards and there are a plethora of scoring possibilities. On top of the public lessons, you also have private lessons where the scoring only matters for the player who holds the card. In all, I think the lessons adds a lot more scoring options for each game – which is way too many in my mind, and falls right into the same trap as other games in this genre.

Whether you think the card play adds or subtracts from Isle of Cats will boil down to personal preference. I think it will drive a wedge between players who love card text-driven game play with those who just want the simplicity of arranging polyominoes on a board. There is no doubt that the card play lengthens the game significantly. Perhaps with this in mind, the designers decided to include a “family” game in the version of the rules where cards are completely removed from the equation and players just take turns drafting cat tiles from the central pool. There isn’t even a need to pay for the tiles, you just go around in clockwise order to select tiles and place them on the boat for scoring. To make things interesting, each player will also be given two personal lessons for extra end game scoring. Overall, I think the family rules makes a whole lot of sense for folks who just enjoy assembling polyominoes and want to dispense with the complexity of card play. I wish they wouldn’t call it “family” rules since the game might be less complex, but certainly just as enjoyable and approachable for many gamers – casual or veterans alike – and not just for family gaming.

After a couple of plays of Isle of the Cat, I find that I enjoyed the game, or at least parts of the game, more than I expected. I enjoyed the combination of card play to draft polyominoes and the race to recruit the right tiles to assemble the pieces on the boat. However, I am not a huge fan of this general glut in scoring, especially from the lesson cards. If anything, the ability to draft and play scoring cards makes the game more swingy and luck prone especially toward the end when a scoring card that perfectly meets your criteria lands unearned in your hand. Sure, one can play defensively to block an opponent, but that just promotes hate drafting which is equally undesirable. Overall, I find the game charming and approachable, but we have tweaked the scoring matrix to suit our needs. It turns out that one can play the default game minus the Lesson cards by removing all the blue-backed lesson cards and the associated purple anytime cards from the discovery deck and you are good to go. If you want to retain some mystery scoring, I recommend using the Family Lessons as a substitute or better yet, just flip over 3 lesson cards in the beginning of the game and just make them all public lessons before the start of each game.

I don’t have anything majorly negative to say about Isle of Cats, but I also know Isle of Cats is one of many in this genre. If you have played many recently designed take and make games, this has a similar feel, albeit slightly more complex with all the cards in play. For us, scoring was an issue which we easily mitigated with a few tweaks to the public/private scoring option. It improved play by making things less complicated. It also shortened game play. Despite the caveats, I did quite enjoy the fusion of mechanisms in this game, which kept things fresh and novel. Still, I am not sure if this game will have a lot of legs for repeated plays unless my kid is keen to keep it around. Time will tell.

Initial impression: Average

Note: Since writing the initial review, we have played many more family games for Isle of Cats. It is simple, quick and fan, but does get stale after repeated plays, at least for me. My kid still enjoys it, so there is something to say about that.

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