The Isle of Cats

Games about cats or with the word cat in the title tend to be lightweight and silly party games. I avoid them. Titles like Kittens in a Blender, Exploding Kittens, Battle Kittens and Eat Poop You Cat seem so common that I automatically assume that if a game’s about cats, it sadly isn’t for me. But The Isle of Cats seems different.

Designer:Frank West
Publisher:The City of Games
Artist:Dragolisco, Frank West
Rules:Read the rules here.
Watch a tutorial video here.
Solo facilitation:A unique simulated opponent, not quite an automa, and not quite like the opponent of a cooperative game either.
How I obtained my copy of the game:Review copy provided by the publisher.

Background, First Impressions and Conceptual Overview

British game designer Frank West is probably best known for his very ambitious fantasy adventure game The City of Kings (2018). Although set in the same world, The Isle of Cats is something entirely different; a card and tile drafting puzzle game for one to four players. The polyomino tiles represent cats that have to be rescued and brought aboard your ship, where they have to be arranged onto a grid.

This kind of Tetris style puzzle was made very popular by German game designer Uwe Rosenberg with his 2014 family weight hit – Patchwork. Unlike Patchwork, and unlike the other cat games mentioned above, The Isle of Cats comes in a large, sturdy and rather heavy box.

I’m enthused by the hefty package and the advertised game length of 60 to 90 minutes. The box says for ages 8+, which ordinarily would have been a warning sign to this geek, but the recommended minimum age is due to the included “family rules.” These are simplified to the point where they fit on one sheet of paper; the rule book for the full game is 24 pages.

This is a high quality product. The cardboard tiles are easy to punch out, the cards are flexible, the player boards are beautiful and lay perfectly flat on the table. There’s also a scoring pad and a pencil, and the bag for the cat tiles is made of cotton and not the all too common faux velvet fabric.

The rule book is well written and full of examples and illustrations. I’ve only found one minor omission, a blank I had to fill in using common gamer sense: since it’s clearly specified what players are supposed to do with discarded or used player cards, one would assume that this would be clearly specified for the solitaire opponent cards as well, but it isn’t. By reading between the lines, I draw the conclusion that they are discarded rather than shuffled back into the pile or something similar. Apart from this hiccup, learning is a smooth and pleasant experience.

The rules are clear and simple, and each step of the round is explained both thematically and mechanically, with a sound emphasis on the latter. Your mission is to rescue cats from the island before the evil Lord Vesh gets there (he seems to like cats about as much as I like cat-themed party games). To lure the cats out of the woods you need fish, and to catch them and bring them to your boat you need baskets.

Once the cats have been brought to the ship (the player board) they are placed in the grid. Families – cats with the same color fur – should be kept together if possible and you want to catch as many cats as you can, keeping the families as big as possible and optimally filling the entire boat and catching (covering up) any rats. Usually, that is – there are cards that significantly change up the scoring. These are called Lesson cards and they have blue borders. Most affect only the player who played them, but some are public scoring goals.

The Isle of Cats is a card driven game. Everything from catching cats to changing the scoring conditions and goals is done with cards. Fish is the in-game currency, and as such it’s used to pay for the cards you’ve drafted to your hand. Thematically, to learn anything useful and to get anything done on the mystical Isle of Cats, you have to give the cats fish in return.

Apart from Lessons, the big stack of player cards contains Rescue cards, Treasure cards, Oshax cards and Anytime cards.

Rescue cards have a green border. They have two functions. They represent baskets for catching the cats, and they have a Speed value (symbolized by a pair of boots). Whoever has the highest speed will get to go first and most likely catch the cat they want the most.

The yellow-bordered Treasure cards give you treasure, of course. These are either small tiles to cover up empty spaces between the cats on your boat, or larger tiles that score you some extra points.

Oshax cards get you Oshax cats, a rare, mythical breed that can be part of any family when placed on the boat. You just mark it with a cat-meeple of the right color. Oshax are big, though, and the tiles have complex shapes. They are valuable but hard to fit onto the grid, and they can only be found by playing one of the rare, brown-bordered Oshax cards.

The Anytime cards, finally, have instant effects and are discarded once played. They usually give you one benefit or another, rather than destroy for your opponents.

Your Sister’s a Crazy Cat-Lady

The Isle of Cats is a competitive game with strong indirect interaction through card and tile drafting, and somewhat less obvious interaction through certain blue-bordered Lesson cards. This time, however, you’ve sailed for the island by yourself, and you expect to be able to rescue all the cats you can find before Vesh gets there. But then you discover a stowaway onboard! It’s your sister, and she’s determined to take all the credit for your work. You now have to keep an eye on her so she doesn’t sabotage your plans.

Like an Automa opponent, your sister is represented by cards and makes a competitive multiplayer game playable solo, but unlike an Automa, your sister does not really simulate an opponent. The key here is that an opponent would have their own player board and a typical Automa would function in a way that roughly estimates having one, but your sister’s onboard your ship; she interferes with your work, and she has her own goals and plans.

Your sister has two ways of getting in your way. Most importantly, she has her own Lesson cards and other ways of scoring points based on what’s going on on your boat. This makes tile placement a lot more complicated for you. She also disrupts the tile drafting by semi-randomly removing cats when it’s her turn.

When your sister gets involved in the rescuing (the tile drafting, that is), she’s not as much hate-picking as disrupting. The cats she picks are removed from the game. If you have your eyes on a particular one, it’s important to make sure to get enough Speed (initiative) to be able to go first. Her impact on this part of the game is important, but it’s her scoring cards that make it really tricky.

She has two kinds of scoring cards, Solo Lessons and Solo Colours. The Lessons are divided into basic ones and advanced ones. The latter are added to up the difficulty. They work just like your scoring cards, except your sister gets the points, and while yours are put into play over the course of the game, hers are revealed during set-up.

Colour cards are also scoring cards. There are five of them, one for each color cat. During set-up they are randomized and placed in a row. They are flipped over from left to right, one each round. They represent how your sister prioritizes the different kinds of cats. During scoring she gets five points for each cat of the first kind revealed, four points for each cat of the second kind revealed and so on.

That’s what you’re up against – a scoring machine that most definitely has the capacity of making your choices pretty tough. After having a look at the structure of the rounds I’ll get back to the solo opponent.

Gameplay

Keep in mind that I deal only with solitaire play here. There are minor deviations from the standard rules, but since I don’t intend to teach the rules here but simply to provide a general overview, I won’t bother with pointing out the differences.

At the beginning of each round, eight cats will be drawn from the bag. Four will be placed to the left of the big island tile that represents their home, and four to the right. The cats on the left cost three fish to lure into your baskets, an the cats on the right cost five.

Your sister’s leftmost unrevealed Colour card is turned face up, you get 20 fish and the first part of the game begins, the card draft. Draw five cards. Keep three of them. Repeat. Then draw the top card. Out of these seven cards, pay the cost in fish for whichever ones you wish to keep.

Your sister isn’t involved here, but you have to keep her scoring cards in mind as well as your own. You also have to be careful with your spending and look ahead; with each basket you’ll be able to catch one cat, but you also have to spend three or five fish to lure the cat into the basket. Decisions are seldom obvious, and although the real brain-burning starts during the drafting of the tiles, the card draft is often pleasantly tricky.

Any Lessons you’ve acquired are put into play before the complex puzzle of cat-catching begins. When choosing Lesson cards, it’s vital to pick ones that harmonize with the ones you’ve already played and with the current cat-situation on your boat, while providing your sister with as few points as possible.

While rescuing cats and subsequently playing Oshax and Treasure cards, many things have to be kept in mind and most decisions tend to be tough compromises. Apart from outsmarting your sister to get the cats you need the most and fulfill your own scoring goals, you have to pay constant attention to her scoring conditions when picking cats or treasures and deciding where to place them.

A game consists of five rounds and takes me at least an hour and a half to play. I tend to take my time when I play solitaire games, and in this game there are many things to keep track of and decisions are complicated. Some players may be able to pull it off in around an hour once they’re more experienced.

There are five difficulty levels, easy, medium, hard, very hard and expert. I found easy to be very easy, not really a challenge at all. That had me worried, momentarily. Thankfully, once I started ramping up the difficulty it became evident that this game can offer a real challenge. So far, I’ve lost more than I’ve won on hard difficulty.

How Does it Feel?

  • Upkeep is minimal compared to the time you spend in deep thought.
  • The rules are never in the way of the experience.
  • The clichéd Othello tag-line “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master” could probably be applied to this game.
  • You always have to keep the entirety of the game-state in mind.
  • Every decision matters.
  • Most decisions are compromises.
  • Most compromises are tough.
  • When you think that you should probably reconsider your last decision, you’re probably right.
  • It’s a challenging puzzle that lets you feel both clever and creative, if you just pick a suitable difficulty level.

Why I Love My Sister

Two things about the solo opponent in this game are commendable. Firstly, it offers variety, not simply because it has different scoring goals every time, but because those scoring goals have such a strong impact on your game. That your sister scores based on the state of your player board is such a brilliant concept, and I much prefer it to the race for points that seems to be so common when competitive euro games have a solo mode added, like Wingspan, for example. Your sister’s cards are as important to you as your own!

Secondly, changing the difficulty actually makes your decisions harder, and the game-state more difficult to gauge. This, of course, is tied to the fact that your sister scores solely based on what you’re doing. To up the difficulty, you give your sister one, two, three or four additional Solo Lessons, i.e. scoring goals. For comparison, I was very disappointed in how raising the difficulty of Star Realms: Frontiers didn’t make it harder to play the game – you still had to make the same no-brainer decisions and winning simply became less likely.

If you’re tired of games where you beat your own score or try to get above a certain number of victory points to win, or where raising the difficulty just means raising the life points of the boss you’re fighting, the solo variant in this game will feel very fresh, especially for a variant developed for a competitive game. Increased difficulty means increased complexity of gameplay, and this is achieved without adding rules. The challenge deepens but it remains the same mechanically simple game.

Summary

I’m taken with this game and this infatuation is not about cats. Sure, I love cats. But I love living, breathing, purring, meowing, pawing cats – not cute cat memes or adorable cat cartoons. My top ten solitaire games is a list of horror, fantasy and science fiction games, full of conflict and death for the most part. Although I was intrigued by the notion of a serious cat game and eager to try it, The Isle of Cats is now an anomaly among my favorites. It’s not a big, sprawling game, it’s not thematic, it offers no story, no scenarios and no customization. But it’s exceptionally involving and tactically challenging in a pleasantly brain-burning way, and the rules are very simple compared to the challenge it offers. The different combinations of scoring cards, both your own and the solo opponent’s, make for lots of variation, and also make it seemingly impossible to approach the game habitually.

With its simple rules yet challenging gameplay, lightweight family variant, top-notch solo mode, high quality production and accessible, cute theme, The Isle of Cats will be a hit. It is, in fact, among the better solitaire games that I’ve played, and it’s taught me that I should probably think about expanding my horizons by a few degrees; it seems that I’m not the pure ameritrash gamer that I was afraid I had become.


Thanks for reading!

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