Full disclosure: A review copy of The Isle of Cats was provided by The City of Games.
Oh dip, 600 reviews! It’s always nice to hit a big, round number like this. Just wanted to say thank you for reading, if you’ve been here since the start or are just reading this for the first time. It means a lot. Either way, you’re not here for me to wax nostalgic, so let’s get to the review.
I seem to be alternating between weeks with no mini-reviews and weeks with a bunch, and we’re back on a mini week. I kind of like the format! It’s helpful, in some ways, especially for games that are already relatively popular or have rulebooks online. For, say, non-US games, I think highlighting the gameplay may be more valuable for explaining the game to a wider audience than may normally have access. Either way, next one we’re talking about is The Isle of Cats, from The City of Games (who pushed out Vadoran Gardens last year). It’s definitely gonna catch my eye on theme alone, so let’s see how I feel about the rest of it.
In The Isle of Cats, the evil Lord Vesh has discovered this legendary island populated by cats after the humans who lived there departed. You, a common citizen with a boat (so, a rich citizen) are taking on a rescue mission there to try and get as many cats off the island as you can before Vesh arrives and devastates it. To do this, you’re going to draft baskets, lessons, and rare cards to allow you to take cats and add them onto your boat so that you can fill rooms and get rid of rats. Just be careful! These cats aren’t terribly adventurous, so when you place them on your boat, you need to place them next to each other (but helpfully cats are essentially liquids so they will just snuggle together nicely). Do that well enough, though, and you can reunite cat families! Along the way, you can also gain Treasures (you’re not just there out of the goodness of your heart) and learn Lessons that you can use to impart wisdom upon your return (the cats are very smart). Just don’t come back with an empty boat! Will you be able to foster a feline flotilla? Or will you only find failure?
Player Count Differences
This game’s another game that benefits somewhat from variance effects; when drafting, you often won’t use all of the cards in a game at lower player counts, so you’ll potentially end up seeing a skewed subset of the cards during a game (which may affect certain strategies). At higher player counts, though, you run a different risk. You’ll have more cards in play, but you likely won’t see all of them. From a math perspective, I think it works out to roughly the same probability-wise, but the potential for you to have a better shot at getting certain cards is higher at higher player counts because the cards are in play, rather than in the deck. Anyways, I’m not a math guy so, this might not be 100% correct. But it feels like you have better odds at higher player counts, so, who needs math to validate feelings? It’s 2020. Beyond that, there are also more cats available in the pool at higher player counts, so you do have better odds of getting the cats you want if you end up playing cards with a higher speed value, so that may be worth it. And more players means slightly higher odds of Public Lessons being put in play, I guess? The major drag is that more players usually means longer play, so, it depends on what you value the trade-offs as, I suppose. Personally, I think that I like the game the most at three players, since it hits a sweet spot for me of card options and cat options versus playtime. Depending on how much you prioritize certain ends of that scale, you may prefer different player counts.
- Don’t overspend on fish cards during the draft. If you do, you’ll have literally no money to buy cats during the Rescue Phase. This is kind of embarrassing, especially if you spent those fish to buy baskets you can’t use. There’s nothing wrong with underspending (beyond not getting cats), since you can keep fish from round to round if you want to bet on seeing better cards or cats during the next round. Just be careful!
- You don’t need too many baskets. Like I said, you really don’t need to get more baskets than you have cats. This is where speed might matter, also; if you accidentally end up with too many baskets for cats (haven’t seen it; could happen), you may regret not having more speed if the last available cat gets taken before you can claim it.
- Check your Lesson Cards regularly. This is something I remind players of on the reg; you get so many Lesson Cards on a regular basis that it’s totally possible for you to just straight-up forget which ones you have. If you do, then you’re likely to take a bunch of zeroes. The only time this doesn’t matter is if you get the Lesson Card that gives you points for Lesson Cards. Then, I mean, go off. Gotta catch ’em all, and all that.
- Remember that you have to place adjacent. Don’t take a cat that you really want, only to realize that you can’t place it in your boat under the current rules. Plan ahead so that it’s easy to spread out!
- Finish rooms! Especially the one at the front of the boat! It’s very small. Every room you don’t totally complete is worth -5 points, and that’s an aggressive penalty for that sort of thing. I’d say it adds up, but really, it kind of adds … down? It gets really negative? I’m not sure.
- Common Treasures have no value, but they can help fill out annoying spaces. There’s a Lesson Card that changes that, but, generally, they’re super handy to get a few of because it allows you to fill in the gaps that occur in pretty much every polynomial-tile-laying game. It’s nice to be able to cover yourself like that (and you need it if you’re going to avoid those substantial penalties for unfinished rooms).
- Try to get 3 of each cat family that you place so that you can get those Cat Family Bonuses. You don’t need every family, but, each set of 3 is worth 8 points, so, try not to have sets of 2 cats. Just make sure that they’re adjacent, as well, so you can get the bonus.
- Oshax and Rare Treasures are great and you should get them when you can. Oshax can be any cat family, but you need to decide when you place them. Rare Treasures are just worth 3 points each and take up a decent amount of space on your boat. Those are good, too! Even better if you can find Lesson Cards to augment them.
- Passing players Public Lessons isn’t a bad idea, if it benefits you to have out and you think they’ll pay for it. I try to do that if I think that there’s a chance they’ll go for it. Ultimately, though, if you want the card out, you need to be willing to pay for it; it’s unlikely that relying on someone else like that will work out for you in the long-term.
- Some Lessons give you points for hoarding otherwise-worthless things. Those are fun. The Common Treasure one and Lesson Card one are my favorites; there are also Public Lessons, to boot. Getting both of one type in one game can be a pretty good combination, if you have the ability to corner the market on those otherwise-worthless things.
- Speed may be the most critical or least critical thing in a round. Keep an eye on it. At higher player counts, having a lot of speed can get you first pick of a very wide pool of cats. At lower player counts, it really only matters if you want a specific cat that you think your opponent is eyeing.
- Passing an opponent a broken basket may be a funny but also mean thing to do. If you know that they can’t use it, then it’s essentially a junk pass. Just be careful! They’re cheap cards with some good speed, sometimes, and you can assemble a working basket from two broken basket cards.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Cats! Cats! I love cat-themed games; it’s part of the reason Ta-Te Wu and I get along so well. But this is such a nifty game about rescuing cats with your boat, and I’m into that. Love the theme.
- There’s even a spot for your cat. Check the box lid. It’s very good.
- I love the art style. It’s so bright and colorful! It really looks good on the table, and it has a great overall presence. I’m writing this one before I take photos, so I’m really excited to take some photos and see what I can do with the tiles and such. It should hopefully look great.
- The tile market is a lot of fun, and the way you interact with it via the draft is very interesting. I like that you don’t just get to take things; you have to prioritize. Do you go for cheap cards, so you can play everything? Do you go for speed, so the few cats you’ll get you’ll get relatively early? Or do you go for baskets, assuring that you’ll have your pick of … whatever cats are left? (Note that even if you’re the fastest, you just go in speed order, so you won’t get to take more cats before other players get to).
- I like the point-salady nature of the Lesson Cards. It lets you chart your own pathway through the game, which I’m almost always into, as a mood. I think it improves replayability as well, since you aren’t necessarily going to get that configuration again. It’s a challenge to try and get through the game with a fresh strategy each time.
- Public Lessons, in particular, are pretty interesting. You really only want to bust them out, as mentioned, if it’s giving you more points than anyone else, which is a fun calculus to try and have to leverage. It’s especially interesting because you have to pay for something that gives every player points, so unless it’s super valuable for you to see it played, you may just skip it.
- The fish / opportunity cost of cards helps prevent a bit of hate-drafting, which is nice. The fish cost doesn’t account for you taking the card and discarding it without paying, but the opportunity cost does! You only get so many cards per round, so, do you really want to waste an early-draft card selection just to spite an opponent? Unless it’s a two-player game, I’d vote no (unless it’s the final round, I suppose).
- The component quality is pretty solid. The tiles have a good weight and I really like the opaque cat bag. In general, the game feels pretty well-made and well-manufactured, which is nice.
- Got a good number of modes. Both a Family and Solo mode in addition to the full game? That’s nice.
- The 5-fish token shows three on the front and two in the back, and that’s not super obvious. That threw me off the entire first game (and other players), which is not good, especially if you’re playing with mixed groups. It doesn’t matter that much, as long as you’re consistent, but it matters a bit.
- I appreciate the Rare Treasure discovery method, but drawing a bunch of them in one round can be a bit odd. It’s mostly that I get slightly thrown off when I’m trying to count the right number of cats to draw out of the bag and I keep having to skip Rare Treasures. It’s not that annoying, but it occasionally trips me up ever-so-slightly.
- The random nature of the cards in the deck (and how few of them you end up using) can feel a bit bad, especially if “better” cards end up not coming up. It’s just something I noticed; in my entire first game, an Extra Permanent Basket never ended up coming up for me. It didn’t cost me the game (my bad choices did), but it felt less good. I think that’s the trouble with a massive deck of cards; as I’ve mentioned in other reviews, you’ll start noticing variance effects where you get a random selection, but not an entirely representative one. It really only affects the first card or so each round, though.
- Whew, that -5 points for each not-completely-filled room is a pretty tough penalty. I understand why they made it that way rather than, say, a way where the player with the most fully-complete rooms scored 0 and players with more incomplete rooms then lose five (it makes the math a lot easier). It’s just that a -20 or a -25 for less-careful players can be a bit of a sticker shock in your first game, you know? It’s not the worst thing, but it’s definitely a nasty surprise. I just mention to people when we start our first game that that’s decently likely to happen, and it’s fine now.
Overall: 8.75 / 10
Overall, I really like The Isle of Cats! I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty already-sold on the theme, and I’m also quite a fan of polyomino games, anyways, so it was going to likely be a hit over here. Even better, it’s got a lot of really nice art and bright colors, which always appeal to me when we’re talking about the kinds of games that I like. Of course, no game is perfect, so there are always some things that mildly irk me. But a lot of those are tradeoffs! For instance, randomly shuffling the deck makes setup a lot easier (compared to, say, making sure there are equal segments of various kinds of cards), but it introduces variance effects since you’re taking a random subset of the cards rather than a proportional one. Additionally, for instance, I don’t like how aggressive the room penalty (-5 per incomplete room) is, but I agree it’s much easier than doing what I jokingly suggested elsewhere, which is give the player with the fewest incomplete rooms a 0, and then -5 for each incomplete room after that. It’s the same (since addition is commutative), but it also takes a lot longer to calculate. And I can appreciate that. At its core, it’s a slightly-heavier polyomino game with some extra elements added via the card drafting step, and that’s pretty cool. Maybe a bit heavier than my usual, but not a problematic one. If you’re into that (as most people seem to be; polyomino games have been really popular … I was going to say lately but “in general” seems to be more fair), or you’re into cats, or you just like games with decent player interaction and fantastic art, I’d definitely recommend taking a trip to The Isle of Cats! I’ve had a lot of fun with my plays of it.