Full disclosure: A preview copy of Cleocatra was provided by Sunrise Tornado Game Studio. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
I was going to ask if this week was all Kickstarter previews, and, sure enough, it almost overwhelmingly was! Skulls of Sedlec, Quiek! (which only sort of counts), and Cleocatra, yup. The thing about today that’s a big milestone for me is that this marks the first time in like, three months that I’ve actually been over a week ahead on reviews! It’s truly something, but also, I kind of have to be since I’m leaving on a work trip later this month and I want to be covered. I keep hearing a noise in the back of my mind that seems to be softly whispering “you could take a break”, but, I’ve ignored it for a few years; why stop now? ANYWAYS, let’s get to Cleocatra.
In Cleocatra, you play as a commissioned Cat Rescuer (what a job!) for Cleopatra, who has asked you to protect the many cats wandering the pyramids (and has tasked Inspectors to reward you for rescuing them). It’s a really nice gig, but, only one of you can really win Cleopatra’s favor, so, you’re going to need to work extra hard to get there. Will you be able to successfully rescue the most cats? Or will this pyramid scheme of yours end up fruitless?
Very easy setup. Give each player the Rescuers and Score Token in their color:
Place the Score Tokens on the board:
Place the Inspector Tokens nearby:
Shuffle up the tiles:
And then have each player reveal one and place it in the center with their Rescuer on it, in turn order. The tiles should be placed adjacent to at least one other tile. You’re all ready to start!
The game’s pretty straightforward. On your turn, you do two actions from two categories: Tile Actions and Rescuer Actions. You may do one Tile and one Rescuer Action, or two Rescuer Actions in a turn. Let’s go through those.
Tile Actions are generally pretty straightforward; they involve adding or moving tiles.
- Add Tile: Reveal the top tile of the stack and place it such that it is sharing an edge with at least one other tile.
- Move Tile: Choose a tile without Rescuers or Inspectors and move it so that it is sharing a different edge with a tile. You may not just rotate a tile. You also may not move a tile if it would cause the Pyramid to be broken into two distinct groups that do not share at least one edge.
These actions generally deal with placing Rescuers. Keep in mind that each tile may have up to two different players’ Rescuers on it at a time. If you cannot take any action, you may place a Rescuer on any tile with fewer than two Rescuers on it. Then, take another Rescuer action. You may not take a Rescuer Action that makes it impossible to take a second Rescuer Action (except for Rescue itself).
- Dispatch: Place a Rescuer on the tile you just placed or moved using a Tile Action.
- Team Up: Place a Rescuer on a tile adjacent to a tile with a Rescuer of yours currently on it.
- Rescue: This allows you to earn points. If you take it as your first action, however, your turn immediately ends. When you Score, designate a Rescuer that’s not on a space with an Inspector, and then follow these steps:
- Score 1 point for each tile in its group (that tile + the three adjacent tiles) that is unique.
- Score one point for each meeple on a scoring tile adjacent to the Rescuer (not counting the Rescuer). It’s important to note that the meeple’s tile must score in order for it to be a Helper and also score.
- Remove the Rescuer and scoring Helpers from their tiles, and place an Inspector Token on the tile that the Rescuer previously occupied. If there are no Inspector Tokens left in the supply, move an Inspector from any other tile onto the new tile.
End of Game
The game ends as soon as a player reaches 23 points. When that happens, finish the round so that all players get the same number of points. The player with the most points wins!
For a bit more of a challenge, add in the Advanced Rules. These will give each tile a unique action and add a new Rescuer Action:
- Herd: Move any one of your Rescuers onto an adjacent tile.
- Cleocatra (Yellow): If you Rescue on this tile, score an additional point. The player with the lowest score may take a bonus action at the end of their turn. If multiple players are tied for the lowest score, nobody gets the bonus action.
- Mafdat (Blue): You may move this tile by using a Tile Action, even if it’s currently occupied (Rescuers and / or Inspectors).
- Bastet (Green): You may spend a Tile Action to swap one of your Rescuers on this tile with an opponent’s Rescuer on a different tile. I’ve house-ruled that you can’t do this if it would leave two of the same player’s Rescuers on one tile.
- Mut (Pink / Magenta?): Rescuers that Rescue from this tile are not removed (an Inspector is still added). Helpers that score on this tile are removed.
- Princess (Orange): When you Score on this tile with a Rescuer, add two Inspectors to any two other tiles instead of this one.
Player Count Differences
The thing about most abstracts is, I generally prefer them at two players. Most control, least downtime, and the 1v1 generally pays off in a way that’s satisfying for me, even if I lose. That’s not really changing with Cleocatra. At three, I notice a lot more kingmaking (albeit unintentionally), and at four, it’s just going to be much busier than I like. There aren’t that many tiles, and they’re going to be packed with players trying their best to score optimal positions. That’s fine, though, if you’re into that high-chaos sort-of-thing. I’m just … less so. The nice thing is, it plays pretty quickly regardless, which allows me to get through two-player games pretty quickly. It’s known, but, yeah, most abstract games I tend to like at two.
- With the special tiles in play, scoring on the one that doesn’t let you use your Rescuer can be pretty useful. The pink tiles don’t allow you to remove your Rescuer when you score on them, which seems unhelpful until you note that that allows you to place another Rescuer adjacent to them and score on a subsequent turn. Using those to your advantage is often a particularly useful move, especially to try to chain together scoring turns when you can do so. You’ll particularly want to do that towards the end of the game.
- It’s crappy, but, placing a Rescuer on an opponent’s tile and scoring it out from under them is usually a great move. It usually throws them off for a few turns and forces them to move their placement plan elsewhere. This might require them to rely on drawing unique tiles for extra points or to take fewer points to score immediately. Either option benefits you, since there’s no guarantee your opponent will get what they want.
- Additionally, keep an eye out for the player with the fewest points, as Cleocatra will benefit them immensely. Bonus if it’s you. Cleocatra (when using advanced tiles) can boost a player in last place by giving them an extra action on their turn. It’s hard to remember that that’s the case, but thankfully the game moves quickly enough that I’m not terribly bothered by it. If you can’t swing being in last place, then try only scoring off Cleocatra when multiple players are tied for last; then, you’ll cancel out the bonus (nobody gets the bonus action when players are tied, which, oof).
- Moving tiles away from players to prevent them from scoring is a useful move from time to time. If the tile is unoccupied (or blue), you can move it as a tile action. It’s helpful if you need the tile, and even more helpful if your opponent does, too. That should negatively impact their scoring potential.
- Don’t necessarily add new tiles to the board if you don’t need to. If you control more of the tiles, it doesn’t benefit you to add new ones. It also locks down some existing tiles and prevents them from being moved, which may make you a bit less reactive. If you do add a new tile to the board and it’s not one you want, just place it adjacent to your opponent (especially if it junks up a potential scoring spot for them).
- The swap-and-score is a mean, but useful, tactic for the advanced game. This is a good reminder to not leave any of your Rescuer meeples in a scoring position at the end of your turn. Your opponent can, if they’re on a green tile, use a tile action to swap their meeple for yours, which gives them your good scoring position. It’s rude, but it works.
- Eventually you’ll have to move the Inspectors; be mindful of which ones you’re moving and what spaces those open up. Try to keep Cleocatra blocked if you’re not in last place, for instance; that way nobody can get the bonus action in the Advanced Game. Otherwise, just block high-value and easy-to-reach spaces so that your opponents can’t grab them.
- Sometimes it’s more useful to score a slightly-less-valuable spot to open yourself up for a better future score. I wouldn’t recommend doing this all the time, but you can occasionally use it to lean into a combo.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love the art. Ta-Te’s entire Cat series of games has had unsurprisingly excellent art, and I’ve really enjoyed it. This game is pretty much just Fancy Cats with Fancy Hats, and, it’s very good, is the thing.
- The actual scoring mechanic is interesting. It’s a bit of area control mixed with some random tile placement, which is neat. I particularly like that scoring makes you incapable of scoring that same area globally and locally (since your Rescuers are no longer on or near that tile). It leads to some interesting choices about which tiles you score when.
- The tiles having abilities is neat. The base game is elevated significantly by the advanced game, I feel.
- Plays quickly enough. Even with players taking time to figure out their moves, there aren’t enough tiles or options to cause significant analysis paralysis, which I mostly appreciate.
- Very low setup requirement. You kind of just shuffle the tiles and you’re ready to go. I really do like games with a low setup overhead; they’re super easy to learn (and review).
- I get the desire for portability, but the tiles are a bit small. Or maybe I have large hands. I don’t think that’s the case, but, I think the tiles could shoot to be a bit bigger. Maybe they will be, in the Kickstarter.
- They’re also not that easy to shuffle. I thought square tiles were tough, but triangles tiles are … very challenging. I think, again, though, this might be a problem that can be partially solved with bigger tiles.
- Still a bit of a kingmaking problem with three players, as is the case with many abstracts. At some point you will likely have to decide which player you want to help and which you want to hurt. It’s not my favorite aspect of 3p abstracts, so I tend to prefer this one at even numbers.
- I think I’d like if there were either a bit more to the game or a bit less. The game, as it currently stands, feels like it’s right between a filler and something meatier. It’s got, component-wise, the structure of a lighter game, but I think it’s reaching for something a bit puzzlier that it doesn’t quite hit. This could be improved by increasing its table presence, I think, or decreasing the rules overhead. Not sure, but I think I’d prefer a slightly longer, more complex version of this one that’s a bit more puzzly.
- A number of turns feel like they’re just “place Rescuer” and then “score”. That’s not the most fun, unfortunately; it makes the game feel a bit rote. Some of the expansion content seeks to address this, but currently it’s a lot of the base game. Some turns you’ll place two Rescuers, others you’ll place and then score them.
- Allowing players to sneak onto other players’ tiles and score before them is kind of an odd “feels bad” decision. It’s a bit more take-that than I expected from a puzzle game, even if the blocking is only somewhat temporary. It’s kind of a big part of the game, though, so, if you don’t like it, this might be something that makes the game a bit less appropriate for you.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, yeah, I don’t quite love Cleocatra as much as I was hoping to. I’m a bit optimistic, though, since I’ve been hearing some rumblings about expansion things that should shake the game up a bit. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll leave that comment a bit vague. Here’s my main thing: I don’t think the game has the best sense of what kind of game it wants to be, and it makes it more challenging for players to grapple onto it. For Cat Rescue, for instance, it was a cooperative spatial puzzle at its core, and rescuing cats is fun. Cat Sudoku is a more mathy puzzler that makes your friends’ brains hurt, and I think it solidly achieved that goal. Cleocatra doesn’t quite let itself be described so cleanly, in my opinion. It’s sort-of a competitive Cat Rescue, but some of the spatial elements are switched over to area control and there’s blocking and the theme is a bit odd and you get where I’m going with this. It feels a bit more disjointed than the other titles I’ve seen out of Sunrise Tornado. I’m not saying the game is bad by any stretch of the imagination; it just didn’t land quite as well for me as other games I’ve played from the studio, and that bums me out a bit because of all the Fancy Cats with their Fancy Hats. It’s got some positives that I really appreciate, though. The art, again, fantastic. It’s got a relatively low setup overhead, so you can really get a few games to the table and played pretty quickly, and I do think that the tile abilities add a lot of interesting strategies to the game. I think I’d like to see more from it, though, and I’ll be interested to see if the Kickstarter delivers on that desire. If Egypt’s your thing (or cats, or both) and you want to save some cats, though, you might enjoy Cleocatra when it hits Kickstarter soon!