So, like, content folks, we talk, you know? One of my favorite things to do before Gen Con is sit down with a number of folks and just ask what games they’re excited about and what they’re looking forward to. I had already heard about Cat in the Box, granted, since one of the Discords I am in is very trick-taking focused, but I also started hearing from a lot of people that their most anticipated game of Gen Con was Cat in the Box. This, naturally, piqued my interest, and I had some free time since I had already purchased Oink’s run for this year. I still bought some coasters; gotta support. But wandered over to Bezier and bought this one. Always down for trick-taking. So let’s see how it held up!
In Cat in the Box, players are researchers, and as researchers we understand that observing something can change its nature at a quantum level. The easiest way to demonstrate that? Your hand of cards is entirely colorless. But as soon as you play a card in a trick, you observe its color. Naturally, as everyone knows, there’s only one card of each color in the deck, so if you try to observe the same color twice, you’ve caused a time paradox! You’ve tried trick-taking; you love trick-taking; are you ready for quantum trick-taking?
Setup is surprisingly nontrivial! Set out the Research Board, first:
Depending on your player count, you might use the white or purple Research Cards:
- 2 players: White research cards
- 3 players: White or purple research cards
- 4 players: White or purple research cards
- 5 players: Purple research cards
At 2 and 4 players, place the Observed Tokens on the 6s and 9s on the Research Board, respectively:
Now, prepare the cards:
With more players, the number of cards you’ll use increases:
- 2 players: Use 1 – 5
- 3 players: Use 1 – 6
- 4 players: Use 1 – 8
- 5 players: Use 1 – 9
Next, give each player a set of player tokens in the color of their choice:
Additionally, give players a player board:
If you’d prefer to not use the player board to indicate card colors (more on that later), you can use these cards to indicate the color of the card you played:
Either way, you should be ready to start! Choose a random player and give them the Round Start Player Card.
Generally, Cat in the Box is a trick-taking game, which means that players each take a turn in a given round (a trick) playing a card from their hand. The highest card played of the led color wins! This is where things get a bit complicated. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Each round has three phases, only one of which is tricks. So let’s go through a round.
To start a round, take all the cards, shuffle them, and deal each player ten. After each player looks at their hand of cards, they select one card from their hand and place it face-down near the research board, removing it from the round.
Next, players go from the Round Start player and, in clockwise order, place one of their player tokens onto one of the three spaces on their player board to indicate how many tricks they believe they’ll win this round. After everyone has done so, the trick-taking begins, starting with the Round Start player.
Now, trick-taking! As mentioned, each player will play a card from their hand. Here’s the challenge. I mentioned the led color, but all the cards are black, right? Wrong. Each card in your hand is an uncertain color, and only by declaring its color can you observe it! To declare a card’s color, take one of your player tokens and place it on an empty space on the research board corresponding to the color you’d like to claim. There are a few rules around this:
- The color declared by the trick’s start player is the led color.
- Unless there are already tokens in the red row of the research board, the start player cannot declare their led card to be red.
- If you would like to declare your card to be a color that is not the led color, you must remove the player token covering the “X” of that color on your player board and place it on the research board. If there’s no player token there already, you can ignore this.
- If you have a visible “X” for a color, you cannot declare your played card to be that color. Tough.
Once all players have played a card, the winner is determined:
- If at least one card was declared red: The highest red card wins the trick.
- If no cards were declared red: The highest card of the led color wins the trick.
The winner of the trick takes the played cards, putting them into a pile (face-down). The player who won the trick leads the next trick.
If you cannot play a card following the rules of the game, you have created a paradox. The round immediately ends, and you move on to the Scoring Phase without finishing the Trick Phase. No player wins the trick, but the player who has created a paradox must reveal their hand and ensure that a paradox has occurred.
Otherwise, continue playing tricks until each player only has one card left in their hand, then move on to the Scoring Phase.
Now, during the Scoring Phase, each player earns points for tricks taken. Normally, each player earns 1 point per trick they took during the Trick Phase. If any player caused a paradox, however, that player loses 1 point per trick they took during the Trick Phase.
If you correctly predicted the number of tricks you would win during the Prediction Phase, you also get bonus points! If you caused a paradox, you are ineligible for bonus points, even if your prediction was correct. The bonus is the largest group of player tokens you have on the research board that are adjacent to each other; you score 1 point per token in this group. Note that diagonal is not considered to be adjacent, here.
End of Round
If all players have been the Round Start player, the game ends.
Otherwise, players clear the research board and reset their player boards, adding tokens on top of the uncovered Xs. Pass the Round Start player card to the next player on the left.
End of Game
Once the game ends, the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
More players adds more cards, which is always entertaining. At five players, you’ve got card values from 1 – 9, and at two players, you end up with cards from 1 – 5. There’s still five of each suit, so good luck with those paradoxes, but beyond that the game plays mostly the same. The one difference is with the two-player game. There, you’ll have some cards out of play. Reveal three of them and block off the corresponding green spots with those numbers. If multiple cards have the same number, block off the green and yellow (and ultimately blue, if all three cards have the same number) spots for that number. Interestingly, there’s no betting on tricks with two players; you just play, and the player(s) who take four or fewer tricks get bonus points. Two-player trick-taking is an incredibly hard space to occupy, though. I think that Cat in the Box falls a bit short here. It doesn’t really show what makes the game so compelling as it would with more players. This is often a casualty of trying to expand the player count a bit (I believe the original Cat in the Box was 3 / 4 players), but in trick-taking, it’s particularly hard to land perfectly. I don’t blame them for trying, but I’d probably still recommend Cat in the Box most strongly at three or four players. With five, there’s just a lot happening, and that’s a bit more chaotic than I usually have the tolerance for.
- One advantage of taking multiple tricks is that you get to play first, which can help you avoid ensnaring yourself in a paradox. It can help you; I never said that it will help you. You might still end up with cards you can’t play, or by trying to avoid a paradox, you may end up inadvertently tying yourself up in another. We don’t always get to choose these things, you understand. But playing first is a pretty good way to get rid of cards that are crowding your hand, especially if you’re worried that you’re going to get stuck with unplayable cards. Make them someone else’s problem.
- Choosing which card to dump at the start of the round is also pretty helpful. I usually dump any card that I have at least three of; heaven help me if I end up with four of the same number in a given round, especially if it’s not the high card. That’s just stressful. But getting rid of a card that will likely end up unplayable is probably your best bet to avoid a paradox.
- There will come a time in the round where it’s time to shift to the trump suit; it’s often required, if you want to stay ahead of the game. Leaving a color behind (and making yourself incapable of claiming that suit in subsequent rounds) is totally fine! Usually. It’s definitely a way to easily paradox yourself if you do it too early, since you might get stuck with other players trying to force you to play cards of that color to try and trap you. But with the right timing, you can shift the game to red and make that work for you.
- Keep your bet front of mind. Playing to win your bet can earn you a bunch of bonus points, especially if you play well. I wouldn’t say focus on your bet to the detriment of avoiding a paradox, but it’s at least worth keeping your bet as your goal. Once you’ve played enough tricks, let someone else start taking them! Or try to play and win tricks at the end of the round once everyone else is uncomfortable taking more tricks. Just watch out for rounds where players don’t agree (the total bet is greater than or less than the total number of tricks). Then, players are going to try and make sure other players miss their bet. Other players is you! Don’t let them!
- As with many trick-taking games that give you points per trick taken, at a certain point it’s worth squandering your bet and taking more tricks if it means you’ll make the other players miss theirs, as well. It’s churlish, but it can really work in your favor. If you’re going to make your bet, just take more tricks to the point that you keep everyone from hitting their bet. Now, not only do you get the points, but since they didn’t take enough tricks, they get even fewer points than they planned! It won’t make you friends, but winners don’t need friends, probably.
- The one challenge with taking tons of tricks is that you can get really messed up by a paradox. If you try the above strategy and get paradoxed, you’re taking a ton of negative points. The most I’ve seen someone lose is 4 points in a round, but you’re looking at potentially losing 6, which would be wild. Hilarious, but also wild. Watch out for paradoxes if you’re playing with fire like that. Trying to go for 0 tricks is great if you paradox, but then you’re just giving your opponents additional points from taking tricks, which isn’t great either.
- Trying to play certain cards with the intent of getting bonus points is good, but playing certain cards to block your opponent(s) scoring additional bonus points can also be helpful. Keep the board in mind holistically. At some point, you won’t be able to continue to connect to your previously-claimed cards on the board. If that happens, focus on instead just clowning your opponent. Place cards to break up their potentially high-scoring groups of numbers. It’ll irritate them, and maybe lose you a trick here or there, but it might keep them from scoring a ton of points in a round.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The Schrodinger’s Cat theme is very silly, but using the Observer’s Paradox to drive gameplay is very cool. I mean, Schrodinger’s Cat is very silly, even if you haven’t played Virtue’s Last Reward (don’t.), but I like the idea of letting players “observe” their card colors and that influencing what other folks can do on their turn. It makes the game kind of thrilling! It’s not quite area control; it’s more feeling the stress of safe locations slowly disappearing while you’re holding “bad” cards.
- A very portable little game, which I appreciate. You can throw everything into a bag (or, honestly, the box is pretty small). Trick-taking games are usually pretty nice about that sort of thing, since they’re so heavily card-driven.
- The tokens all pop quite nicely, which is also appreciated. I like the looks of them, though it would be nice if they were screen printed on both sides, just because having them wrong-side up aggravates my love of order. I also like that they represent different areas of science, though I’m not sure that makes a ton of sense to me given the quantum mechanics theme of the game? I’m committing myself to not worrying about it.
- I like the spatial challenge of trying to line up numbers to get bonus points based on your bet, as well. I think that’s very silly, and very fun, and I love that there’s an even more complex version you can use that staggers the numbers so that they’re not just 1 – 9 in four adjacent rows. It adds another fun twist to the challenge of trick-taking.
- Paradoxing to end a round might mess everyone up, which is enjoyable. There’s no way it doesn’t mess you up, but it might take everyone else with you, since players might miss their bets if you time it well enough, which is a hoot. Granted, you still are the only player who ends up losing points, but if you can prevent other players from scoring big, you might be able to keep a lead or something. Not sure, this isn’t the Strategy section.
- The art is wonderful. I love it! This is one of the better-looking games I’ve played in a bit. Not just because of the black-and-white card aesthetic, but also the designs of the cards and the very tiny pop of color on each of them, inviting that observation. It’s a very striking set of cards, and I almost wish I had a standard playing card deck with this theme. I just really like the way it looks.
- Always here for a cat-themed game, even if Schrodinger’s Cat in particular is a bit macabre, sometimes. I’m a cat guy; it’s just how I was raised. Sure, the idea of a cat in a box that is both alive and dead is macabre, but that’s how observation can influence quantum outcomes, I guess. I’m still glad we’re getting more cat games.
- I’m always very impressed with folks pushing the boundaries of trick-taking games; it’s a very classic genre, so bringing in some modern design to try new things almost always results in a very interesting game. It’s why trick-taking is one of my favorite genres. I love using trick-taking as a way to push forward with novel game concepts. Wicked & Wise had asymmetry, Ghosts of Christmas had playing to multiple different tricks at the same time, The Fox in the Forest really did a solid job of two-player trick taking, Pompiers added missions; you really can’t go wrong with a lot of different games in the genre and they’re all doing wild stuff. I love it. I mean, if you’re looking for truly wild stuff, try Nokosu Dice! It’s got trick-taking AND dice, and that alone is probably a sin. I love how wild the entire genre of trick-taking is, and I’m having a blast trying new ones. I think Cat in the Box is every bit deserving of being in this list of games just wilding out, and I kind of love it for that.
- I love the art, as mentioned, but black cards show damage super quickly, which causes me a lot of stress. This is an ongoing complaint just with cards in general. They look so good, but now I just hear the scritch-scratch of players trying to pick the card up off of the table and their nails splitting the cards along their edges. It exasperates me, but it’s also much more noticeable on black cards, though they look super good. It’s a tough problem.
- I’m not sure there’s a “better” way to handle token storage in the box, but boy howdy is putting the tokens away a task. I just try doing it six at a time, but my desire to have all the tokens facing the same way and aligned makes this challenging. I don’t think there’s a better way to do it, other than maybe throwing them in a few bags and just dumping them into the box without special troughs for them, but this is definitely an “Eric problem”, rather than an issue with the game.
- There are a few cards that act as substitutes for the player board that come in the box but aren’t mentioned anywhere in the rules, which vexed us for a while. As always, someone on BGG got an answer, which is much appreciated, but it would have been nice to have them mentioned in the rulebook, even if they are just a vestigial set of cards so that players familiar with the old edition could use them in lieu of indicating their card’s observed color via their player board.
- As with a number of trick-taking games I’ve reviewed here on What’s Eric Playing?, this is probably best served not being your introduction to trick-taking, for a couple reasons. I think, when introducing players to a genre, it’s probably best to avoid games that rely on already knowing the genre to do well (particularly games where you bid or bet on your performance). Additionally, I try to avoid games where players who struggle might end up with negative points, as that can kind of sour players on a genre as a whole. Cat in the Box, for better or worse, does both of these things, which can really blitz a new player if you’re not careful. No way means it’s a bad game; I just don’t find it to be the most approachable trick-taking game, and I already think trick-taking is a particularly difficult genre for unfamiliar players to learn.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I thought Cat in the Box was a blast! I was already pretty sold on the game just, thematically, from the get-go; love a cat game, and I think Schrodinger’s Cat in particular is pretty silly. Add in trick-taking? You’ve got me. I particularly like how inventive the concept is, both on its own and against the larger backdrop of trick-taking games. I’ve seen trick-taking games where you’re racing cars, traveling through time, or using ninja powers to stalk your opponents; having one where you’re choosing the color of your cards to bet on tricks and potentially getting caught in a reality-disrupting paradox is entertaining, as well. The themes are fun, but I have also found these games do a great job of making their gameplay interesting, as well. That said, these are on the more-challenging end of trick-taking games, since you’re not just engaging in an already less-approachable genre, but you’re adding betting and prediction on top of that, which may make Cat in the Box a bit more opaque for players new to trick-taking. As a big fan of trick-taking, that’s fine; it just means you get to bring folks into the genre with other games, and then drop them into Cat in the Box once they’re ready. Not unreasonable. It can be a bummer to finish the game with negative points, but for folks already familiar with trick-taking, that happens in some games. It’s a bit funny, here, especially, since it means you went too hard and drove the game directly into a paradoxical state, which I kind of love. If you’re a big fan of trick-taking, a cat guy, or just really all about that Observer’s Paradox, you’ll probably enjoy Cat in the Box! I certainly did.
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