Race to the Raft is the latest tile-laying, colour-matching, cat-saving game from Frank West; creator of the Dice Tower’s Best Welcoming Game of 2020 and prequel to Race to the Raft, The Isle of Cats.
For those unfamiliar with The Isle of Cats, The game revolves around trying to fill your boat with unique tiles representing the cats of Squalls End, in order to rescue them before the evil Lord Vesh arrives. Each cat belongs to a family that is easily identifiable by its colour and tail design. Keeping families together scores you more points along with any completed Lessons.
Although this raises the question, what happened to the cats you couldn’t fit on the boat?
In Race to the Raft, the aim is to work cooperatively with the other players (solo mode is available) to build paths from each cat’s starting location to the safety of the raft, while avoiding the dangerous spread of an uncontrollable fire.
The game utilises some of the key mechanics of Frank’s previous games, including the tetromino style tile laying from The Isle of Cats, except in this game, the tiles aren’t friendly colourful cats, but the deadly fire threatening the safety of your adorable furry friends.
The other main aspect of the game is the path building. Path cards containing different configurations of the different coloured spaces are played to the board to create contiguous areas of the same colour, allowing the cats safe passage along their favoured terrain. Similar to one of Frank’s other games, Vadoran Gardens.
How It Plays
The board is set up as described for the campaign you’re playing. There are 81 included in the standard book with more being made available online in the future. This includes starting fire placement, cat starting locations and raft setup/cat destinations. Then each player takes 3 path cards which they can’t share specifics of, resorting to vague statements such as ‘This card would be good for Green or Blue’.
Continuing on, in any order, players can do one of two actions, play a path card or move a cat. The first creates routes to allow the cats movement, but also spreads fire, the latter uses the built paths to move the cats toward safety (and create safe areas to spread fire). It's a constant balancing act between the building and moving. Once all cats are safely on the raft, the scenario is won, if you ever can't play a fire tile, path card or all routes to the raft are blocked, it's game over.
In order to keep everyone involved and to avoid the quarterback problem, while players are taking their turns, no one can speak. This means that any choices that are made are done so solely by the active player. The two exceptions to this come in the form of communication tokens. Firstly, we have the Talk Tokens, these allow the owner of the token and the active player to freely communicate while playing the tile/card without worrying about the communication rules. The second communication token can be a lot more fun, and that’s the Meow Token. The Meow Token follows the same rules as the Talk Token, except the player using the token can only say MEOW, having to change volume or inflection to try and communicate the meaning of each meow.
Finally there are water tokens, these can be spent from a common supply to remove any piece of fire that’s present on the board, these can be real lifesavers in a pinch, but using them takes points from your final scenario score, so think carefully about using them if you want a perfect game.
Race to the raft comes with a campaign book featuring 81 different challenges, this includes a 4 scenario tutorial that slowly introduces gameplay mechanics, 40 standard scenarios and 41 advanced scenarios including tutorials. Some scenarios require you to simply get all cats to the raft, others require you to get cats to certain spaces on the raft and in certain orders.
Some of the more advanced scenarios also require you to get multiple cats to the raft in the same move, using a bonus move for securing a cat, this means you have to have multiple valid paths to the raft present at once. Other advanced scenarios require cats to stay close to each other and also introduce the white Oshax cats which move along white lines that are present on top of some coloured squares.
The wide variety of challenges allow for a large amount of replayability with each play different to the last, however sometimes you’ll get really unlucky, getting just the wrong cards for the cats on the board and getting the worst shapes for fire forcing you to create gaps that will never be filled with fire, wasting time and threatening the cats even more.
The game looks fantastic, immediately stands out on the table with its colourful design, and everything that is colour based has another way to distinguish it, accessibility is a big thing Frank considers when designing his games.
The components are as you would expect as a follow on from The Isle of Cats. Nice chunky tiles, beautiful custom meeples and perfect printing on every card. The deluxe version even comes with some absolutely amazing cat miniatures, 2 in each colour, including the Oshax.
The simplicity of the mechanics allow for a steady difficulty curve, allowing younger or less experienced players to enjoy the game as much as older or more experienced players, the range of difficulties in the campaign book make it really easy to find that sweet spot or to give yourself a challenge.
I personally think Race to the Raft is going to be one that regularly hits the table for both my normal gaming group and when introducing new players to the hobby. I love the theming and the gameplay is simple to allow the unique scenarios to shine. The first time I had to ‘rescue’ a cat by heading away from the raft and towards the fire, it felt wrong, but it added a new challenge that fit well thematically. I can’t wait for the special scenarios to pop up on the City of Games website, and hopefully there’s a good amount of extra content.