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Awards

Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • You can adapt your play to change how intense the game is
  • There’s a lot more freedom of choice than in other X and Write games
  • It’s cat themed and illustrated beautifully

Might Not Like

  • Not a travel game unlike others of similar mechanics
  • Poor placement of polyomino pieces can lock you out of future placements
  • Scoring takes a game to grasp

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The Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw Review

The Isle of Cats Explore and Draw Review

Cats. They’re an instant win in many a person’s book. From the ancient Egyptians putting special emphasis on them to common folk being besotted with their big eyes, adorable faces and wild personalities. (Nothing will ever prepare you for a cat on its 3am zoomies run!) And as such, the trend of cats as a genre or theme in media and board games is expected. The Isle of Cats has you collecting cats to rescue them, placing them on a boat as polyomino tiles and adorable cat meeples. This was a mass hit for folks and sits highly as an excellent tile laying, pattern building game. The Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw is a flip and write and is a beautiful reimplementation of the original, with some mechanical changes to keep things speedy. It takes around 30 minutes to play and works with 1-6 players.

Differences

The Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw features gameplay identical to that of its core counterpart, but made lighter through some clever changes. First off, players are no longer bound to single polyomino drafts. All players can now choose rows of tile cards to add to their ships. Secondly, players now collect Lessons to add as scoring objectives. Finally, the game is wholly drawn and only contains cards, a boat to draw on and pens – making it lighter weight as a game in between games.

Gameplay

To kick off with Explore and Draw, each player takes a ship board and Lessons list and places them in front of them. They then ensure they are within reach of all the dry wipe markers needed. Finally, separate the Discovery and Lesson cards, ensuring there is a central area between all players for a 3×4 grid of cards. You should lay out new cards each round giving each column specific cards. Three Discovery in the first, a Lesson then two Discovery in the second, Discover Lesson Discovery in the third and Lesson Discovery Lesson in the fourth. You are now ready to play.

Playing A Round

The Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw takes place over seven rounds, tracked with a card. Players all choose a column to draw onto their ships, adding whatever cards are in it accordingly. The first time a player draws a Discovery it can be placed anywhere. Subsequent ones must be placed orthogonally adjacent to any existing pieces. Lessons on the other hand are ticked off on the Lessons list. These give players extra scoring elements to focus on beyond the game’s standard stuff.

Some cards dictate the words OR and ANY #. These give players some free choice in which shapes they add to their ships. Cards without these words do not add restrictions. Some Discovery and Lesson cards contain Oshax. These are colourless cards that can be drawn in any desired colour. Any cards with multiple cats in without restrictions may be drawn separately but must all be drawn.

Once all players have drawn accordingly, deal new cards and repeat the process for seven rounds.

Goals, Powers And End Game

The main focus for players is to cover rats, gain rare treasures and place cats in families (at least three adjacent cats of the same colour next to one another). This is the vanilla goals list for all players. Families of cats score increasing values for each additional cat. Rare treasures gain the player three points per treasure. Rats however lose the player points and, as such, are the focus for removal. Players also lose points for any rooms that are not wholly covered in cats. Though this may seem a heavy consequence, cat families easily compensate for this loss.

Players do have five abilities at their disposal to change how they choose cards to draw. Only one of these may be used per round and players may only use three per game. Once these are used you mark to show they can no longer be accessed. The game ends as soon as you leave the seventh round and move the marker to the hand symbol. At this point, players add up all their scoring criteria – including Lessons taken – and produce a final score. Whoever scores the highest, wins.

How It Handles

Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw is delightful. A lovely little puzzler that encourages forward planning and dynamic strategy. And, low stress. Almost bearing on mindful! It’s a game that you can take in the mindful direction of aiming for perfection, or in the hyper-competitive gamble way of choosing last-second lessons to focus on as a huge gamble. It’s exciting and ever-changing, but most of all it’s lots of fun!

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, Where Have You Been?

The puzzly feel and focus of this game is one I’ve slowly fallen for. It’s pretty, tactical and fills a gap in my shelf I’ve struggled to do so. A flip and write where the chaos of a card draft doesn’t wholly determine end game scores. I’ve found games of similar flavours get limited by cards drafted and smaller scale powers. Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw doesn’t overscale these things but gets them just right. Choosing a column of three cards from a selection of four columns is the sweet spot. The admin of dealing and refreshing isn’t arduous and you aren’t limited or overwhelmed by choice. It nails the balance of decision making and sensible limitation.

But is there a downside to this increase in choice and sensible limitation? Yes. Sadly, Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw doesn’t share the “perfect travel game” label many games of similar flavours wear with pride. You need a table space substantial enough for 12 cards central to all players and for all players’ boats and lessons boards. It wouldn’t be an issue normally but as the game utilises dry wipe markers instead of pencils and paper, you’ve got a big smudge risk on your hands. I will say that dry wipe is a stroke of genius as there’s no limitation to number of plays – can’t run out of sheets!

Meowing Across The Sea

Luckily, the designers have included a how to guide for playing remotely. This game came out in the height of the pandemic and these terrific human beings ensured it’s a game you can share with your loved ones – even going as far as to making the sheets available on their website. The game will never travel far from a table. The weight of its footprint and the component designs won’t allow for that easily. But the game can be played across the world simultaneously and easily because the designers are fantastic. (There’s also a solo mode! It’s literally available for any and everyone!)

Can You Teach An Old Cat Any Tricks?

My favourite part of Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw is the freedom to choose. And I’m going to skirt over choosing the cats to draw and treasures as they’re part and parcel of every game. What I’m talking about is choosing your end game scoring conditions. Lessons are cards you tick off on your Lessons sheet and these determine an extra criteria for end game scoring. Goals to work towards and help guide the placement of your cats.

The scoring for some Lessons can seem monumental – 15 points extra for having three families of the same colour, for example. Games can be won and lost on these Lessons. Scratch that, games are won and lost on these Lessons. If a Lesson has dictated criteria on it, though, it limits players’ future choices. If a Lesson dictates you can only have three colours of cats, you’ll be limited immediately in column choice. What’s worse is a bad draw in the last round may sabotage it entirely! However, the pay off is always brilliant and outweighs a trickier feel to the play. It’s executed well and is entirely optional. (And with more than 20 Lessons, each game feels different!)

You don’t have to take any Lessons in the game at all. And you can score incredibly well whilst not doing so. Wild! Cat families, rare treasures and covering rats will easily help you rack up points without the extra stress! I mean it when I say this game is for any and everyone. If you’re wanting a lightweight polyomino placer, this can be it. But if you want it to be a dynamically changing puzzler or gambling, risk taking and pushing your own luck, this can be that too!

The Great Success Of Cats

Cards on the table, I’m not the biggest X and Write fan as board games. I get lost in the mindful element and focus heavily on my colouring, pattern building and synergising without ever cashing in on massive strategy. They become more of a self care activity than a game, which is fine but not why I’ll choose to play them. I want to be challenged mentally in either a head-to-head style competition or a golf-ish style target.

Where Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw succeeds for me in this area is it’s catering to both sides. It’s still 100% relaxing and mindful: you place polyomino shapes to make patterns in a puzzle-centric way. But it also gives you dynamically changing challenges! As Lessons are drawn, you’ve got to weigh up the gamble as to whether they’re worth taking on. There’s no detriment to not doing so, but it’s a wasted card take – particularly if you use a special to claim it. It’s an extra layer of tension and challenge to make it a more competitive and goal focussed game. But do you have to take it I’m on in that style? Goodness no! If you’re happy with the laying tiles down to make patterns feel, then perfect! If you want a challenge, even better!!

Final Thoughts

As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy X and Write games, Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw has blown me away. It’s versatile in how intensely players choose to play it and gives more when you need it to. It’s very pretty, well thought out and gives clear explanations on how to play this across the world. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing this game and it hits our table at least once a week – if not more! If you’re after a flip and write with more weight to it that’s accessible to everyone, I’d go for this little beauty! Superb fun!

Zatu Score

Rating

  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • You can adapt your play to change how intense the game is
  • Theres a lot more freedom of choice than in other X and Write games
  • Its cat themed and illustrated beautifully

Might not like

  • Not a travel game unlike others of similar mechanics
  • Poor placement of polyomino pieces can lock you out of future placements
  • Scoring takes a game to grasp

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