Please note that this preview is based upon plays of a late prototype of Isle of Cats, using a non-final version of the rules.
Polyominoes - those Tetris like tiles - have been a new focus for a number of board games over the past couple of years. The market has been mostly dominated by Uwe Rosenberg, who, having had success with Patchwork, has designed and released various iterations - Patchwork Express and Patchwork Doodle. Since developing Patchwork, he has also released the “Puzzle Trilogy” - Cottage Garden, Indian Summer and Spring Meadow, all at the lower end of the complexity scale.
Contrasting with this, A Feast for Odin is a much meatier game. It carries a lot more weight, and has a very broad decision space. And there have been others, mostly occupying the lighter end of the complexity scale - Barenpark, NMBR9, Copenhagen, to name a few. But almost all of them - certainly all of the names you might have heard of - sit comfortably in the “medium light” weight range.
Until now. Frank West, designer of City of Kings, and organiser of the City of Games convention has designed a polyomino game which sits rather comfortably in the middle of the weight range. There are others, but they aren’t exactly household names. So, has Frank cracked this corner of the market? Is The Isle of Cats any good?
In The Isle of Cats, you are tasked with rescuing cats from the isle, before it is overrun by the forces of the rather unpleasant sounding Vesh Darkhand. And with a name like that, who knows what he’ll do with those innocent felines? It turns out there are also a load of ancient treasures abandoned around the isle (cats AND treasures? What is this place?)
The game is played over five rounds. There are five phases to a round in The Isle of Cats, although two of these account for the bulk of the game. You have explore (the drafting phase), and rescue cats (the tile placement phase).
Each round, players receive a supply of fish. Fish are used to access the cards which are drafted, and also to tempt cats onto the boat.
During this phase, players draft cards, from hands of seven. Two cards are drafted at a time, until the seventh is passed on. Each card has an acquisition cost; following the draft, players can choose which of the seven cards they may keep in their hands, by paying in fish.
There are several different types of cards; choosing which cards to keep (some are very expensive!) is a key part of the game. Different types of cards come into play at different times, and can have a big impact on decision making. This phase of the game is where the additional weight, beyond the polyomino tile-laying content, comes from.
This is an “optional” phase, depending on if players have acquired these cards - although if lessons cards have been acquired, they must be played. Lesson cards are endgame scoring cards; some are personal and kept hidden, and some are publicly displayed, applying to all players. Decisions about lessons cards can be really difficult, because taking a scoring objective can mean not taking another card, restricting actions elsewhere in the game.
This is what the game is all about. Cats are coloured polyomino tiles, which are drafted from two common fields, and need to be lured out using fish. One of the fields must be full of catnip, because the lure needs to be a greater number of fish.
Cats are then placed aboard the player board - a boat. Placement of the cat tiles is crucial, as it can afford treasure bonuses and cat family (colour) bonuses as well as avoiding end game penalties. There may be other bonus points available, depending on lesson cards. Tile placement is not as simple as filling a space!
During this optional phase, players may choose to play bonus treasure cards or Oshax cards (a rare type of cat). These provide further tiles which can be used to fill spaces in the boat, as well as potentially complete objectives on lesson cards.
The player boards represent the boats being used to rescue the cats. These are a grid of squares, on which the cat tiles are places. There are five main considerations when placing cat tiles. Firstly, cats cannot be placed so that they extend beyond the grid - we can’t have cats overhanging the boats, after all. Secondly, each tile after the first must be placed adjoining a previously placed tile.
Thirdly, the boats are divided into rooms; penalty points are awarded for each room that is not filled by the end of the game. Therefore, it pays to focus on filling rooms as thoroughly as possible. Fourthly, there are five treasure map squares on the boat, one matching each of the colours of the cats. If a treasure map is covered by a cat of the matching colour, a treasure is revealed, and this can be used to cover additional space on the boat.
In this way, players are steered towards placing certain cats in certain locations on the board. However, this can become difficult, depending on which lesson cards the payers have in play, making it potentially challenging to complete certain objectives.
Finally, there are rats on board the boat. If the rats are not covered (if they aren’t caught by cats… or falling treasure?) they result in penalty points at the end of the game. In this way, the act of filling the provided space with the cat polyomino tiles is more than just a simple matter of area coverage.
There are several card types in The Isle of Cats. Each functions very differently, resulting in some very tough decisions during the Explore phase.
There are two types of lessons in the game. You have private lessons, providing personal, hidden objectives, and public lessons, which apply to all players equally.
These feature one or two icons. A basket, which is used to rescue a cat (a player can only rescue as many cats as they have baskets available that round) and speed icons, which are used to determine player order for the remainder of the round, after revealing. Players have one permanent basket available, but if this is the only one they have, they will only rescue one cat each round… which is nowhere near enough to fill the boat! Therefore, rescue cards are essential.
These can be played anytime, for an immediate effect. The effects vary hugely, and can, for instance, award bonus fish, or allow the rescue of two cats simultaneously, rather than rescuing cats in turn.
Rare Finds Cards
These come in two types: Oshax cards and rare treasure cards. Rare treasures are selected from a common pool (though availability may be limited), and are placed in the boat, occupying squares in the same way as cat tiles do.
Rare treasures also earn bonus points at the end of the game. Oshax are rare cat creatures which do not have a colour of their own. They will, however, befriend the cats in another family, taking on the colour characteristics of that family.
Endgame scoring, then, is based on a number of things throughout the game, as mentioned above. Completion of lessons, rare treasures, and adjoining cat families (adjacent cats of the same colour) all earn points. Unfilled rooms and visible rats lose points. Whilst this may make the game sound a bit point salad-y, the scoring is not overwhelming. Therefore, players should have a good feel of where they are likely to score.
A Word on Colour
In a game in which colour plays such an important part, consideration must be given to colour accessibility. There are two elements of the game in which colour plays a significant part. These are the cats, and the treasure maps marked on the player board. The artist has gone to great lengths to make the families of cats sufficiently distinct that despite different shapes, the colour of the cats is not essential to be able to match the families.
The only shortcoming here is in matching the colour of the cat families to other elements in the game. The treasure maps on the boat are colour matched, but there is not yet secondary coding to help identify the matching cat family. I’m aware that the designer is still giving this some thought.
Final Thoughts on The Isle of Cats
I have to say that I’m really quite excited about The Isle of Cats. The game is clearly a labour of love. West has tried to pitch the game in the midfield, somewhere between A Feast for Odin and the plethora of light polyomino games at the other end of the weight scale.
The game feels well designed, has been tested and refined, and has sterling art. It ticks all of the boxes that it sets out to tick. It has sufficient substantial decisions to be made throughout the game which amount to more than just “which polyomino do I want next?” Most importantly, it leaves the player with the feeling that they should be able to do better next time.
Isle of Cats is now live on Kickstarter! Such is its popularity, the game funded in around 30 minutes.