Review – Isle of Cats

Isle of Cats. The City of Games, 2019. Frank West, Designer. Dragolisco & Frank West, Artists.

*Disclaimer: Isle of Cats was provided to us by the publisher.

Cats. Before the majestic capybara took over, cats pretty much ruled popular culture. They had our cheeseburgers, hated our Mondays, and suffered our succotash. Without cats, where would we be?

Do you know what else is cool? Pirates. That is, unless they are trying to kill the cats. Cat-killing pirates are the WORST.

Isle of Cats is a polyomino (or is that…PAWlyomino?) tile laying, card drafting game where players compete to meet objectives, both hidden and public, in order to score the most points. And there are cats.

And pirates.

What’s Going On Here?

If it fits...

In Isle of Cats, you play as explorers, trying to rescues as many cats and as much treasure as you can from the eponymous island before the notorious privateer Vesh Darkhand comes to steal the booty and engage in mass felicide. Players have 5 rounds in which they will draft cards, giving them Lessons, or objectives to complete; Boots and Baskets, to go faster than their opponents and to carry cats from the island; Treasures, which are…um…treasures, and Oshax, which are special cats that don’t need to be carried in baskets and that count as sort of “wild” cats.

Not wild as in untamed, but wild as in they count as any color you want them to.

When you get these pretty kitties to your boat, you’ll place them where you can fit them, possibly trying to group cats of the same color together to score more points for your cat Families. You can fill up rooms and cover up rats, thereby decreasing the penalties you get for not filling rooms and not covering rats, though sometimes, depending on the Lessons you have, you may actually want to leave some rats and some empty space.

At the end of five rounds, Vesh and his pirate fleet pulls up to the island and causes arrrrrrrrrmageddon.

It’ll be a CATastrophe!

What’s good here?

First of all, the art is gorgeous. Each cat has personality coming out of their big pointy ears. They sprawl out, stretching across the decks of your ship, many of them looking up at the player. And each color/breed of cat has unique features. The red cats, called Turuvians, have small antlers, while the Oshax have plants growing off of them. They kind of remind me of Eevee’s various evolutions from Pokemon.

Also, while I haven’t played a lot of polyomino games, Em and I love Uwe Rosenberg’s Cottage Garden, and Isle of Cats is kind of like that, but with the extra layer of strategy that the Lesson cards create. In the last game, I had to make sure I arranged my cats so that my dining room was empty, and I had to make sure exactly 5 rats were on my ship. Meanwhile, Em wanted to have exactly 5 treasures, and she wanted to have both of her sleeping quarters filled with cats. Meanwhile, I knew that she was close to filling both of her Captain’s Quarters, so I buried the card that would give her a bonus for that. There’s not too much interaction in the game, but the card draft lets you look at what your opponent might be close to achieving and decide if it’s better to take a card you can’t use so that they can’t have it.

As much strategy, and as many cards as the game come with, it’s a fairly short game. I played my learning solo game in an hour, and the second game was much quicker than that. Isle of Cats is a game that never outstays its welcome but is still longer than a filler game. at a recommended 60-90 minutes, it’s just the right length, and honestly, at 2 players, it’s going to be closer to 60 minutes.

What’s not so good?

All of my complaints with this game are issues with the graphic design. For instance, each room is denoted by transparent grey symbols on the squares in that room. Some rooms, however, run right into each other, and it’s too easy to miss that there are two rooms there instead of one. The symbols could stand to be a little clearer, or maybe color-coded.

So pretty. But the symbols can be hard to see.

A second issue with the design is that the game has regular treasure, which is worth nothing on its own, and special treasure, which is worth 3 points per tile. The special treasures are brighter than the regular treasures, but they still look very similar. The fact that the regular treasure gets set aside at the beginning of the game and the special treasure goes in the bag with the cats means that you have to be careful when putting the game away, or you’ll have to search through 110 tiles to find the treasure you accidentally stuck in the bag. It’s not a huge issue, but it’s frustrating.

The last, and really the smallest, thing that bothers me about the graphic design is that the Oshax cards and the Treasure cards are played in the same phase of the game, but they have different color borders. I’m not sure why they are different; instead of Oshax and Treasure cards, it would have simpler to have “Rare Finds” cards. Really, this isn’t big issue at all, but it was just something that struck me in my first playthrough.

Obviously, none of these issues have to do with the mechanics of the game, which are solid, and none of these issues take away from the fun.

What do I think?

Well, graphic design issues aside, Isle of cats is a great little brain-burner that isn’t as complicated as it initially looks to be (it even has a family mode that takes away some of the complexity), and doesn’t take too long to set up and play. It’s just the right length for a game to play your friends’ game night in between longer games (if we ever get back to having game nights…remember those?). And it’s got cats, a fact which only improves on what is already a great game.

8/10 victory points.

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