Review: Isle of Cats

You are a citizen of Squalls End, a charming coastal town know for its fantastic fish and chips, and a nearby island inhabited by cats. But you’ve been alerted that a threat is on the horizon – the evil Lord Vesh is on his way, and you must head to the island to rescue the cats before his arrival. Load your boat full of cats, try to keep them harmonious, and rescue as many as you can before time runs out!

How to Play

Isle of Cats is played over the course of five rounds, with players attempting to arrange polyomino cat pieces in patterns that boost the amount of points they’ll earn. Begin the game by placing your cat in the box lid. This is especially important. Then, place the island in the middle of the table, with the common treasures arrayed beneath, and the white Oshax cat tiles beneath as well. Throw the other polyominos into the cloth bag. Give each player a ship and a basket tile, and randomize turn order through each player choosing a different colored cat meeple, then randomly placing them on the track on the island board. The remaining cat meeples should be placed near the Oshax cats.

Each turn begins with placing a number of random cats near the island based on player count. Each player collects 20 fish, and seven cards. Everyone will simultaneously look at their hands, select two cards to keep, and pass simultaneously pass the rest of their hand. Once all players have 7 chosen cards they must decide which cards they want or need, paying a number of fish equal to the cost in the top left of the cards. Any unkept cards are gone from the game permanently. If you pay for any blue lesson cards, play them now, to the side of your ship if they are private, and to the center of the table face up if they’re public.

Next is the rescuing cats phase, where green cards are played. All players simultaneously commit as many green cards as they would like to rescuing. Count the boots each player played to set the new turn order. Then in the new turn order players may buy one cat by spending a basket, and either 3 or 5 fish, depending on if the cat is on the left or right side of the island. The cat is placed in your ship – the first can go anywhere but subsequent cats must be touching another tile. If a player runs out of baskets or fish, they are out for the rest of the rescuing phase, but any unused and committed green cards will be spent.

After rescuing is complete, players may now play brown or yellow cards, one at a time until they run out or wish to pass. Brown cards let you claim one of the white ‘wild’ Oshax cats and play it. Yellow cards let you claim and place treasure tiles, placing them in your ship to help fill in gaps, reach other parts of the ship, or cover up rats.

Purple cards are anytime cards – you can literally interrupt the game at any time, even another player’s turn, to resolve one. At the end of the round, players keep any unspent fish and paid for cards they did not play as they progress into the next round.

At the end of the game you’ll gain points by fulfilling your private lesson cards, and the public lessons no matter who played them. Rare treasures are worth points inherently, and you also gain points for having several cats of the same color as a “family” touching contiguously. You lose points for each visible rat you didn’t manage to cover up, and for each room that you did not manage to get completely filled in (each space on the ship has an icon to show which room it’s in so you can tell). The tiebreaker is leftover fish at the end of the game.

Thoughts

Isle of Cats is a well balanced game that adds some depth to polyomino placing, cover your board type games.

Lesson management is a fun exercise in mathematics and chance – will I have the most blue cats? How many points am I giving to other players with a public lesson, is it worth 2 points to give Martha one as well? Additionally, these cards help you develop a strategy early in the game, a helpful guide to which cats you’re choosing and their placement.

An attempt has been made to make the cats visible to players with vision challenges. Each cat boasts a unique tail and pattern. Unfortunately because the cats twist and turn to lie in interesting patterns, its not always easy to tell at first glance which cat it might be, especially if you’re on the far side of the table. Additionally, the segmented rooms and their corresponding icons blend into the player board (I found keeping the rulebook handy to help figure out those borders exceedingly helpful.)

Two modes! There’s the regular mode, and a somewhat simplified family version. I love the inclusion of a modified rule set for playing with younger or less experienced players. Unlike house ruling something, you’re still playing a well balanced game, and newer players will graduate to the main game after a few plays.

Isle of Cats includes a solo version which involves an AI deck that diminishes your choices (so no fiddly maintenance of a second board.) They’ve recently introduced a distance play version as well, for people who are playing over Zoom.

This can be a major table hog, particularly if you’re trying to maintain a particular space for lessons and other bits and bobs off your main board. At max players be sure your game table is large enough or you’ll need to do some unique area managment of your own as the game progresses.

That being said, the individual player boards are really lovely, with highly detailed art, bright colors and unique sea critters in the water. ALL the art and components are top notch – the cat illustrations are super funny and definitely remind you of our feline friends, and there is a lot of attention to detail, particularly in making the box lid a bed for your own cat companion. Also – Cat Meeples!

Would I play again? Absolutely – its got a striking table presences and scratch the tetris itch. Isle of Cats has become a welcome addition to my game shelves.

Isle of Cats is designed by Frank West and published by The City of Games.