The Isle of Cats

1-4 players, Competitive, Cat Crawling Polyomino

Designer: Frank West

Artwork: Dragolisco, Frank West

Publisher: The City of Games

Release Year: 2019

Origin Story

I had this one on my radar for awhile after I played the wonderful City of Kings from the same designer. However, I don’t find myself to be a huge polyomino mechanic fan. I never really got hooked on Tetris back in the day so the idea never really rang any bells with me. That said, Frank (the designer) was kind enough to send me a copy for review so I gave it a shot! Read on to see if this particular polyomino game completely changed my opinions on the entire mechanic.

Overview of Gameplay

As I mentioned above this game has a “Tetris” feel to it where you need to rotate and maneuver oddly shaped pieces to fit together in the most area efficient way possible to score the most points. Unlike Tetris however, there is much more going on here than meets the eye. In this game, you will be utilizing fish tokens to “lure” cat pieces onto your ship. You will then place said cats on your ship filling up as much space, efficiently as possible. All the while you will be wanting to cover particular icons on the ship to gain extra treasures. The big catch though is that each placed cat after the first has to touch another cat on board. There’s a bit more to the game than just simple collecting tiles and placing them though! Let’s run through a typical round so you get the full picture.

During the first phase each player will collect 20 fish tokens from the general supply. These are added to any leftover fish from previous rounds and these babies are what you are going to spend to collect cats. Thematically, think of them as luring the cats to your boat with fresh fish.

In phase two, players will be exploring the island, which consists of drafting cards from the discovery deck. Each player will get dealt 7 cards from which they will select two that they want to keep and pass the remaining cards. This process is repeated until all cards have been chosen leaving each player with their 6 chosen cards and 1 card at the end as the “leftovers”. Now, with those cards in hand each player will have to choose which cards to keep and which to discard. Each card has a cost that has to be paid if they want to keep them and this cost is paid with the fish tokens.

In phase three players will check their kept cards for any Lesson cards whether public lessons or regular lessons. If players have any Public Lesson cards they must place those on the table face-up for everyone to see. These usually add some scoring benefit to the game for everyone, so if you play one then you would probably want to be the person that would benefit the most. The regular Lesson cards are similar except they are placed face-down next to you and will give only the player that played them an extra bonus at the end of the game.

During phase four we are rescuing the cats! In this phase players will be taking turns playing their “Rescue cards” to collect cat tokens to play on their ship. At the start of this phase all players will choose which cards they want to play and place them face-down in front of them. Then all players will simultaneously flip their cards over and calculate their “Speed” bonus on all their played cards. This determines the order of play for the current round with the player with the highest speed total being pushed to the top etc. From that point forward in the round the top (fastest) player will get first choice of which cat to rescue from the island. There are a limited amount of cats available, the amount depending on the number of players. These are sat next to the island board and cost either 3 fish or 5 fish each depending on which side they have been placed, which is random. Each player, in turn order, can buy (lure) one cat then play will pass to the next player and on and on this goes until all players pass.

Another aspect to this is that you have to have a free and open basket ready to capture a cat with. These are usually represented on the rescue cards along with the speed by vary greatly. It gets interesting as I noticed typically cards with greater speed, have less baskets to use. So you have to kinda weigh what you are going for in a round.

Phase five! After your cat collection phase players will then get to utilize any “Rare finds” cards they may have. These cards allow players to collect treasure tokens or the rare and elusive “Oshax” cats. These sweet little critters are basically the “wild” of the cats. Representing any color, when you place it you must announce which family of cat it belongs as it enters your ship to mingle with its compatriots.

That’s basically it! There are a couple odds and ends such as purple cards that can be played at any moment and also those pesky rats that are on your ships, that you want to try and cover up with your cats as they are worth negative points at the end of the game. After 5 days (rounds) the game will come to an end and players will calculate their total scores based around a variety of scoring bits. Rats and empty space in rooms is worth negative points, however a variety of different cat families (colors) is worth more points. The rare treasures you find are worth extra whereas the common treasures are not worth anything (other than being helpful for filling up negative space). All the lesson cards points are also added and whoever has the most points is the winner!

Components/Game Board

Love the components, especially the cat meeples. There are 30 total cat meeps in five different colors and forms. They are very easy to differentiate on the board and also just look awesome. The round marker is a little wooden Vesh boat that moves along the island board which thematically represents how close the evil and vile Vesh are getting to the island.

The cat tokens and other cardboard bits are of a good quality, everything having a good weight and feel to them. All the cards all have a nice finish and feel premium and the board’s look and feel good as well. There is a cloth bag that holds all the cat tiles to be drawn and this is also of a good quality. Zero complaints component-wise with this one. I would score it above-average.

Box/Storage

The box is a special highlight not just for the quality, which is VERY excellent, but because of the hilarious box lid. On the inside of the lid you will find a bullseye that state’s “Cat Setup”. I mean I’m sure any of you that has a cat lurking around their house already knows how much a standard house cat just LOVES boxes. This box lid is no exception; mere minutes after setting my box lid trap down, our cat already found herself sitting in it, eyeing me with disgust that I would DARE look at her.

Beyond the fun lid, the box is of a very high quality, thick and sturdy. Glossy with the spot UV effect on the cover and has an extremely nice feel to it. For all that I WISH the inside was as nice. There is no insert at all so you will find yourself bagging up almost everything, although the nice cloth bag does a great job of holding all the cat tiles. A small mark missed in an otherwise exceptional box.

Visual Appeal /Theme

The theming of this game is very well done to breathe life into it. There are snippets all over the rulebook that give little details of the story of the Vesh and the cat island. These snips are intertwined into the phases of play to show players how each phase thematically ties to the gameplay. I like this a lot and think it really elevates the gameplay to a new level. Visually speaking the game look stunning, I already spoke a bit about the colorful cat meeples but also the cat tiles look excellent with various interesting looking colorful cats adorned throughout. Overall, for a polyomino game this one has beaten all others as far as theme goes by far.

Rulebook

The rulebook is very well done with a nice visual component list at the beginning and an easy to understand setup with picture examples. There is a highlighted section explaining the tile placement, which is arguably the most critical aspect of the gameplay and is explained very well. And as much as I love how much theme the game oozes,  it does make the rules a tad more complicated the first time you read them. For example using words like “Day” instead of “Round” adds a bit of confusion to understanding. Cat “Families” are used to describe the cat “Colors” and other minor instances like the “Explore” phase, which is basically the “Draft” phase. Again, confusing at first but easily understood after a bit. I wouldn’t say this is a complex game to play at all but it will take a full play through for most to really grasp the intricacies of how to wrangle the cats and treasures optimally on your boat.

Player Interaction/Fun Factor

There really wasn’t much player interaction to be honest. Most of the interaction comes from the draft phase. The worry of a player snatching a particular cat or treasure token you want which lends to you worrying just how much speed or baskets you want to play during a round. But beyond that, players will be filling up their own individual boats with their own collected cats. I wouldn’t go so far to call this game “multiplayer solitaire” but it’s pretty close. That said, I had a good time while playing, sitting there HOPING beyond hope that another green cat would be drawn from the bag to extend my green cat family. Or eyeing that particular rare treasure token, knowing I could get it during the treasure phase. And that feeling of hopelessness when another player snatches it before I can. It’s all good and the fact a game can elicit these feelings from me is a sure sign that I am invested in what I am playing.

Optimal Player Count/Replayability

The game plays up to 4 but also has a dedicated solo mode for those wanting to go it alone. I can’t speak to how the solo mode plays but can tell you it is fully fleshed out. There are specific decks that you use JUST for the solo play and a bit in the back of the rulebook explaining the differences. As for the multiplayer mode I would recommend 2 or 3 players. I did experience a bit of downtime when playing as some players will have that hard decision of exactly HOW to place their acquired cat. Although, you could probably just move on once selected. At two players the game ran smoothly, with very little downtime and had a nice back and forth. Adding in a third player would for sure open up the scoring options more since you are more likely to see those lessons popping up with a higher degree if variability.

Replayability is rather low with the core game. The draft will always yield different results and the randomization of the cat bag will populate varying cat tiles each round BUT it gets very samey very quickly. The game is left open with the Module Lesson cards that can be swapped in and out with different games to change up the scoring options but you will need to buy expansions to change those up.

Positive Final Thoughts

Love the artwork, the components and the theme. The way the theme is intertwined into the gameplay is impressive and makes the game seem like much more than a basic polyomino game. I really enjoy the card drafting which was the gameplay highlight for me.

Negative Final Thoughts

The replay value is pretty low and even with the outstanding theme you are left with a game that plays basically the same every time. Even with the fun card drafting you are still just placing tiles in a particular fashion to try and fill up space. The lack of a good insert also increases setup time to a degree.

The Bottom Line

As I stated at the beginning, I’m not a huge fan of Polyomino style games and unfortunately this one doesn’t really sway me much to liking the gameplay style. There are aspects of the game that I enjoy such as the card drafting but ultimately I just find the polyomino tile placement rather drab. I don’t think that makes this a bad game at all and for those players out there that enjoy this style of game, I think this one would probably be the best of them. The components and theme alone make this a game to check out if you like tile placement games!

The Fuzzy Llama Bronze Seal of Prevalence

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