The warlord Vesh Darkhand is on his way, and you must rescue as many cats from their island home as possible before it is destroyed!
What Is The Isle of Cats?
The Isle of Cats is a card drafting and tile laying game for 1-4 players (or up to 6 with the Late Arrivals expansion). Game length is between 30 minutes and 1 1/2 hours depending on player count and game mode, and is for ages 8+. The game was originally funded on Kickstarter in 2019, and is now available to purchase from Gamenerdz and other online retailers, as well as from local games stores. It retails for $50.
The Isle of Cats Components
Here’s what comes with the game:
- 30 wooden cat meeples
- 85 cat tiles
- 6 Oshax tiles
- 42 fish tokens
- 10 basket tokens
- 44 common treasures
- 25 rare treasures
- 1 Vesh’s boat meeple
- 4 player boat boards
- 1 island board
- 1 discovery bag
- 1 scorepad
- 1 pencil
- 150 discovery cards
- 18 family cards
- 5 solo color cards
- 23 solo basket cards
- 10 solo lesson cards
- 9 solo advanced lesson cards
- 4 color reference cards
This is a game that impresses you with the thought and quality that went into the design right from the moment you have the box in your hand. The box itself is thick cardboard, with a pleasing linen finish.
Removing the lid, you’ll notice a couple of things immediately. The first, is that there is artwork and descriptions of each of the island’s cat breeds running around the side of the box:
And the other thematic surprise: The interior of the box lid is perfect for all those cat-owning gamers whose kitties always find their way into their games:
This whimsy in the design makes its way throughout the game components; it’s a welcome choice by Frank West, who not only designed the game but was also the art director and graphic designer (although Dragolisco did the lovely artwork).
Each player has a unique player board. Although the play area is the same, there is different artwork for each of the thick cardboard boards, a nice touch. They are also double-sided; one side is for a standard game, and one side is for the simpler, “family” game.
Again, there’s some great attention to detail here. The artwork is lovely but doesn’t distract from the playability. And as you can see, the boards also include some handy reference information for round actions and scoring that you’d normally find on separate cards in other games.
The Island Board, which represents the Isle of Cats, combines both a round tracker and a turn priority tracker. Much like the player boards, it’s both aesthetically pleasing and functional:
I’m always a fan of interesting wooden meeples for a game. They’re a lot of fun and really enhance the gaming experience. The Isle of Cats definitely has some lovely, unique pieces. Besides five different colors of cats, each also with their own unique shapes to match their breeds, there’s a meeple for Vesh’s ship, which you’ll use to track his movement towards the island…in other words, his ship is the round tracker.
The tiles representing the cats and treasures you’ll be placing on your ship have a nice variety in both shape and artwork. I would have liked to have seen a greater difference between the normal treasures and the rare treasures, but nevertheless it’s easy to differentiate between the two types.
I’d also like to specifically mention the discovery bag, which you’ll be using to draw cat and treasure tiles. Most games that include bags have pretty cheap ones that you inevitably end up replacing (Quacks of Quedlinburg I’m looking at you!) But The Isle of Cats comes with a nice, sturdy canvas bag with a cord drawstring. Not only should this hold up great, but it fits in with the nautical theme of the game.
And finally, one other fantastic thing about the components: once you’ve punched out all the tiles and tokens and organized your cards, everything easily fits back into the box!
How to Play The Isle of Cats
You can read the rulebook here or watch a Watch it Played video to learn the game:
The goal of The Isle of Cats is to earn the most points by rescuing cats, accumulating rare treasures and completing lessons.
Place the island in the center of the play area, and place Vesh’s boat on the “5” space on the island’s day tracker.
Below the island, place stacks of each shape of common treasure: 5 of each for 1-2 players, 8 for 3 players, and 11 of each for 4 players. Below that place the six Oshax tiles.
Put out all the wooden cat pieces, fish tokens, and permanent basket tokens to form the supply. Shuffle the discovery cards, placing the deck face down on the table.
Add all blue, green, orange, red, and purple cat tiles to the discovery bag, as well as all the rare treasure tiles. Place the bag within easy reach of the players.
Each player takes a boat board, and one of the permanent baskets. Randomly determine who goes first, and then starting with the first player, each player chooses a color by taking a matching cat meeple, and then places it on the island in turn order (the first player places their cat on the top paw of the island).
A game of The Isle of Cats takes place over 5 days (or rounds of the game). Each day consists of a setup, 5 phases, and a cleanup:
- Fill the Fields (setup)
- Phase 1: Fishing
- Phase 2: Explore
- Phase 3: Read Lessons
- Phase 4: Rescue Cats
- Phase 5: Rare Finds
- Empty the Fields (cleanup)
Here’s what you’ll actually be doing each round:
Fill the Fields
There is a “left field” area to the left of the island, and a “right field” area to the right. The starting player draws two random cat tiles per player for each of the two fields and places them in those fields. If any rare treasures are pulled out, they are placed with the common treasures and do not count towards the number of cat tiles drawn.
Phase 1: Fishing
Each player takes 20 fish from the supply.
Phase 2: Explore
This is the drafting phase of the game. The starting player deals 7 cards from the discovery deck to each player, who selects two of them and then passes the rest of their cards to the left. This is repeated twice more, until finally passing a single card, which that player keeps.
The second half of this phase is deciding which cards you want to keep. At the top left of each discovery card is a number, which is how many fish that card will cost. You must pay the total number of fish for all the cards you want to keep, discarding any that you don’t purchase.
Phase 3: Read Lessons
Lesson cards provide potential scoring bonuses. Each player places any public lesson cards face-up on the table and read them out to the other players. If the lesson says, “pick a color,” the card’s owner takes a cat meeple in the color they choose and place it on the card. Any non-public lesson cards the player drafted should be placed face-down in a pile next to their boat, splayed so the other players can see how many lesson cards everyone has.
Phase 4: Rescuing Cats
Beginning with the starting player, each player can rescue 1 cat per turn. You must have both enough fish and baskets to rescue cats. Each cat rescued requires an unused basket, and cats in the Left Field cost three fish to rescue, while cats in the Right Field cost 5 fish to rescue. When you rescue a cat you must immediately place it on your boat, adjacent to another cat or treasure (your first cat can be placed anywhere). If you cover a treasure map on your boat with a cat tile of the matching color, you may also instantly take and place any one of the common treasures onto your boat.
This is also the phase where the starting player changes: whoever has the most speed (represented by boot symbols on their played discovery cards) will become the new first player, and will correspondingly get first choice of the cat they rescue that round.
Phase Five: Rare Finds
Players take turns revealing any cards that will either allow them to collect rare treasures, or collect and place one of the 6 Oshax. When placing an Oshax, take one of the cat meeples and place it onto that Oshax tile to show which cat family you’ve chosen for it to belong to; that Oshax counts as both that family and an Oshax for scoring purposes.
Empty the Fields
Any cats still in the fields are returned to the box. Move Vesh’s boat one space to the right. If it has reached the last space, go to scoring. Otherwise, flip any permanent baskets back to their active side and start the next day.
End of Game
Scoring can seem a little complicated at first as there are a lot of factors that affect your scoring. You will receive points for:
- Cat families (3 or more cat tiles of the same color that are touching). The more cats in the family, the more points.
- Rare treasures.
- Completing lesson cards.
You will lose points for:
- Rats that haven’t been covered by cat or treasure tiles.
- Rooms on the boat that haven’t been filled.
The player with the most points wins!
This is a simplified ruleset included with the game, with its own set of cards as you won’t be doing a draft. Instead, each player will draw 3 cards from the family deck and choose two to keep. These are their lesson cards for the game.
During each round, there is no buying cards with fish or using fish to lure cats…instead, each player will simply choose a cat tile and place it on their boat. Scoring is mostly the same as the main game.
There is also a very robust solo mode included with the game. It includes its own deck of lessons, advanced lessons (to increase the difficulty) and color cards, which will determine how many points are scored for cats by the “sister” or A.I. player. This mode even includes a modified draft! There is also a special “solo basket deck” that shows you which cats the sister will rescue. I’m not going to go into the solo rules in detail as they take up 5 pages of the 24-page rulebook (I did say it was very robust!), but if you’re interested in the solo gameplay rules, you can read them in the back of the main rulebook.
The Verdict: The Isle of Cats
When most people look at the box and gameplay pieces for The Isle of Cats, they’re charmed by the bright colors and beautiful art design. But don’t be fooled by the cute kitties…this game has some serious strategic chops.
With multiple factors that affect scoring, you need to constantly be thinking of how your choices will impact the game throughout the different phases. Which cards should you draft? Out of that draft, how many should you pay for and keep? All those cards cost fish, and you also need to leave enough to rescue cats later that round. And exactly where you are in the turn order can also be a factor, if you’re trying to collect certain families and/or shapes of cats to place on your boat.
And that placement of the tiles is also a huge factor. You’re aiming for maximum coverage of cats on your boat, but some lesson cards will also modify how you want to put down your tiles. For example, I had a lesson card in one game that actually gave me a bonus if I had a certain number of rats that were visible at the end of the game. Another lesson card gives a bonus if all the outside edges of the boat are filled in. Having the flexibility to adjust your gameplay to both the available cats each round and the lesson cards you draft is more important than coming into the game with one set strategy.
I love that the drafting phase of the game doesn’t just have you picking cards and passing them, but also allows you to only pay for the cards you actually want to keep. This drafting mechanism gives you a lot of flexibility, both in trying to get a strategy that works for you for that round, as well as being able to potentially block your opponents from getting cards that they need. Even my friends that don’t normally enjoy drafting in games enjoyed it in The Isle of Cats.
It’s impressive that there are three sets of very well-thought out rules that come with the game: the main rules set, the family rules, and the solo game mode. All three of the rulesets share the same fundamentals regarding tile-laying and scoring. Basically, if you know how to play the main game, you’re perfectly poised to learn the other game modes. But each ruleset also includes cards specifically for those modes, as well as a specific focus. If you have younger kids and want to be able to play a game designed to be a bit simpler, you’ll play the family rules. And if you’re stuck at home by yourself, then obviously the solo mode is the way to go. In our current situation worldwide, it’s a welcome bonus that The Isle of Cats has such flexibility regarding how you can play the game.
There were a few minor issues that I and my game group discovered. Paying for your discovery cards during the Explore phase is done on an honor basis, so if you have any players that are prone to cheating, this is when they will do so. There was some initial confusion by some with the discovery cards by one player, as they thought they had to rescue the same color cat as was shown on a basket discovery card (you don’t). As all the scoring is done at the end of the game, it can be a little hard to gauge how your opponents are doing, especially as individual lesson cards are kept secret until the end of the game. And endgame scoring is a relatively lengthy process, as there are a number of factors that both increase and decrease a player’s score. But really, these are more little nitpicks with the game than any serious flaws.
There’s a lot to love with The Isle of Cats. From its whimsical, colorful artwork, to its high-quality components, to its engaging gameplay, you’ve already got a great addition to your game night. But add in a set of rules specifically geared towards playing with younger children, as well as another set for a fantastic solo mode? You’ve got a board game that may take up permanent residence in your collection, and hit the table quite often on game nights.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.