The Isle of Cats board game is a tile-laying game for one to four players, taking 45-90 minutes to play. There are two versions in the box, with the family game easily accessible for ages 8+. The other is more gamery, incorporating drafting. But after learning the basic game it isn’t a massive step up in difficulty.
The rather tenuous theme sees you rescuing a variety of rare cat breeds from an island before it is taken over by some evil king, or something. What it boils down to is: draw polyominoes (with cat art) from a big bag, and try to fit them on your boat (board). The ‘boat’ has seven rooms and a bunch of rats – the filling/covering of which will avoid negative points. While fulfilling goal cards and batching cats in colour (breed) groups gives bonus points.
There’s quite a bit of stuff in the rather oversized box. You’ll find 30 cute wooden cats, more than 200 cardboard tiles, five boards, a large cloth bag, 200+ cards, a handy (if poorly laid out) scorepad and pencil. Unfortunately they’ve gone for text over iconography, and used a blocky font which isn’t easy to read and makes the cards ugly. But it doesn’t slow things down too much. The component quality is about average, and I very much liked the artwork. But they’ve gone for a fantasy-ish sheen for the cats, which won’t appeal to everyone. But the artwork is undoubtedly high quality.
Please note: Due to COVID-19 restrictions I have only been able to play this game two-player and solo. If you’re looking to mainly play it with more, please bear that in mind when looking at the opinion sections of the review.
Teaching the Isle of Cats board game
I’ll talk about the family game first, covering the basics of both versions, then talk about what the full game adds. Because unlike games that can’t decide which version is best, to me Isle of Cats offers two solid options.
Each player begins with a seven-room ship (player board) they’ll try to fill with cats and treasure. In each of five rounds, four cats per player are drawn from the bag and placed face up on the table. There is also a set of ‘common treasures’ (non-cat tiles) and Oshax tiles (‘wild’ cats) available. The cat bag also included uncommon treasures. If drawn while adding cats, they’re put with the other treasures. So you always start with four cats each available.
In the family version, each player is dealt three family cards during setup. You choose two and discard the other. These simply give you a secret way to score end game points. And can be anything from getting X numbers of a certain colour of cat; or scoring for your largest cat family; to covering all your rats; or having lots of cats touching the edge of the boat. You’ll all also score points for cat families (touching cats of the same colour); while losing points for visible rats and uncovered/filled rooms.
In turn order, take a cat and place it on your boat. The first can go anywhere, but after that they have to touch (orthogonally) one of your other tiles. Each player also has five maps drawn on their boat, in the colours of the five cat breeds. If you cover one with the matching cat, you also get to place any one of the treasure tiles on your boat. And that’s it.
The advanced version
In the standard game you add a deck of 150 discovery cards and the fish tokens needed to pay for them. In each round, players get 20 fish (added to any you have left over). You then draft seven cards, keeping two and passing the rest on until you all have a hand of seven. You can now pay to keep as many of those seven as you wish (they cost from 0-6 fish), discarding the rest. Each player must then play any ‘lesson’ cards they kept (the equivalent of the scoring cards in the family game). Face down if personal, or face up if they’re public (meaning all players can score them).
Players start with one permanent cat-catching basket; so you can always take one cat per round (fish permitting – see below). To get more, you’ll need to keep some rescue cards. These have extra baskets on them, but can also contain boots – which determine turn order each round. Players then take cats in this new turn order, with the big change being you also have to pay fish to catch the cats. When drawing them from the bag, half are put either side of the turn tracker – with the ones to the left costing three fish, but the ones to the right five. So you can’t afford to spend all your fish on cards.
Finally, players can play rare find or oshax cards – allowing them to take additional treasures as well as wild cats. Finally, there are also some ‘anytime’ cards which give all sorts of bonuses. Anything from extra fish or permanent baskets to bonus cat picks, or adding more cats to the available selection. Scoring is much the same – and of course, high score wins.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: The Isle of Cats board game definitely has a whiff of Kickstarter. From the oversized box to ‘please everyone’ attitude (two versions, plus solo, plus gimmicky theme). But unlike most of its ilk, it gets away with it. Sure, there are design mistakes an established developer would’ve ironed out. But for Sarah and me it has enough charm to overcome these issues (more on which below).
- The thinker: Nothing for me here. I’d actually rather play the family version as a nice filler. Except that it comes in a minis-sized game box. The standard game has too much added luck, despite the drafting. While the extra faff makes it longer and fiddlier. Draw no baskets? Get no extra cats. And no way to mitigate? Not for me.
- The trasher: I quite enjoy Isle of Cats, but there’s not as much interaction as I’d like. There’s little to no chance to hate draft as the cards are very general. And you don’t know what players are going for. While when taking cats, anything you do to deprive others is unlikely to give you much of an advantage. However, the limited number of cats available each round does add a nice tension as you try to fulfil your own goals.
- The dabbler: Love it! Love the cats, both wooden and drawn. Love that the game box has a target for your cat to sit on – and a page on BGG to share your cat pics! And love the simplicity of the family game, that you can teach anyone. And also enjoy the meatier version, which adds some tactical play and tougher decisions – great for slightly older children and a new challenge for everyone.
The solo version of Isle of Cats
This plays similarly to the advanced version. Each turn, you reveal one of a deck of five cards which match the cat colours. The AI will score points per cat on your boat of each colour, but more the earlier they are revealed (ranging from 5x to 1x). So colours chosen gets extra emphasis. The AI also gets three of its own lessons, revealed at the start, which will score depending on your final situation. This will discourage you from certain tactics. For example, the AI may score points for your strongest cat colour, encouraging you to diversify.
At the drafting stage, you twice draw five cards and keep three – then get the top card from the deck for a hand of seven. Once you’ve paid for cards you want to keep, a card is revealed from the AI’s own basket deck. The first card flipped tells you how many other cards you’ll flip (so, baskets) and also the total boots it has this turn (for turn order). Each card in the deck also has instructions, so then on in the turn you flip cards and follow them. This will see you discarding cats and treasures (discard cat 6 etc), or exchanging the order.
The draw works well, the lessons rule out options nicely, while the AI basket system works well to mimic other players’ taking turns. Overall it’s a good system which soon becomes rule-check free, while being fast to set up and execute each turn. And it also has a good way to ramp up the challenge, as you can add extra (and harder) lesson cards to the AI.
The family version of The Isle of Cats board game is a delight. Good looking, accessible and smooth playing. But it comes in a massive box, which includes 200 or so cards you’ll pay for but not use. The one-player experience is solid, but I doubt many will but this just for the solo version. Which means the standard version needs to hold up. Which it only kinda does.
Most complaints centre around luck/randomness and balance levels, which seem exacerbated by the ridiculous and unnecessary 150-card deck size. Good luck shuffling it into something akin to useful. Card usefulness ranges from almost always useless to always keepers. And the drafting style implemented simply doesn’t fix that glaring disparity. So what you end up with is a more clunky version of a game you still can’t take seriously as a gamers’ game. Again, oh for a proper developer to smooth those edges.
While I see why they made different cards cost different amounts to keep, the poor card design means you can’t really prove what you’re paying for. While some may argue designers should be able to rely on players being honest, I think it’s a stretch. And people can make mistakes – especially when the font is a bit crap. If they’d put the cost in a colour-free box in the corner of each card you’d be able to prove cost – but they didn’t. The system is simply poorly conceived. And could’ve been fixed by development of the mechanic.
So what you have is a pretty, fun, but unoriginal family polyominoes game with a fantasy cat theme. This will appeal to many, and has done very well. Fair play. On top of that is a successful solo variant using the advanced cards well. The luck can still suck, but its a solo game – that is often built into the mix and acceptable to me. I enjoyed it. But the more complex version is hard to love, unless you can overlook some pretty glaring design flaws.
Conclusion: The Isle of Cats board game
While I’ve probably come across as pretty torn on my opinion of the Isle of Cats board game, it has proven itself a keeper. Sarah loves the art and enjoys the game. The family version is pretty quick to set up and plays fast, giving a nice Sunday morning filler experience. I’d certainly recommend it for families, if price isn’t a big deal – but it might be worth showing the artwork first. It’s a big old box/price tag for a basic polyominoes game if your family doesn’t fall in love with the cats themselves.
But I’m not sure how much the advanced version will get played. As long as Sarah keeps requesting the game, I’ll let her decide which version we play. The advanced version isn’t broken – it just lacks any sign of polish. But if the game doesn’t get requested much, it won’t be long before it ends up on the trade pile. And that will partly be down to the ridiculous amount of shelf space it uses. For me, with limited space, a box this big really has to have more game in it (or Sarah as its sponsor) to survive the regular game culls.