Vesh Darkhand hates The Isle of Cats. It’s never quite clear why. Nor why the citizens of the fantasy world he wants to conquer seek to rescue the cats rather than worrying about their conquest by Vesh Darkhand. Maybe it's because they're amazing looking cats. Nothing quite yells 'magic' like a bright red housecat with a pair of antlers. One sits atop the "I" on the box cover, in pride of place, and there's lots more glorious feline art inside the box.
There are also two different ways to play The Isle of Cats. In both you take a ship board and fill it with cat tiles, representing the lucky mousers you're saving from Vesh. You get points for groups of cats of a matching colour. You lose points for uncovered rats, and for any rooms on the board that are not covered in cats. The cats available each round come at random from a bag. Sometimes you may also draw treasure tiles from the bag which are different shapes and worth extra points.
For the simple, family version, that's pretty much the entire game. You can score bonus points via what the game calls "lessons" but which are really objective cards. They give you points for things like the number of cats touching, or not touching, the edge of the board.
What's striking about playing the family version is how much The Isle of Cats does with this simple formula. The cat tiles are all sorts of jagged geometries, none of them helpful to covering rats or locking together to cover the whole room. Playing is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces quite fit together. In the same vein, it offers a diverse palette of lessons so that you're never quite sure what the other players are angling for.
Players take turns picking up a cat tile from those available and adding them to their boat. It oozes with the frustration of watching other people picking the tiles you want first. And even when you get to snatch one in triumph, it's easy to find it doesn't quite fit after all. Neither with your plans nor the other cats on your boat. Cats aren't the most sociable creatures, after all. At the end, there's a lull while everyone counts their points and then the excitement of the big reveal. It's a great game for families, especially ones with older kids.
The full version of the game has all of this goodness, but it wraps the acquisition of tiles in a whole new game. Instead of grabbing a piece, players draft a hand of cards. These include both private and public lessons - the latter of which all players can score - along with trap cards. You need one trap for each cat you're hoping to snare that round. Cards you want to keep cost fish, the game's currency, and you'll need more fish to bait the traps. And so begins the game's slow dance of madness.
Traps also have an initiative value, indicating who gets to go first each round. But players pick the traps they're going to use in secret, before revealing them and there are two pools of cats which need different amounts of fish. It is, therefore, quite possible to plan to catch particular cats only to find partway through the turn you can no longer afford them. Unused traps go to waste, so this is a double whammy and it's exactly the situation you want to manoeuvre all the other players into.
In many games, this kind of interaction feels like a feeble sop to the joy of tearing chunks out of each other. Not so in The Isle of Cats. Because between the public lessons and the colourful cats aboard each boat, it's easy to guess with a glance what others are collecting. Sure you have your own goals to see to as well, but the stakes of pushing other players into wasting resources are so high it's often worth a punt. And when you do, they're likely to go as green as the emerald Crystal Garmin cats that infest the island. It's not quite annexing their critical territories, but it's glorious to see.
Pulling it off, though, requires to do quite a bit of calculating and estimating. What cards are going to cost, what fish you need left to lure cats. That sort of thing. There's a lot going on in this version of the game. There's initiative, permanent and temporary traps and a type of utility card that does things like net you treasures or extra fish. Scaffolded atop the foundations of the family game, it can push The Isle of Cats into that uncomfortable sense of being more like work than play.
For all the moving pieces, it's impressive how accessible this full version remains. It's not at all challenging to learn even if it often can be to play. And between the wonderful art and the story paragraphs in the rules, it does make you feel like a bold sea captain with a penchant for cats. Seeing their weird shapes stretch sinuously around your vessel as you collect them is always a pleasure. The solo version is fun, too, with a strange AI opponent who makes your life super awkward by using the very cats you collect to score for themselves.
Th Isle of Cats comes echoing in a box large enough to fit a cat in along with the contents. In fact, the lid suggests you do just that, since cats like boxes. It’s a shelf hog and a table hog too but it isn’t a shelf toad. Pulling it out on gamer night is a definite possibility, but it feels a little too much like hard work for regular rotation. Pulling it out for the family, though, has all the appeal of stroking a kitten. It looks nice, it’s fun to play with and now and again it’ll give you a scratch to remember. Vesh Darkhand might hate The Isle of Cats, but I rather like it.