1. the marriage of simple gameplay rules with complex gameplay decisions
2. the solo game, while maintaining core gameplay elements, pushes beyond the multiplayer game to become the best iteration of The Isle of Cats
The worst bit of The Isle of Cats is the unavoidable problem when the player is subject to the mercy of random draw, particularly regarding rescuable cats.
Frank West and The Isle of Cats are certainly having their moment. And I can say it’s well-deserved as The Isle of Cats is quite simply the new polyomino game standard bearer for the solo player. It shows the potential of the genre that goes beyond “gateway” tile placement.
At its core, The Isle of Cats is a polyomino tile placement game that utilizes a round-renewing economy and a card draft system. Victory points are primarily based on placement, covering or filling different areas on the player board, as well as fulfilling optional and variable scoring objectives. The rules are straightforward and the individual player boards contain the essential information of round structure and scoring framework.
It is important to not confuse “easy to play” with “easy.” The players’ objective is much more complex than simply covering a boat with cats. There are several decision points including drafting useful cards, deciding whether to pay for them, determining initiative, and pursuing both private and public scoring objectives through tile placement.
The one minor drawback of the game is that there are times where the player is at the mercy of the dreaded draw. Whether referring to card draw or tile draw, options may be, at times, limited through no fault or choice of the player. Sometimes, the right color cat is just not available. Or the player receives a lesson card that is impossible to fulfill, especially when it comes late in the game.
The game utilizes an AI opponent, “Sister.” Like the game itself, she is elegantly designed to create a formidable foe with minimal rules overhead. She scores points based on types (color) of cats as well as her own solo-specific lessons. The twist? Both conditions are based on the player’s own tile placement.
The solo game shines because it adds a layer of complexity that does not exist in the multiplayer game. Where the typical solo player is more likely to play a game missing an element from a multiplayer game (neighbourhood bonus in Clans of Caledonia, e.g.), The Isle of Cats adds a layer of strategy to the multiplayer game and does so in a meaningful way.
Every cat that is placed on the player’s boat simultaneously scores points for the player and the AI opponent. Many times, the placement will work toward (or against) multiple scoring objectives. Imagine: every move is a combination of both working toward one’s own objective while preventing or at least limiting the AI’s progress. I talk to myself a lot playing The Isle of Cats because there is a lot of information to process.
The core of the solo gameplay, however, largely coincides with the multiplayer mechanics. The solo game simulates the card draft, (the player will not see cards return, but she must evaluate the cards that will help best) and provides a means to compete against the AI for initiative as well as selection of cats and treasures. While not a perfect analog to multiplayer play, the limitations presented by AI interference will feel much the same for the player.
The Isle of Cats excels as a gaming puzzle beyond mere “Tetris-ing” pieces together. In its solo game iteration, The Isle of Cats requires constant evaluation of multiple scoring conditions in a satisfying mental exercise.
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 2.31 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review), though that rating doesn’t distinguish between solo and multiplayer games and so is not adjusted to reflect the changes involved in solo play.
The Isle of Cats is available directly from the publisher, The City of Games, for £45. The Kickstarter edition is currently on sale for £65 and includes, among other things, wooden fish pieces, additional lesson card modules, and a variety of additional tiles. I have not seen The Isle of Cats at retail though I would expect one will be able to find it at outlets that carried Mr. West’s The City of Kings.
Cats have it all: admiration, an endless sleep and company only when they want it.
I’m keen to discuss the catchup mechanisms in The Rise of Queensdale which I’m part way through playing at present – do you like catchup mechanisms in general, or dislike them?
I see catchup mechanisms (and game balancing in general) as one of the major factors distinguishing modern game design from traditional game design and it’s interesting to see how they are managed in various games.
Spoiler Alert: these pics and the rest of this post contain spoilers for up to Epoch 4 in The Rise of Queensdale so read no further if you want to avoid them.
There are both short and long term catchup mechanics in RoQ and they seem very effective to me.
The Robber Baron tokens and Crown track help players who did poorly in the most recent game by giving them a head start and a buff in the next game. The Robber Baron gives randomised rewards and powers (such as trading one of your workers for another player’s which you prefer), and the Crown track allows carryover of a few points from a previous game which you didn’t win – those are the short term mechanisms.
In addition to that, players who fail to reach their campaign goals in a game get ‘seals’ which are then used to add stickers to the dice workers, improving their ‘talents’ in a way that lasts for the whole campaign – a longer term catchup mechanism by way of ‘dice building’.
So far they are working well in our campaign – the leader looks at risk of being caught and overtaken by the other player who now has significantly better dice, but is still hanging on to a lead (so far) – each game is close.
I think it’s an effective combination in a campaign game. Do you enjoy catchup mechanisms in a game, or do you prefer grinding the bones of your enemies? 🦴 🏴☠️ 🤣
IS: Roll & Write has a specialised solo ‘Adventure mode’ in the box. This is a pad of 48 different sheets, spanning the factions and themes of the IS ‘universe’, and the key to making this a quality solo game.
The best bit of this game is that Adventure mode pad – it’s really neat and thematic. Having 48 different sheets is really neat.
The worst bit of Imperial Settlers: Roll & Write is that it can be a bit fiddly tracking your ‘people’ each round – since you get them all from one die. I ended up making tally marks on the main sheet for each round, but a more elegant solution would have been nice.
I am a fan of Imperial Settlers, but Portal Games’ recent catalogue has been patchy² and I was skeptical about whether this game would be any good. I was pleasantly surprised – it’s deeper than you’d expect and I found myself needing to stop, think and re-think decisions (and I made plenty of strategic / tactical mistakes, which is a good sign of depth) in my first few plays.
The Adventure pad drags you into the Imperial Settlers universe and you do feel like you’re helping the bumbling Barbarians or fruitful Japanese with their labours. Part of the advanced rules involves making patterns on your playsheet to gain extra benefits and this adds a welcome layer of variability and replayability to the game.
It’s enjoyable, thoughtful and easy to learn and play, but has depth too – give it a try!
It’s a Rosenberg game, so expect vegetables – and you won’t be disappointed!
At the Gates of Loyang is an Enthusiast level board game of Short length, playable by 1 to 4 players.
This review focuses on the solo play experience.
Gates of Loyanghas a built-in solo mode, based on a ‘score achievement’ model – but don’t be put off by that if you prefer a different type of solo challenge – Loyang is a genuinely challenging and enjoyable solo experience. A score of 15 or 16 is effectively a ‘fail’, 17 is a ‘win’ and 18 or 19 is . . . not achievable for me yet.
The best bits of this game are the balance between Regular customers (who have to be served almost every round) and Casual customers (who are served once, when you choose to serve them) – this tightrope act is the essential challenge of the game. Regular customers are the backbone of your economic engine, but you can’t win without satisfying some casuals also.
The worst bit of Loyang is that you’re always one or two coins short of what you really want to do on your turn :).
As with many Rosenberg games, there is a simple and elegant setup for the solo ‘opponent’ and mode – here it is, laid out before play:
You develop your own farm based on the customers who you plan to serve, and play across 9 rounds. Your farm develops each round – here is mine, after thefirst round:
Each round will see you striving to advance on the Path to Prosperity – you must advance as you go, or it becomes nigh-impossible in later rounds. ¹ But you’ll need to spend coins on some cards from the courtyard, new types of vegetables (unless you can trade for them in the market; but anything you trade you cannot plant), extra fields if you can get them, and powerful ‘Two-packs’².
Speaking of planting, you must plant new vegetables, preferably of different types to satisfy a variety of customers, but you can only plant certain types in certain fields – and, of course, the most valuable ones go in the smallest fields. Did I mention that you won’t know exactly when new prime fields will arrive, to be available for planting?
Regular customers are demanding and they won’t pay a premium, but they will pay round after round. As mentioned above, balancing their needs with those of casual customers is the trick – fill the casual orders at the right time, and you could get a sweet bonus.
Just how will you get that blessed / blasted beetroot when you need it? Well, I have a spare wheat and few coins – can I buy a pumpkin (4 coins), trade it and the wheat in the market for a beetroot, and then fill a Casual order for 11 coins? Or would it be better to hire the Maid from the bottom row of the courtyard (2 coins), so that I can do a direct wheat-for-beet swap? If this sort of puzzle appeals to you, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy Gates of Loyang, as I do.
A tip: you get a new field every turn. It’s nearly always a mistake not to plant it . . except when planting it would be the wrong thing to do, because you need those extra coins to hire that crucial helper for next turn’s regular customer demands; and you need to step forwards on the Path this turn . . . I suspect you will have gleaned the joys and tiny horrors of this game, by now!
The variety and interaction of the cards, the varying order in which your fields arrive, and the sheer challenge of getting past 17 or 18 on the Path of Prosperity make this a rewarding solo experience which you’ll want to replay. Go on, you can knock off another solo game in 45 to 60 minutes now – sleep is for the weak! 😉
You can probably tell that At the Gates of Loyang is one of my favourite solo games. The ‘solo mode’ is low maintenance and elegant and is not difficult to learn³. It’s also excellent as a multiplayer game, and though complex, it’s fairly easy to teach. I rate it five beetroot / four broad beans! I’d love a ‘carrots and kale’ expansion, but it seems unlikely…
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 3.14 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review), though that rating doesn’t distinguish between solo and multiplayer games and so is not adjusted to reflect the changes involved in solo play.
Loyang was published in 2009 and can be tough to get – I picked my copy up secondhand. Amazon is by far the best price available in Australia – about $75 – and OzGameShop is the only other option at present (about $110).
¹ The first step forwards each round costs 1 coin, then additional steps cost the value of the space. So, from 9 to 11 costs 12 coins (1+11) and from 11 to 13 the next turn will cost 14 coins (1 + 13) for 26 coins total across two turns – but if you try to go one step (9 to 10) in a turn, and then from 10 to 13 the next turn, it gets more expensive (1 + 1 + 12 + 13 = 27 coins). This may seem a small difference, but every coin is crucial in Loyang!
Achieving three steps in one round is tough.
² Two-packs are so (potentially) powerful that you’re limited to buying them once a round. But the cost might sink you. Aaaaarrgghh!!
³ … once you get past a clumsy section at page 9 in the rulebook. Clarification: There is no “Distribution round” in the solo game – the only cards potentially available to you are in the ‘Courtyard’ – you can buy 0, 1 or 2 and that’s it each round.
“I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
The best bits of this game are the Paladins, hands down. It’s a simple idea – you draw 3 of your 12 paladin cards and choose one to be your ‘champion’ for this round. He will assist you with one type of action (see picture below).
Each paladin only gets one round (out of seven) to help you, so choose carefully. But, here’s the neat ‘hand management’ bit which works so well – choose one of the other two to add to the bottom of your draw pile – you won’t see him again (or at least not until much later in the game – and choose one to add to the top, so that he’s available again as one of your options next round. This simple approach blends variety with planning for future rounds – it’s very neat. More on the paladin cards, below.
the rulebook – you have to jump back and forth to find some bits of the info you need, and this created some challenges in my game group;
the player interaction can be punishing: for example, if someone attacks (or converts) an Outsider who you really want before you get a chance, then you can really take a hit – because they’re not replaced until end of round, and the different types of worker meeples have different strengths, so it can be tough to redeploy them effectively. This is slightly mitigated by the ability to carry up to 3 workers over to the next round.
You own medieval town is in front of you. You’ve chosen your champion paladin for the current round – he may encourage hunting for provisions, for example – so you will probably use one or two of those workers to hunt. Include a green (Scout) worker if you want good results! If you chose the optimal paladin, then he will also have come with a Scout worker or two, whether or not you could hire one from the Tavern.
Your opponent might have missed out on the Cleric they wanted from the Tavern at the start of the round – perhaps they got stuck with Labourers and Fighters. Fortunately, any Labourer (or other worker) can conspire to be a Criminal – those purple workers can do it all! You might even pilfer some coins from the taxman along the way – but you’re under Suspicion now – watch out for the Inquisition, when it arrives!
This game is about choosing workers and gaining resources to take the actions which suit what you want to do – there are lots of options, and you definitely won’t have time in 7 rounds to do them all. Do you want a great big wall around your town (for rewards and points)? – then, Fortify. Keen on being a renowned warrior? – then, Attack the Outsiders (for rewards and perhaps points). Feeling pious? Convert the Outsiders, or Commission Monks (for rewards, points or more workers). Back to those paladin cards we discussed earlier – each one buffs two of your three attributes for the round – so, the attacker makes you better at Attacking and rewards you with extra benefits for doing so. Paladins of the West Kingdom really feels like you’re developing your town as you ‘engine build’ through your ‘tableau’ of cards and wooden buildings.
The art by Mihajlo Dimitrievski is bold and cartoonish in the consistent style of Garphill Games’ recent North Sea amd West Kingdom series. The wooden workers and buildings are OK – typical for the series. There is A LOT of game in this small box.
If you like any of the other recent Garphill Games (which I do), then you’re bound to like this one too – playing it is very satisfying and there are several different strategies available. Paladins seems very nicely balanced and each game I have played has been close. The player interaction is limited but it’s there (through competition for initial workers from the Tavern, the central Townsfolk and Outsider cards and the central rewards) and is occasionally punishing.
The paladin cards really help with enjoyment of the game, in my opinion, because they give new players a clue about what they might want to do in any particular round – this makes learning the game less intimidating. The game moves quickly for us, and 7 rounds feels almost a touch too short to achieve your plans when playing – in my experience this game is a bit quicker to play than the box suggests. Definitely recommended as worth playing!
The variable “Kings Favour” cards encourage you to try different strategies for points. In my first game I ‘Absolved’ my way to a win and in the second I ‘Converted’ up a big team of Outsider recruits.
I’m convinced that concentrating on Fortifying a massive wall, Commissioning monks or creating Garrisons, or on other strategies, would also be viable. There is an adequate amount of variability and content in the game to allow for reasonable replayability .
BoardGameGeek rates this game as 3.57 out of 5 in weight, (at the time of publication of this review). I don’t think it’s quite that heavy but ‘comparisons are odorous‘ by nature.
Paladins of the West Kingdom is widely available. Best current price I can find is $70 at Amazon US, or from $76 to $85 at a variety of other retailers.
I love the metal coins which are not in the standard retail game but are available here.