“Quite simply the new polyomino game standard bearer for the solo player.”
The Isle of Cats is an Enthusiast level game of Short length. The base game is playable by 1 to 4 players.
This review focuses on the solo play experience.
The Isle of Cats has a built-in solo mode.
The best bits of this game are:
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.
— Rod McKuen