Board Game Review

Paws on the Oars! (Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw Review)

This review is also nautically available on Zatu’s blog, here!

Cats. They’re an instant win in many a persons’ book. From the ancient Egyptians putting special emphasis on them to common folk being besotted with their big eyes, adorable faces and wild personalities. (Nothing will ever prepare you for a cat on its 3AM zoomies run!) And as such, the trend of cats as a genre or theme in media and board games is expected. The Isle of Cats has you collecting cats to rescue them, placing them on a boat as polyomino tiles and adorable cat meeples. This was a mass hit for folks and sits highly as an excellent tile laying, pattern building game. The Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw is a flip and write is a beautiful reimplementation of the original, with some mechanical changes to keep things speedy. It takes around 30 minutes to play and works with 1-6 players.

Changes to the Core?

The Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw features gameplay identical to that of its core counterpart, but made lighter through some clever changes. First off, players are no longer bound to single polyomino drafts. All players can now choose rows of tile cards to add to their ships. Secondly, players now collect Lessons to add as scoring objectives. Finally, the game is wholly drawn and only contains cards, a boat to draw on and pens – making it lighter weight as a game in between games.

How It Plays

To kick off with Explore and Draw, each player takes a ship board and Lessons list and places them in front of them. They then ensure they are within reach of all the dry wipe markers needed. Finally, separate the Discovery and Lesson cards, ensuring their is a central area between all players for a 3×4 grid of cards. New cards should be laid out each round with each column being specifically given cards. Three Discovery in the first, a Lesson then two Discovery in the second, Discover Lesson Discovery in the third and Lesson Discovery Lesson in the fourth. The game is now ready to be played.

Running the Game

The Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw takes place over seven rounds, tracked with a card. Players all choose a column to draw onto their ships, adding whatever cards are in it accordingly. The first time a player draws a Discovery it can be placed anywhere. Subsequent ones must be placed orthogonally adjacent to any existing pieces. Lessons on the other hand are ticked off on the Lessons list. These give players extra scoring elements to focus on beyond the game’s standard stuff.

Some cards dictate the words OR and ANY #. These give players some free choice in which shapes they add to their ships. Cards without these words do not add restrictions. Some Discovery and Lesson cards contain Oshax. These are colourless cards that can be drawn in any desired colour. Any cards with multiple cats in without restrictions may be drawn separately but must all be drawn.

Once all players have drawn accordingly, new cards are dealt and everyone repeats the process.

What To Do, What You Can Do and How To Win…

The main focus for players is to cover rats, gain rare treasure and place cats in families (at least three adjacent cats of the same colour next to one another). This is the vanilla goals list for all players. Families of cats score increasing values for each additional cat. Rare treasures gain the player three points per treasure. Rats however lose the player points and, as such, are the focus for removal. Players also lose points for any rooms that are not wholly covered in cats. Though this may seem a heavy consequences, cat families easily compensate for this loss.

Players do have five abilities at their disposal to change how they choose cards to draw. Only one of these may be used per round and players may only use three per game. Once these are used you mark to show they can no longer be accessed. The game ends as soon as you leave the seventh round and move the marker to the hand symbol. At this point, players add up all their scoring criteria – including Lessons taken – and produce a final score. Whomever scores the highest, wins.

How It Feel to Play

Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw is delightful. A lovely little puzzler that encourages forward planning and dynamic strategy. And, it’s low stress. Almost bearing on mindful! It’s a game that can be taken in the mindful direction of aiming for perfection, or in the hyper competitive gamble way of choosing last second Lessons to focus on as a huge gamble. It’s exciting and ever changing, but most of all it’s lots of fun!

Cats Get Around!

The puzzly feel and focus of this game is one I’ve slowly fallen for. It’s pretty, tactical and fills a gap in my shelf I’ve struggled to do so. A flip and write where the chaos of a card draft doesn’t wholly determine end game scores. Some games of similar creeds and flavours are limited by cards drafted and small scale powers. Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw doesn’t over scale these things, but gets them just right. Choosing a column of three cards from a selection of four columns is the sweet spot. The admin of dealing and refreshing isn’t arduous and you aren’t limited or overwhelmed by choice. It nails the balance of decision making and sensible limitation.

But is there a downside to this increase in choice and sensible limitation? Yes. Sadly, Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw doesn’t share the “perfect travel game” label many games of similar flavours wear with pride. You need a table space substantial enough for 12 cards central to all players and for all players’ boats and lessons boards. It wouldn’t be an issue normally but as the game utilises dry wipe markers instead of pencils and paper, you’ve got a big smudge risk on your hands. I will say that dry wipe is a stroke of genius as there’s no limitation to number of plays – can’t run out of sheets! However it does add to the hindrance of being table bound.

Luckily, the designers have included a how to guide for playing remotely. This game came out in the height of the pandemic and these terrific human beings ensured it’s a game you can share with your loved ones – even going as far as to making the sheets available on their website. The game will never travel far from a table. The weight of its footprint and the component designs won’t allow for that easily. But it can be played across the world simultaneously and easily because the designers are fantastic. (There’s also a solo mode! It’s literally available for any and everyone!)

Keeping It Fresh!

My favourite part of Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw is the freedom to choose. And I’m going to skirt over choosing the cats to draw and treasures as they’re part and parcel of every game. What I’m talking about is choosing your end game scoring conditions. Lessons are cards you tick off on your Lessons sheet and these determine an extra criteria for end game scoring. Goals to work towards and help guide your placement of your cats.

The scoring for some Lessons can seem monumental – 15 points extra for having three families of the same colour, in example. Games can be won and lost on these Lessons. Scratch that, games are won and lost on these Lessons. The reasons the Lessons are so high in value are because the card reduces your cat cards drawn the turn the Lesson is claimed, and because working towards a Lesson won’t always benefit you short term. If a Lesson dictates you can only have three colours of cats, you’ll be limited immediately in column choice. What’s worse is a bad draw in the last round may sabotage it entirely! However, the pay off is always brilliant and outweighs a trickier feel to the play. It’s executed well and is entirely optional. (And with more than 20 Lessons, each game feels different!)

You don’t have to take any Lessons in the game at all. And you can score incredibly well whilst not doing so. Wild! Cat families, rare treasures and covering rats will easily help you rack up points without the extra stress! I mean it when I say this game is for any and everyone. If you’re wanting a lightweight polyomino placer, this can be it. But if you want it to be a dynamically changing puzzler or gambling, risk taking and pushing your own luck, this can be that too!

Why This is a Winner!!

Cards on the table, I’m not the biggest X and Write fan as board games. I get lost in the mindful element and focus heavily on my colouring, pattern building and synergising without ever cashing in on massive strategy. They become more of a self care activity than a game, which is fine but not why I’ll choose to play them. I want to be challenged mentally in either a head to head style competition or a golfInc style target.

Where Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw succeeds for me in this area is it’s catering to both sides. It’s still 100% relaxing and mindful: you place polyomino shapes to make patterns in a puzzle-centric way. But it also gives you dynamically changing challenges! As Lessons are drawn, you’ve got to weigh up the gamble as to whether they’re worth taking on. There’s no detriment to not doing so, but it’s a wasted card take – particularly if you use a special to claim it. It’s an extra layer of tension and challenge to make it a more competitive and goal focussed game. But do you have to take it I’m on in that style? Goodness no! If you’re happy with the laying tiles down to make patterns feel, then perfect! If you want challenge, even better!!

In A Nutshell

As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy X and Write games, I’ve been blown over by Isle of Cats: Explore and Draw. It’s versatile in how intensely players choose to play it and gives more when you need it to. It’s very pretty, well thought out and gives clear explanations on how to play this across the world. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing this game and it hits our table at least once a week – if not more! If you’re after a flip and write with more weight to it that’s accessible to everyone, I’d go for this little beauty! Superb fun!