Interview with British designer, Frank West on his card-drafting and cat-placement polyomino board game, The Isle of Cats.

Frank, thanks for joining us today – we are going to jump straight in and talk The Isle of Cats. It is currently on Kickstarter, doing amazing making it pledge goal, in like 30 minutes. For readers that may not know, what type of game is The Isle of Cats and could you give us a brief overview of how it’s played?

Frank: I would love to! The Isle of Cats is a competitive, medium-weight, card-drafting, polyomino cat-placement board game for 1-4 players (6 with expansion). It also fully supports solo play and has a family mode for those wanting a lighter game.

You play over 5 rounds, and in each round, you will draft and purchase cards, rescue cats, and find treasures. Each cat and treasure is represented by a Tetris shaped tile and must be placed on your personal boat, you will want to fill certain areas, keep similar cats together, and complete as many personal goals as you can before the end of the game.

Every game has a story, what is the story behind the creation of The Isle of Cats? And where did the theme come from,  what made you think polyomino and fantasy cats? 

Frank: The theme for me was fairly easy, all my games sit within The City of Kings universe so I knew I’d be doing something fantasy based. This time around I really wanted to design a medium weight experience and as a lover of polyomino games, I realised this was an unexplored area. So, I set to work designing a medium weight game that still had Tetris pieces at the absolute core, a bigger brother to the existing lighter polyomino games.

The cats were something I’d been thinking about for a long time too, everyone knows cats are famous for stretching and lying in all sorts of positions, so why weren’t they sprawling all over polyomino tiles? Just like the mechanics, however, I really wanted to step away from the norm of cat games being light or party games, and instead, create that bigger box experience.

There is a story behind the idea of the game, as you mentioned set in your fantasy realm of The City of Kings? Who are these cats are they just different colored cats, or are they magical ones? Who is Lord Vesh and what can you tell us about the Oshax? I ask because I know you are world-building, so I love to hear a little bit about that?

Frank: The lore for The City of Kings spans over 15’000 years, but much of the focus of my current games is around the time of Vesh, a corrupted being intent on destroying everything. The Isle of Cats itself is a forgotten land, in this period of time many didn’t believe it to exist until rumours spread that Vesh had found the island and was on his way there.

Many thousands of years ago the island was inhabited by a race we know little about, but they were an advanced civilisation that lived in harmony with these special creatures. Each of the 5 breeds of cat (the Orange Mhoxxite, Crystal Garmin, Blue Hissnipper, Teruvian, and Starry Vandermil) has very unique traits, for example, the Starry Vandermil were companions to the Astrographers and are always found looking up at the skies. The Oshax is rumoured to be a sixth type of cat that roams the island still performing the tasks of the ancient beings that have long been forgotten.

In The Isle of Cats, the cats live alone on the island and now with the approaching armies of Vesh, we are on a rescue mission to save as many as we can! I could talk about this all day long but hopefully, that gives you at least an idea of who and what these cats might be!

In the Kickstarter updates, you are sharing more about each species of cat. Their temperaments, etc. Which the cat species is closest to you in temperament?

Frank: That’s a tough one!

I think there is a small part of me in each of them, but if I had to choose I might say the Starry Vandermil. They are considered the strangest in the colony, spend much of their time looking up to the stars and prefer to be awake at night. As a night person who loves space and could be considered slightly strange I think it’s a good match, they are also purple which is my favourite colour so perhaps that helps!

I am sure you have been asked this, but why not black cats?

Frank: Black cats have given me many sleepless nights over the past months, it has been a real battle! Each cat in The Isle of Cats is designed to have its own personality, unique markings, and to feel different to the other cats in its family. When it comes to print, I have found that black is a really challenging colour, especially when trying to show details on something small. We designed several different black cats, explored markings, but in the end, I just wasn’t happy with how they were coming out when printed. It’s made slightly harder by the fact we are displaying them on dark wooden floors, with all the other cats being so bright and colourful I just kept thinking the black cats didn’t work.

I am hopeful that I will crack it eventually! But we may have to wait a while longer to see our black cat friends arriving on the island.

Let’s talk gameplay. Besides being a heavier (medium-weight) polyomino game, what else makes the gameplay stand out from other polyomino games on the market? 

Frank: There are 3 key areas which I think are worth covering to show some of the major differences.

  1. The game has a basic resource management system, where you will be paying for tiles and cards, trying to find a balance between getting the tools you need, achieving your goals, and generating more resources.
  2. Lesson cards push the game to the next level, these are cards you will be buying throughout the game which give you personal goals. Each lesson will influence what tiles you want to take and where you want to place them on your boat, this isn’t a game about filling your whole board, it’s about strategically filling areas to achieve your goals in the most optimal way.
  3. The polyomino shapes themselves are generally more complicated than other polyomino games, and the board you are filling is a more challenging shape. This really makes the game feel different from the start, coupled with the lesson cards you’ll find yourself thinking very differently about how and where to place tiles.

While the game focuses on the polyominoes being its heart, it is all wrapped up in a card draft where you will need to make plans, build combos, and find the best balance between tile collection, resource generation, and lessons.

You included a family mode in the game, what is different between the normal game and the family mode?

Frank: The family mode is a much lighter, simpler version of the game, it can easily be compared to many of the other polyomino games on the market. A simple reference point is the rulebook, the standard game sits at 20+ pages, while the family mode is a single piece of paper. The idea behind the family mode is to strip out the complexity and allow people to enjoy just putting cats on their boat, it makes a great gateway game and is fun to play with children.

What was the best piece of advice you got when you were still playtesting The Isle of Cats from a playtesting the game?

Frank: That’s a tough one as there are hundreds of things which have helped the game evolve to what it is now.

While it wasn’t directly advise, after one playtest I had someone tell me they probably wouldn’t play the game again as the blind bidding took a game about planning and thinking, and added too much randomness. The more I thought about this the more I agreed and realised that was the bit I didn’t like too, that’s why the version today doesn’t have blind bidding!

 If you had to describe the gameplay of The Isle of Cats in one sentence? 

Frank: A challenging puzzle that is easy to learn but difficult to master, with a whole lot of fun layered on top!

As we wrap this up if anyone is still on the fence about picking backing The Isle of Cats, what would you like to say to them? 

Frank: I always prefer people to make informed decisions when backing my games, if you’re unsure then I would recommend watching a video of the game being played as this is really the best way to know if you would enjoy the game. You can find videos from me, Rahdo, JonGetsGames, and Slickerdrips on YouTube. If you have any questions please feel free to ask me directly on BoardGameGeek, Twitter, Facebook or the Kickstarter.

Thank you again, Frank, for taking the time out to do this interview. 

If you like to check out the Kickstarter for The Isle of Cats, you can be taken to it by clicking here