Review: Cat Lady
Have you ever been to a store and seen a board game that existed purely for reasons other than gameplay? You know, like FloridaOpoly? I just saw New Orleans: The Game, in our local (Indiana) Goodwill. I have to admit—I suspected Cat Lady from AEG and designer/artist Josh Wood to fill the same niche. As I walked around with it at Gen Con, and as my friends saw it, I kept hearing comments like, “Oh, our friend so-and-so would love that!” or “We have to get that for our aunt!” That’s great and all, but does Cat Lady give much of a game experience once your cat lady aunt opens it up? Let’s find out!
It’s a game about having the most cats and feeding them, and suitable for just about any age content-wise. For younger kids, you might talk about some of the things that are taken in humor but actually have some morality concerns (owning a cat and not feeding item, adopting strays).
In Cat Lady, players draft cards—three at a time—from a central tableau (an entire row or column on a 3×3 grid). The central cards of interest are of course cats, which provide end-game victory points—but only if you feed them! Other cards provide food (milk, chicken, or tuna), or other scoring opportunities—cats, of course, also need toys, costumes, and catnip. There are also stray cats, worth major points, but more difficult to acquire. A key rule is that players cannot take the fresh row or column that replaces the last player’s move, unless they move the cat token (which blocks the row/column) with a Spray Bottle card (ha, ha).
That aim at humor in the game is an important point, and perhaps where we should start. Many games try to be funny, and some try far too hard, while the best are accidentally funny or leave it to the players. Cat Lady lands smartly in the middle. They know you’re interested in the gimmick, and they play the theme up as much as they possibly can in a way that’s going to cause more than a few giggles the first time through the deck. Yet, on repeated plays, the game still works. The humor doesn’t hit the same initial level, but it doesn’t become obnoxious. Furthermore, that humor is actually some really good thematic integration, and helps player remember the rules. Of course cats need food to be worth points!
And to be honest, there aren’t too many rules to remember. Players simply take more and more cards, and score them at game’s end. The only resource management is the different food types (those cards are immediately converted to colored cubes), which is not particularly difficult to track. The main complaint I have is that there are no player aids for scoring, which is ridiculous. There are about six ways to score in this game, and while each card show that particular card’s scoring system, it’s not helpful if you don’t have the cards. For example, the person with the most costumes scores 6 VPs. You may decide just to forego costumes and work on other avenues to victory, but then you’ll probably never notice that players with NO costumes lose 2 VPs. The player aids could have just been extra cards in the pack, but this game really needed something—especially for a game aimed at casual gamers or even non-gamers.
The other thing a game needs for that audience is to be simple and smooth to play. While I wish players could see all of the scoring at a glance, the game is a breeze, otherwise. Your turn is always grabbing a pile of three cards. The first few turns, you might not know which way to go, but long-term strategies quickly develop. If you got a toy, you probably want to keep getting more, but not the one you already have. Did you take a cat? Better get it some food! And so on. The two games I’m most reminded of are Sushi Go!, for the variety of scoring, and Coloretto, for the piles. Yet, I think this game might be better than both of those. The simple act of taking piles of three makes for some really tough decisions. You might want two cards in a row, but maybe you don’t think you can feed the cat that you would also have to take. The slight bump in complexity and great theming knock it above Coloretto, and the more interesting decisions step it above Sushi Go! (although this game is for a different set of player counts). Particularly because I was going in expecting less game and more novelty, I was just shocked at how great of a game this is.
No, this isn’t the kind of game where players are going to be discussing strategy articles or getting hyped up for the string seven expansions already planned. It’s simple, quick, and light. Yet, in that genre, it’s one of the best all around packages out there. It’s got a touch of strategy—just enough to chew on—an evocative and funny theme, fantastic artwork, and immediate investment as soon as players see the box and cards. I have to admit, when AEG suggested I review this game, I was extremely skeptical. It feels good to be wrong.
Thank you to Alderac Entertainment Group for providing a review copy of Cat Lady.
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