Cats are awesome. (Dogs are better. My dog made me write that.) For those who love their feline friends and boardgames, Cat Lady might be the game for you. In the game, you are a cat lover whose job it is to collect cats, feed them, and give them fun things like toys, costumes, and catnip to better their lives. Just be careful not to go too far overboard into cat hoarding. If you end up with more cats than you can feed, they’re going to eat you while you sleep. Well, not really, but you’re not going to win the game.
How It Plays
Cat lady is a simple set collection game which uses a card drafting variant as the way to obtain your cards. At the beginning of the game, nine cards from the main deck are laid on the table in a 3×3 grid. (The cards that are used depend on the number of players, with some cards only included in 3 or 4 player games.) The rest of the cards form a draw pile. The Stray Cat cards are shuffled and the top three cards are turned face up next to the play area. The cat token is placed next to one of the rows or columns in the grid. (The person sitting next to the start player chooses where to place it.)
A turn is easy: You simply take an entire row or column of cards from the main grid and add them to your hand. However, you cannot take the row/column that the cat token is next to.
After you’ve taken your cards, move the cat token to the row/column from which you took cards, and refill the row/column with the top three cards from the draw pile. If you want to play any Lost Cat or Spray Bottle cards (more on these in a minute), you can do so anytime during your turn. Then the next player takes their turn.
Players keep taking turns until an empty row/column needs to be refilled and there are no cards remaining in the draw pile. Players then tally their points from their victory point tokens and cards, including stray cats, cats, costumes, catnip, and toys. The person with the most leftover food loses two points. The player with the most points wins.
That’s it. It’s a super simple game, but the trick is in understanding the cards and how they work together. So just what kind of cats and cards are we dealing with, here? What are you trying to accomplish when taking cards from the grid?
Each type of card has different requirements that must be met in order to score.
Food cards give you, well, food in the form of chicken, tuna, or milk. (Also known as cubes.) When you take a food card, you immediately discard it and take the indicated food. Each cat has specific feeding requirements, so you need to match the food you take to the cats you have. Hoarding food is counterproductive since excess food can cost you points at the end of the game.
Cats have to be fed. Each cat has different feeding needs indicated on the card. You get the food for your cats from the food cards. If the cat is fully fed at the end of the game, you earn the cat’s victory points. If the cat isn’t fed, you lose 2 points. Cats also come in colors and may reward you for feeding other cats of certain colors.
Costumes help your cats make the best dressed list. Oh, and the player with the most gets 6 bonus points. However, if you don’t have at least one costume, you lose 2 points. Every cat needs fancy dress!
Catnip cards are better when you have more. If you only have one catnip card at the end of the game, you lose 2 points. If you have two or three, you gain 1 point for each fed cat, and if you have four or more, you gain 2 points for each fully fed cat.
Toys are fun. For every unique toy you have, you will earn varying points for the set. One toy is worth 1 point, for example, but having five different toys is worth 12 points, with a range of points/cards available in between.
Lost cat cards allow you to “find” some of the stray cats on the table. Discard two lost cats to take a stray cat and add it to your cat area. (Stray cats don’t get replaced when taken.) Strays still have to be fed like regular cats, but they can bestow some powerful point earning opportunities. If you don’t want more cats, you can discard two lost cats and take a victory point token, instead, which is worth 2 points at the end of the game.
Spray bottles are a good way to get yourself clawed. Actually, this card allows you to move the cat token during your turn so you can free up a column that’s currently blocked, or block a column you think your opponent wants. This lets you bend the standard, “Take cards and put the cat token on the row/column you took from,” rule.
Purrfect Catnip, or Kitty Litter?
Lightweight games with a decent decision space have become my catnip games of late. Bonus points if they are amusing, easy to set up and play, and are something that I can bring out at family gatherings and have everyone join in. When I saw Cat Lady, I was pretty sure it would tick most of those boxes, but I wasn’t sure just how many interesting decisions there might be. It looked like it could end up being really light, something akin to Uno or SkipBo. But, I decided to wade into the litter box and find out.
And Cat Lady turned out to be a pawsome surprise. No, it’s not a brain burner, and no, it’s not the meat of a game night. It’s not trying to be, though. Cat Lady succeeds at being an adorable little filler/family diversion or “best two out of three” type game for people who like cats.
The game is very simple at its core: Get and feed cats, and make those cats happy with extra stuff. Try not to go overboard with cats and food, but don’t skimp on the goodies, either. It’s a game about maintaining a balance between what you take and what you can use.
What makes the game interesting is the draft mechanism. You can only take cards from one row/column, but you have to take the whole row/column. If you don’t have any spray bottle cards, you’re limited to taking only from the rows your opponent didn’t block off with the cat token. You have to figure out which row/column has the most cards you need and the least surplus cards you don’t. Or, looking forward, if you’re forced to take something you don’t want, what are your chances of being able to deal with it or mitigate the bad effects?
Of course, your opponents know what you’re seeking (if they’re paying attention — and they’d better be) and will be trying to place that cat token in areas that force you to take bad cards while allowing them to scoop up the good cards. In that sense, Cat Lady is interactive. You won’t be stealing from other players, but you will be trying to actively block them out of certain rows/columns while ensuring your access to the desirable cards.
The trick is that the rows/columns are always changing. New cards come out every turn and luck may be on your side or not. If your opponent used a spray bottle, they may have blocked off the row you wanted, but the new cards that come out are just as good. Or they’re far, far worse. Even if they didn’t use a spray bottle, the cards that fill the row they took may be great for you, but you can’t get them, or they’re terrible and you’re glad someone else will have to take them. It’s this bit of luck and uncertainty that levels the playing field and keeps the game from turning too mean, or being so punishing that it turns off new players.
As the game moves along (and it happens fast, as the game is only about 20 minutes long), you start to form strategies around the cards you’re getting. You don’t really start the game with a plan, it evolves as you go along. Of course, any long term strategy is at the whim of the cards (and how astute your opponents are at blocking you), so the game ends up being more tactical as you seek to min/max your losses and gains.
For all its simplicity, Cat Lady does a good job of introducing the concepts of card drafting and managing multiple scoring options. The card draft isn’t a traditional draft in that you’re passing cards around the table, but it does allow you to make decisions about what to try to keep for future turns, and what to prevent your opponent from getting. Also, since there are several ways to score points and make combos, it teaches people how to manage that for maximum points and success. You can do far worse for a “first” game in these categories.
Cat Lady scales well, due to the fact that certain cards are omitted at different player counts. While this makes it one of those games that’s a bit of a bummer at two because you never get to use all the other cool cards, it does make it play well. (And you can use the other cards; we’ve done it and the game doesn’t break. You may run into some balance issues, but if you’re just playing for funsies, it’s an option.)
Are there negatives? Sure, but nothing glaring or broken. First, if you absolutely hate cats, this isn’t going to work for you. Also, my neighbor’s cat wanted me to tell you that the box isn’t big enough for a cat to sit in, so that’s a bummer. (He really, really, tried.)
Cat Lady is a card game and, as such, luck of the draw plays a role. It doesn’t bug me for such a short, introductory game that’s easy to reset if things go badly, but there are games where you just can’t get the draw to go your way. You can mitigate it to some extent by using the cat token wisely and watching your opponents, but sometimes you just get hosed. If that’s going to ruin your fun, look elsewhere.
Also note that the game can start to feel a bit samey after repeated plays. While the order the cards come out is different every game, making for slightly different strategies, there are only so many cards in the deck and you’ll see them all every game. (Except the strays, but once you’ve played several times, you’ve seen them, too.) I’ve heard rumors of planned expansions, but until that time, my advice would be to avoid playing it many times in a row over a short period of time. Let it breathe a bit or you may get tired of it.
Finally, this game can be mean. It’s possible to play nice and just move the cat token wherever without consciously blocking others, but if you really want to play as intended and maximize your score, you need to do some blocking. As with everything, there are some cutthroat people who will take this to the limit. The game is so short that it doesn’t feel overly cruel, but if you play with people who you know will get mean, expect this game to bring it out of them. You’ll either have to live with it and laugh, or find another game.
Not related to game play but just as a, “What were they thinking?” moment, I have to wonder about the game’s title. Cat Lady is usually used in a negative sense, often in reference to mentally ill hoarders who have way too many cats for health and safety. Also, not all “cat ladies” are women. There are some men who go overboard on the cat thing. I understand that the game was titled in good fun, but Cat Lady just seems a little too gender specific and evocative of the negatives of cat ownership. I had to explain to different people in my groups that, no, this game wasn’t about hoarding a thousand cats, no, it wasn’t about mentally ill people living in squalid conditions, and no, it wasn’t a “woman’s game.” Something like Cat Lover or Cat People might have been better. That’s just my two cents.
All in all, though, Cat Lady is a fun little filler game with some cute and amusing artwork and interesting, if not brain frying decisions. The theme will appeal to all but the most hardened cat haters, and the gameplay is easy for non-gamers to learn. It serves as a good introduction to the idea of card drafting, and as a training class in managing multiple scoring options. If you’re seeking a solid filler, or a game to bring out for family gatherings, Cat Lady is a nearly purrfect choice.