I am not a cat lover. I am a dog person. And yet… I keep finding myself buying cat-themed board games. I really enjoyed Cat Lady, and I backed the Kickstarter for Isle of Cats. (If you knew how little I like Kickstarter, you’d see this for the rare occurrence it is. Backing a KS and one about cats, no less? Unheard of.) Anyway, when I saw Catlantis, with its mercat meeples and amusing artwork, I knew I’d be buying yet another cat game. The only question was, would there be enough under the hood to keep me purring, or would this be the cat game that brought out my claws?
How It Plays
Catlantis is a simple set collection game that uses the “I cut, you choose” mechanism for drafting cards. The goal is to score the most points by collecting cards that match your assigned fur and/or fin, plus gathering treasures and coins.
The backstory behind Catlantis is this: The five furry mercat orders and the finned families of the five oceans once lived peacefully together in the city of Catlantis. But, as with every group of cats, disagreements eventually shattered the peace. Now the nobles of each order are vying for control of Catlantis. You are one of these five nobles trying to lead your order to power!
To determine which order you represent, you are randomly given one fur order card and one fin family card at the beginning of the game. Throughout the game, you will be trying to acquire more cards that match either your fur order or your fin family. (Or both.) Your fur and fin are kept secret from other players. Ideally you’ll be able to keep the others from figuring out which cards you’re trying to collect so they won’t block your efforts.
To begin the game, everyone is given a set of offering tokens which will be used to track which players you have made offerings to each round. The Catlantis cards are shuffled into a deck and four cards are laid face up in a row next to the pile. In the deck are fur/fin cards, treasures, and coins, all of which are useful in your effort to dominate Catlantis. Each player takes the mercat meeple of their color and you’re off and swimming.
On your turn, you first decide which player you will make an offering to. Choose a player whose offering token is shiny side up, then flip your corresponding offering token so that the dull side is face up. (This way you know not to make another offering to that player this round. Also note that in 2-player games you don’t use the offering tokens. It should be obvious who you’re making offerings to.)
Now choose two of the four face up cards and slide them toward the chosen player. That person will select one of the cards, and you will take the one they did not choose. Place it face up in front of you, keeping all of your cards arranged so that the symbols at the top are visible to all players. Draw the top two cards from the deck and replace the two cards that were taken. This continues around the table until each player has made an offering to every other player. You must make an offering on your turn, even if you’d rather not.
When all players’s offering tokens are shiny side down, the round ends. All tokens are flipped shiny side up and the next round begins. When there are no more cards in the Catlantis deck, the game immediately ends. (There will be two cards remaining on the table, but these are not taken by anyone.)
Now you score to see who rules Catlantis. Any coin cards you accumulated are worth the number of points shown on the card. Each type of treasure is scored separately. The player with the most of a treasure type scores four points and the player with the second-most scores two points. If there’s a tie for first, each tied player gets three points and no one gets points for second place. If there’s a tie for second-most (and no tie for first), each tied player gets one point.
Finally, you score your furs and fins. Each card you have that matches either card scores points on a sliding scale. One match scores one point and 8+ matches scores fifteen points, with a range in between where more matches are worth more points. Any cards you have that match both fur and fun count for both.
The player with the most points wins, takes over Catlantis, and is named the Grand Purr-bah. (No, I didn’t make that last one up.) Ties are settled by awarding the game to the player with the most treasures.
Cats and Water Don’t Mix in Real Life, But Do They Mix in Catlantis?
I will freely admit that I bought Catlantis based on looks alone. I love the absurd, and mercats are just about as absurd as it gets. Everyone knows cats hate water, so the idea of kittens in the sea made me laugh. Add on the wooden mercat meeples, treasures like the Sacred Litter Box, the iridescent finish on the cards, and the half cat/half fin mercats clutching tridents, lyres, scrolls, etc. and the whole production charmed me right out of my money. I figured even if the game was terrible, I’d still get some smile value out of placing those meeples on my desk.
Ideally, though, it would be best if the game were good, too. After all, it is a game and should be played. So does Catlantis the game live up to Catlantis the production? Let’s find out.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front. Catlantis is super light. There is not a whole lot going on here and experienced gamers will run through a game in about 10 – 15 minutes. It’s a filler, and not a deep one at that (despite being set in the depths of the sea).
The main decision points center around figuring out which fins/furs your opponents are collecting and then trying to offer them cards that will not help them, but which will help you. You also want to keep track of the treasure pile each player is amassing, and try to make sure you have the most of at least some of the treasure types. Since you have to offer something on every turn, there’s no weaseling out if all the cards on the table will benefit your opponents, or if there’s nothing available that you could possibly want. You just have to suck it up and try to cause the least amount of damage to your efforts.
Of course, this is a card game with a draw deck, so the luck of the draw will always determine what you can do. There are some rounds where things break your way and all the “good” cards (read: beneficial to you) fall into your lap. Then there are the rounds where you simply get pounded because nothing of use comes out when you need it to. As a quick family card game this amount of luck is acceptable, but if you’re seeking a serious challenge, the luck will probably bug you.
Since you want to keep your fins/furs secret for as long as possible, it helps if you’re good at bluffing and misdirecting your opponents. It helps if sometimes you take cards that aren’t good for you just to throw people off the trail of what you’re really after. But eventually the others will figure it out because this game has one downside that bugs me, and that’s the fact that everything is open information. I mean, it’s fair for a family game, but for a game that requires bluffing, the open information thing kind of ruins it.
Catlantis requires that all players keep their collected cards visible, making it a bit too easy to formulate a strategy. It’s easy for others to see how close you are to having the majority of treasures, or how many furs/fins you have and which ones you’re amassing the most of. If you’re paying attention, it’s not difficult to figure out everyone else’s strategy. This may be harder for kids, but adults grab on pretty quickly, despite the best bluffing efforts. There’s just no way to hide what you’re doing, or force others to rely on memory.
Once you’ve figured out each player’s secret, it’s just matter of tracking how close others are getting to their goals and working to deny them their needs while preserving your own. In other words, the mystery element of the game doesn’t last long and too soon you’re just left to choose the least damaging option of (sometimes very) damaging options. While this is fun to a point, I think it would up the angst factor if at least some of the information was kept private.
(I’ve been experimenting with some hidden information variants and they’re works in progress. The one I like best so far involves keeping all cards public except either the furs or the fins you’re collecting. This seems to add a bit of challenge as you can pretty easily figure out one of the sets, but you have to rely on your memory to accurately account for the other one.)
The other thing that will keep Catlantis from seeing a ton of table time in my house is that the two player experience, while passable, isn’t great. I sort of expected this. After all, many drafting games don’t work well with two. And a game like this, where bluffing and keeping your desires secret is the key to doing well, just compounds the problem. After all, with just one other player at the table, it’s even easier to suss out what they’re trying to collect.
Still, though, it’s not always easy to deny them what they want. You have to give them two cards to choose from, and sometimes all of the cards on the table will benefit them. You just have to decide what may benefit them the least (or hope they’re not paying good attention and choose the wrong card). And even if the choice seems obvious, they may still choose to take the card you wanted, just to put a dent in your plans. So there is still some angst in the two player game, just not as much as if you had more players and more cards moving around the table.
If you have more than two, though, Catlantis is a decent game. There are some decisions to be made, even if they aren’t very crunchy. There’s some agony in deciding what to push on another player. Can you give them two cards, neither of which they’ll want, but you will? If so, that’s ideal. If not, can you bluff them into taking the less desirable card and leaving you the one you really wanted? Or are they on to you and will choose the one you really want, while leaving you stuck with the thing you don’t need?
Catlantis is also a decent introduction to meatier card and board games. If all your family ever plays is UNO, Catlantis is a step up. It teaches the basics of card drafting, set collection, and “I cut you choose.” Since it’s presented in such a fun package, it’s easy to get to the table and possibly pave the way for other games like Sushi Go, Hanamikoji, New York Slice, or Seven Wonders.
This accessibility is also a limitation, however. In a world crowded with gateway games and card games, Catlantis doesn’t stand out much. (Other than that theme!) There’s nothing here that can’t be found in other games. Catlantis doesn’t revolutionize the genre, it just makes it prettier. If you already have a ton of introductory card games and you aren’t sucked in by the art, there’s no real reason to add this to your shelf.
Catlantis isn’t for those seeking a challenging card game. If you’re looking for something on the level of Arboretum or Piepmatz, or even Cat Lady, this isn’t it. Catlantis is as light and fluffy as a cat’s tail, and that’s okay. It’s not trying to be anything more than a silly, fun filler for cat lovers, kids, families, and non-gamers. It’s for those days when you need a smile and anything serious seems too difficult.
Honestly, you’re buying Catlantis because of the presentation. You’re buying it because treasures like the Sacred Litter Box and the Catropolis make you laugh, and the idea of cats with fins is hilariously absurd. The fact that the game is decent, if not mind-blowing or genre-altering, is merely a bonus.