At its heart, Cat in the Box is a trick taking game. As soon as you dig a little deeper, though, you start to see how it has defied trick taking games by doing things just differently enough to make players rethink their approach, resulting in a much more engaging experience than a standard achieve-your-bid trick taking game.
To start with, the cards in your hands aren’t suited. At the start of the game, every card in your hand has the potential to be any of the game’s four colors, including red, which is always the trump color. It’s only when a card is played that its actual color is determined…by the player who played it. If the player led the trick, they can choose any color for the card…as long as no one has played that particular number in that color. Players who follow must play a card of that color, unless they don’t have one of that value that can be played or (and here is where it gets really weird) they determine that none of the cards that legally could be played are the led suit’s color. When a player doesn’t follow suit, they mark that on their player board, and now everyone knows they are out of that color, which prevents that player from ever playing that color in the future.
The next thing that slowly becomes obvious is that there are too many cards. There are five of each number, but there are only 4 colors that those numbers can be, which means that 1 card of each number will never be able to be played. The game helps you a bit with that, in a weird group think way: at the start of a hand, each player discards 1 card from their hand, and on the last trick of the hand, players will get to choose from 1 of 2 cards they are still holding. That puts 2 cards per player out of the game…and if the players as a group have all discarded/held back a different number, the hand can be played out like a traditional trick taking game, and 1 card of each color gets played. But if two cards of the same value are discarded at the start of the round, or if one player declares they are out of a color and gets stuck with more than 1 card that can’t be played, the game have an innovative and thematic way of handling this: a player who can’t play a card is determined to potentially cause a paradox, which instantly ends the hand, penalizing the player who couldn’t play (and possibly other players who still need to take tricks in order to make their bid).
Finally, the most obvious visual change is the center board in the game which tracks cards played in each of the colors. As a player plays a card, they declare its color by placing a shiny, laboratory themed token representing that player on the board, which is set up in a grid with numbers going across and colors going down. As the game progresses, the board slowly fills up with tokens, which serve two purposes. First, this lets all players know what cards have been played, and what cards are still available to be played in each color. Second, players who make their bid are rewarded by extra points equal to the largest contiguous blob of their tokens on the board. It’s that second part that turns the game from casual trick taker into an engaging, tense, area control game, where you have to balance playing a card that will increase your bonus with the possibility that doing so might increase your chances of ending up with unplayable cards.
After a few hands, players start to play cards to block other players from making larger areas (or connecting two smaller areas), trying to intuit what other players have in their hands by looking at the board to see what they’ve already played and what colors they are “out” of, and tracking how close each player is to making their bid.
The bids are another thing that’s familiar, yet has just enough of a twist for it to change the way you think about which tricks you’ll take. The number of the tricks you can take is limited to 1, 2 or 3 in a four player game (and 1, 3 or 4 in a three player game), meaning you can never fully sluff off a hand, taking no tricks in order to make your bid. What if you are dealt a hand full of low value cards? Well, because any of those cards can be trump, you can declare one of those low cards to be trump to help you take at least one trick, though it might come at the risk of crippling what you can play later in the hand (since you’ll have to declare you are out of a color when you do so). This makes a hand with a single high card, which in a normal trick taking game is pretty much always a guaranteed won trick if played early in the hand, a slightly more risky proposition, because any of the players might decide it’s time to short themselves in a color and play trump over your high card. Similarly, if you have a bunch of high cards in your hand, you can’t plan to run the table, both because you are limited to 3 (or 4 with 3 players) won tricks for your bid, and also because anyone can play trump at any time to wreck your plans.
It sounds like some of this might be complicated, but the mechanics are actually quite smooth and after a single hand, all players get it and start to think about how to strategize with this seemingly open, yet also very restrictive, way to play their cards.
There are two different central board layouts, which are cleverly constructed by sliding in cards to the central board. The main layout is a standard grid with numbers stacked above each other in order, while the reverse of those cards offsets the numbers by a space, resulting in a stair stepped area control display that initially can be challenging to wrap your head around, but ultimately provides a unique challenge on its own for players who wish to change things up a bit. That central board folds in half for 2 and 3 player games to allow players to focus on just the numbers on the board that are needed for their player count.
While the original version published in Japan consisted of just cards and cardboard tokens, even using cards for the player and central boards, Cat in the Box Deluxe Edition from Bezier Games has recessed player and central boards, which keeps the tokens in place when bidding and tracking which cards have been played. The tokens in the Deluxe Edition are fancy high-quality weighted translucent screen-printed plastic, which each player’s tokens representing some fun lab-related item with a different color. The Deluxe Edition box also comes with a custom plastic tray that stores the 50+ tokens, cards, scorepad, rules, and boards in place in a perfectly-sized compact box that makes it easy to set up and play, as well as put away when the game is over!