It's cats... it's Taiwan Chinese... it's Ta-Te Wu! (You know, we're going to have a problem when he gets as famous as designers (Stefan) Feld and (Reiner) Knizia: it's not easy to make an adjective out of his name... Wu-ian? Wu-ish? Wu-hoo! Anyway, I digress.) Cleocatra sees board gaming's most famous ailurophile return to the theme of Cat Rescue and Cat Sudoku, but this time set in ancient Egypt, with cute art by Kalami on the appropriately triangular (2D pyramid-shaped) tiles.
Published by Sunrise Tornado, the game is a race for 2-4 players to score 23 points, tracked on a two-sided board (using cat counters, of course), one side for the Basic game, the other Advanced. To set up, an appropriate number of triangular tiles are mixed face down and when each player has added a tile to the play area with a Rescuer meeple on it, play begins, eventually ending after an equal number of turns.
The area control aspect of Cleocatra is strongest in the Basic game, tho' scoring points for different coloured adjacent tiles and any Helper meeples doesn't immediately preclude others in the vicinity from doing so. Turns are simple: either one Tile and one Rescuer action, or two actions with Rescuers (remember, cat, not Disney mice). Tile actions are either placing a new one or moving an unoccupied one; Rescuer actions are placing on that Tile or adjacent to one of your Rescuers, or scoring a Rescuer. When you score, one of three Inspector meeples is placed on the tile, preventing it from scoring again until the Inspector is moved. The charge to 23 points is one with good tactical opportunism and a modicum of strategic timing. At two players, despite the zero-sum options, things feel a little formulaic, but at three and four added uncertainty and consideration of others' positions makes it much more interesting.
The Advanced game offers another Rescuer action - move one space - and a substantial change in that the different colours of tiles have special powers: Cleocatra herself scores an extra point (more valuable than it sounds); blue tiles can be moved even with meeples on; purple tiles do not return their scoring Rescuer to the player's supply; Rescuers on green tiles can swap with an opponent's Rescuer; and orange tiles let you move two Inspectors around the board. While all the powers have their uses, the green and orange ones feel particularly powerful with their strong potential for players inclined to get their claws out.
The Advanced game, at three or four players, is where I feel the game's greatest depth and level of interaction works to force a feline agility of mind in order to make the most of the fluid state of play. All the active tile powers are exploitable, but at least are equally so for all. Experience will doubtless tell as there are limited situations that can arise and knowing how best to take advantage is key.
Some modular expansions can be added, tho' some are Kickstarter exclusives: in order of my personal preference... the Starter Tile simply adds a non-scoring tile to start play, which works so well that it feels like it should have come with the base game. The Mummy tiles add three extra powers triggered by 'spending' a meeple: swap two unoccupied tiles; move a Rescuer two spaces (often a dash for Cleocatra); and remove all meeples from a tile. The Master Rescuer - who scores double for Helpers - reduced the game to a series of 'Help and Score' paired Rescuer actions, which was disappointing. The Caesar tiles score in a thematic 'pyramid' fashion (1/3/6) for however many are adjacent to each other: this got repetitive quickly as everyone just dashed for the easy points, until a player actively broke up the trio.
Cleocatra is a solid little abstract filler with a small pawprint: games should take no more than 5 minutes per player and you'll get a good think on. The different ways to play, especially with the modular expansions, should mean you can tailor gameplay to your tastes. I preferred to use a bag to draw the tiles from rather than having to shuffle those dastardly points and I missed having a final 'twist' element to the game, maybe some creative trickery on the scoreboard a la Lords of Vegas (Mayfair). But that would be cream on the top; perhaps I'm asking for more in a game that purrs along just fine as it is.
(Review by David Fox)