Updated: Oct 24, 2020
I've had hit and miss experiences with Japanese hobby games in the past: when Love Letter (AEG) came out in 2012, I was smitten by its minimalist design and - eight years, several copies and over 60 sessions later - I still find it fresh and fun. Other oriental games I've enjoyed are Chronicle (Z-Man), Fairy Tale (despite the graphic design) and the excellent, though inscrutable Ravens of Thri Sahashri (Osprey). Recently, however, I've been less impressed: except for Insider, all of Oink Games' titles have been a meh or miss for me, and Alicematic Heroes (Japanime) remains on my shelf mostly because it fits nicely. Heart of Crown (Japanime) is a good deck-builder, but as a Dominion (Rio Grande) clone is not represented.
Festival of a Thousand Cats - well, 38 cats, actually, but that's nitpicking - is a blind bidding card game for 3 or 4 players. It is published in Japan by Fukuroudou but it'll be more widely seen in the West in the edition published by Tasty Minstrel Games. The game is designed by Fukutarou. The small box contains a main deck of cards in four suits representing seasons, four large player aids which usefully show the distribution of points and rank of cards, a scoreboard, tokens, fold-out rules sheet, and two mutually exclusive variants. The anthropomorphised cats on the thick, linen-finish cards are cheery and colourful, while the graphic design is crystal clear though very much right-hand biased. Kudos for the art to Jody Henning and Satsuki Nakayama. Also inside was a hastily added note explaining that a rule had been changed (presumably during development) that could be reversed: for a little note, it made a lot of difference. Let me explain... Players score points by gaining fish icons avoiding bird icons, and acquiring one or two milké tokens but not three (milké is apparently an intoxicating mix of milk and catnip). After a seeded deal each round, two cards remain to be bid on. Each turn, all players play a card from hand (after the dummy has revealed one, if playing with three) and reveal them simultaneously. The highest card wins the higher of the two on display and replaces it, the lowest wins the lower and does the same. The two cards won and the two in between go into players' scoring areas and the next turn begins. If anyone acquires a third milké token the round ends, at which point birds score -1; milké tokens score +2 unless you have three, when they score zero; and fish score +1, unless you have three milké, when they score half. Rounds are played until someone reaches the target of 20 points (for beginners) or 30 (for experienced players).
About that note: in the published rules, milke tokens are acquired when you play a card, which means if you are dealt three cards with milké on them, you often have to play them all and the game feels lacking in agency as each round goes the distance or close. The original rule was that milké tokens are acquired when you put a card in your scoring area. For me, the game lit up using this rule, with more agency and strategic options, as well as the brinkmanship of scoring four points for holding two milké and not wanting to acquire a third. After playing with both rules, I stayed with what I hope was the designer's intent and found the game far more interesting.
Having enjoyed Festival of Thirty Eight Cats in its uncomplicated state, I tried each of the two variants, both of which multiply fish from different seasons but in different ways. The cards show a x1, x1, x-1, and x2 for each season, in various combinations: these are drafted at the beginning of a game and players select one per round. This brings more consequential decisions into the game, as some cards with fish icons vary in value from -2 to +4, rather than 0 to +2, making denying or targeting others as important as gaining yourself.
The second variant has four tokens for each season which act as multipliers - x0, x1 and x2, depending on how many are held - for their matching season's fish. This is similar to the cards but gives additional importance to lapping your milké, as you receive a matching multiplier for each milké card in your scoring area at the end of a round, meaning you could begin the next round with four tokens... or just one. Hence, pacing becomes more important: you can sacrifice the current round to have a strong next round; or you could even be caught short with no milké tokens.
In every sense, the more I played Festival of Thousand Cats, the more depth emerged and the more enjoyable it became. Initially I thought seeding hands each round would be a chore, but this fear soon melted away. Playing cards to win or lose outright, or hope to sneak in between, is a difficult but usually enjoyable choice and, especially with the variant multipliers, a game-changing round is always possible. The low victory targets serve to keep players in contention and ensure that the game does not overstay its welcome.
So, I'm happy to say that I can add Festival of a Thousand Cats to my 'hit' column when it comes to Japanese games: the design is more evolution than revolution and I would heartily recommend you play with the original rule and either of the variants, perhaps after a friendly 'learning game'. There are more and more hobby games coming from Asia every year and, while their idiosyncratic stylings don't always travel well, when it goes right, there's a lot of gameplay to be found in those neat little boxes.
(Review by David Fox)