- Designer: Muneyuki Yokouchi (横内宗幸)
- Publisher: Hobby Japan, Distributed in the U.S. by Bezier Games
- Players: 2-5
- Ages: 13 and Up
- Time: 20-40 Minutes
- Times Played: > 5 (With additional plays on the original Cat in the Box.)
Cat in the Box: Deluxe Edition is the latest mega-hit on the trick-taking scene. It was arguably the hottest game at Gen Con 2022, and it has been wildly popular in the months since then. Nearly 5,000 people report owning the game on BoardGameGeek, and since most gamers don’t log their collection (or aren’t even BGG members), that means sales are already in the tens of thousands, if not higher.
Nonetheless, Cat in the Box is not exactly a new trick-taking game. It was released in 2020 by Ayatsurare Ningyoukan, and in fact, it won the Trick-Taking Guild’s award for that year. The game already feels like a trick-taking classic, and its new mechanism — allowing players to basically pick the suit of each card — will doubtlessly inspire numerous other games.
This review is of the Deluxe Edition, which is what was released last year. It adds components for a fifth player, and it features nicer components. To my knowledge, the Deluxe Edition is also the only available edition: the first version is out of print.
At first, Cat in the Box feels like a trick-taker from the past. Players start the game by bidding how many tricks they’ll take and by discarding a card from their hand. When the trick play begins, they must follow suit if they can. There is a trump: the red suit, so cards played of that suit will outrank cards of any other suit. If there is no trump, the suit led wins. And players are rewarded for meeting their exact bid.
That all feels normal. But there is one giant twist: the cards in Cat in the Box do not have suits on them. There are simply five of each card rank in the box, even though there are only four colors in the game. Some ranks get taken out at different player counts (and the two-player rules are beyond the scope of this review), but there are always five cards of each number.
So players declare the suit when they play a card. For instance, if the lead player plays a 3 and says it was green, they mark that they did so on the Green 3 space on the board (there are tokens of each player’s token to mark with). Only one player can occupy each space.
The next player can follow along, marking another green space that hasn’t been taken, by first playing that rank of card. Of course, that player need not do that: they can instead simply say that they no longer have green cards! They indicate so with a marker on their player board, and then they can play any other suit, including red, which is trump.
The winner of the trick gets the next lead. This continues until either each player has one card left in their hand — which ends the round — or until one player can no longer play, because the cards left in their hand aren’t possible to play. In the event of the latter, that player caused a “paradox,” and they’ll lose 1 point for each trick they took during scoring.
At scoring, each player who did not cause a paradox gets 1 point per trick, plus if they hit their bid exactly, they get a bonus for their largest contiguous set of markers on the game board.
My Thoughts on the Game
Cat in the Box is easily one of my 10 favorite trick taking games, and it might even be in my top 5. It is clever, really clever, and it is a delight to teach the game because of the smiles that come across people’s faces when they see what the twist is.
I’ve said the following many times before about what makes a good trick taking game, but it is worth repeating here: trick taking games often suffer from one of two major problems: (1) a feeling of obviousness, or (2) a feeling of chaos. Some tricksters enter auto-pilot mode once you see your cards, as the strategy for playing any given hand seems obvious. Other tricksters seem disorderly, resulting in gameplay that feels random. Great games in this genre avoid both pitfalls.
Cat in the Box is such a game. Sure, it is better to have a hand of high cards than low cards, I suppose (though, ultimately, it is probably best to have a hand of cards clustered together for purposes of the scoring bonus). But I see this as a relatively low luck trick-taker: you have a lot of freedom to win tricks and meet your bid. Are you feeling down about not winning tricks? Go off suit and play a trump card!
The game is one of hand management as much as anything. You want to maximize your ability to play and avoid a paradox, while also catching tricks and meeting your bid, while also trying to cluster your card tokens in an optimal way. There’s a lot going on — this can be a little brain burn-y for a trick taking game — but it is oh-so-rewarding to play.
Add in the fact that it plays quickly (30-45 minutes seems right) and teaches easily, and it is easy to see why it has been such a hit.
Plus, the production value of the new version is stunning. It includes two-player rules (which I have not played) and five-player rules. The game works well at five players. The rulebook is well written (even if a little over-written) and the components are high quality. The plastic markers are an especially nice touch. It is easy to see from the table presence of the game why so many people were drawn to Bezier’s booth at Gen Con.
Overall, this is a highlight of modern trick-taking design. Cat in the Box is clever, and it almost feels like it could invent a new sub-genre of trick taking games. This will be one to watch over the next several years.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Ben B (6 plays): We are getting good mileage out of this game as a family that doesn’t really play a lot of tricktakers. As far as components go, my only complaint is that the card stock is a little lower quality for a ‘deluxe’ version. As far as the game goes, it’s very unique and fun and brings a lot to the trick taking space.
Joe Huber (2 plays): While I certainly agree that Cat in the Box is clever – I don’t find it fun. For me, paradoxes ruin the game – there are severe limits to what one can do to avoid them, and when they do happen the simple – and unpredictable, many tricks in – matter of who won the last trick can decide which player causes the paradox. And, worse, they are clearly necessary for the game to work. I wasn’t thrilled by my first play, but gave it a second go just to be sure – and I’m now sure, this is a game for me to avoid.
Larry (2 plays): It’s clever and feels completely unique, which is something I always prize in a game. It may have a touch less control than I usually like, but it’s a title I’d like to explore some more.
Mitchell (6 plays): I played Cat in the Box at both the 2 and 4 player counts. I enjoyed the game in both formats, although it is much more dynamic with 4 players. The paradox notion is a bit of a gimmick, but I do enjoy the emergent suit possibilities. In that regard the game reminds me of the abstract game LYNGK. I also enjoy the point scoring possibilities linked to connections on the board. It’s an original game and very interesting to play.
Nate Beeler: Cat in the Box is the rare game that I played once and knew I had to own (I maybe buy one game a year lately). It is a strange delight; unlike anything else in my collection. Certainly, it is worth making a little space for. That said, I have now played it a handful more times, and I am starting to see a couple issues develop that trouble me a little. One problem is just how brutal causing a paradox is. I’m sure someone can win the game after doing so, especially if they didn’t take any tricks. But I have yet to see it happen in a 4 or 5 player game. Another is that shorting yourself early in the hand gives you an immediate tactical advantage (namely, you can trump). But doing so should come with a risk of making it more likely for you to paradox later, since there are fewer legal cards you can play. However, if other players lead the suit you’ve shorted yourself in it can actually doubly help you–giving you free reign on the board and keeping everyone else out of your way. I find it frustrating that people often don’t at least try to punish these players by clogging their available slots. Maybe I just need to play with more experienced players (though as Chris mentions, it’s just too fun to teach newbies). Or maybe I’m just missing something else that has yet to reveal itself. I wouldn’t be surprised.
Michael W (many plays): We too immediately fell for it when Ted and Toni taught it at a con. Also like Nate, the shine is off a bit, but it’s still one we enjoy. I’ve pretty much sworn off playing it with 5. A paradox is too likely to happen, and as Joe says the timing of it is mostly luck/coincidence as to who benefits the most. The sweet spot for me is 3 players, though in all our plays we still have not tried it with 2.
Craig M. (6 plays): Our group really enjoys trick taking games so this was an easy purchase that has quickly entered into regular rotation. I have the sneaking suspicion there is more depth than meets the eye after a half dozen plays, but I’m not entirely convinced of that. Joe may be right in that there is just much coincidental play, but again, I’m not convinced either way. That leaves the game just on the cusp of me really loving it. Time will tell if the game stays in regular rotation with other trick taking favorites.
James Nathan (8 plays): I originally reviewed Cat in the Box on the blog in January 2022 and still love it. 🙂
Dan B. (7 plays): It’s a great idea, so I want to like the game more than I do… but in too many hands I don’t feel as if my decisions end up mattering very much. I think there’s the illusion of more freedom than there actually is. I don’t love the bonus scoring which can benefit people with certain hands much more than others. And the paradoxes bother me, although not as much as they bother Joe. That all being said I am still willing to play it, but I think my previous “like it” rating has devolved to “neutral.”
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Chris W., John P, Mitchell, Michael W., James Nathan, Erik Arneson
- I like it. Ben B, Larry, Nate Beeler, Jonathan F., Craig M.
- Neutral. Dan B.
- Not for me… Joe H.