Reviewed by Eric Brosius
CAT IN THE BOX (Ayatsurare Ningyoukan, 3 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 30-45 minutes; 2500¥/about $22.50)
Cat in the Box is a card game with a twist. The title refers to physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, in which a cat is neither alive nor dead until someone opens the box and sees it. In Cat in the Box, the suits of the cards in your hand are not determined until you play them.
Cat in the Box is built on a foundation that will be familiar to fans of trick-taking card games like Oh Hell! and similar games like Wizard, Skull King and Sluff Off! I will describe the 4-player game (the 3-player game is slightly different.) There are 4 suits (red, blue, yellow, and green.) The red suit is always trump. Each player is dealt 10 cards, discards one, and then bids 1, 2, or 3 tricks, indicating how many tricks they will aim to take during the hand. The start player leads to the first trick, and the other players follow suit if they can, or play a trump or another suit if they cannot. The highest trump wins the trick, or the highest card in the suit led if no trump is played. The winner of the trick leads to the next trick. You may not lead a trump until a trump has been played unless you have only trumps left. Just 8 tricks are played in a hand, so each player has one last card left unplayed at the end of the hand. A player receives 1 point for each trick taken, plus a bonus if they take exactly as many tricks as they bid.
The twist in Cat in the Box is that the suits are not printed on the cards. Cards show numbers from 1 to 8 in black, but the suits are not printed on the cards. Furthermore, there are 40 cards in the deck – 5 for each number – even though there are only 4 suits. When you play a card, you announce what suit it is. There is a display in the center of the table with a row for each suit and boxes for the numbers 1 through 8 in each suit. Each player has a set of markers, and when you play a card, you mark the number and suit on the display. For example, if the start player begins play by playing a 6 and announcing that it is blue, they place one of their markers in the 6 box in the blue row. This means no player may play another 6 later in the hand and announce that it is blue – there can be only one blue 6.
When someone else leads to a trick, you must follow suit if you can, but of course, whether you can follow suit depends on the suits of the cards in your hand, which are not printed on the cards. In order for you to fail to follow suit, you simply declare that you have no cards of the suit led. Each player has a small display showing the 4 suits, so if you do not follow suit, you must first play a marker on the suit led to indicate that you are void in that suit. This means you may play no more cards in that suit for the rest of the hand. Furthermore, if you wish to lead trump before any trumps have been played, you simply declare that you have no cards of any other suit and play markers on all the other suits to indicate that you are void in those suits. If you do this, you may play nothing but trump for the rest of the hand.
Since there are 5 cards with each number , even though you discard a card at the start of the trick, and have one left unplayed at the end, you may find yourself unable to play any card to a trick when it is your turn to play. If this happens, you have created a Paradox! You reveal your hand to your opponents to demonstrate that you have no legal play. The hand then ends immediately, without finishing the trick, and whoever created the Paradox by being unable to play takes a penalty of minus 1 point for each trick they have already taken. Other players score as usual, with the caveat that they may have taken fewer tricks than they expected because the hand ended early.
Cat in the Box is easy to play if you are familiar with trick-taking games, but it is full of surprises. When I teach the game, players usually start off smoothly, but soon find themselves facing “aha” moments as the implications of the rules reveal themselves. The decision about what card to discard at the start of the hand is important, since it allows you to get rid of a card that may prove problematic. You must balance trying to take the number of tricks you have bid against avoiding a Paradox, since the Paradox penalty can be stiff. When you first play the game, you may fail to follow suit only when you have no alternative, but declaring yourself void even though you could follow suit can be beneficial in some situations. Don’t be careless about doing so, however, as it could result in a Paradox.
Cat in the Box originally came out in a small print run. However, Hobby Japan has announced a reprint, and I plan to purchase the game as soon as I can. I’ve enjoyed it a lot more than I enjoy other games in the Oh Hell! family. Because a card can in principle be a card in any suit, including trump, when you pick up your hand, it can be a strong hand or a weak hand depending on your own choices. No one is ever dealt a hand with no trumps, though you may play it in such a way that it has no trumps! If you bid high, you may decide to play more cards as trumps, while if you bid low, you may decide otherwise. This adds possibilities and hope to every hand – at least until you find yourself in danger of a Paradox! I recommend it to any trick-taking card game fan. – – – – – Eric Brosius
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