Cat Herders: The Cat Herding Game of Herding Cats


Nine cats have escaped into the park. They’re grumpy and would prefer you leave them alone. Nonetheless, you employ a team of animal control agents and your job is to round them up. You win by nabbing five cats.


Before I describe the game, I’ll take a moment here to explain its origins. It may be worth reading if you’re into board game design – otherwise feel free to skip down to the rules.

Back in BoardGameGeek’s early days, before it was the sprawling infotropolis it’s become, there was a user named Thi Nguyen who wrote eloquently about games. Among his posts was a geeklist, titled Elegant Simulations, which has burrowed as deeply into my cerebral furrows as any among the thousands of things I’ve read on the site since. It still pops into my head with metronomic regularity.

What’s an elegant simulation? It’s a game that simulates the feel of a (real or fictional) situation’s overall dynamics with minimal rules.

Many “thematic” games don’t actually feel thematic to me. They may have a schmillion little contingency rules which are supposed to mimic details of some scenario, but they feel like nothing anyway because they don’t capture the overall dynamic of whatever they’re supposed to be simulating. Without it, thematic detail turns into senseless clutter.

Elegant Simulations, by contrast, focus on getting the central dynamic right, foregoing detail. It’s hard to do, especially since you can’t always do it via literal translation from the real world, but the designs that nail it feel like little miracles to me.

If you want to try examples from Thi’s list, I recommend Street Soccer and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. You can try Street Soccer on Little Golem. Not only does it feel like soccer, but If you play a lot, you’ll find it’s deeper than it first seems (the highest rated player at Little Golem has an ELO rating of over 2100, which is surprising given how luck-driven the game seems at first – it’s full of hidden subtlety).

Cat Herders is one of my attempts at an elegant simulation. I’m motivated by a desire to design games with broad appeal, and games that “feel like something real” with nonetheless minimal rules can be really good at appealing to a lot of people.

I started with the theme, and I chose rules to make players feel like they’re herding cats. The central idea is that the act of moving a Herder to capture a cat sends the cat scurrying away. The only way to capture a cat is to surround it despite its scurrying, which forces you to divert Herders away from the other cats you want to capture.

I had that basic idea from the beginning, but it took time to get the right form. My initial versions allowed players to place their Herders anywhere on the board, in spots from which they couldn’t move, and had cats moving away from them in straight-ish lines. Idiotic. It failed to feel thematic, and despite many modifications, these features always combined to create a clump of Herders in the middle of the board, with all the cats scurrying around the edges until trapped against a wall. Which was boring.

Eventually I discovered a cat-movement rule which would allow cats to move away from Herders more realistically and unpredictably (instead of running directly into the arms of Herders as they often did in earlier versions), and I required that Herders move in from the edges of the park as they would in real life, instead of parachuting in. Consequently, cats now often run away from the edges and no longer get more easily trapped there than anywhere else. It also created a tension between placing and moving a Herder, adding what turned out to be a key layer of strategy.

So now I’m happy. Without further ado,

The Rules of Cat Herders

Cat Herders is a game for 2-players.


9 grumpy cat miniatures, each of which I’ll represent here as this token:


15 blue Herders for player one and 15 red Herders for player two, which I will represent here with these tokens:


The board:


The outer row of brown spaces is called the Wall and the green spaces inside are called the Park


There are two different setups: the Standard Setup, and the Advanced Setup.

Standard Setup: place Herders on the Wall according to this picture:


Advanced Setup: place Herders on the Wall according to this picture:


Regardless of which setup you use, to complete the setup, place the nine cats on random empty Park spaces. For example:


Turn Rules

1. Players take turns. On your turn, you must either place a new Herder on any empty Wall space, or move a Herder already on the board 1 or 2 empty Park or Wall spaces in a straight line in any direction.

2. After you have placed or moved a Herder, you must, if possible, move any cats which are now adjacent to that Herder, as follows:

3. A cat always moves to an empty Park space adjacent to it. It always moves to the adjacent space least surrounded by Herders (has fewest Herders adjacent to it, regardless of color). If there are multiple spaces with the same minimal number of herders adjacent to them, the moving player chooses which space the cat moves to. For example, let’s say the red player chooses to move his herder as as follows:


Now the player must move the cat. He can move it to any of the three empty adjacent spaces, because each of those spaces is surrounded by three Herders and it has no adjacent spaces surrounded by fewer than three Herders. 

4. If, after moving a Herder, a cat adjacent to it has no empty adjacent spaces to move to, it stays where it is (but must move otherwise).

5. If multiple cats are to be moved, you may move them in any order you like (note: sometimes one cat won’t be able to move unless another cat moves first. In this case, the latter must move first, then the former).

6. Capturing cats: after you’ve moved the cats, if a cat is adjacent to at least two of your Herders (regardless of how many of the opponent’s Herders are adjacent to it), remove it from the board and place it in front of you.

First player to capture 5 cats wins.

Example Game using Advanced Setup (apologies for poorish resolution)

Note there is an error in this game: slides 24-25 show a red capture that shouldn’t have happened because red didn’t move the cat correctly. I transcribed the game without checking that it was all correct. I’ll try to get an error-free example game up at some point.


1. Try adding the following rule: For each cat you capture, you must remove one of the capturing Herders from the board (i.e. a Herder must escort each captured cat out of the park). This introduces a touch of negative feedback which could be necessary to balance the game at high level play (mind you I’ve no evidence it’s imbalanced – for structural reasons I won’t discuss, there’s a good chance it’s fairly balanced as is, but never hurts to have a backup plan, especially since I suspect the game may support high-level play).

2. For a longer, more involved game, require that a cat must be adjacent to at least three of your Herders to be captured, instead of two.

3. Another way to complicate the game in an interesting way is to have cats move two spaces each turn instead of one, following the cat movement rule described above for each step.

4. Try starting the game with no Herders on the wall at all.

5. You can also play the game on larger boards with more cats, and also on differently tile boards, for example a square grid.

There you have it. The intended audience is folks who buy games like HiveHey, That’s my Fish, and Battle Sheep. With the right graphic design and miniatures, Cat Herders has commercial potential. Relatedly: this page is the most visited original game design page on my blog, despite the fact almost no one has played Cat Herders. The theme and the name of the game are proving attractive to folks)

Grumpy Cat icon courtesy Mathieu Beaulieu
Herder icon source: Internet

Nick Bentley

4 thoughts on “Cat Herders: The Cat Herding Game of Herding Cats

  1. This is wonderful. I’m so glad you read Thi Nguyen’s geeklist and understood why an elegant reflection of reality can be so powerful for board game design. So many analytical thinkers do not value, or sometimes even recognize, the power of this way of designing, it’s great that you do.

    What it provides, really, is a completely different perspective (a.k.a., a whole new source) that is often very helpful in conceiving of games that are going to be relatable and “feel natural” to a wide audience.

    This is something that is especially relevant to abstract games, which can sometimes feel too dry or based on some strict logic, and removed from the natural world. Now, some players don’t mind at all, or even relish, games like that, but some don’t, but the point is, building up a game from a natural system of interactions is definitely the right design choice for some games, rather than pasting a theme on top of a game designed from rules.

    1. Also, the best boardgame I’ve played that seems to have used this design process is “On the Underground”. “On the Underground” has used it so well, in fact, it feels like it is halfway between an abstract and a thematic game, instead of a “themeless combinatorial game”.

      In it, there is a pawn called the Passenger who runs a simple algorithm each turn to decide how he moves to different points on the board: take the shortest number moves along rail lines (riding the train), then the shortest number of moves along non-rail lines (walking). Extremely simple, but it reflects the natural pathing a real passenger using public transportation would actually make in the real world, and so recreates a natural behavior. As players lay rail during the game, they have to place it with that in mind, and spontaneously efficient rail networks emerge.

      (The game incentivizes other, publicly-valued infrastructure goals, like connecting remote stations (oh, suburbs) to each other, to create some more interesting choices during play, so the resulting rail networks aren’t perfectly efficient and optimized for just the one passenger-moving incentive, but that’s the main one, and the gist of it.)

    1. It’s not commercially available. I haven’t licensed it to a publisher (yet, maybe). Apologies!

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