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 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:
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)
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 Hive, Hey, 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