This is an attempt to review the components, rules and gameplay of the board game Alley Cats, published by Ideal in 1977.
Alley Cats is a game for 2 or 4 players (but not 3), in which players take the roles of cats searching through dustbins for fish which they can take back to their basket. Players must beware, as dogs lurk in some of the dustbins, and the other players can steal your fish as you take it home. The first player to get five fish safely back to their basket is the winner.
Components (or What’s in the box)
Inside the box are:
16 plastic rubbish bins.
16 plastic fish tokens.
4 plastic dog pieces (which fit inside the bins.
4 plastic cat tokens.
Alley Cats is quick and easy to set up, although packing the game away in a careful and methodical way can help.
Players decide between themselves which of the four cat tokens is going to be their piece - in a family situation usually players will have their usual pieces so this is quite easily sorted after a while. Growing up I always played as the pirate cat, but I can foresee that it won’t be many years before I shall have to be the old doddery cat.
Each player is given four bins, 4 fish (which go inside the bins – 1 in each bin), and 1 dog token (which goes inside one of the bins). The players then place their bins in the four spaces on the quarter of the board next to the basket. This will ensure an even distribution of dogs around the board.
The rules are simple to explain and understand, and are printed on the inside of the box lid.
Movement is turn based, and governed by the roll of a single die. Players must move their piece the full number available unless they are arriving at a rubbish bin, or returning to their basket (no throw exact required). Players may not double back on themselves during the same move.
If a player’s token lands on a space occupied by another player’s piece, s/he must immediately roll again. There is no limit on the number of times a player can land on a piece and roll again. There are also a few spaces on the board which have instructions on them, using puns based around the cat theme – ‘catnap’ is miss a turn for example.
Dividing the two halves of the board is a wall, which runs along the fold in the board from edge to edge. There are six pathways which lead to the wall – three on each side. Cats may treat the entire length of the wall as one space, and can continue their move along any of the six pathways they choose (as long as they don’t double back down the path they arrived on.
So if a cat was next to the wall and rolled a 3, one move would take the piece onto the wall, and then the cat could get down on any of the other five paths and move a further 2 spaces.
A cat on the wall cannot lose a fish to another cat (see below) or be caught by a dog (see below).
Dogs can pass over a wall, but cannot travel along it’s length. A dog must land on path directly on the other side of the wall – in other words the dog cannot choose which path to go down.
This is an example of where the theme is well brought out by the game mechanics – cats can walk along walls, but dogs have to jump over.
To win the game, cats need fish. Fish are found in bins. Therefore cats look in bins for fish. Simple really.
The first rule to mention is that cats are not allowed to forage for fish on their own side of the wall. Players must try to remember which bins have already been visited, and therefore have no fish inside, and then move their piece to one of the bins. There are three possible things to find:
1) Nothing (D’Oh! Someone has been there before!)
2) A fish (Yum! Take the fish and hang it on the playing piece)
3) A fish and a DOG! (Yikes! Take the fish, and the game then pauses while the chase is resolved – see Dogs below)
Assuming that a fish is found but no dog, the player must then try to take it back to his/her basket without another player stealing the fish. Players may not visit more than one bin on a trip, although if someone else steals their fish, the player does not need to go back home and come out again.
While rummaging through bins looking for food, cats might be unlucky and disturb a dog who was resting in the bin at the time. When this happens dog will immediately give chase. The game stops from the normal turn order, and a chase is resolved.
The player seated to the right of the player who opened the bin takes control of the dog. Starting with the cat player, players take it in turns to roll the die and move their piece. The cat player gets to roll again if the token lands on another cat piece, and the dog takes no interest in any other cat.
If the dog lands on the escaping cat piece, the dog scrags the cat and the player controlling the dog takes the fish and places it directly into his/her basket. The dog also wins if it makes it back to the cats home basket before the cat does. The cat wins if it makes it home first without getting landed on by the dog. Either way, the dog token is then removed from the game. The game then resumes in the normal way.
Chases can actually be quite exciting, especially to relatively young children who inhabit themes so much better than grown ups do. The obvious strategy here is to raid the bins diagonally opposite from your home basket, so that if you find a dog you will benefit from the cats’ natural advantage in moving along the wall over the dogs requirement to move straight over.
Once a player has secured a fish, and has it hanging from the appropriate ‘hook’ on their cat playing piece, s/he has to try to get it home. This, however, can be quite difficult (depending on how aggressive the other players are).
If a cat lands exactly on another cat who is carrying a fish, the first cat steals the fish, and rolls again in the usual way to move again, taking his/her ill-gotten gains along. There is no limit to the number of times a fish can be stolen, or how many fish may be carried by a cat at one time, and games can develop into quite vicious take-that fests – especially towards the end where there are enough fish in play to win the game for someone.
This is one of the strengths of roll and move. Take-that doesn’t seem so bad to non-gamers when it is dice which are being mean, and not the other players. You also find people muttering ‘be a three, be a three!’ as they prepare to take their turn. This ‘wishing hard for the number I need’ with the attendant cheers or boos, are part of the fun, which is again something which younger children can enjoy.
Winning the game
The winning conditions are quite simple – the first player to bring back 5 or more fish to their home basket wins the game. Fish once brought to the basket cannot be removed. It is possible for the game to end in a draw if all cats get 4 fish home.
What’s good about this game?
The theme is easy to understand and relate to for young children and adults alike. It is also well integrated into the game and well brought out in the cartoonish artwork.
With the right group Alley Cats is fun. Turns are short. Interaction is high.
This game has a strong take that element with the stealing and re-stealing of fish. This is the heart of the fun of the game. Without it Alley Cats becomes a rather dull pick up and deliver game. With it comes interaction, which is vital for a good family game.
This game works well for young children (age 4 and up at a pinch, depending on the child). There’s not much in it to keep older children interested, however, but for a family of 4 with children in the 4-8 age bracket this game will work well.
This is quite definitely a non-gamers game. By which I mean that it will go down better with players who aren’t into the gaming hobby, and get put off by games they consider complicated with more than a small number of rules. This is therefore not the kind of game which will score well on BGG.
There is no downtime to speak of. Turns are short, so a player’s turn will come around quickly, and there is always the possibility that someone will steal your fish on their turn, or visit a bin and take the contents, meaning that you have to pay attention to remember which bins are now empty.
What’s bad about this game?
The single biggest problem with this game is that it takes too long for what it is. This game needs to play in about 20-30 minutes rather than the 45 minutes it actually does take. Occasionally I have played games where everyone was ready for the game to end, which is never a good sign.
This is a basic Roll and move game. It’s actually handled quite well, and once the early phases are over and cats are moving around carrying fish, roll and move develops into the ‘wishing for the winning number’ found in dice games in casinos, which is where roll and move is at its best. It’s still roll and move, though.
The strong take that element in this game may be upsetting to young children and some adult players. Players who dislike this type of mechanic should avoid this game, as without it there isn’t much left.
This is not a gamers game. By this I mean that players looking for interesting game mechanics and challenging decisions to be made will find nothing to interest them in this game.
Alley Cats plays with either 2 players or 4 players, but not with 3 (and actually doesn’t work all that well with 2. This is a draw back, as not every family has four people in it.
Alley Cats is a good family game, with a nicely realised cartoonish theme which has been well integrated into the gameplay. I think the reason it never achieved mass popularity, and has never been reprinted, is that it lasts a little too long for what it is. In many respects this game is a good one for a family of non-gamers to play together (which is an odd niche market to be aimed at). What I mean by that is that the game is easy to set up, is extremely rule light (an important consideration for non-gamers), and turns are quickly over. If it played in 30 minutes it would rate higher as a family game. In the family context, this game is also hampered by not working for 3 players.
This is definitely not a gamers’ game. If I were rating it in that context Alley Cats would rate a zero. However for a family of four this game is a lot of fun, especially if the family in question can get into the spirit of stealing fish from each other.
Rating 3 out of 5
In an attempt to resolve the issue of game length, each player could setup three bins each rather than 4, with victory going to the first player who safely brings 4 fish safely back to his/her basket. This would decrease the amount of memory required, and increase the chances of finding a dog, but should reduce the game length down to a better fit with the weight.
I've actually got vague memories of playing this and enjoying it about 1979/80 aged about 12/13, looooong time ago.
I picked a copy up off eBay for nostalgia reasons.
Played with my kids when they were younger still fun