Once I'd punched the sturdy cardboard components out of their frames (and has anybody ever come up with any practical uses for these frames?), I set up a dummy three-player game of Mayfair's Hot Tin Roof, which, by the way, doesn't really invoke images of Tennessee Williams' South, with the cat on it. Feels French to me, or Italian, maybe because of the cartoon cats on the cover, poised on the roofs of buildings, bathed in an orange light. Could be New York, I suppose, on the box cover, but it just feels European to me.
Maybe it's because it was designed by Leo Colovini, who brought us Cartagena, 14 years ago, and most recently Atlantis (2010, reviewed here; link at the end). Also, Carolus Magnus (2000), Clans (2002), The Bridges of Shangri-La (2003), and Masons (2006), about which I know very little. Clans has been on Brettspielwelt for years. People use to sign in with different accounts and play rapid fire games of it, over and over, to boost the game play statistics in a given 'town.' It's a mega-game thing.
So I've got my dummy three-player game set up. The fold-out board, in darkly monochromatic colors, displays a neighborhood with 15 residences; each with a patio, and each, connected by a labyrinth of pipes and hot tin rooftops that your cats are going to have move on to collect the points you need to win. Depicted at the bottom of the board are a set of five dumpsters, which, at the start, will have a collection of component sardine cans on them. Three of them are reserved for a set of three Home Tiles; each with the name of two of the board's properties; the two property names will be at least three rooftops apart, though most of them are much more. The other two Dumpsters are for the Catwalk and Shelter components of the game; you have six Catwalks and three Shelters in your possession at the start of the game, and you will want to get these out on the board. Most of the routes on the board have gaps on them; gaps that can only be bridged with a Catwalk. If it's yours, you don't have to pay (sardine cans) to cross it. If it's somebody else's, you have to pay up. Works the same with Shelters. If you've got one on a property, you can pass on through it, at no cost. If it's somebody else's, you give them two of your sardine cans.
At the beginning of your turn, you have to ante up; pay one of your sardine cans (you start with 10) into each of the five dumpsters. Your turn consists of selecting one of the dumpsters, taking all the sardine cans that are there, and then performing the action. Select one of the three home tiles, and you will place two matched cats on the two properties indicated by the Home Tile (everybody has two pairs of matched wooden cats, one standing, one laying down). If you pick the Catwalk dumpster, you take one of your six (or remaining) catwalk tiles and place it on the board, bridging one of the gaps in the white routes. If you dive the Shelter dumpster, you take one of your three (or remaining) Shelter tiles, and place it directly onto a property.
Once you have cats on the board, you can now move those cats (any and all), to any location on the board in a single move, as long as the cat can move along a discernible route with catwalks bridging any gaps. Ideally, you want to move around on the board, crossing your own catwalks and stopping at your own shelters, so you don't have to pay out a lot of sardine cans to other players, but that ain't happenin'.
When you make your move, you're looking to reunite your matched pair of cats. When your move ends with a matched pair of cats on a location, you get a fish, and your matched cats come off the board, poised for your next property pair. There are 12 fish in a three-player game, and 14 of them in a four-player. Each fish is worth 10 sardine cans and can be traded freely whenever circumstances warrant it, with one important and tricky provision. The 12 or 14 fish at the beginning of the game, once drawn from the stack by successfully bringing two cats together, cannot be put back into the stack. Any trading of fish in your possession for sardine cans (to facilitate payment for the ante or usage of opponent property) will remove the fish you trade from the game, essentially creating two fish areas - the original 12 or 14, and a stock of them created when people traded them in. This is because the game is won when one of the players draws the last fish from the original stack of 12 or 14. Player with the most sardine cans (counting each fish as 10 and one point each for sardine cans), wins.
So I get this all up, ready to run through my virtual game of three, and not knowing any better, I get all three of me to grab two Home Tiles, right away - two successive turns all the way around the board - putting all of the cats in the game out on the board at the same time, with literally, no way to move (no catwalks out).
Well, then, it must be time to get some catwalks out, right? My three players all decided to grab a catwalk, but if you follow the 'money' on this, I'm putting out five sardine cans for every turn, and now, though I've managed to get all my cats out there, they can't move without a network of catwalks. As my three players struggle to get them out there, money is building up on the Home Tiles. I can't get any of it, until at least one of my cat pairs gets together and it's time to send them back out, at which point I could select a Dumpster with a lot of sardine cans on it. But for now, each of my cats is running out of sardine cans, and can't seem to get enough to keep paying the five-sardine-can ante. If you can't pay the ante, your turn is over, and you do get two sardine cans from stock. This led to a round or two of more or less passing, as I tried to get each of my cat sets a little stash of sardine cans. I was not enjoying this.
It was turning into what I perceived of as a broken nightmare, where I felt completely at the mercy of the game's economics that kept leading me down a blind alley. So I reached out to Charlie Rice, in the marketing department at Mayfair Games, and essentially asked him what the hell was going on with this game. He referred me to Morgan Dontanville, listed as the game's Art Director, Graphic Design and Production man, as well as being a member of the English Development team for Hot Tin Roof, and with whom I once enjoyed an afternoon of gaming in Brooklyn, NY. Morgan invited me to call and I did. We went over my 'virtual' experience, and Morgan told me that my decisions, playing three different sets of cats, is not likely to be duplicated by three different people, each with different ideas about the way to accomplish the game's objectives.
He was right. Four of us got together one night, and sure enough, people are coming at the problem from all kinds of directions. Based on my inability to move in my 'virtual' game, I, for one, started concentrating on getting catwalks out that would connect the available Home Tile properties, before actually selecting them for cat placement. Once I'd established the beginnings of a route, I'd grab me a tile to get one pair of my cats out there, but I wasn't committing to a second set of cats until I'd found me a route or set of routes that I liked. I learned that it's OK and normal to use other player catwalks to get where you want to go, as long as it facilitates the movement of cats to a meet somewhere in the neighborhood.
I lost the game by two sardine cans; 50 to 48.
I think we all underestimated the benefits of moving two cats to a third location, rather than having one cat move to the other cat's location. I didn't follow through on the cost/benefit analysis of making that happen, but it occurred to me that one might well find that a short trip for Cat A to friendly site A, and a catwalk-friendly trip for Cat B to that same friendly site A, might be less sardine-can expensive than sending Cat A directly to matched Cat B's location.
There's also this impending sense of the game's end that imparts a sort of frenzy. If there are only two tiles left and you, as Player A, see that in turn order, Player B and Player C are poised to move their cats and pick up those last two tiles, you won't want to put any cats out. Each pair of cats on that board when the last fish is drawn has to pay either 15 sardine cans, or move the cats, as in normal movement, paying any and all opponent fees, to bring them together and off the board.
The four of us enjoyed the game, which was of about medium level intensity. It's not always obvious what to do, or in what order to do it, but you won't burn your brain thinking about it much, either. Eventually, you have a lot of cats and a lot of completed pathways out on the board, and the cats are just bounding all over the place, collecting those fish. Before you know it, the original stack of 12 or 14 is gone and the game is over. They're calling it 30-60 minutes for three or four, 10-or-up players, which sounds just about right. We did it in less than an hour, first time out, and we'd likely cut quite a few minutes off that, next time.
Only three people have rated this on BoardGameGeek so far (two 8s and a 7.5) and nobody has commented yet. I like it. It's got a simple route-building heart with a little puzzle and some financial management thrown in for good measure. Won't bog your game evening down with a lot of complex rules or convoluted paths to victory. Just get those cats out on to their Hot Tin Roof(s) and set 'em loose.
Hot Tin Roof, designed by Leo Colovini, with artwork from Corey Godbey, is published by Mayfair Games. It retails for around $35.