Play Time: 30 – 45 Min / Players: 1-4 / Complexity: Low / Age: 10+ / Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) and Flatout Games / Designer: Kevin Russ
Calico Ratings and Summary
Kids rating from our daughters (8 &11).
Teen rating from our son (14).
Calico is simple to learn and looks so cute, but that hides a very challenging puzzly tile laying game that can really tax the brain. If you like a challenge this will appeal but some may get frustrated by how difficult this game can feel. Luckily there is a fantastic family mode that isn’t as punishing.
- Family mode reduces difficulty a little and makes the game more accessible
- Cute cat theme likely to appeal to a wide audience
- Three layers of scoring opportunities make for an interesting and challenging experience
- Recessed game board is fantastic
- Artwork and components look great
- Scenarios and variations offer some good replay value.
- Can be very challenging and some people may find this frustrating, especially younger players
- Game feels very constrained by the board and the small number of drafting options
- Solo mode is very difficult and may put some people off.
What You Will Find in Our Calico Review
- How to Play
- Gameplay Experience
- Thoughts on Solo Mode
- Final Thoughts
- Other Games to Consider
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Strategy Tips
Like many families we have a beloved cat in our household. She’s very particular in her taste and with many quirks to cater too, but still very well loved. So, any game that involves our feline friends is likely to get a warm reception in our family, especially by our kids. Luckily there is no shortage of good cat themed games out there, we recently reviewed The Isle of Cats which is exceptional. But this review is about Calico, designed by Kevin Russ and published by Flatout Games and AEG, it is another cat themed, puzzly, tile drafting and placement game. This one has a bit of a twist, beneath the cute cat illustrations from Beth Sobel, warm quilting patches and simple rule set there is a brutally challenging game here. One that will have you questioning how placing a single tile on a board could possibly have you using so much brain power. Calico may look inviting and cute, but it can be brutal and unforgiving of any mistakes. So probably a fair reflection of its feline subject matter.
How to Play Calico
I mentioned our cat can be a little picky. It’s not uncommon to find her planning her entire day around sleeping in specific bedrooms, on specific blankies, at specific times of the day to maximise her exposure to sunlight. If one blankie happens to be out of place or put away for some reason, she can be very vocal about it. Bottom line she can be very unforgiving if things aren’t just so.
Calico is all about satisfying your feline friends and their particular taste in quilt patterns. You will be catering to the whims of Millie, Tibbit, Coconut, Cira and other kitties that will only be attracted to your board if the patterns are just right. Attracting your feline friends to your quilt will reward you with points. You can also earn points by matching like coloured tiles to earn buttons. Earn the most points and you win the game as well as the gratitude of our picky friends. So really if you own a cat this is kind of like real life.
To set up Calico you will randomly select 3 cat scoring tiles and decide which side to use. These are very cute, and each cat has its own requirement that will attract it to your board. Then randomly place 2 black and white patch tiles underneath each cat scoring tile. This will tell you which particular patterns will satisfy that cat’s requirement to earn you a cat token and points. Did I mention that the cats in this game can be very particular in their needs?
Place all the hexagonal patch tiles in the bag provided, jiggle it and then give each player two hexagonal tiles to start with along with their own recessed player board. Three patch tiles are then placed on the table face up to form the drafting pool.
Each player also places their 6 design goal tiles face down randomly in front of them and reveals 4. 3 of these tiles are then chosen to be used by each player. The selected tiles are placed in the marked spaces on each player’s board and provide additional scoring goals for that game.
Each turn in Calico is very simple, players simply place a tile on a free space on their player board and then select a patch tile from the pool to replace it. A tile is then drawn randomly from the bag to replace the tile in the centre of the table and play moves to the next player. Simple, quick and no fuss…. except that it doesn’t feel quite that simple.
There are three layers of scoring you need to consider when placing your tiles:
- Completing tile patterns to make groups matching the requirement on a cat scoring tile will earn you the relevant cat token. Each cat type is worth a different number of points depending on how challenging it is to complete
- Placing three patch tiles of the same colour together will earn you the corresponding button and 3 points. If you manage to collect each of the different coloured buttons you also earn a rainbow button and a further 3 bonus points
- Design objectives provide points for meeting pattern and colour goals. Each goal will look a little like this…AAA-BB-C. This means that to earn points you must surround the design goal tile with 3 matching tiles, 2 matching tiles and 1 additional tile. If you can do this for patterns or colours that will earn you the lower point value, if you can achieve both you will earn the higher point value.
The great news is that your player board comes pre-printed with patch tiles at the edges that you can use to get a head start on making your patterns.
The downside is that although these three layers of scoring objectives may seem simple, you can tie yourself up in knots trying to achieve all of them and ultimately fail miserably. We learned this lesson the hard way early on, the key is to make peace with the fact that you will not achieve every scoring goal. If you can focus your efforts a bit and be willing to sacrifice a few goals ironically you will likely score higher points and more importantly get less frustrated. Think of it this way, satisfying a cat’s every whim and desire can be a little futile, they have high expectations, right?
At the beginning of the game when you have all your spaces available it can feel a little relaxed, almost a little too simplistic, once your board spaces diminish it will feel like you are in a cell of your own making that is shrinking each turn. You lose more and more options and find that you will have to sometimes choose the best of a range of bad choices when placing your tiles.
Once you place your final agonising tile it’s time to tally up the points. You will get the printed point value on the back of each cat token you have enticed to your quilt, three points for each button and points for achieving any design objectives.
By now you may be thinking that Calico can be a frustrating proposition at times and that the challenge may be too much for some players. Luckily there is family mode. Family mode simply requires you to play without design goals. With this scoring layer removed somehow the weight of the world seems to be lifted from your shoulders. Your puzzle is just that little bit more achievable and there are fewer sacrifices to be made. This is absolutely the mode I would recommend for younger players or non-gamers. It is still a crunchy challenge but doesn’t feel anywhere near as brutal.
Calico Gameplay Experience
Let me start by saying that Calico can be a bit deceptive. It has a cute exterior, and the rules are very simple. Place a tile, draw a tile, that’s it really. Much like our feline friends, beneath that cute veneer are layers that can be challenging to get your head around. It’s a game that can have you thinking so hard it feels like smoke is coming out of your ears.
One thing that is so well done in Calico is the way you are immediately rewarded for completing goals. Once you have satisfied the pattern objectives for one of the available kitties, you can collect a very cute matching cat token that you can place in that spot. My kids just love picking these up and making purring sounds as they gently place their cat on their board. I imagine the cats spotting a blankie that they like and wandering over for a nap on the perfect spot while my kids dote over them.
It is a masterfully simple game to learn, the challenge comes from two key factors, the first is how constrained the game feels. Unlike a game like Cascadia (Also by AEG and Flatout Games) your player board marks out the boundaries of where you can place tiles and the more you place, the more your available options shrink. At first it can feel like you have an abundance of good moves available, your board is wide open. With every tile placed you reduce your available spaces and gradually lock yourself into certain goals. Near the end of the game only a few tiles will do.
When it comes to drafting tiles for future use, you only have three options, and it is common in the late game to find that none of them really fit what you need so you must adapt. Our kids find this the part that can be the most frustrating. There are times where the luck of the draw just doesn’t go your way. You may have three tiles on offer that do nothing for your plans, and you must pick the best of a bad bunch. There aren’t any mechanisms to redraw or swap out tiles in the pool like Cascadia has. Often when we play there will be times where people will grumble about the tile draw… ‘Three dot patterns. Seriously, I can’t do anything with that. I can’t even use the colours’.
The second factor that makes Calico so challenging is the scoring requirements. There are three different layers to consider (cats, colours and design goal tiles) and often you can’t meet the requirements for all three. This is where the sacrifices and trade-offs happen. You have to be ok with letting go of some of the scoring objectives you were hoping to achieve as your board space shrinks. Much like our beloved cat, sometimes it’s simply impossible to meet her high standards.
The design goal tiles in particular seem to throw new players off. When we first started playing with these, I instantly loved them, they seemed to add so much to the game. I really liked having an extra scoring opportunity. The rest of the family found them to be too frustrating. So much so that they were put off the game for a long while until we started playing family mode again.
Where I saw opportunity, they saw disappointment with each goal they missed. I think the key here is mindset. If you expect to achieve every scoring objective, prepare to be frustrated, it is just not going to happen. If you accept that you will miss some and focus on a smaller number, it is likely to be more enjoyable and satisfying.
My kids enjoy the family mode but find the full game is too punishing to be enjoyable for them. My wife enjoys the full game when she is in the mood for something more thinky. I am a sucker for a good challenge and prefer the full game mode on the other hand. For all the sacrifices and disappointments that can happen it is oh so satisfying when things just come together nicely in this game. Getting that one tile you needed to meet multiple scoring objectives is well worth it for me.
Be aware there isn’t a lot of interaction in Calico, you could try to hate draft, but it is hard enough making the most of the tiles available that it isn’t common. It mostly feels like multi-player solitaire, but I think in this case that works well. Turns move at a reasonable pace and it’s nice to know others can’t mess with your board in such a challenging game.
Thoughts on Calico Solo Mode
Solo mode in Calico feels very similar to the full game, you really don’t miss out on much given player interaction isn’t a big focus in the multi-player game. There are 10 scenarios in the rulebook that outline objectives to be achieved for a win. They typically include a scoring target and requirements around additional objectives, like the number of buttons, cat tiles or design goals that must also be achieved.
Other than that, there is really only one other difference in the solo game, and it involves discarding a tile from the drafting pool at the end of each turn to simulate another player drafting a tile.
The solo mode is very challenging, in about a dozen games I have only beaten the first scenario once. I have come nowhere near beating the second scenario. The game is such a satisfying and fun puzzle that it doesn’t really reduce my enjoyment at all. However, this may frustrate some people who would like to be able to progress more regularly through the scenarios.
In a nutshell I love the components in this game. The artwork from Beth Sobel is beautiful and the components all look to be durable with thick tokens and tiles. The standout for me is the player boards, they are recessed which means your tiles are not likely to move about as much if you accidentally knock your player board.
The final thing I would mention is the rule book. It is very well laid out, with plenty of visual examples to make things clear.
Anything with a cat theme is likely to be well received in our house. In a weird way Calico fits the cat theme nicely, preparing a quilt for very picky cats to nap on seems to make sense. There is also a nice back story about each cat in the rule book which is a nice touch.
Final Thoughts on Calico
Calico is a simple, cute game which hides challenging gameplay. The full game is likely to appeal to those who like a challenge but may frustrate younger players. However, the family mode is a lot of fun and makes the game more accessible.
So, what does the whole family think? My daughters love Calico’s family mode and love the concept of collecting cute cats to their quilt. My son enjoys family mode too but not as much as the girls due to the luck of the tile draw. All my kids find the full game mode too frustrating.
My wife and I really enjoy Calico, although my wife has to be in the mood for something very thinky to enjoy the full game with design tiles.
Is Calico easy to learn? Yes, very easy to learn but hard to master.
What will Calico teach my kids? Calico provides opportunities to follow patterns and plan ahead to make the most of a confined board space. There is also some probability involved when selecting tiles to understand the likelihood of completing pattern objectives.
What age is appropriate for Calico? The box says 10+, for the full mode I think that is about right, but family mode should work for kids from 8 and up.
Does Calico have good replay value? Between family mode, the full game, achievements and scenarios there is a lot of replay value in Calico.
If you want to see how Calico compares to the very popular Azul and Cascadia checkout our Cascadia vs Calico vs Azul article.
We hope you enjoyed our Calico review. If you have any more questions or just want to share your thoughts on this game please leave a comment below, or get in touch through our contact page.
About the Authors
We are parents who love board gaming. We have three children and have been enjoying board games as a family ever since we had our first child. We share our real unbiased experiences and opinions on board games so you can decide if they are right for your family. We also write guides and articles to help you get the most out of your family game time. If you enjoy our content and want to support us you can do that through our Ko-fi page by clicking on the button below.
Other Games to Consider
If you would like some ideas other than Calico, here are some other games to consider that involve drafting and tile or dice placement:
- Azul (Review) – This is the original in the Azul series and is a simple tile drafting and placement game. Although simple to learn it has incredible depth and strategy. Each round will involve drafting tiles from communal factories and attempting to make sets that can be used to make patterns in a wall area. Fantastic game but unlike Calico it can be very cut throat. If you do happen to like Azul there are two great follow up games in the series which we really enjoy, Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra and Azul: Summer Pavilion which we also enjoy.
- Cascadia (Review)– This is a really relaxing drafting and tile placement game, which contrasts a fair bit with the intense decisions of Calico. The theme is nature and wildlife related. Each player must draft and place combinations of habitats and wildlife to maximise points. There are multiple wildlife scoring cards which can be varied each game to keep things interesting. This one also has a great solo mode that I really enjoy. There is not a lot of player interaction here but it is a fantastic game.
- Sagrada (Review)– Instead of tiles, Sagrada is a dice drafting and placement game. The colour and number of the dice rolled matter when it comes to placement. There are multiple constraints in this game that make it feel very puzzly and challenging much like Calico. Randomised window patterns, tools and scoring objectives also add some luck. Another great drafting game for families.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best player count for Calico?
We think Calico works well at any player count. Turns are quick and there is little down time. Once a player has selected their tile you don’t really need to wait for it to be placed before you move on to the next player.
Can I earn more buttons by expanding the size of one of my coloured tile groupings?
Short answer is no. Each button can be earned for three patch tiles of the same colour that are touching, to earn a second button of the same colour the grouping cannot be expanded to six tiles, it must be a separate grouping of tiles.
Can cat patterns be rotated?
Yes, you can rotate a cat pattern to complete it on your board.
If two separate groups of three same-coloured tiles are later joined, do you lose a button?
No, as long as the groups were separate when they were formed, and you earned the buttons you cannot lose them. For example, you have two separate groups of 3 yellow tiles and have earned two yellow buttons, if later you place a yellow tile in between both groups connecting them you would not have to give up one of your yellow buttons. The key is you must have earned them according to the rules once they are placed, subsequent placements don’t invalidate what you have earned.
Why is the cat on the box an orange cat instead of a calico cat?
The artist (Beth Sobel) thought a calico cat on top of a patchwork quilt would look too busy, so suggested a different type of cat for the box. They reason that Calico could also refer to the type of fabric for the quilt.
- Maximise the value of pre-printed border tiles: Each player board has tiles pre-printed around the border. Ensuring you make the most of these will give you a head start making patterns. For example, when you place your first tile try to match it with the colour of one border tile and the patter of the one next to it, this gives you a head start on both colour and pattern goals.
- Accept that you won’t be able to achieve every goal: The design goal tiles can lead to a lot of frustration for players, I have never seen all 3 goals achieved for both colour and pattern. If you can focus on a few of these rather than all of them, you are likely to get more points.
- Make the most of your large open board space: There is a large space without design goals on the bottom right of each board. This is a good space for large cat patterns if you plan to pursue them. Try to be deliberate about how you maximise this space.
- Keep track of played tiles: There are an equal number of each tile in the bag. Keeping track of the tiles already placed will give you a sense of which tiles are likely to be scarcer than others. This should help you decide which patterns are more viable to pursue.