I love German board games. Ever since a German colleague of mine introduced me to Carcassonne 11 years ago, I have been hooked on them. I collect them, and even own a local shop that sells board games alongside trading card games.
Tabletop games is a tradition in Germany. Hundreds of innovative tabletop games are designed and produced every year there. We can go back to as far as 30 years ago to find that the gaming industry in Germany has been very healthy. Apparently, board game nights to Germans are like poker nights to Americans; the only difference is that board games are more family friendly.
German board games are very different from their American counterparts, such as Monopoly and Risk. German board games tend to be more strategic and less affected by luck or randomness, and focus more on the game mechanics rather than game themes. Personally, I like collecting them because I find the mechanics unique and innovative.
Because board games are so popular in German, awards are frequently given out to appreciate the best works in the industry. The prestigious Spiel des Jahres, overseen by a well respected panel of jury in the board gaming industry, is awarded annually to the best German family board games that are released that year. It is also a good reference for buyers, especially new comers, to German board games when they want to buy their juniors a Christmas gift.
Cafe International is a German board game that won the Spiel des Jahres award in 1989. The game uses a cafe that has regular visitors from all around the globe as its settings. There are some differences between the rules for the tabletop version and the iOS version. I will use the rules for the iOS version for this review.
The game begins by placing 12 random table cards on each available table in the cafe. Each of these tables have a national flag on them and they are arranged in such a way that a guest can have a discussion with other guests in two adjacent tables. In each of your turns, you can place up to two guests from the five guest cards in your hand. Each guest must be placed adjacent to a table that has the same national flag as the guest's nationality. You can open a new table as long as there are at least two guests eligible to sit on that table. When you place a guest, you must make sure that there is a gender balance in that table, i.e. there must be at least one male or one female.
While there is a possibility that none of the guest cards in your hand is eligible to be seated at any table, you may also choose strategically not to seat any guests at any of the tables. If you do, you have to choose one of your guests and set him/her at the bar. Performing this action will automatically end your turn.
At the end of each turn, you will refill your hand of five guest cards from the guest deck.
The game objectives
For each guest that you place, you earn points. Seatings guests at the tables scores more points than seating guests at the bar. You also get points for your seated guest's adjacent tables.
A table will be scored according to the number of guests that are seated on that table, but a minimum of two is required to produce any score. If all the guests seated on that table are of the same nationality, you earn double scores.
A table is completed by a fourth guest, and will be replaced with the top card on the table deck. All guests cards will then removed from the table along with the completed table card. The game continues until one of these conditions are fulfilled: 1) the guest card deck runs out, 2) there is no more table card to replace a recently completed table, or 3) when all the seats at the bar are taken.
What I love about the gameplay
First, the rules are easy to learn. Second, it's quite an open-ended game where you have multiple options to choose from. Third, while it can be challenging for new players to find an eligible placement for their next move, they will get the hang of it after one or two full games.
Like many turn-based games, strategic thinking and planning ahead are required to win the game. It's easier to plot for things when you're playing against 2 or 3 players, but the stakes are higher when you're in a 4-player game against the best AI bots or expert gamers. If you love games that involve planning through multiple turns, managing cards in your hands and making each decision count, then this might be a game that you will enjoy as much as I do.
What makes the iOS version special
The iOS version has streamlined the game rules that, I believe, allows the game to be completed in a shorter period of time. It has half the board size, shorter end-game triggers and an automated way to clean the board and keep the score tally.
Up to 4 human players can play on a single iPad, but you can also play against computer opponents. You can set each of these AI bots as a Rookie, a Standard, or an Expert player. While the 1.0 version I'm reviewing right now does not support Game Center for multiplayer networked play, the developer has confirmed that he will add this capability in the next version.
As with most board games that have been ported to iOS, Cafe International can also be played by a single player. There are two single player modes, i.e. solitaire and time challenge. In solitaire mode, you play for the highest possible score given the entire cafe for your decision to seat the guests. In time challenge, you play against other players, but your score will be multiplied by the amount of time left on the 60-second timer that marks your turn.
Cafe International is a casual thinking game for ordinary people. Even though the in-game tutorial can be improved, I believe the game is easy enough to pick up after you play one or two full games. As a board game geek, I always appreciate it whenever a board game has been ported to iOS. That way, it's easier for me to set up, find opponents and clean up afterwards. That said, Cafe International for iOS is an excellent way to experience a classic (and out of print) board game with friends and family.