Teaching Time: 5 mins
Playing Time: 45-60 mins
Setup Time: 10 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Recommended: Not strongly.
As part of the ongoing Spiel Des Jahres own/play/review quest I got Café International onto the tabletop for a run through. It pretty much fulfilled exactly my expectations, it’s an effective tile placement puzzle game, with one rather controversial caveat.
Play consists of pulling a handful of tiles with a national flag and either a man or a woman’s image on it. Players then take turns placing tiles at the Café’s tables, which are designated to one or another nation, without having two more of one sex at any table after placement. Players then score points depending on how many people are on each table they placed on with bonus points for creating male/female couples of matching nationalities.
The first version of the game came with cartoon versions of faces on the various tiles drawn to depict people of the various nations. Unfortunately, this resulted in a set of somewhat crass stereotypes for no really good reason and some accusations of racism. I’m not going to get into that here, the new version has replaced those drawings with some more sophisticated faceless figures, though why a flag and a male/female symbol wouldn’t do just fine I don’t know. The thing is that the depictions were a fairly obvious and easily fixed problem but the more insidious problem is that the game scores more highly couples of the same nationality than those from different nationalities. In short, whatever set you choose you’ll at some point utter a phrase to the nature that a mixed-race couple isn’t as good as one of a single nationality, and you’ll feel a bit grubby inside when you do it. Its intrinsic to the game and I don’t think it could be designed out, but it’s an unfortunate element on what is essentially an abstract tile placement puzzle game with a slightly odd theme layered on-top. How much of an issue this ends up being is a personal choice, suffice to say I’m okay with playing it myself, but I’d not pull it out at a convention.
That aside the game itself is fine. Its scoring is a little clunky, made tricky during a first time play through by the fact that players score not for couples they create but for all diners on a table they assign diners to which is a tiny bit counter intuitive. The end game is the most interesting part of the contest as unusable diners are forced into the bar area which loses players increasing numbers of points, so holding back usable diners in later stages can serve dividends. There is a potential luck break since players who complete single nationality tables lose tiles, eventually potentially bringing the game to an early end based largely on luck and leaving other players mostly powerless to react, though this is a rare enough occasion as not to bring the game itself down.
As far as an SDJ entry goes, it’s not a solid gateway since its scoring is quite complex and most of the fun of the game comes from its puzzle’s complexity. It’s not a great game, though it’s a challenging one and its mechanics are pleasing enough. Its components don’t really qualify it either, though they’re nice enough for the job at hand they’re not pleasing or unique enough to pick it out as an SDJ. I suspect that the reason for the SDJ win was that the award tends to want at least one representative in each sub-genre of game and this filled the tile layer section for some time. However, it has been so totally surpassed by Carcassone as to make it both baffling as an SDJ choice today and well down the list of gamer's purchases.
Generally, it’s a solid though forgettable game. If you love puzzle tile layers give it a look, but if it weren’t for the SDJ win and some of the controversy I don’t think it would still be popping up today. If you pick it up cheaply and it’s in your wheelhouse its pleasing enough but I wouldn’t go out of my way to pick up a full price version.