When a board game gets given a digital make over, the very least you can do implement some of the wonderful things that digital platforms can provide over physical boards. Sadly, this isn’t quite what’s happened for Café International. The board game released in 1988 to large acclaim at the time. A simple game of luck and strategy, can it stand on its own in 2021?
Firstly, let’s get the gameplay loop nailed down as I hadn’t played the original board game before. Up to four players can play this game in turns where you hold five cards of characters. The board itself has 12 tables on, each with four chairs and a nationality flag. You need to place the characters in your hand at these tables in ways to score points. All characters have a nationality and so you can only sit your characters at the matching nationality tables. You must also sit them in gender parity positions too. If its a fresh table a man and woman must be placed. If a man is there, only a woman can be seated next and vice versa. If you can’t move, you have to discard one of your five cards to the bar. The bar acts as a negative as each seat there costs you points. How do you score points? Seating characters and then completing tables of four. The table vanishes taking the guests with it and a new nationality flag is placed on the table. The game ends when that bar is full or you run out characters or tables to place. Highest score wins.
The game is faithfully translated from 1988 to 2021 with all gameplay intact. It also brings over its 1988 artwork which will no doubt anger woke folk. They are national political-esque spitting image drawings that have not aged well. In particular the Asian countries feel very mistreated. This could have been an optional selection and perhaps some less 80’s caricature drawings could have been added as an option. What makes this worse is that the sound effects for sitting characters down just reinforces the racial stereotypes. It hasn’t aged well and feels awkward.
The game itself lacks flow. So much of the strategy is down to luck and timing. Often you won’t be able to take a turn early in the game so Café International always gets off to a clumsy start. From there, its pot luck as to what cards you get and the table flags, it doesn’t feel skilful at all. Where skill does come into play is remembering what others have had to sacrifice to the bar and what flag tables have already been cleared. This helps you know what characters of your own you need to send to the bar. It feels like guessing cards in a casino – a bit frowned upon and unsatisfying to play.
The digitalisation of the game offers a few new perks such as a hint system with a cooldown over a few turns. AI is added and they do put up a challenge on hard mode. Again, due to the random nature of the game, they can be very powerful or have a terrible run too though. Having a mix of AI and humans works too but there is no online mode or asynchronous mode at launch. Online is meant to be coming but for now its local and steam remote play to the rescue. Aside from the standard game there is a time attack mode and solitaire mode for single players to enjoy beating their high scores.
That is it though. The game looks like a barebones mobile port – the UI tells you to swipe and has mobile icons everywhere. Café International is perfectly serviceable but doesn’t really feel engaging enough as a board game nor given enough love as a digital transfer to really be a solid recommendation. For fans of the original and luck based simple games only.
Review copy provided by publisher.
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