SdJ Re-Reviews #11: Café International

  • Designer:  Rudi Hoffmann
  • Publisher:  Multiple
  • Players:  2 – 4
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  45 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 5 (On the 1989 Mattel German Second Edition)

Cafe International

Café International: Rudi Hoffmann gets a win…

Rudi Hoffmann was one of the earliest – and most prolific – of the German game designers.  Though his name isn’t mentioned much today, he had an enormous impact on the German hobby, and his name belongs alongside Sid Sackson and Alex Randolph.

He released his first game in the 1960s, and then he released more than 20 titles in the 1970s.  He wasn’t as active during the early 1980s (although he did receive a 1981 SdJ nomination for Ganoven Jagd), but he made a comeback later in the decade, receiving nominations for Janus (1988), Maestro (1989), Heuchel und Meuchel (1990), Ramparts (1993), and Minister (1998).

His best known work, Café International, won the SdJ in 1989 after being ranked number one that year by eight of the nine jury members.  The jury cited the game’s theme, family friendliness, and healthy combination of luck and skill.

Café International was in development for nearly 20 years before its 1989 publication by Mattel.  When Hoffmann originally conceived the idea it was not different nationalities seated in a cafe, but rather different folklore groups seated in a Bavarian-themed tavern.  The points for visiting the bar in the middle of the gameboard represented the ups and downs of alcohol consumption when drinking alone: first comes fun with each additional drink, but that soon triggers a drunken downward slide.  The bar was abstracted in the final game because alcohol consumption was considered too touchy of a subject.

The idea of the game featuring different nationalities came to Hoffmann shortly before the game’s publication.  He had always thought it rewarding to meet the people of different nations, and he thought it would make a great theme for the game.  Hoffmann did much of the game’s art himself, as was the case with many of his games.

Mattel picked up Café International through the efforts of Roland Siegers.  Mattel — best known for their kid’s toys such as Barbie — asked Siegers if he could make contact with the prominent game designers popular in Germany, such as Sackson, Randolph, and Kramer.  Despite success on Siegers’ part — he landed them an SdJ winner, after all — the publisher abandoned their efforts a couple of years later, exiting the Eurogame scene.

Siegers was himself a game designer: he received five SdJ nominations in his lifetime, and he won the 1984 special prize for “Beautiful Game.”  After Mattel left the market, Siegers published the game through his company, Relaxx Spiele.  Sieger and Hoffmann would later cooperate on 2001’s Café International: Das Kartenspiel and 2007’s Café International Junior.

Amigo picked up the game in 1999 after Relaxx went out of business, and they still publish it today.

Sadly, Rudi Hofmann passed away in 2008 at age 83.  His son, Guido Hoffmann, is now himself a successful game designer: he won the 2006 Kinderspiel des Jahres for Der schwarze Pirat.

For more information about the life and games of Rudi Hoffmann, I recommend Joe Huber’s entry in his German Game Authors Revisited series.

Rio Grande Games will be reprinting Café International later this summer or early this fall.

[A big thanks to Guido Hoffmann for agreeing to answer my questions on the history of Café International.  Without his participation the above history wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive.  To my surprise, not much has been previously written on the history of Café International, at least not in English.]

The Gameplay: Tile Placement and Hand Management

There are 100 tiles in the game.  There are four men and four women from each of 12 nations: Central African Republic, China, Cuba, France, Germany, India, Italy, Russia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States.  There are also two male jokers and two female jokers.

At the start of the game each player takes five tiles.  On a player’s turn, he or she must either (1) place one or two tiles at tables, (2) seat a guest at the bar, or (3) exchange a joker.

If placing tiles at tables, a tile may only be placed at one of the four seats surrounding each of the corresponding nation’s two tables.  Some chairs are shared by two tables; a guest of either nationality may sit there.

Cafe International Board          Cafe International Tiles

The number of men and women at the table must be equal, or there can only be a difference of one. That is, at any given point, a table must contain either no guests or one of the following combinations:

  • 1 lady and 1 gentleman
  • 1 lady and 2 gentlemen
  • 2 ladies and 1 gentleman
  • 2 ladies and 2 gentlemen

Additionally, no single guest can ever sit at a table.

One point is earned per tile at the table after a tile is placed.  If there are four guests of the same nationality at a table, then then four additional points are scored.  More than one table can be scored at once if seating a guest at the chair between tables.  If one obtains points with each guest placed, the first tile is scored and then the second is scored.

Put differently, for each tile, one of the following scoring combinations will occur:

  • 1 pair (lady and gentleman) = 2 points
  • 1 pair (lady and gentleman) + 3rd Guest = 3 points
  • 2 pairs (2 ladies and 2 gentlemen) = 4 points
  • 2 pairs of the same nationality = 8 points

Scoring is tracked via colored chips.  Detailed examples of scoring can be found at this rules translation.

Playing a “single national table” (i.e. two pairs of the same nationality) results in a permanent reduction in hand size of one.  It is possible to trigger end game by a player creating five single nation tables during the course of the game.

The area in the center of the board is the bar.  A player may place a guest at the bar in lieu of placing tiles at tables on his turn. The bar fills from left to right, starting on the top row.  As a tile is placed the player either takes or loses the printed number of points.  Nationality and gender do not matter at the bar.

The joker tiles may be placed at seat, but the jokers are either male or female, and the rules about seating the genders must be maintained.  A player may substitute a joker on his or her turn in lieu of placing tiles, taking the joker into his hand.  No points are scored when this is done.  A joker can be used to complete a “single nation table.”

The game ends when one of the following occurs: (1) the bar is filled, (2) the chairs around the gameboard are all filled, (3) only four guest tiles are still in the bag, or (4) a player is out of tiles after replenishing their hand (i.e. they’ve completed five single nation tables).  Unplayed tiles are -5 each, or -10 for jokers.  The player with the most points wins.

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

I like Café International.  I find the decision space interesting enough – and the game short enough – that it offers a fun experience.  Nonetheless, the game is very luck driven, I don’t think most gamers will enjoy it as much as I do.

There are certainly elements of skill, particularly from the hand management side of the game.  Players need to decide (1) when to play one or two tiles; (2) which seats to use; (3) who to send to the bar; and (4) and when to replace the jokers.  Ultimately, though, how well you do seems to largely come down to how well you draw tiles, particularly at the start and end of the game.

Café International is approachable and easy to learn, and a rules explanation typically takes less than three minutes.  The scoring mechanism can be a bit tricky for new gamers, but they usually figure out the pattern early in the game.

Gameplay is fast.  I don’t think I’ve had a game go longer than 45 minutes.  Unlike some other tile placing games, this game doesn’t seem to invite analysis paralysis, as the decision space is pretty limited.  The effect is that there tends to not be much downtime between turns, especially in the two and three player game.  For that reason I think the game is best with 2-3 players, although the game does scale well to four players.

I have mixed feelings about reducing hand size after forming single nation tables.  I’m not sure what Hoffmann was aiming at with this mechanic.  It seems, at least to me, to possibly be a catch up mechanism: it gives players who have scored bonus points fewer tiles to work with in their hand, and the effect is that later in the game — when it is most disadvantageous to place at the bar — players that have scored bonus points become the most likely to incur the penalty of going to the bar.  On the other hand, having a reduced hand size is advantageous at the end of the game because you take less of a tile penalty, so maybe it isn’t a catch up mechanism.  Either way, I find the game to be far less enjoyable when I’m only working with one or two tiles, so at times this rule can be frustrating.

The component quality is nothing special: it is just a board, tiles, and some colored chips.  I’ve heard multiple commenters say that the theme and artwork is offensive.  I see their point on some of the artwork, although I don’t believe any offense was intended.

Is this game for everybody?  As is always the case, no.  It is a lighter game, and gamers will likely not appreciate how luck-based this is.  Nonetheless, I think this has decent appeal to non-gamers: it is family-friendly and approachable, and the gameplay permits interesting decisions.  I can’t quite peg why, but I think this would have appeal to fans of classic card games.

Would it win the SdJ today?  I doubt it.  The game does have some of what the jury is looking for: it is family-friendly and entertaining.  Nonetheless, the tile laying mechanic has been done better over the past twenty six years, so I don’t know how competitive this would be against today’s games.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: Although the tiles are random, and the result semi-random, there’s quite a bit of tile review going on throughout the game, especially with 4 gamers at the table. It’s theoretically a lighter game to close out a night (especially given the theme and fun artwork), but it nonetheless ends up being a bit of a planner, plotting a best move given other players’ tiles. It’s likeable, but too random for its length to be anything close to a main feast, and it was traded away after a while.

Greg Schloesser: This was a family favorite for years, particularly when my now 27-year old daughter was younger.  We always enjoyed the theme and funny–although admittedly politically incorrect–artwork.  While luck dominates, it is not without decisions.  I still occasionally pull it off the shelf, particularly when my daughter and son-in-law are visiting.  Fun game that is somehow refreshing to play.

Erik Arneson: Greg Schloesser may not remember it, but he recommended that I try Cafe International as an introduction to German games back in 1999 when I started writing about board games for About.com (which I believe was still The Mining Co. at that point). He sent me an email explaining what German games were, and suggested that I start with Cafe International. At that point, I was only very tangentially aware of the German game scene; I was much more familiar with American games and publishers. I bought Cafe International from Funagain Games, played it, and was instantly hooked. So this was my gateway game. I’ve also had quite a bit of fun playing the iOS app version.

Larry:  Played this once and that was about enough.  It’s harmless enough (outside of the truly outrageous and stereotypical artwork) and my play wasn’t unpleasant.  But it also gave me no reason to want to try it again.  Lots of luck and I don’t really need very accessible games with the folks I play with.  So one and done seems about right.

Joe Huber (9 plays): Hoffman tended to specialize in tile laying games that offer a little more depth than noticed at first glance.  Cafe International is just such a game – though from my point of view, it stole the SdJ from Maestro, another Hoffman tile laying game released the same year and also recommended by the jury.  As a result, I finally did let Cafe International go, though I’d still be happy to play the game.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it.  Chris W., Greg S., Erik A., Joe H.
  • Neutral.  Larry
  • Not for me… Patrick B.
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2 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #11: Café International

  1. If someone is interested in finding out more about Rudi Hoffman, I made a geeklist about him:
    http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/33295/rudi-hoffmann-game-designer-1924-2008
    He was one good designer who made very accesible games. My favorite however is the abstract Spiel der Türme.

  2. I missed getting to add my two cents to this OG re-review… but put me in the “love it” category. I think there is a lot of room for skillful play amidst the luck of the draw.

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