What has always fascinated me about Gamewright Games is the way they manage to create games for children that adults can actually enjoy at a different level of gameplay. Monster Cafe is a case in point. Here you have a card game that taps into a universal, though little understood tendency for children to be amused by things like Roasted Roadkill, Boiled Brains and Stinky Sock Stew. Odd as it may seem, the game employs these elements in a way that encourages an understanding of probabilities, visual discrimination and strategic thinking. While the kids are poking around learning these sorts of things, adults will pick up the game and use what they already know to engage in a more nuanced and more cutthroat exercise.
An example of this is embodied in the Lemon Sorbet card. Thematically, the delicious-to-humans Lemon Sorbet (card) is looked upon with disgust by the monsters in this cafe. When the card is drawn, and it will be, by someone (there are six of them in the game), it forces the player to deduct some of the points he or she has already gathered, by mandating that he/she discard all of one type of monster already collected by that player. In general, the kids will at first go about the business of collecting those monsters and trying to match them up to tables, without a thought to the eventual appearance of the Lemon Sorbet card. They'll emit a groan of frustration when it shows up, and then start laughing at the picture of the dust bunny eater; carved, like a hedge, only made of lint, in the shape of, you guessed it, a bunny, with two formidable looking lint teeth. Adults, on the other hand, will have a tendency to ignore the pictures after about 10 seconds and start applying some knowledgeable caution. They'll think about that Lemon Sorbet card, and deliberately choose to collect one, possibly two kinds of monsters, one of each, just as a defense against the potential arrival of the Lemon Sorbet card. Eventually, of course, the kids will catch on to this, too, which is the point of educational gameplay, no?
What you've got are two decks of cards; one 16-card deck of table cards, and one 60-card deck of monster cards. There are two each of eight different meals in the table deck, six each of nine monsters in the monster deck (including a set of Wild Card monsters) and six Lemon Sorbet cards.
There will be four rounds of play, at the beginning of which you will draw four cards from the table deck and lay them out in your playing area. Give each of these table cards plenty of room in that playing area, because you'll be trying to lay monster cards around each of the four tables. Deal one card from the shuffled monster deck, face-up, in front of each player. You're ready to go.
On your turn, you can do only one of two things. You can either draw a card from the monster deck and 'sit' that card at a monster table (your choice, the monster does not have to sit at a matching table; in fact, in many cases, that won't be possible), or collect a monster table with already seated monsters; table included (again, your choice), which ends your play in any given round. Think long term, because you won't be scoring until the end of the final, fourth round. What you're looking to do is end the game having collected as many matches between a specific kind of table, and its corresponding monsters.
Say you've managed to pick up a Toenail Tartare plate along the way. At the end of the game, having collected that plate, you'll get one point for every Toenail Eater you've managed to pick up. You'll get two points per Toenail Eater, if you've managed to pick up two Toenail Tartare plates. Careful, though. You'll lose a point for every 'unfed monster' you've collected; in other words, any monster cards that you've collected that do not match up to a corresponding table that you've failed to collect.
An aside here: It's fascinating how this game walks right up to a line, but doesn't step over it. Toenail Tartare, Stinky Sock Stew, Sludge Souffle, B.B.L.T. (which I am going to assume means Belly Button Lint & Tomato), Deviled Dust Bunnies, Spaghetti & Eyeballs, Boiled Brains, and Roasted Roadkill. The monsters that match up to these items on the monster menu are designated as Eaters; Toenail Eaters, Stinky Sock Eaters, Sludge Eaters, etc. Playful, unattributed art work in the design by Roland Tesh, Garrett Donner, and Michael Steer. They presumably decided against things like Toasted Testicles, Boiled Boobs, or Fried Fecal Matter, which might have seriously distracted younger players from the point of the game. I'd be willing to bet that during brainstorming, play-testing sessions with this game, these and a host of other possibilities saw the light of day and a roomful of laughter, before being discarded. Come to think of it, though, the picture of the corresponding monster for that last example might have provided a clue to that odd phrase about a particular kind of grin. Adult expansion deck, anyone?
It's a push-your-luck game. You know, on your turn, that the table (card) over there to your left has got two monsters at it. And one of those monsters matches the table itself (there's a Roadkill Eater at the Roasted Roadkill Table). There's a point right there. But wait a minute, you've already collected the plate (Sludge Souffle) for the other type of monster (Sludge Eater) at that table, in an earlier round, so if you choose not to pick up a card and grab that table and monsters, you've now got a sure two points. But what if you draw a monster card and it matches something already at that table, or a different table? Maybe you could really rack up the points if you draw the monster card, sit it at a table, and let play circle around, one more time.
Play will continue until each player has picked up a table and any monsters that were there when he/she picked it up. These (yours now) stay out on the table, four more tables are drawn (or three, in two- and three-player games) and placed in the playing area, and a new round begins. Same decisions; draw a card or grab a table with monsters around it. Eventually, you will run out of table cards, signaling the final round, after which, you will tally the points from your collected cards.
Card-counting would be good here. With six each of the nine monsters, including Wild Card monsters, you'll be trying to keep track of how many are left in the deck. Don't want to be looking for that fifth or sixth Sludge Eater card if you've got three and the other three have already been collected by other players. There's always the Wild Card, but they, too, have to be watched. Same with the plates. No point grabbing a table with Roadkill Eaters, if someone or two someones have the only Roadkill Souffle cards in the game.
As with most things in life, timing is everything; knowing when to grab a table, and when to let the monsters accumulate at a table. Might be worth your while to grab a table with one monster at it, if it happens to be seated at the corresponding table. Remember, you're going to keep collecting through four rounds. Three cards at a table give your overall game plan some additional options, but you don't want to over-extend yourself and have to deduct points.
It will take quite a while for most younger players to figure all of this out; to assess the game situation and make wise decisions the way adults will be able to, but believe me, they won't care, because they're playing a game they can understand quite readily at a process level, while having a lot of fun with Stinky Sock Stew, and Roasted Roadkill.
Later, when they've gone to bed, or happen to be out for the evening, you can bring this down off the shelf (perhaps with a private expansion deck), and have a laugh or two yourself, while you and your gaming friends do a few brain push-ups trying to figure out how to win this thing.
Monster Cafe, designed by Roland Tesh, Garrett Donner, and Michael Steer, is published by Gamewright Games. It is designed to be played with 2-4 players (you'll do some minor rule tweaking for two- and three-player games), with an age range that begins at 8. It has been rated on BoardGameGeek by only one soul, to date (Tom Vasel, host of the board game podcast, The Dice Tower) and he gave it a 7 (as well as a review on TheDiceTower.com, in which he did not discuss an expansion deck). MSRP is $12, although I did see a copy for sale on BoardGameGeek for under $10. The cards are fairly durable, though will require some care if they're seeing a lot of young folk traffic, and it comes in a handy tin box that will assuredly outlast the cards.