There is something special about monsters. Whether it be Monsters Inc. coming back for a stint at school, Ugly Dolls, or Monster High Dolls, what was once the terror of childhood has now become a new attraction. Gamewright is no stranger to monsters with its Ugly Doll and Dweebies games, and now monsters show up for dinner with Monster Cafe.
It is a fascinating game concept: players are restaurateurs working to feed monsters looking for something to eat. Each monster type is given a gross-yet-hilarious name like “bellybutton lint eater,” “eyeball eater,” or “roadkill eater.” The monsters each have a corresponding yucky-yet-awkwardly-appetizing food, such as the “B.B.L.T” (bellybutton lint and tomato, yum!), “spaghetti and eyeballs,” and “roasted roadkill.” Exceptional art by Gerald Guerlais goes along with the names, showing monsters that are reminiscent of the creepy stuff they eat. A favorite of mine is the toenail eater with its spiny back and head tipped with long, oddly well manicured nails and its Toenail Tartare meal.
The mechanic of the game follows the standard matching game but takes it to the next level. The game progresses through four rounds, and players are allowed to shuffle what they have collected. This is grounds for clever strategy and a good deal of long-term planning. Four meals are laid out, and players take turns drawing cards of monsters to add to the meal. Instead of drawing, a player may “clear a table” by collecting the meal and the monsters around it. Ideally a player would grab a table of Deviled Dust Bunnies surrounded by dust-bunny eaters, but the tables become mixed as the players draw. Players will have to calculate whether to take tables early when half-filled with good cards or wait to see if something better will come up. Further strategy comes in as players might take a table in one round not to benefit themselves but to trip up another player. Things are very crafty down at the Monster Cafe.
The gameplay itself is sound, and a couple of randomizing cards add to it, making players hurriedly rethink their strategies. The “anything eater” can get points for any meal, making it a powerful wild at the end of the game. Drawing the “lemon sorbet” card leads the monsters to be horrified by the sweet, tasty treat and they scatter. The player who draws it must discard all of a single type of monster he or she has collected. While it may seem a negative thing, the “lemon sorbet” can be a blessing as players can trim excess hungry monsters and not face scoring penalties at the end of the game.
After four rounds of drawing cards and collecting meals along with their monsters, players reorganize their monsters around the meals that they will eat. Each fed monster gains points (with modifiers for feeding them multiple times), and unfed monsters detract. It is easy to calculate and the strategies are simple enough that serious players will read their opponents as closely as the cards. As quick and fun as it is, players will probably want to go another round.
Monster Cafe is a very speedy game, taking only about 15 minutes or less with experienced players. It is a game for two to four players, ages eight and up. Younger kids with minds for strategy might pick it up, and they will certainly enjoy the zany art of the monsters and their meals. It is a great short game that can be used as a warm-up or break during a game night or simply as a diversion during a few minutes’ wait before dinnertime.