Someday, a review of Café Fatal will be written that does not immediately draw a comparison to Las Vegas. Today will not be that day.
Dice-driven area control games are a small niche within tabletop gaming, but one that has clearly defined its gold standard in Las Vegas. While other genre releases continue to remix and repackage past success alongside newer innovations, five years have passed without a serious challenge to Las Vegas. Café Fatal aims to be the first.
The genre’s core conceit is rock solid: roll several dice, choose one of the rolled values, and commit all dice of that value to a location. Turns open up with tension and surprise, while working around the table at a quick clip. Randomness plays out early, leaving players to end their turn satisfied, having made a (hopefully) strategic decision.
Café Fatal shakes things up in a few ways, demanding more tactical play by adding a second layer to the dice-placement decision, while also tossing in a few extra factors that influence a placement’s true value.
Thematically, Café Fatal is set in an urban cafe serving only cake, pizza, and entire wheels of cheese. Food is points, but not all food is created equal. The game’s 30 cheese slices are worth 1 point each, 20 pizza slices are worth 2 points, and 10 rare cake slices are each worth 5 points. Base values quickly become skewed, though, as points double when 5 matching slices form a complete set.
Play is brisk across approximately four rounds, and points can pile up fast, so you’ll need to be aware of your opponents’ intentions. The game plays out on a map of cafe tables, which each receive one random food item at the start of every turn. Two spaces are randomly assigned a second food item, creating an instant mix of high and low-value locations. In future turns, unclaimed food remains alongside newly-distributed slices, tilting the café battlefield even further.
After a quick roll of the dice, the stage is set for not one, but two big decisions: which dice to place, and where to place them. Café Fatal now reveals itself as delightfully cutthroat, a feeling established both by how dice are placed, and how food slices are awarded.
Players are free to make their first placement on any space, but are limited to playing on adjacent spaces in future turns. As a later player in the opening turn, do you place dice next to another player, setting up a potential head-to-head battle, or do you play on the opposite side of the board, hoping to scoop up uncontested tables? After several more turns of re-rolling and placing previously-unused dice, food slices are awarded via winner-take-all majority.
Circling back to Las Vegas, it becomes clear how Café Fatal allows for a more in-your-face style of gameplay. While players often block each other in Las Vegas, it is done so with the shrug of a “the dice made me do it” feeling, and offering of a second-place condolence prize. In Café Fatal, you know what you did. Everybody knows.
The addition of an open field area-control element and a more complex value proposition for each potential move elevates Café Fatal from a pure dice-and-numbers game, and hedges it closer to mid-weight strategy games (think Sagrada). The challenge in recommending Café Fatal is that it is stuck in that margin between light filler and mid-weight strategy.
Las Vegas came to define its genre because it was easy to teach and played fast, while still allowing players to make satisfying decisions. However, Las Vegas stumbled with Las Vegas Boulevard, an unfocused bundle of mini-expansions. Did players really want more, or was the game fine as it was? Café Fatal emerges as the successor here, proving that with a clear direction, there is room for a slightly more complex dice majority game. Las Vegas will likely always be the right call for bringing in new gamers, but Café Fatal has taken its throne when it comes to warming up for a more serious game night.