The mobile games industry needs A Big Idea. Something that goes beyond the same old movie and console licences, match-three puzzle games, and Tetris. Something that doesn't just get people playing on their phones, but makes them want to tell their friends, too. Something that manages to be fun and innovative. Something cool.
Digital Chocolate reckons that its Cafe concept is that Big Idea. It takes the kind of simple, casual games that work well on mobile (think solitaire, sudoku, poker and mahjong), and builds around them a connected community where you can interact with other gamers.
The series is kicking off with two games – Cafe Solitaire and Cafe Sudoku – with new titles following in the coming months. Since this is the first, we'll explain and review the overall Cafe concept here, as well as the specific Cafe Solitaire game.
So, the Cafe concept is all about creating an avatar character for yourself, and playing these casual games. As you play, you unlock new clothes and hairstyles for your character. You can also create your own cafe, which is an isometric room that serves as your base.
It starts as a one-star affair, but the more you play – and crucially, the more people you invite to play in it – it expands right up to a five-star establishment. And you'll want to expand, as certain items for your avatar can only be unlocked at each cafe level. Of course, you can opt to play in friends' cafes instead, or take advantage of the option to visit a random cafe owned by a stranger.
The viral element to Cafe Solitaire works seamlessly, enabling you to send text messages to friends from within the games, giving them your cafe code and a link to the Cafe WAP site (which in turn offers them a free demo, or pushes them to their operator portal to buy the full version).
Right now, the interaction seems to be limited to seeing your friends' avatars, while visiting their cafe lets you browse the trophies they've won in Cafe games, as well as see how your online scores compare to theirs and the wider community.
You can also answer short quizzes, which ask you about everything from your view on horror movies to whether you want to be a celebrity. It's unclear what these quizzes are for right now, but we're assuming it'll become clear in the months to come. One thing that seems to be missing is more direct interaction, such as leaving messages or live chat, but it's possible this too will come in the future.
However, the connected elements of Cafe are excellent, and offer a huge incentive to keep playing the games and inviting friends, since you'll be unlocking new items for your avatar and building up your cafe. It's early days for our establishment (code: cyvgpk if you fancy dropping in), but we've already got serious cafe-envy from dropping into some random five-star ones.
Having said all that, what's Cafe Solitaire like? Marvellous. Even without the connected elements, it's the best mobile solitaire money can buy.
Why? Well, it just feels so nice to play. The polished user interface really shines, and the graphics are clear and functional, with the screen markedly less cluttered than in many mobile solitaire games. And the highest praise we can offer is that it's the first solitaire game that's actually made us want to play all the extra variants, which you can chalk down to the well-presented in-game tutorials.
For the record, those variants are: Klondike (proper solitaire, in our minds), Freecell, Pyramid, Poker, Spiderette, Flower Garden, Scorpion, Yukon, Golf, Calculation, Seven Sisters, and Beleaguered Castle.
As a standalone solitaire game, then, this is the best available. But when you think of it as your entry into Digital Chocolate's Cafe culture, it's outstanding value for money.
The publisher says that its Cafe games are the Big Idea the mobile games industry has been waiting for. We're in wholehearted agreement: whether you're a keen mobile gamer or a wide-eyed newcomer, this is the best hint yet at what connected mobile games are capable of.