Being a cat person is perfectly fine, until you start trying to describe what it’s like. After all, cats pretty much ignore you most of the time, they have their own little weird quirks, and the one thing that they all seem to have in common is that they know exactly when you’re supposed to feed them. If a cat said “Hey, I’m going to create a computer game that gives you exactly that experience,” then you know exactly what would happen next: a bunch of game developers would say “Wow! A talking cat!” and the game would get made without the cat having to do anything further. I think that might be what happened with Cat Cafe Manager.
The most popular user-defined tags for Cat Cafe Manager are “Simulation”, “Strategy”, and “Management”. If you are a hardcore fan of strategic management simulations, then it’s best to be aware that this is not a particularly realistic simulation, the strategy is extremely simple, and the management is… the management is understated, and probably the best (and subtly weirdest) part of the entire experience.
Realistically, the game is not about strategic management simulation. It’s about getting your cat cafe looking pretty much the way you want it, while listening to soothing music.
My cafe after two hours. You might think that the toilet should not be next to the fridge. Luckily for me, there are no food safety inspectors in sight.
And I have to admit, it was quite nice to be able to receive a dubious motivational poster from a customer who was trying to be encouraging, and to be able to hang it up behind the fridge. That way, I got the points for having it in the cafe, and didn’t have to look at the dubious motivational poster.
Dubious motivational poster is dubious.
Like many of my Cat Cafe Manager screenshots, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I find motivational posters pretty dubious anyway, and the validation was nice. On the other hand, if you look at the boundary between the kitchen and the dining area, you can see a picture hanging in mid-air. When you hang a picture, the game won’t let you hang it in mid-air, you have to hang it on a wall. But if you demolish the wall, the picture can stay where it is.
I found myself wincing a lot of the time playing this game. Because there are things that it does that are really really cool. For instance, if you buy a recipe, but you don’t have the ingredients needed to make the recipe, then you get a very helpful notification in the market which tells you “Hey, if you’re going to sell pretzels, you’re going to need to buy bread.” Being protected from the kinds of mistakes many games will punish you for is really quite nice, and it helps to reduce the stress you might experience while playing. The game doesn’t punish you for things, and if all else fails, your customers will pay you (a very small amount) for a glass of water from the tap. Having things like this to make the connections obvious is just nice. (Notice also that the ingredients needed to make my recipes appear on the left, and the ingredient that I’m hovering over is highlighted in green.) It’s wonderfully thoughtful touches like this which make me love the game.
And yet, as someone who takes pride in their written English, every time I look at that list of ingredients, “Tea Leafs” is staring right back at me. I want to believe that this (and it’s not the only example by any means) is a deliberate design choice that gives the game a homey feel, as if we’re all celebrating our humanness and leaving aside the overly harsh constraints of formal grammar.
It’s the same feeling I get when I look at Picasso’s later work, which strongly resembles the first thing you see after pressing “New Game.”
Is this genius or garbage? He is, after all, saying what we’re all thinking. And the disappointment of “Hey there was supposed to be a building there,” is something that you’re able to remedy pretty quickly. And I took much more pride in my tiny little cafe with the broken windows after I’d built it myself than I would have if it had been foisted on me. (As you could see above, “Matching furniture” is an aspiration that I’m still working towards at the two hour mark.)
Similarly, the design decision to lock litter trays behind the tech tree and have them be the most expensive early-game item is… interesting. So is the fact that, with hindsight, some tech tree choices are clearly the ones you’re ‘supposed’ to do first. Being nagged for the first 45 minutes to look at the community notice board that doesn’t appear on the town map until you unlock the “More staff” tech tree item was easily the worst part of the whole experience.
The game really starts when you start hiring staff
Unlike in strategic business management simulations, staff in Cat Cafe Manager don’t need to be paid. Once you’ve unlocked them via the technology tree, you pick the one that you want, and they show up to work. They never complain, and when a customer order needs to be taken, or prepared in the kitchen, or delivered to the customer, they do it. They don’t always do it straight away, and Brian (my only staff member so far) had a tendency to stand there with a glazed expression if faced with two customers at once.
When I first laid out my cafe, I put the coffee machine right next to the tables. If I stood in just the right place, I could take an order, make the coffee, and give the coffee to the customer without taking a step. (I optimize my layouts in business sims, whether it matters or not.) I spent all my stat points and bonuses on cooking, and have a nifty bonus ability where my cooking uses less ingredients than might otherwise be needed. When I hired Brian, I hired him for his customer service skills. Since the two of us share the same pool of ‘staff upgrade points’, it made sense for me to specialize in the kitchen and for him to specialize in service.
This led to a problem pretty quickly, which is that making an espresso properly takes a cooking skill of 5, and Brian’s cooking skill of 1 was simply not up to scratch. And he would always, as soon as he had taken the customer’s order, go straight to the coffee machine to make a godawful espresso for them. In other words, Brian was exactly like me when I was working in a cafe: well-intentioned, and with no concept of just how inadequate his skill with coffee really was.
We’re going to have to talk to Brian about proper use of the coffee machine.
This resulted in the best fun I had in the entire game: working out how to stop Brian from making coffee, even though the game doesn’t give you an option to tell him “Listen, I’m OK with you making glasses of water for people, but just leave the rest of the kitchen to me, will you?” (There are ways to achieve that outcome, but this is not a game where you get meaningful choices about what you say to people. Not that I listened when I was 18 and working in a cafe, anyway.)
What about the cats?
Of course, this game is called Cat Cafe Manager, so it needs to have cats in, right?
Feather boa, or mohawk? The choice is yours.
And yes, there are cats there. And you can spend points on them, unlock traits, and then sell them to a good home for
research points delight. Or you can sell them without upgrading them first, for a smaller reward. They occasionally make a mess that you have to clean, sometimes their food bowls are empty (and they’re strangely relaxed about this), and they’ll sometimes jump on a customer’s lap and make them smile.
And that’s kind of it for the cats. Which I found disorienting, and then I remembered that the reason why I like cats is that they don’t need a lot of maintenance. If this were a dog game, then I’d expect to be washing them and walking them and dealing with their constant demands for my company. But this is a cat game, and you can pretty safely ignore them if you feel like ignoring them, and you can pat them, and if you stand in just the right place when patting them then your character’s fingers will actually touch the cat.
The game definitely features a plot, and (for the first two hours at least), it’s not exactly the most subtle work of intrigue and mystery the world has ever seen. It’s more a collection of cliches strung together with enough self-awareness that you feel like you’re in on the joke.
Spooky black cat is confusing when it talks to you. Or scary. Your call. (Also, woman in pointy hat is a witch.)
There is a black cat with magical powers who refuses to explain anything much and some of the rumors about it are on the dark and ominous side. There’s also a corporation which we are very explicitly told are the bad guys. There are also several NPCs: they all like you, and as their relationship progress bar grows, you can make very minor choices that change which bit of dialogue you’ll get next. It’s melodramatic, it’s silly, and it’s mildly entertaining.
Indeed, the word ‘mild’ takes on profound meaning when thinking about this game. The annoyances and frustrations are mild. The pleasures are mild. Playing this game is a lot like having a cat curl up on your lap and ignore you. It’s actually pretty nice, but the more you talk about it, the lamer it sounds. Because it’s not about achieving anything or even doing anything. It’s just about being there, feeling vaguely nice about it, and saying “Yeah, I would help with the dishes, but I can’t come right now, just let me get to the next daily summary.”
People who just want to chill out watching people smile when cats jump onto their laps, and people who enjoy constructing mazes that will prevent the waitstaff from interfering with the kitchen.
Thank you for reading this Cat Cafe Manager Review!