Sunday, 9 December 2012


Plays: 8Px1.

The Game

VivaJava is a Kickstarter game about a coffee pop chart. Players brew coffee and compete to get their brews ranked in the top 5 chart, in order to earn victory points. Every round the brews on the chart deteriorate (a mechanism representing brews going out of fashion, I assume), so no matter how great a brew is, it will eventually fall off the chart, making way for newer (possibly inferior) brews.

The game board has three regions, and each region has three locations seeded with one random coffee bean at the start of every round. There are six types of coffee beans in total, each a different grade. Players take turns to claim a location and the coffee bean there, and also take the location-specific benefit or penalty, which is randomly determined at game setup. Players in the same region become one team. They need to decide to make a coffee brew together, or research. Doing research means everyone getting some research points to spend on advancing on his individual tech chart. Techs grant special abilities, all of which are helpful (e.g. collecting extra beans, setting aside unwanted beans when brewing coffee), and also give victory points at game end. Brewing coffee is the process of group members trying to make the best coffee brew. When you claim coffee beans, you put them into a bag. You can check the content at any time, but when you brew coffee, you draw a random bean (so beans) from your bag. The group decides the order of members drawing beans from their bags. Each member must draw at least one bean. After every draw, the group can decide whether to stop and let the next player start drawing beans. Eventually 5 beans must be drawn to complete the brew, and the quality of the brew is determined in a poker-like manner. E.g. five-of-a-kind is Extra Bold and is the strongest combo, while two-of-a-kind is Decaf and is the weakest combo. The full house (AAABB) is Americano and is the third strongest combo. When there are ties, they are broken based on the coffee bean grades.

The board on the right is the main board, showing three regions with three locations each. At the start of the game a benefit / penalty disc is placed on every location, and stays there for the whole game. This creates a different board every time you play. The board on the left is the score board. It has a reference chart for the various brew types and how they compare. There is also a player order track right at the edge. The large tiles on the left of the score board are the coffee brews currently on the top 5 chart.

The small wooden beads are coffee beans. Black is the highest grade, while white is the lowest.

This is the tech board, with five tech tracks that you can pursue. Every time a marker enters a new box, you gain a new tech. Some techs are costlier than others, having more steps per box.

New brews are compared against existing brews on the top 5 chart, and the top 5 chart is reorganised. Some brews may drop off the chart. Some may never make it. Scoring is done - you gain points for all brews that you have participated in making, and then all brews deteriorate - one bean is removed. Before the next round starts, turn order is rearranged in reverse order of player score, i.e. leading players are disadvantaged. For players who have done research in the current round, they have an option to exchange VP's for tech points. This is a good way to not only gain handy special abilities but also to manipulate the turn order for the next round.

That's basically how the game works. It is a constant battle at the coffee top 5 chart, trying to time your brews and hoping they will last long and give you plenty of points. There is a balancing act in gaining techs, because although they give useful abilities, you still need to make enough brews to earn VP's.

The game ends after one player reaches 21VP. Scores are totaled, including bonuses from techs, and the highest scorer wins.

The Play

I did a 8-player game, which is the max number of players, and probably the best number too. The game appears to have cooperation, but the team forming mechanism can be used as a very nasty tool to screw your fellow players. Let's say the bean types you collect are very different from the team that you are joining. In such a situation, if the team tries to brew, it is likely you won't make any good brew. Another angle is you can be forcing your fellow team members to contribute more to the brew, because your bean types likely won't help much. If the team does well, you have only contributed one bean (the minimum participation). If the team doesn't do well, you only waste one bean. Of course there are times that the team is in it together, everyone eagerly hoping to jointly create a great brew. These can be exciting moments. Every bean draw from the bag is a moment of tension - great hope, great exultations and great disappointments. There is luck in the brewing. You have some control over the probabilities, in how you collect beans and how you team up with others, but sometimes an unlucky draw can completely ruin your plan. Some people may not be comfortable with this. I find it exciting and don't mind the luck.

I focused on the black and white beans only, so that I could play mini Go.

This is Michael Jackson! In Malaysia there is a drink nicknamed Michael Jackson. It's soya milk with "cincau" / "leong fun" (something like black jelly).

The location-specific benefits and penalties combined with which bean type gets placed where often create interesting decisions. Sometimes you are forced to make difficult choices because the bean type you want is at a bad location. Also you need to take into account who you will team up with when you pick a location.

In our game we found one particular tech track quite powerful - the investor tech track. When you reach particular levels of this tech track, you gain investor tokens which let you become a non-contributing participant in a brew of another team. If that brew turns out well, you will earn VP's without having contributed any bean. In our game there were many boos of "Leech!" and "Parasite!". Ken who won the game did have an investment that turned out well. Allen made two investments I think, and I remember both did well, but he came in 5th place.

Some phases of the game can be done in parallel. Once the teams are decided, each team can more or less do their own thing. There were many discussions across the table, and eventually we just stood up and walked about to assemble in small groups to discuss and brew. It was quite a lively game, with discussions, negotiations, cheers and also polite swearing.

Here every brew has two to three player markers to indicate the participants who have contributed to making the brew. The leftmost brew, which is the top brew, has an extra marker which is the investor, a.k.a. leech, a.k.a. parasite.

Scoring needs to be done in an orderly manner, because scores and how the scoring discs stack determine turn order for the next round.

The Thoughts

I find VivaJava quite unique. The things you need to do are simple, and the game feels like a light-to-medium weight game, but there are quite a number of things that you need to consider when you make a move - which coffee bean type to collect, which team to join, which benefit to claim or penalty to accept. The techs in the game also allow you to customise your strategy. There is some luck in drawing coffee beans from bags, so it's not a game you want to take too seriously. I like the excitement in this aspect. There is still much you can do to improve your chances of brewing good coffee. You need to watch what beans others are collecting, and also consider the techs they have, when you decide who to team up with.

Timing is quite important. The decisions to brew or to research are revealed simultaneously, so you need to guess whether other teams are going to brew, i.e. compete at the top 5 chart. Ideally you want to have your brews stay on the top 5 chart for as long as possible, giving you VP's every round that they remain there. If you can make a good brew, you hope other teams have made good ones too but just a little weaker than yours, so that your brew denies them a better position. If you make a mediocre brew, you hope other teams are not making brews this round, so that your brew has a chance to reach a decent position on the top 5 chart.

I suspect the game needs a higher player count, maybe at least five, to be interesting. With more players, turn order becomes more important because if you are late in turn order, you have very few locations to pick from. Also with more players, you are forced to join teams and it becomes more important to watch what coffee bean mix and what techs other players have. I felt constantly engaged during the game I played, always asking others what they had in their bags (they could lie, which could be a valid strategy, but we weren't at that skill level yet), discussing who to team up with, whether to brew or to research, which type of brew to go for etc.

One thing I am very impressed with is the quality of the components.

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