Sunday, 20 July 2014

VivaJava: The Dice Game

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

VivaJava: The Dice Game is a follow-up to the boardgame version, with quite a few familiar elements, but a rather different overall feel. It's a medium-to-low complexity race game, but has quite a few strategic considerations and is in no way a mindless luck fest. Here's how it works.

You are product department heads at VivaJava Co, competing with your colleagues to make high-quality and popular (i.e marketable) coffee blends. Your objective is to reach 21pts, and there are two main ways to score points: (1) capturing and holding the coffee blend awards, and (2) completing research tracks. What you usually do on your turn is roll five dice. What you want is to get many coffee beans of the same colour. A coffee blend consists of five dice, and how good it is is determined by how many coffee beans of the same colour it has, i.e. five-of-a-kind is the best. When comparing two blends with an equal number of like-coloured beans, you determine which is better by the bean colour, black being the top-grade bean, and white being the, umm... least prestigious grade. If the blend you roll on your turn can beat the current best blend on the table, you may snatch the award from the current holder and score 1pt. From your next turn onwards, as long as no one is able to take the award from you, you score 3pts every time your turn comes around. However your blend also deteriorates by one die per (your) turn, so eventually it will weaken (representing it becoming less popular with the consumers) and some other product department will wrestle it from you. Fighting for and retaining the best blend award is the main tempo driver in the game, but there are a few other aspects to think about too.

This is a three-of-a-kind blend using red coffee beans. Any four-of-a-kind or five-of-a-kind blend would beat it. Three-of-a-kind blends using black or green coffee beans would beat it too.

Other than the best blend award, there is also a rainbow blend award which works in a similar way. However to win it, you don't need a good blend. Instead you need to roll five different colours, which would usually be the worst blend. If you get five different colours, you may claim the rainbow blend award (and score 1pt). In future, as long as you retain it, you score 2pts on your turn. There is no deterioration or quality comparison for the rainbow blend. Anyone can take it from you as soon as he rolls five different colours.

If you fail to claim any award, you still have options. You can pick one colour type to research, or if you have rolled some black coffee beans, you can claim black dice to increase your dice count next turn. In fact, even when you are able to claim an award, you may choose to forfeit the right and do one of these actions instead. A boost in number of dice is usually helpful. The black dice have a joker face too, which is particularly handy. Your chances of making a good blend is increased when you get some extra dice. As for the research aspect, there are always five types in every game, and the combination can change from game to game. When you reach a certain milestone on a research track, you gain a special ability. When you reach the end of a research track, you gain points, but you also lose the special abilities for that track. This means people will tend to complete a research track near game end when they are going for the kill. Special abilities include things like rerolling some dice, increasing the value of a bean, even temporarily blocking everyone else from using a particular special ability. Special abilities are what help you to mitigate luck in the game. They let you make your own luck.

This is the player record sheet. The track at the top is the scoring track. The five tracks in the middle are the research tracks. When you reach the 1x and 2x stages, you gain a special ability. When you reach the coffee cup at the end, you gain points but lose the special abilities for that particular track.

The five cards contain the details of each of the five techs in the game. The game comes with many different techs so there is much variability. The black dice on the right are the extra dice that players can claim. Notice that one of the faces is a joker face.

The Play

The game is a race towards 21pts, where there is a constant pressure to grab those two awards. You can't allow someone to hold on to an award for too long, because anyone consistently scoring 3pts or 2pts every round is a big threat. You want to gain special abilities to help you, but since there is time pressure, you can't afford to have everything. There is a certain tempo that you need to watch out for. You do want to grab an award most of the time, but if you can't hold on to it, you'd only gain 1pt for your effort. So it's important to plan ahead, e.g. watching out for opponents with extra dice, and trying to grab an award at a time when you can likely hold it for a few rounds. It is probably best to be specialised in the tech area, because towards game end, they can be a great help in boosting your points. It might be better to have just a few research tracks where you can go for the end-of-track scoring, as opposed to being a jack of all trades.

The Thoughts

Although I can appreciate the strategic elements in this short-to-medium length and light-to-medium complexity game, it doesn't really have a hook for me. There is nothing in particular that I dislike. I am unable to articulate why it doesn't grab me. Maybe it's because I've just managed to digest the game after that first learning game ended, and I need to play it again, this time at a quicker pace. It's not a very deep game, and it's not meant to be one, but there are some decent tactics. There is much player interaction because you must pay attention to what others are doing, in order to have a pulse on the game progress.

I like the predecessor VivaJava more. They are quite different games. I like the shifting alliances and the push-your-luck lucky draw element in VivaJava, which do exist in the dice game version but in a different form.

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