Overview: VivaJava is the second title from independent game publisher Dice Hate Me Games, and it’s a big departure from their first release, Carnival. This game puts players into the roles of coffee researchers traveling the world in search of the best blend of beans. It’s a fun and unique combination of cooperation and competition, where you’re forced to work with your opponents, but you can secretly thwart their efforts, develop a hit coffee blend, and become a big name brewmaster. Note: the Kickstarter campaign ends tonight, so if you want to to get in on the rewards you’ll want to act quickly.
Ages: 13 and up
Playing Time: 60 minutes
Retail: $55 on Kickstarter, $60 for VivaJava and the “Geekspansion” (see below)
Rating: Great fun, even if you’re not a coffee drinker. Combine the mechanics, the theme, and the sneak peeks at the art for the finished game, and this is a title that I can recommend to any board game fan.
Who Will Like It? Anyone who likes playing games with a larger group and the social interaction of Euro-style titles. Being a coffee snob probably won’t hurt.
It’s all about the caffeine. You and your fellow researchers hop the globe, searching for the best blend of coffee beans. You blend your multi-colored beans with the other players’, research your markets to gain new abilities, and hope that your new coffee will keep the public caffeinated for as long as possible. Like most Euros, the theme is not inseparable from the game, but the blending and the market degradation mechanics work very well with the coffee development concept.
The designer of the game, T. C. Petty III, loves the java, and it shows. He wrote an awesome Designer Diary at BoardGameGeek about his relationship with coffee. “My entire identity is defined when I take a sip of coffee,” he writes. So if anyone is qualified to make a game about it, it’s probably him.
Since I’ve only played a prototype of VivaJava, I can’t speak to the components of the version being released via Kickstarter. I can say that Dice Hate Me did really well with the components in their last project, Carnival. The art previews for VivaJava look amazing, and the rulebook, already available for download, is well organized and professionally designed.
The game comes with a ton of stuff. Component quality is a very high priority for the publisher. They promise thick punchboard, real wood pieces, high quality cards, and even baggies to store everything:
- 2 game boards, for multiple configurations
- 8 Research Lab boards
- 9 country tokens
- 8 Research/Blend tokens
- 12 Investment tokens
- 24 Blend Markers
- 40 Research Markers
- 16 Blend Slates
- 90 custom lathed wooden “beans”
- 8 Field Researcher pawns
- 8 scoring discs
- 8 black fabric “roaster” bags
- 16 mini-size cards (Flavor deck)
- 24 regular-sized cards (Intern Inspansion)
- 8 player reference cards
And because the VivaJava Kickstarter campaign has been so successful, a few stretch bonuses are also included in each pre-order copy:
- 1 Burlap Bean Bag for storing the wooden coffee beans
- 1 randomly selected hand-made “Brewple” player pawn
The Geekspansion, currently only available to Kickstarter backers and very likely never to be offered for sale elsewhere, includes a few additional items:
- 4 Extra-Geeky Blend Slates
- 4 Variant Country Tokens
Those Blend Slates include awesome pop-culture references that should appear to geeks of all kinds. I’m particularly fond of the Lovecraft reference:
VivaJava is a worker placement game with a twist. Instead of building your own coffee empire alone, you are forced to work together with your opponents in order to create the best blend of beans.
Each round begins with players moving their Field Researcher pawns onto the World Map. Each spot has a randomized Country Token on it, which may offer victory point bonuses, additional coffee beans, or even penalties.
Then, the players are split up based on which regions their Field Researchers visited. Your team must choose whether to Blend or Research. After a brief discussion, the teammates each secretly decide which option they are choosing, and they use their Blend/Research Token to indicate their vote. The majority wins, with ties resulting in Research.
Research allows individual players to spend 3 Research Points to improve various abilities. Take extra beans from countries, cull unwanted beans from your Roaster Bag, get credit for other players’ blends, or deploy Flavor Cards. The Research Tracks allow you to break the game in various ways to give yourself an edge over the other players.
Blending means that you and your teammates must reach into your Roaster Bags and offer up at least one bean each to the Blend Slate above their region. Some Blends require five beans, whereas others may require fewer. All beans are selected randomly from the bags. You and your fellow blenders are trying to create “hands” of beans. Five of a kind trumps all, with similar poker hands coming in behind. These are placed onto the Best-Seller List, where the ones that trump existing blend cards will yield more Performance Points.
Once all of the players are awarded points, the blends on the Best-Seller List start to degrade. The least important bean to the blend’s “hand” is removed and the list is restructured accordingly. Because of this, the list is almost always changing, and while you can usually grab Performance Points for a blend during multiple rounds, it really depends on how strong your hands are to begin with.
VivaJava doesn’t let you sit around for too long. There’s just no room for analysis paralysis. The Blend/Research phase is usually a cacophony of wheeling and dealing as people vote and pull beans and try to calculate their chances of pulling a specific blend combination from their bags.
There’s a satisfying mix of luck and strategy, of odds calculation and social interaction. It’s always fun when you’re forced onto a team that you weren’t expecting (or were actively avoiding) and you have to think fast and develop new tactics to get yourself the best possible outcome. Alliances are integral to winning the game, and keeping a mental tally of everyone’s beans is challenging. This is not to mention the difficulty of trying to create a blend that has staying power when it’s up against those of your opponents.
The “Inspansion,” which comes with the base game, allows 3 and 4 players (sorry, couples!) to simulate the gameplay of a 5-8 player game with the Intern cards, but it’s not quite the same as with a large group. It’s still fun, of course. Just not as fun.
VivaJava scratches all sorts of gaming itches in a way that nothing else does. It’s a well-designed game that inspires lots of back-and-forth at the table, and it never seems to slow down. Plus it’s about coffee. What’s not to love?
The Kickstarter is over at the end of the day, so you don’t have long. Go back VivaJava right now and get caffeinated!
Wired: Lots of (sometimes forced) table interaction; almost no downtime; promised components look amazing; well-integrated theme; one word: Brewples.
Tired: No 2 player variant; 3-4 player variant is not quite as fun as playing with a big group.
Disclosure: Chris Kirkman, the publisher of Viva Java, happens to be my landlord. I also playtested the game in its early development stage.