Buzzin’ – VivaJava: The Coffee Game review

VivaJavaCOVER

Mmmmm. Coffee. My love, my weakness. Whether it’s a huge latte with a splash of vanilla or a double espresso from the boldest roast imaginable, I like my caffeine delivery system to be hot, sweet and brown. Bring me a cup so strong you could stand your spoon up in it and I will be a delighted chap. And now I get to play a game about coffee while guzzling down a bucket of Jamaican Blue Mountain – VivaJava is here!

Designed by the awesomely named TC Petty III (and I mean awesome in the old, biblical way, for that is some name) and published by Dice Hate Me Games, this is Chris and Cherilyn’s first venture in to a big box game and – put frankly – they’ve done very well indeed. VivaJava is a curious beast that, admittedly, may not be for everyone; it’s essentially a Euro take on a Party Game, but if you’ve got the right attitude and a willing (and large) group of friends, it’s a winner.

While the main thrust of the game is competitive, there’s also a large element of co-operation to deal with as well. Each player begins with a small selection of beans stashed away in their roaster bags and add to their collection each turn by placing their own coloured pawn on one of the spaces shown on the World Map board. Doing this also gives you a bonus disc that is randomly allocated to that space at the beginning of each turn; some are positive, giving you a boost up the points track or with your research, while others are negative and will screw up your plans, albeit only briefly. You’re never too beaten down in VivaJava; there are always ways to get around any problems…

Once all players have been added to the World Map, bonuses handed out and beans added to bags, it’s time to talk to your fellow Brewmasters. The Map is split into three sections – the Americas, Africa and Asia – and you must decide whether you’re going to collaborate with your colleagues in that region to create a brew that will delight the public. If this is the option you go for, you must pull beans one by one from your Roaster bag to make a set of five. Each player in the region must contribute a minimum of one, but once you stop pulling you may not start again – it’s a simple mechanism that can really mess up your opponents. After all, you could choose to go first, draw a single bean and say “nahhh, that’ll do, you can do the rest of the work”.

Once the five beans have been chosen, they’re sorted into a kind of poker hand – the best roast being five beans of the same colour, followed by combinations. Depending on what you and your colleagues (or maybe you on your own) have created, your blend is added to the Performance Track / Best Seller slate, a second board that will determine how many points you’ll get at the end of the round as well as show your current score. Over the course of play, there will be a LOT of movement here, so your best bet is to get involved in as many different brews as possible.

VivaJava in all its glory! (Picture from BGG's Christopher Ross)

VivaJava in all its glory! (Picture from BGG’s Christopher Ross)

If you choose not to work with the other players – and it only takes one dissenting voice – you will instead get on with some Research. This is very useful indeed, allowing you to improve your lot when developing your various blends. Perhaps you’ll be able to get more beans when you collect from the World Map, or discard the occasional bean from your Roaster when diving in there to create a new blend. Each player has their own Research board, and you’ll also score points the further up each of the development tracks you go, so don’t think that Research is a poor option – it could well swing the game in your favour when everything comes to a close.

There is a fair bit to pay attention to in VivaJava but that doesn’t make it a complex game that will scare off all but the most devout gamers – once you’ve had a couple of turns you’ll be well into the swing of things. The game ends when one player hits a 21 points (though don’t forget that any bonus points are only added at the very end of play) and – as you’d expect – whoever has the highest total is declared the winner, the Master of all Brewmasters.

Now, this only covers the basic game that is best suited for between five and eight players. VivaJava can actually be played with a minimum of three thanks to the inclusion of mini expansions involving Variant Blends and even Interns who will make your life really bloody difficult. The fact that these are included straight out of the box mean that the game offers great value – though it does feel like a slightly different experience playing with fewer people. The true VivaJava is found in a mass of people sitting around your table, plotting and planning to seize the top spot on the Popularity Track. In this case, bigger is definitely better.

Dice Hate Me Games have already made a splash thanks to the striking visual style that signifies their releases, and VivaJava doesn’t fail to impress – this is easily one of the loveliest games of 2012. The artwork throughout is gorgeous and there are a couple of coffee blend boards that would look wonderful blown up and put on a wall. The level of production is astonishingly high throughout; thick card, solid wooden pieces, well put together graphics… it’s a quality package that compliments a great game, enhancing it even. Playing a great game is made even better when it looks and feels like someone has paid it a great deal of care and attention, and with VivaJava you can tell this has been at the forefront of the company’s minds.

It’s a game that rewards those who feel like trying something a little different with a one-off gaming experience, hitting that balance between working together to do the very best you can as a group with the desire to strike out on your own to surge forward and win. There may well be the risk of an occasional heated disagreement too, but that’s to be expected when you’ve got so many people involved in play and consensus must be reached. Play with the right people and VivaJava could well end up as your go-to game for a larger group – it’s certainly become the number one choice with mine.

VivaJava was originally released in 2012 by Dice Hate Me Games. It was designed by T.C. Petty III and can accommodate between three and eight players. Games will last around 90-120 minutes and copies can be picked up from the friendly folks at Gameslore for £35. Get the kettle on, brew up and settle in to get caffeinated!

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