Designer: T. C. Petty, III
Artists: Christopher Kirkman, Darrell Louder, T. C. Petty, III
Publisher: Greater Than Games (Dice Hate Me Games)
Category: Bluffing, Economic, Negotiation
Price: $35.66 Amazon
VivaJava: The Coffee Game is from designer T. C. Petty, III. Petty has also designed Xenon Profiteer, Spires, and VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game.
Greater than Games and Dice Hate Me Games merged in 2015, which now includes Sentinels Comics, Dice Hate Me, and Fabled Nexus. Dice Hate Me Games have published Compounded, New Bedford, and one of my favorite worker placement titles: Brewcrafters. Sentinels Comics is the Sentinels of the Multiverse line of games, includes Sentinels Tactics, and the upcoming Sentinels RPG. Finally, Fabled Nexus has published Spirit Island, Exoplanets, and the upcoming Fate of the Elder Gods.
In VivaJava: The Coffee Game, players act as prominent coffee researchers.
These bean kings travel the globe in search of the best combinations of coffee beans. Upon gathering beans, and depending on their area of study, players organize into three groups and must choose to either attempt a blend of coffee or spend time researching. Blends of coffee are graded based on the current political climate of well-renowned coffees, then placed accordingly on a point track.
The game can end in a few different ways. Ultimately, the player who manages his way onto the best coffee blends most consistently will gather the most performance points. Whoever has the most performance points, or PP, is crowned coffee research champion and wins VivaJava: The Coffee Game.
My first taste of a Dice Hate Me game was in the form of a worker placement title about brewing beer: Brewcrafters. After learning of the genre through Lords of Waterdeep, and a misfire with Agricola, Brewcrafters quickly jumped to my self-assigned ‘top-tier’ of worker placement titles. Excellent artwork, engine-building, tight decision-making, etc. Dice Hate Me games became a no-brainer publisher to buy games from at that point.
Some time after loving Brewcrafters, I heard of VivaJava. Naturally, I assumed VivaJava to be another exciting euro with focus geared toward delicious blends of my favorite hot beverage. Finally two years later, I couldn’t have been any further away from the reality.
Yes, the game is about coffee, but VivaJava isn’t a plodding resource management title. Instead, and to my surprised delight, this is a social game at its heart.
Semi-cooperative is a nice term to stamp onto the box. Alliances shift and waver as the game proceeds. In early turns, one likely works toward research, unlocking abilities which assist in collecting not only more beans, but hopefully the correct beans.
On a player’s turn, he’ll select one of nine spaces, divided into three countries. Each space grants a bean and a one-off action. A variant is included to mix these actions up each turn, and though sometimes tedious, worthwhile to increase variability. These actions can disable a player’s bean-picking phase, give free PP, take away research points (RP), mix up country tiles, etc.
After all players have dropped their goofy, oversized researchers onto spots, simultaneously each country will begin negotiations. Oh, this is the fun part of the game, I assure you.
Players have the option to blend or research. Not always will players want to blend, and sometimes they specifically do not want to blend with a particular player. A great blend shoots up the charts and can give up to three PP per round. Sometimes a player might join a country for the sole purpose of messing over the other two player’s blend attempt.
In the style of Avalon or The Resistance, players reveal a token determining a blend action or a research action. Majority decides the action, but a tie means automatic research. These moments are revealed simultaneously, so the revealed tokens are consistent cause for screaming around the table. It’s a joy to behold—the anguish, the satisfaction, and the anger at being forced to research for the third turn in a row.
Researching lets you sacrifice PP for RP, and you also gain end-game PP the further up the track you move. This can lead to particular strategies which focus on losing early-game PP for better abilities, making a player a coveted teammate for creating blends.
The blending process includes large, white, clean roaster bags. Players start the game with a few starter beans (which is also a potential variable in setup—nice touch). Each player must contribute at least one bean to the five bean roast. This seems easy enough, as players work toward collecting specific beans to their bags.
The catch is: when blending, you must take a bean from your roaster bag at random. Yes. Randomly. What does this mean? When a player tells the team he has the necessary five black beans, there is a chance the lone white bean might get pulled instead. This completely messes up hard work and potentially ruins the blend for the team. This makes for both frustrating and hilarious moments. A player might miraculously pull the needed bean out of the six in their bag, forcing the team to jump into the air in success and triumph. Magical moments for sure.
Games play somewhat quickly, especially when players have a grasp on rules. To be fair, VivaJava isn’t necessarily a game for new-to-the-hobby gamers. The rules are a bit convoluted at times. A game master is needed to stop the game at specific points to make sure players are aware they can do certain actions. Existing blends are always degrading and moving along the public opinion tracks. Turn order shifts from turn to turn.
These rules make the game consistently alluring for me, but new players are likely to be overwhelmed. However, this makes VivaJava exceptional for groups that love social games, but want something with more variables and more complexity. The dynamic atmosphere VivaJava creates makes for lots of fun and lots of interesting choices to make.
On the subject of players, it should definitely be noted that VivaJava excels at player counts exceeding five or more players. Maxing out at eight, VivaJava is a blast as a social game requiring many friends with unique personalities, all vying for world domination via coffee blending. The game allows for playing with three to four people at the table, but it makes VivaJava undesirable. In fact, my first game was a three player game. Until I finally played with more people, I was worried the game was a complete flop. I became concerned thinking about the poor review I was inevitably going to write.
The problem with fewer players is how VivaJava succeeds by smashing players together and forcing them to resolve negotiations. Two groups of three each result in complaining and rivalries. Three players can simply visit countries on their own and work towards their individual coffee empires. It’s boring. VivaJava isn’t a euro game. It’s an exceptional negotiating and backstabbing game. At a three or four player game, VivaJava adds intern cards. These grant an extra vote, and make blending more difficult in some cases. Instead of making the game enjoyable, VivaJava is just playable. Players fumble with multiple roaster bags, try to remember which beans went where, and reset the board each round, messing up turn order, forgetting to replace certain beans, etc. It’s just not a worthwhile experience. I understand why publishers try to cater to multiple player counts, but VivaJava is unashamedly a five to eight player experience.
VivaJava is eye-catching when it’s all set up on the tabletop. Blend slates remind me of Brewcrafters’ creative beer names and art design. Two long boards are unfolded and guide the game from one board to the next. Giant discs determine PP and move to and fro for more or less points. Players slowly move up research tracks using tiny star tokens. Oversized researchers are hilariously large. The beans are a star of the show, however. Many bean colors exist and players pick them up and drop them into roaster bags. The satisfaction of placing little wooden beans is quite relaxing.
Another pleasurable feature of VivaJava is being able to pursue a multitude of different strategies. The rulebook alludes to VivaJava not being a bean collection game, but a bean management game. Perhaps my statement on resource management earlier wasn’t correct then. Players might choose abilities which allow them to gather many beans of the same type. Other players might choose abilities which allow them to eradicate beans they don’t want from their bags. Some players might pursue flavor cards, while other players might thrive off the hard work of others through investment markers. VivaJava presents a slew of options to choose from, and luckily you can make these decisions tactically without making too many errors.
VivaJava is also variant friendly. Players can include tokens which let you dump three unwanted beans from your bag. Variable starting beans are a possibility. Players can opt for a weaker research lab until they better understand the game. These are only a few of the options, but VivaJava does everything to keep players having fun.
With my few caveats, VivaJava is a gamer’s game of a social game. If one is patient enough, a group of new gamers could be slowly trained to learn VivaJava. If you desire an excellent, beautiful negotiation game with plenty of critical decisions to make, look no further.
A review copy of VivaJava was provided by Greater Than Games.
The Bottom Line
VivaJava is a beautiful and excellent high-player count game, with many options for variability. It creates space to make hilarious memories, but if you have a smaller group size, you’re better off finding a different game.