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Designer Diary: VivaJava: The Coffee Game – Portrait of a Young Designer in Love

TC Petty III
United States
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Hello, world. You don't know me, but you soon will because I have things to say that will excite you. Call me T. C. Petty III, designer of VivaJava: The Coffee Game. And I'm an elitist, pretentious, Eurogame fanatic.

The Game About Coffee

My attachment to the coffee theme is strange and in direct conflict with my past. When I was seven years old, my parents' relationship became strained – or more pronouncedly strained since my earliest memories rarely include a night without a loud argument. My father was continuing to find work in sales within the emerging cellular phone market, but the leads were varied and the fierce competition led to extended dry spells with low income. And my mother, not finding fulfillment within her spiritual or physical life, turned to the Mormon church and discovered a renewed strength and faith. My father was resistant to conversion, preferring an agnostic outlook, but I was baptized when I turned eight and my family continued to attend church until I left for college years later.

And this is where the split occurs. Multiple conflicts. The Mormon church is specific about coffee and tea, labeling them as essentially unclean to drink. For a practicing Latter Day Saint to enter the temple, he must have not imbibed coffee, tea, or alcohol within a year of the visit. This is all reliant on an honor system, of course, but being caught in a lie could result in excommunication of the member.

I had made my choice to start sliding off the wagon when I chose a girlfriend and college over a mission. Every Mormon boy, when hitting age 18, is expected to go on a mission for two years. This is not a requirement, but it is highly recommended since it is essential for a man to give himself to the lord for this period before he may enter into heaven (celestial kingdom). There are some other iffy options later in life and post-death honestly, but that's the basic idea. Instead, I said that I was in love and that I could not possibly go on a mission. I also said that I was in love and therefore went to a college that I had never intended to attend. So after the ensuing break-up and four years (and a summer session) of misery, I returned home with something that said I was officially "good at English".

But during that time I had broken nearly every tenet of my religious beliefs, knowingly and specifically. I lost my virginity at age 19; I remember it was sometime after Thanksgiving because the Jeep Cherokee was chilly and the windows were frosted with steam. My first sip of alcohol was at age 23: a jager bomb at a gay bar in Morgantown, WV. I had been slowly peeling back a mask of guilt and becoming my own person, with a logical outlook on the direction of my life.

I can't exactly remember the day when I started drinking coffee. I mean, it kind of sucks that I don't because of this diary, but I don't. It was sometime after my parents could no longer afford their mortgage; sometime after I quit my job on a loading dock after college. I simply remember buying a personal-sized coffee maker with a clock so that I could set it to begin brewing fifteen minutes before my work-alarm sounded. Whenever that smell tickled my nose hairs, I could see my grandmother offering me a sip of her coffee when I was five years old: the smell that defines warmth, like a cracked walnut simmering with bacon and covered in cinnamon; the bitter edge of the porcelain cup and that signature taste that lingers on the tongue. And I could experience that deliciously sinful slice of enjoyment every single morning – and it was god damningly good.

So while I don't continue to practice any form of religion, I very much respect those that choose faith and worship as the lessons I've learned about humility, charity, and good works have shaped my moral compass. I just believe that my decisions are good because otherwise, what's the point? My entire identity is defined when I take a sip of coffee. Dysfunctional and all.

Coffee Talk and the Prototype

The truth is, I've lived a low-middle-class life with more opportunities than most, so if the previous section seems exceedingly morose, get ready for some real peppy storytelling. After a stint where I attempted to write, draw, and publish my own one-shot comic book, I found a job as a dispatcher at a transportation company that changed names three times during my stay – and it was at this time, in February 2009, that I walked out of a Starbucks with an idea for a game.

While sipping some sort of expensive seasonal blend, I asked myself what kind of board game a large company would design if it wanted to offer the right image. A large coffee company, mind you; Starbucks, for example. I reasoned with myself that a game where all players competed to make the best barista shop in town would be the most plausible. That would be the American way to do it. But why would a company want to compete with itself? And if this big, branded company has multiple stores or franchises in the same area, why were some stores better than others? It didn't make sense.

And neither did a co-op game at the time. Pandemic had come out the year previous, and I had played it out to the point that another co-op game with players fighting against a game system that could increase difficulty only by increasing randomness made me feel a little sick to my stomach.

So when I made it home, I scanned the Internet for info on coffee and found an image that had divided the world into the three major coffee regions. Ding! Within seconds, I had the mechanism. Players wouldn't be baristas; they would be those stylized field researchers that I was used to seeing in commercials. Each player would travel to a country in one of the three regions in the world to find coffee beans and once all players had chosen, they would split into teams based on which region they had chosen. Then, ???. And after that mysterious action, they would make a coffee blend beloved by coffee drinkers around the globe. Ingenious!

But what did you actually do?

A meeting was called with my good friend, Tim Hing, and over a fine Denny's breakfast where I remember scarfing down fried, syrupy, coconut-pancake balls, we brainstormed the actual mechanisms of the original prototype and nursed some cokes with real cherry syrup added. I explained to him an idea where I would have bean cards of differing colors and that these cards could be ranked somehow as Blends. Then players could add flavorings to improve the marketability.

His superb contribution is and will always be the inclusion of actual beans in the game. We had both recently played the game Thebes and generally enjoyed it – but he absolutely loved the "pull stuff out of bag" mechanism (which I think most every gamer enjoys for some reason). I pointed my sticky coconut index finger to the sky to indicate how much I enjoyed his line of thinking. So I greased my way out of the bench and went to work creating a workable prototype with some semblance of order. That night, we devised the five-bean blend system and the simple poker scale ranking that would define the game's scoring.

I'm neither a fast creator nor a slapdash, here's-my-mechanism-let's-just-play-it kind of designer. I agonize over the details and playtest the game in my head as I lay the foundation. Even so, there are a million uncontrollable variables, and one of the downsides to creating a game in which color is important (aside from the logical improbability of being color-blind friendly) is that the initial attempt at a prototype is much more difficult. My girlfriend at the time surely enjoyed the late nights as I curled up under the covers with a laptop, aligning random circles and squares into a relatively pleasing formation. Nearly three weeks (admittedly with some slacking) of typing and clicking and dragging and assembling 30,000 layers and it was nearly done. I'm not a professional by any means, and I usually make due. This is why the first prototype was printed in Word and half the game was created in Excel.

On July 4th, 2009, at a Fourth of July party with my friend Mario Arnolds's big Italian family, my as-yet-unnamed coffee-themed prototype made its debut. The six-player game was an epic event, clocking in at a staggering slog of nearly four hours. My rules explanation was also a terrible mess of a thing as I tried to explain the mechanisms without fully understanding how the game would play. Graciously, two non-gamer cousins stuck it out for the entire game and they actually had very positive things to say. But for me it was an insane victory! The game didn't break. The main complaint, though, was that there was too much... everything.

In August, I gathered up my courage and headed to the WBC for the first time. This marked both my first time at a convention and my first time alone at a convention. Also, it marked the first time that I was comfortable enough with a game design that I was willing to share it with complete strangers. Amazingly, I was able to befriend and trick seven players into a game.

Happily, this playtest emphasized more of the problems that had surfaced slightly within the first playtest. I craved constructive criticism after the relatively stable first game. The main issue was the power of the rainbow blend versus the five-of-a-kind. At this point I had not discovered a way to change the ranking of the Blends on the best-seller list – something present in the final game – and what I hadn't anticipated was that when the game scales to teams of three with seven players, it becomes much easier to create a rainbow blend (a blend with five different bean colors) than with teams of two. This caused a situation in which a team created a bestselling blend early in the game and stayed at the top of the scoring list for an extremely long and unfair amount of time before it was knocked down. Because of this and other similarly unbalanced reasons, there was a clear winner and a large disparity between first and last place.

After the game was over, however, I received more genuine compliments than complaints and a pledge to play again. Considering the game was on its second playtest and barely two months old at the time, they were impressed by the progress. I remember feeling dread when I was cleaning up as I thought that it might be a while before I could figure out how to fix the looming issue of the bestseller list being unbalanced. Thankfully, I spoke to Tim Hing a few days later and he suggested something which I initially deemed too fiddly but quickly acknowledged as sound advice. And, so, the degradation mechanism was born. After Blends score each turn, they lose a bean, effectively causing them to stale and allowing room for new Blends to slide in later.

The Name of the Game

Eventually, the constant moniker "The Coffee Game" became tired and silly. It was time to create a dull, sensible name that encapsulated the basic premise of the experience, but didn't oversell it or represent it as something it was not.

And so, the game was originally entitled "DeveJava". This name was chosen for two reasons. One: My friends would absolutely hate it. They had been trying to convince me to give it a "snazzy" title filled with zazz and mass appeal. "Coffee Wars", "Cappuccino Capitalism" or any other combination of words that had alliteration and a synonym for "battle" in the name were suggested. And vetoed. And two: it combined (abstractly) the words "development" and "coffee" in a way that could be easily adapted, without change, to an international audience. I was really crossing my fingers that my friends overseas would go bonkers over a game like this.

Shortly afterwards, in October 2010, I entered the game into the Rio Grande Game Design Contest. The location was Congress of Gamers in Maryland, and the little designer room was a stuffy converted classroom with a circle of tables at center.

I mention this event not only because it was the debut of DeveJava, and not only because I claimed third place, but because I was able to playtest my game one time to a resounding success. And even though I was not able to be there for the second day that weekend due to a friend's wedding, the other designers pulled out my game and played again the next day. They had all retained the knowledge of their first play enough to teach it to new players, but also were enamored with the design enough to actually play it a second time. I have to wipe away a small fake tear from the corner of my eye when I mention it. It was awesome. It spurred me on to focus.

One of the designers, John Moller – who took second place with his game Flummox – then contacted me about an Unpublished Games Festival in Dover, Delaware in January 2011 where I was able to meet up with many of the designers from CoG, in addition to making a whole new set of friends. Due to John hyping my game, I was able to set up and play DeveJava within a few minutes of me arriving. I met Darrel Louder, the designer of Compounded, one game I very soundly enjoy. Both had an instrumental role in the progress of my game.

When I arrived home after some incredible playtests, I redefined my new year's resolution: 2011 would be the year that DeveJava would be signed. No more waiting around for something good to happen. I would work toward finding a publisher, and by December I'd be refining my game for publication.

Insert Origins 2011 here. Months in advance, I had planned to take the required three days off work to attend Origins, but I made no prior arrangements. John Moller, in an attempt to fill a recently vacated spot in his hotel room, contacted me to see whether I had lodging for the show. Ding! I signed up quickly to take the place of his missing tenant. This decision could have possibly been the best decision I've ever made in my thirty years of life.

Again, when I arrived, John Moller was instrumental in motivation. He introduced me to Tartan Grizzly, where I was able to pitch my game hours after the dealer room had opened. This invigorated me, and while the explanation went well, I did not expect a follow-up from them. I made sure to shake hands with Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games and Travis Worthington of Indie Board and Cards, then did my best to mill about in the Board Room, observing other games, playing some prototypes, and talking to other designers.

Then, John introduced me to a group of guys as he was playing an early prototype created by David Mackenzie of Clever Mojo Games. (By the way, I'm almost done name-dropping – just please bear with me.) In this charming group was also the famed podcaster/reviewer Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me, which I, of course, had never heard of. Who listens to podcasts? And his friend, Shawn Purtell. So somewhere in between plays of Swinging Jivecat Voodoo Lounge, Carnival, Time's Up! Title Recall, Dice Town, and an epic game of Troyes, I was kind enough to share my game with the group – and they played the shit out of it.

Being a game designer, I have that distinct task of determining whether a player of my game truly loves the game or is simply smiling along with everyone at the table while secretly wanting to stab out his eyes the entire time. And sometimes it is so indistinguishable that I always take the humblest of routes possible and demure with grace. I had been burned with false positivity for my game Burrito in the past, so I was highly critical of their responses. However, something about the way I was suddenly befriended and included into what seemed like a tight circle of critical but approachable gamers piqued my demoing interest. David, while getting a chance to observe the end-game, even asked me to stay in touch, saying that he might have been interested if he did not already have four larger games in his line-up. It was a huge beaming smile of a day. And when we all said our goodbyes at the end of the weekend, it was clear that I had gotten my foot in the door of this crazy publishing world – now all I needed to do was make more connections.

Oh yeah, and DeveJava didn't end up being the title of the game.

No, Seriously, I Want to Publish Your 3-8 Player Game

Chris from Dice Hate Me (Games) contacted me by email within the week. I had taken along little cards with the DeveJava logo which I tried to photoshop nicely, and I wrote my email on the back of them. As I think back, this was a very good idea and I highly recommend having an unconventional business card for these conventions. Chris said that he really enjoyed the game and could not get the potential out of his head. I assumed that maybe after Carnival was published, we could possibly talk about options and I even mentioned this in my next carefully worded, but short email response.

He was quick to reply: "At this point, I'd like to do more than discuss our options – I'd like to propose a contract."

And my heart leapt! Then immediately sunk.

Here is the thing about my personality. I get very excited sometimes, this being one of those moments. I wanted to run to the window and scream gibberish, but it would have done nothing since my view at the time included the scenic tarped side of someone's boat (along with the fact that the windows were old and hard to open in the first place). I controlled myself and immediately had a flash of trepidation. This was not how it is supposed to go.

This is not how it is supposed to go. I had read Brian Tinsman's The Game Inventor's Guidebook, which includes a section on game submissions, contracts, large publishers, and small publishers. He didn't write anywhere that you demo your game at a trade show, after which one player decides he wants to publish, then contacts you with a proposal. In fact, I think somewhere inside those pages he mentions that one is to be wary of things that feel too good to be true. This is not how it is supposed to go. Sure, I made a new year's resolution to have my game published, but publishing my game with someone I had just met, was completely untested, and had their own game to publish first? If Carnival would fail, my dream would likely be crushed.

But as we talked, it became clear. I had played Carnival at Origins. I knew what Chris could do in a short period of time, and he seemed genuinely interested in creating unique games and themes, and he acknowledged the leap I would be taking in going with Dice Hate Me Games. Plus, he said, if I didn't like how it turned out, the contract would dissolve in a year and I'd have a tighter game to show to others next year.

Boom! I shook electronic hands and by WBC 2011, VivaJava would be the new release for Dice Hate Me Games in 2012.

VivaJava. Yes, the name changed by two letters, but honestly I think it was good change. Life. Coffee. I don't want to get too sentimental, but to take the game name and tie it back into the last six years and all the friends I've made and all the coffee I've drank. All the bad and all the good going on simultaneously in my life. The games I've played and the people who cheered me on even when I would have rather given up and played video games for the rest of my life. VivaJava fit pretty well.

That wasn't it, though. The story doesn't end in triumph, obviously. Chris had a caveat. He issued a mighty challenge by creating a promo image in which the original VivaJava can mock-up read, "2-8 players". At this point, the game was only a 5-8 player group experience, and rightly so since it relied on the group dynamic and changing alliances. It would be difficult to play a game in which teams were created every turn if only two players were playing.

But I had a plan. I gave it a few weeks to stew and after much soul-searching, I promised Chris a game for 3-8 players. Sorry, couples – VivaJava is for threesomes.

With a Little Inept Help From My Interns

Luckily, after Origins I had a long car ride home in solitude to sort out some of my ideas and unwind from what had been an excellent and exhausting experience. Even before Chris had issued the official challenge, players had mentioned that they would be hard-pressed to get the game to their table since they had only three or four regular players. This lead me to Steak and Shake, where as I sipped on a cherry chocolate milkshake, I began to formulate the San Juan to my Puerto RicoVivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Card Game (VivaJava: TCGTCG). The idea was to attempt to recreate my original game from an entirely new perspective, breaking it down to its most basic components, yet still retaining the flavor of the experience. The card game would have to offer a play option for fewer players because I'd never heard of a card game (with the exception of Werewolf) that has a minimum number of players over four. And by streamlining the play down to only cards, without any form of tokens, I realized that a strategic element was missing.

My "eureka" moment came when I crossed over onto I-76 and made the word association. "Interstate" became "Interns" and VivaJava was introduced to the world of "normal" player counts.

What eventually became the "Intern Inspansion" took me a little out of my comfort zone, which is excellent considering how invaluable the first playtest of the mechanism proved to be. It was as bare bones as it could possibly get. I had three four-sided dice to represent random Interns – that's it – as I had no clue what problems to anticipate and only a vague idea as to how the mechanism would work. (Thanks to Rob and E. B. Singer for sticking it out until nearly midnight on a Tuesday.) And yet, in this vague playtest session the theme solidified and merged with the game play.

My original design was flawed in the sense that only once in the entire game did any of us choose to work together. In a social team-up game, this did not sit well with me. We quickly determined that if the Interns provided a big advantage, then in a three-player game no one would blend with another human player. On the flip-side, however, if Interns had no use other than "extra beans", then they would be completely ignored and the rounds would become fairly static. A balance was needed in which players could invent a strategy that included using Interns for both Researching and Blending, but this choice to exclude other players would always come at a cost, whether immediate or long-term. "Interns are inept" was the mantra. And in all truth, the discovery of this balance was one of those "light bulb" moments that makes extensive testing and game design worth it. I was able to create a deck of 24 Intern cards over the course of a week and standardized a rule-set which allowed me to confidently say to myself (and Dice Hate Me Games), this is doable.

In short, a player may ignore Interns completely, but casual use by other players would cause the game the shift in their direction dramatically. Alternatively, players could utilize Interns every turn of the game only to find out that the costs far outweigh the benefits by the end. It is this balance that defines the experience of VivaJava itself and emulates the larger 5-8 player game. Sticking to one strategy and never straying is not the way to win the game; tactical decisions and opportunities are presented every turn, and learning to balance a solid strategy with greedy moments of excellence is the way to victory. The Interns were more than an expansion; they were an integral and important element of the game. Sure, the play-style with 3-4 players relied less on player interaction for obvious reasons, but the core "feel" of VivaJava remained intact.

While I included a set of Interns in the exclusive hand-made VivaJava prototype that I created for the Dice Hate Me team before the WBC, the Interns didn't really debut for them until September when I visited them for the first time. And don't let Chris and Cherilyn fool you. They may be fond of the grassroots, social media marketing and may be extremely cute to each other – I saw them have a little tiff when I last visited and even then it was achingly, mind-numbingly cute – but they also have a hip apartment in a refurbished tobacco factory (see Kickstarter vid). And rightly so, as their credentials are numerous and they are both smart cookies. They're just a chic couple always ready to provide gaming snacks, with a fond love of the community – and they were very happy with the Interns.

Remember how I said, "this is not how it's supposed to go" at least a million times? Well, the distinct advantage of actually liking your publisher and enjoying their company (business) and their company (companionship) is that the entire process of revision after revision, playtest after playtest, becomes a much easier pill to swallow. They are there and attentive and helpful every step of the way. I still love my game, but as any designer can attest to, the process never ends. The decisions become more and more specific over time, and each finicky detail is an agonizing choice. And with an admittedly complex Eurogame like VivaJava, it was invaluable to have a capable team. Some people call their project "their baby", and I am guilty of that easy association, but it's true. Making the initial zygote is the fun part, but once mitosis begins and the prototype emerges from that warm, amniotic gaming womb, it requires constant attention and love and guidance. You can't just slap a game on the butt and place it in shrinkwrap.

And of course, even eight months later we are still refining the experience to perfection (or the nearest proximity). Each blind playtest, each new player and her suggestions, each new experience adds another notch on the wall. Thankfully, my game designer ego is still in its infancy, so while I can still be a diva sometimes, I give legitimate credence to each player's gaming concerns. We can't please everyone, but hopefully we can give some jaded gamers a quick jolt of caffeine and create a game accessible enough that casual gamers can jump right in.

Why You Absolutely, Positively, Shamelessly, Must Buy/Support This Game (Please!)

For me, VivaJava is the end and beginning of a journey. Without being introduced to the wonderful and expansive board game community not even ten years ago, I would have never been able to create something like this. And if I hadn't turned a spiritual corner, embracing and respecting the teachings from my past while moving forward on my own path, I never would have been inspired. The mistakes I've made, and the new friends, and the games I've played – they've all culminated into a game I'm proud to release.

I could expound upon my feelings for hours with champagne and tears. However, let's pause on the sentimental for a moment and see why I think you'll love the game.

I have a deep love for player interaction, something I think is sorely missing from games on the market today – but I'm not talking about "Take That!" cards or sticking a truncheon under the ribs of your friend's backside. I'm talking about real interaction, like when someone actually has to speak to another player during a game, or have a conversation in order to solve a problem, or when they have to work together. When a player's turn is tied directly into the actions of other players, that makes them pay attention and become actively involved. That is my goal. Positive player interaction is key. There's even a deck of Flavor cards in VivaJava that contains no "Take That!" cards – only difficult choices that can be used both negatively and positively and actions that can help enhance your team's strategy.

The game has multiple end conditions, plays in 60-90 minutes, and due to simultaneous actions and constant table talk, there is little downtime. There are no bathroom breaks in VivaJava as it's almost always your turn. With engine-building, collaboration, and a hint of luck, each game of VivaJava is different. Also, because there are some "hidden" sources of victory points, the game does not have a kingmaker problem that some games encounter. And since I'm the designer, and a vicious "gamer of the system", I can tell you that even with all these variables, the strategies toward winning are varied and interesting – but unlike most games, you can't ignore the social game and expect to win, nor can you ignore Research and expect to Blend your way to victory, nor can you focus on Research and cover your ears to the table talk. The winner will be the player who best employs all game elements.

Okay, I'm done advertising. I'm in love with my own game; it's obvious. I'm also extremely excited that I've made it this far.

But this isn't the end for me. This diary is only an introduction. I've been given a huge break and a golden opportunity, and I don't plan to waste my good fortune. I gambled on the right pony with Dice Hate Me Games and I have more ideas in the works, so I want everyone to know how much your support means to me, and I deeply thank you! The outpouring and response has been phenomenal even as I type these words!

This has been a dream fulfilled.

Raise your pinky! VivaJava 2012!

T. C. Petty III

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