Tuesday, March 17

Probably Our Last Game of Java

I was able to convince Cait to give Java one final play tonight. I think it was our last.

I find Java’s presentation incredibly compelling. Take a look at this picture from the Geek. Java has heavy cardboard hexes that you arrange and stack to build villages and jungles in a Indonesian valley. The verticality plays into the game mechanics: you move your builders around to jockey for the highest position in a village, and you can use tiles to cover up and join or break apart existing villages.

Java is curious for giving you rules but actually no indication for how to play the game. On each turn you have six action points (a hallmark of the Kramer / Kiesling “Mask Trilogy”) to spend on moving workers, placing tiles, drawing cards, and building palaces. Each of these can be used to score points of various amounts, so when you first start playing Java you have little sense of the overall flow of the game. You do stuff randomly to try it out, and since scoring comes regularly, a few points at a time, there isn’t any good feedback built into the system to tell you that you’re playing it “right.”

I squeezed one last game from Cait after going on BoardGameGeek and finding reviews and forums that actually explained how a game of Java should proceed. Specifically, the first several turns of the game should be spent placing the irrigation tiles and grabbing their easy points. Then, since you cannot place the jungle/village tiles on top of the irrigation tiles, they have effectively defined the board that you’ll play on for the rest of the game.

Knowing this, we tried once more and definitely had a better time of it. Getting irrigation tiles out early gave the session a guiding arc. The later moves, constrained by the irrigation tiles, felt less random. Cait’s still not a fan, though. She compared the dribbling out of bits of points here and there to playing basketball with just free throws. I’m enamored enough of the physicality of the game to still enjoy the experience, but will admit that Java is hardly a favorite.

Nevertheless, I find Java’s failure to provide direction out of the box a fascinating case study in game design. It’s interesting to compare it to, say, Agricola, which enforces a designer-proscribed flow by only revealing one new action each turn, or Mystery of the Abbey, which is entirely open-ended about what questions you can ask (not to mention the several different decks of cards to choose among) but that only serves to make it more rewarding when the strategy starts clicking into place. Even after we learned “how” to play Java, it was still a turn-to-turn exercise in local optimizations, with nothing great ever gained or lost.