Posted by: gschloesser | August 3, 2011

Java

Design by:  Wolfgang Kramer and M. Kiesling
Published by:  Ravensburger / Rio Grande Games

Players:  2 – 4 Players, 2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review also appears in Counter Magazine # 12.

Ahhh … another game from the team of Kramer & Kiesling, by far my favorite design team. Their most recent collaborations, Tikal & Torres, were smash hits and personal favorites. So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited this latest release.  OK, so I’m a bit biased … but not too biased.  There are games from Kramer I am not terribly fond of, including Magalon.

One glance at the game and you immediately think ‘Tikal‘. The appearance is very, very similar, even down to the box cover artwork. That’s not a bad thing in my book as I thought the artwork in Tikal was simply superb.

The theme is also similar: Java concerns the development of the interior of a remote island, while Tikal dealt with the re-discovery of a lost Mayan civilization. In Java, players must lay tiles to form the interior of the island, and then send their developers into this newly discovered land to erect cities, build palaces, sponsor festivals and gain the most influence. The theme is certainly enticing, but it doesn’t seem to evoke the same exploration and discovery atmosphere that is so prevalent in Tikal.

One can’t quibble with the components, however; they are incredible. The ‘heft’ factor tips the scales as the hexes are some of the thickest pieces … 1/8 of an inch … I’ve ever seen in a game. The pawns are lifted straight from Tikal, while there are four player aid cards which use similar graphics to help explain the actions a player may take on his turn. Further, there are ‘extra turn’ tokens and palace cards, each with appropriate artwork.

The board itself is yet another masterpiece from illustrator Franz Vohwinkel.  The exterior of the board displays the ‘known’ jungle and mountain areas, while the vast interior is predominately plain turf with a few previously discovered lakes.  The edges of the board are rimmed with the scoring track, illustrated with a motif relevant to the theme.

Players have six action points per turn, with a variety of actions available to them. These actions can be performed in any order, and players may perform the same action multiple times during their turn.

1) PLACE TILE(S): A player MUST place a tile onto the undeveloped portion of the board. Each player begins with an assortment of 2 and 1-space land tiles, but all have access to a common stack of 3-space land tiles. As the game proceeds and the board develops, it becomes increasingly obvious that the 2 and 1-space tiles are extremely important and should not be squandered early. Thus, most players opt to place the 3-space tiles throughout much of the game.

The tiles depict either rice fields or villages, or a combination thereof. Tiles can be placed anywhere on the board … even atop previously laid tiles. There are some placement restrictions (not covering palaces, not covering a previously laid tile with the same size tile, not joining two cities, etc.), but there is enough freedom of placement to allow a wide range of strategies.

2) MOVE DEVELOPERS: Players each have 12 developers which must be present to construct and upgrade palaces, hold festivals and gain influence over irrigation and city developments. This action allows players to move their developers onto the board from the developed section of the island, and/or around the newly developing section.

Movement is a bit different than in most games. Actually, it is somewhat reminiscent of Warfrog’s Lords of Creation.  Developers may move along the same type of terrain (rice fields or villages) as far as they want for free (no action point cost) … provided they remain on the same type of terrain throughout that movement. Elevation doesn’t matter. If they move onto a different type of terrain, however, they must expend an action point for each change of terrain. So, by carefully laying tiles and planning the land’s development, it may be quite possible to zip a developer great distances without utilizing any action points.

New developers can enter the board from the already ‘developed’ area. If they enter from the plains, there is only the cost of 1 action point. If, however, they must cross a mountain range, the cost is 2 action points.

3) CONSTRUCTING A PALACE: If a player has a developer(s) in a village and his developer(s) is located on a higher level than opponents’ developers in that village, he may construct a palace in that village. The size of the palace is dependent upon the number of village tiles in that village. The palace’s value must not exceed the number of village tiles located in that specific village. So, if a village consists of four village tiles, the maximum value of the palace which can be constructed is ‘4’.  Palaces are available in ‘even’ values (2, 4, 6, 8 & 10), so villages must grow if they wish to contain higher valued palaces.

Once a palace is placed in a village, it becomes a city and earns the developer fame points equal to half the palace’s value. This is one method in which to score points.

4) INCREASE THE VALUE OF A PALACE: A player can increase the value of an existing palace, but must follow the same rules as outlined in action (3) above. A new palace tile with the correct value is placed directly atop the former palace.  The old palace is not removed. This is important as there are a limited number of palace tiles, so players must be wary of this ever decreasing stockpile.

Players earn fame points for increasing the value of a palace in the exact same fashion as listed above.

5) IRRIGATION TILES: Players may place irrigation tiles onto the board, but these tiles must be placed directly on the board and not atop any other tile. When irrigation tiles are completely surrounded by other tiles, fame points are scored for the player(s) who has developer(s) located at the highest level adjacent to these tiles. 3 fame points are earned for EACH irrigation tile enclosed.

6) DRAW PALACE CARDS: Players may draw one or two palace cards into their hand at a cost of 1 or 2 action points, respectively. Cards can be drawn from the face-down deck, or a player can take the lone face-up festival card and reveal another one in its place. Palace cards are utilized when competing in a festival.

7) HOLD FESTIVAL: At the conclusion of a player’s turn, he may elect to hold a palace festival at the cost of zero action points. To sponsor a festival, a player must have at least one developer in the city where he wishes to hold the festival. All opponents who have developers in the city may also participate in the festival, if they desire.

The festival procedure is quite simple. One palace card is revealed at the beginning of the game. Each card depicts one or two symbols (drum, mask, etc.). To participate in a festival, a player must play a card containing at least one symbol which matches a symbol on this revealed card. Then, each opponent who is participating has the option of playing a card which matches one or more of these symbols. If he cannot, or chooses not to do so, then he retires from the festival. When play returns to the player sponsoring the festival, if there is another player who has played an equal number of symbols, he can offer that player a joint sponsorship, in which case they split the resulting fame points. Or, the player can opt to play another card which has a symbol matching the revealed card. This procedure continues until either one player wins the festival, or a split is agreed upon. In any case, all played cards are discarded, whether the player won the festival or not.

Fame points earned from hosting a festival range from 1 – 5 if won alone, or from 0 – 3 if split with a fellow player.  These values are determined based on the value of the palace located in that city.

As mentioned, players normally have six action points they can utilize in a turn. However, each player does possess three special tokens, which can each be surrendered for a further action point, but only one can be surrendered per turn. As with your 1 and 2-space tiles, use them wisely.

Play continues until all 3-space land tiles have been played. The player who placed the final 3-space tile completes his turn and takes his final scoring, after which each opponent may take one more turn (but are NOT required to place a land tile during this final turn) and takes their final scoring.

The final scoring is similar to Tikal, but in Java, only the palaces are scored. Players score points if they have developers in the highest or second highest ‘rank’ in the city (based on elevation). Points are scored based on the value of the palaces … full points if you are in the highest rank, or half points if you are in the second rank. After each player has taken their final turn and tallied their final scoring, the player with the most fame points is victorious.

So, after that lengthy description, just how is the game? Very enjoyable and quite tense,  especially in the latter stages.  With so many placement options, the game can develop in a wide variety of ways.  My first game developed very slowly, with players content on founding their own cities and avoiding interference with each other.  To be honest, I found the early part of this game to be, well, underwhelming. It seemed that everyone was going for the quick score … placing a tile or two, get a developer into position, construct or upgrade a palace for quick points and host a festival.  Further, the game was speeding along and I began mentally questioning the stories I’d heard about ‘analysis paralysis’ setting in, thereby extending the game to two or more hours.

However, as the board began to develop and the placement and movement options became much more varied, tough and down-right agonizing. There were just so many ways in which to play and overlap tiles that it often boggled my mind. Some have made the comparison to the same thought processes as those required in El Caballero (Kramer again!) and I have to agree. I also found ‘thought’ similarities to those used in Torres. Instead of simply analyzing the consequences of one tile placement, you are forced to think about a series of placements and moves and the consequences these will deliver. It’s certainly a ‘thinking‘ game, one with rich mental teasing and corresponding rewards.

Subsequent games have developed quite differently.  Players immediately began adding layers to previously laid tiles, and the rush to upgrade palaces and hold festivals was intense.  No one seemed content to settle for a 2 point palace, but were actively seeking ways to increase palaces by several levels and gain huge amounts of victory points.  This made these games much more intense from the beginning.  This intensity does take its toll, however, as the game takes considerable longer to play as players must analyze so many possible options before completing their turn. 

Does Java have the same ‘problem’ that Tikal does?  That is, is there significant ‘downtime’ between player’s turns while each player studies the board and calculates their action possibilities?  Yes, and it seems to be even more pronounced here.  There are just SO many options and possibilities to consider that even a normally fast-moving player will be forced to carefully analyze the ever-changing board before executing his moves.  However, truth-be-told, I’ve never been overly bothered by this “problem” with either Tikal, Torres or El Caballero. I consider the actions and placements an opponent makes on his turn VITAL to what I will do on my subsequent turn. If I don’t watch carefully, I may well miss what actions he elected to take and thereby miss valuable scoring opportunities. So, I intently observe my opponent’s actions and am keenly interested in what they do. I don’t consider this ‘down-time’,  but rather an essential component of playing these games well.

Now, I’m not saying that the wait between turns couldn’t be excessive. If playing with excruciatingly slow players, I’m sure it could be. However, my tried-and-true method of warning players IN ADVANCE of this possibility usually keeps the game moving along at an acceptable pace.

However, if you were one of those folks bothered by this ‘down-time’ problem in Tikal, you won’t find relief with Java.  On the other hand, if you are willing to utilize this down-time to your favor as mentioned above, then you will likely be well pleased with this new Kramer / Kiesling effort.

There are some things to watch for in the game.  For one, as in games such as Fossil, one must be very careful not to set-up an opponent for easy scores.  It is quite easy to play a few tiles, make a move or two and enlarge a palace, coming away feeling quite satisfied at the points you’ve earned.  Then, to your horror, the next player swoops in with a brilliant play, which increases your palace to maximum capacity and earns double the points you worked so hard to achieve.  Caution is paramount, as it is difficult to plan for long-range scores as it is quite easy for an opponent to swoop in and claim those points.

Further, the final scoring round can be extremely dramatic.  Points come in avalanches.  A comfortable lead can be shattered during this final round when scores of 60 or more points are not uncommon.  So, it is vital that players keep a careful eye on the positioning of their developers, insuring that they are in the proper position to reap huge victory point benefits during this final round.  Failure to do this will result in certain defeat.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, try to resist the temptation to use your 1 and 2 space tiles early.  Although the scoring opportunities may seem too good to pass up, it is wise to hold onto one or two of these tiles for the final few turns of the game, especially the final scoring round.  Often, the placement of just one of these tiles can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

My good friend Al Newman has used the phrase ‘rich gaming experience’ to describe such games as Torres and Tikal.  I think that phrase applies to Java as well.  It is a game which forces a player to study carefully, ponder various options and perform at a peak level throughout.  It’s certainly not a light romp or something you pull off the shelf for an evening of social gaming.  No, this is much more than that.  It is a test of one’s skills and mental capacities.  I don’t want to make every game I play such a ‘thinking‘ experience, but when I am in that mood, this game will rank right up there with those few games I bring to the table.

Could it be ‘3-in-a-row’ for Kramer?

 

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Responses

  1. I have always liked the tile laying aspect of this game. The cards are a nice feature also. This is definitely a thinking game with lots of down time between rounds. However, good/great players use that time to scope out potential options while the rest of us goof off. Use your time wisely and you can be a good player as well. 7/10


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