Designer: Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling
Artist: Franz Vohwinkel
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Nostalgia is a double edged sword. I often look back at certain board game sessions fondly and giving games I played once or twice a strong rating. More often than not, the game I enjoyed does not hit the table again until years later. As is the case -though not always, time tends to dampen my initial enthusiasm for games I played. Perhaps the first session was with the right crowd. More likely, the first few first plays occurred early in my involvement with the hobby when practically every game I played was simply delightful. With age comes a more refined taste in the type of games I like along with more time restrictions imposed by daily responsibilities. Java, Tikal and Mexica, the three designs that comprise the “Mask Trilogy” from the famed German design duo of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling are the few exceptions. I loved all of them from the get go, and continue to enjoy them now. To be fair, these games have hit the table periodically over the years, spaced far apart but consistently making an appearance when we want a meaty Euro.
I recently had a chance to gift a copy of Java to my gaming buddies and also took the opportunity to introduce the game to them. I believe the knock on all three Mask Trilogy games, particularly for Java, has always been the down time between players due to analysis paralysis. This claim is somewhat accurate, especially for newbies or those unfamiliar with the action point system. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the AP mechanism popularize by the Mask Trilogy games is no longer widely employed in the board gaming world. However, what is poison for some is a cure for other. The action point system while prone to analysis paralysis, also gives players an open license to be creative in sequencing a series of actions to maximize scoring. I suppose a parallel analogy might be in video gaming where some games feature non-linear, open world game play, while others provide a tight, story driven narrative where action choices are restrictive. Ultimately, regardless of how the game is structured, all games will come to a conclusion.
Here in Java, each player is allotted 6 action points (AP) each turn. These points allow players to perform a variety of actions, with each action costing 0-2AP. Since Java is a tile placement game, the only requirement is that each turn, a player must place a tile on the board. The board landscape consists of a grid of hexagon space that are to be filled up by hexagon tiles of different sizes. As tiles are placed on the board, land spaces are quickly filled up and players are forced to stack tiles on top of each other to build upwards. Thematically, the tiles represent that terraced rice paddy fields that are found in these fertile volcanic lands in Indonesia. As the game progresses, the contour of the rice fields take shape, with peaks and valleys dotting the landscape and irrigation canals nestled in between the terraces. At the end of the game, the fully developed 3D board looks gorgeous and a sight to behold. At least aesthetically speaking, among the games in the trilogy, Java impresses the most.
Funny enough, while the rice terraces are quite prominent in the landscape, they don’t score any points. In fact, they are just eye candy. That’s because the other motif on the hexagon tiles are villages and those are there ones that score points. The goal of the game is to spatially string together tiles to grow the size of your village that is reflected in the size of your palace that you construct. The larger the village, the bigger the palace and the more points you score. Village hexes that are adjacent and have a palace are now identified as cities. Most cities range in size from 2-10 village hexes. Additional hexes beyond ten no longer count for points. As a city grows in size, the palaces can be upgraded and points are scored with each upgrade. In addition, players will also score points by holding a one-time festival for each palace. Whether a players gets to score points for cities will be determined if they have the strongest influence. This is where the height of the terrain comes into play because developers that you bring into the game from the edges of the board must be places in the cities for you to score points, with the developer at the highest location in the village gaining the most influence. Ties are broken by comparing additional developers at lower heights. Thus, when you build or upgrade a palace, your developer is usually already positioned to reap the benefits.
Much of Java is fought at the trenches, growing the size of cities and positioning developers to gain a height advantage to score points when palaces are built or upgraded. I would say probably three quarters of the game happens when the tiles fill up the board and all the real estate is filled up. However, even when one is fighting to reposition developers on the board to take advantage of the shifting landscape, one eye must be kept on end-game scoring for it represents a large chunk of the final score. The end-game is triggered when the final 3-hexagon tile is placed on the board. The player who triggers this will then scores all his developers on the board that have the highest or second highest influence for each palace. Whilst only half the palace size is score during the game, the full points are calculated for this end of game scoring. Typically, all players will maneuver their pieces to maximize scoring and ties are favorable to the outcome as you score full points for all ties. Therefore, as much as in-game scoring of palaces is important, this end of game scoring criteria just cannot be ignored. There are things that can be done during the game to defend scoring positions by placing tiles and moving pieces to improve one’s position near palaces or to block off access to certain terrain that can be improved and occupied. I contend that this needs to happen throughout the game if you want to win.
There is one other scoring mechanism in the game that feels somewhat like an outlier, and that is the festival system. Here, players bid to host a festival in a palace of their choosing at the end of each turn, if they want, at no costs. The only prerequisite is that one must have a developer in the city. A successful bid based on playing cards with matching icons earns player a few points. Importantly, points for hosting festival can be shared with other players who bid the same amount. This “additional” system always felt very odd to me and stands outside of the entire tile-building experience. Sure, thematically, it feels legit, but mechanistically, it feels too much like a last-minute addition to balance scoring? I don’t even know if it is necessary.
Much of what I love about Java comes from the unlimited options of arranging and rearranging the terrain to construct cities. Careful use of single and double tiles that are limited for each player at the onset is crucial take advantage of any opportunity to score points, but also to deprive your opponents of that same opportunity. In fact, that is the ideal outcome for each tile you place – build and defend with the same actions. Again, this can be done with careful placement of tiles, including where to build palaces which will restrict movement of developers since developers cannot go across palace tiles and must pay actions points to move across different terrains. Another point about Java that does not come across as clearly in the rulebook, is that palaces once built cannot degraded or torn down in numerical value even though the village sizes may shrink. This means that throughout the game, the size of cities are in constant flux as parts of it can be cleaved off to form a new village that can then be reconstituted into a new city with a brand new palace. Because no city can have two palaces, there is constant competition to perform a “reverse annexation” by spliting up a city to form new villages so that a new palace can be constructed. I find this aspect of the game most refreshing, creative and fun – but also one that induces the most analysis paralysis for certain folks.
In all fairness, I think Java is a game that requires your full attention even in between turns. While down time is longer than a typical Euro – certainly longer than the games we typically enjoy – I find that it is important to examine the board layout and figure out multiple possibilities for the next move(s). It is true that your best laid plans might be interrupted by others, but I think that is the nature of games with direct interaction and a shared board space. You will inevitably bump head with others and things that you want to accomplish may no longer be possible by the time your turn comes around. It is likely this feeling is compounded by the fact that in Java, the turns take longer for each person and your efforts to plan ahead may not be fruitful, thus leading to some frustration at the pace of the game. Nevertheless, the spatial puzzle each turn does not feel laborious to me, but is rather enjoyable.
In revisiting Java after a couple of years, I find myself still enjoying the game, particularly the spatial optimization for scoring. It is also true that I am more acutely aware of the down time and the length between turns. This was less of an issue in the past and more to do with current gaming preferences. Nevertheless, this didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did others. I feel Java will always be tough on players who cannot visualize spatial arrangements in the head and to come up with different possibilities just by observing the state of the board. I definitely think it is a challenge no different for folks who can’t grok Ubongo. Despite its flaws, Java along with its Mask Trilogy bethren remains a Kramer and Kiesling classic for me.