Interview with a Vampire: TC Petty III

28 June 2013 | No Comments

At the end of his e-mail interview with me, game designer TC Petty III informed me that, “I work nights as a dealer at a local casino, so if you get back to me during the day, just know I might be asleep. And since I am awake only during vampire hours, I am legally obligated to prey on the living.” Hence the title of this entry.

TC Petty III, the designer of VivaJava and VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game (now on Kickstarter), graciously accepted my offer to interview him on today’s blog entry. TC is active on Twitter if you’d like to ask follow-up questions to him, or  you can post them in the comments below.

1. Can you describe VivaJava Dice in a few sentences? Can I call it that? That’s how I say it in my head, not “VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game.”

vivajTotally. VivaJava Dice is what the kids are calling the game on the streets these days, or “that diced coffee game”.

VivaJava Dice is a “king of the hill,” coffee-blending, euro-dice game for 2 to 4 players that plays in about 30 minutes. It takes the classic dice game formula and mixes it with stripped-down, modern, engine-building. Basically, you roll five dice and decide if you want to Blend or Research with the result. If you create a Blend, you score a meager one performance point, but if no one else can create a better Blend by the time you begin your next turn, you score big points. If you Research, you choose a color, and for every die showing that color, you move one space along your appropriate Research Track. This will gain you abilities that you’ll be able to use for the rest of the game and will score you points if you reach the End of a Research Track.

Also, to spice it up, there are Flavor Dice to collect and a Rainbow Blend to brew. Oh yeah, and the entire game is made of coasters, ready for display on your dining room table. It’s a hip coffee/game lover’s dream. No more self-consciously hiding your gaming addiction in the closet.

2. What is your favorite mechanic in the game?

Guildhall-Box-964x1024If I had to pick one, it’d be what I’ve dubbed the “Guild Hall” mechanic. I’ve never actually played Guild Hall, but I’m sure I’ll get to it someday and once I do, I’ll probably realize that I stole this mechanic from Guild Hall.

In VivaJava Dice, you build up your arsenal of special abilities by Researching. Every ability has two levels, but when you reach the final spot on the track, you score Performance Points. The game ends immediately when a player reaches 21 PP. The frustrating tactical issue however, is that when you score a Research Track, you immediately cross it out and can no longer use that ability. So, sometimes the question then becomes, is it worth not being able to re-roll for the rest of the game, just to score a quick 3 points? Or is it worth gaining 4 points for completing a track that allows you to gain extra Flavor Dice?

The cool thing this mechanic did, is allowed me to add abilities into the game that are specifically BAD for a player to Research. For example, there’s an ability that forces you to roll 1 less die each turn for each level you’ve reached on the track. This is terrible, because not only does it limit your options, you must use five dice to create a Blend. However, if you can power through to the end of the track, you score 7 points, and then cross off the track, losing the ability. It’s a risk, but depending on your timing, it can pay off well. Also, if certain abilities are in play, you can “help” other players by giving them research points and nudging them to the end of a useful track. Sure, they score points, but if they lose a key ability, it can be rough.

3. What are three games (other than the original VivaJava) that, if people really like those games, they’re likely to also like VivaJava Dice?

Alright, this is the toughest question yet, but I think I have three solid games.

BohnanzaBohnanza. For a long time, I was a huge Bohnanza fan. I’ve become burnt out on it (like all deck-builders) after playing it so many times with large groups, but there was definitely a valid reason for my Bohnanza love: gifting. Bohnanza may be a set-collection game about creating the best anthropomorphic bean field and then reaping it for gold coins, but for me, the game was always about making trades, and those times where you might be forced to give away a bean to another player for free. It was this sense of begrudging camaraderie that helped inspire many of the mechanics in VivaJava Dice. For those that want their games to be less about smashing and more about subtly back-stabbing another player while smiling, and also want a lighter experience to go with it, it’s hard to go wrong with Bohnanza or VivaJava Dice.

Quarriors. For people who hated Quarriors because it’s a flawed, rich-get-richer, luck-driven, attack-fest of a game, VivaJava Dice will appeal to you with it’s balanced engine-building and the feeling that no roll is “bad roll,” it’s simply how you utilize those resources each turn. For people who loved Quarriors because you get to roll custom dice and unlock powerful special abilities, you get to roll more dice in VivaJava Dice and unlock more special abilities. Just trade in your black beans for Flavor Dice, then roll even more dice! If you don’t like working together, you can simply roll tons of dice and beat down all your friend’s Blends. You’ll probably lose, but you’ll feel like you did something.

San Juan. San Juan is the game I had in mind while designing VivaJava Dice. Not because VivaJava Dice shares anything in common with it, but because its a solid game based off the older sibling, Puerto Rico. San Juan is fast-paced with tactical and strategic depth, minimal components, and the inherent portability of a small card game. It’s also a fine two-player experience. It’s everything I modeled VivaJava Dice after and I hope those that enjoy San Juan will find something to love in my game. I could have phoned it in (like I did my entire four years at college), but games are serious business and my biggest dream is that people point to these coasters and dice later and say, “that’s how you make a dice game.”

4. Whenever I design a game and playtest it, the reality is always very different than how it played out in my mind. What was the biggest disconnect between your vision and the reality of playtesting, and how did you solve it?

vivabigHonestly, I’d be lying if I said this game is completely different from when I initially sketched out my ideas in Excel to the game it is now. The game worked, and was actually pretty damn fun from the very beginning. I usually hate dice, so if it wasn’t, I would have quickly shelved the idea. I think the fact that I was openly developing it, taking it to play testing events and posting files online (and also that it was an iterative re-imagining of VivaJava’s mechanics), really helped speed the process. I never “hit a wall” with this game, but I did always have this nagging feeling that something was missing.

So, back in January, I attended Unpub 3 in Dover, Delaware and was able to playtest VivaJava Dice about five times that weekend with different groups. When I spoke to everyone after playing the game, the feedback was positive and players were offering general suggestions and tweaks here and there; nothing major. Until my friend, Eli. The playtest he was a part of went phenomenally, in my opinion. The end-game was exciting and every player was just one turn away from winning and it came down to one final roll. He turned to me and said, “that was a really well-designed game. But, I hated it.”

He went on to explain why. “I thought it was going to be like VivaJava. But, I never felt like I was interacting with other players positively. It just didn’t have the same ‘feel’.” I wasn’t really heart-broken, just confused. VivaJava Dice is my, umm, I don’t know, thirteenth game design maybe, so this was more of a new challenge to tackle. He was right, though. While the game was heads and tails more interactive than the average Eurogame, it was missing this “feeling” of meaningful interaction. Nothing in the game was “take that” but it still felt like iced coffee instead of a cup of espresso.

I kept his comments in my mind for months as the game developed, asking every new player if they had any ideas to make the game more interactive. Darrell Louder is responsible for the Flavor Dice Investment mechanic, which really helped in enabling players to negotiate. Ryan Sanders offered multiple ability ideas that forced more active interaction between players. I can’t pinpoint the exact day, but VivaJava Dice turned the corner, with help from others, and became a game that I really feel doesn’t need the original VivaJava to justify its existence. Each new player, every person that downloaded the print-and-play files and sent me feedback, each new idea pushes it more and more towards that indescribable feeling. Sometimes it just takes one person to really bust you out of a shell, stop patting yourself on the back, and make the game better.

5. Was there any element of VivaJava Dice that you felt strongly about, but Dice Hate Me had a difference of opinion? How did you sort out those differences? Some sort of coffee drink-off?

Usually any discrepancies are settled with a back alley, switch-blade brawl as stated within our publishing agreement.

Sadly, with VivaJava Dice there is so little drama. It’s actually a little disappointing. With the original VivaJava, I used to read Chris’s (Dice Hate Me Games owner) “suggestion” emails and get really steamed. I would pace around the room, cursing to myself, and seethe with some sort of indignant egotistical pride. “How dare he suggest such a thing? Doesn’t he know that I’ve tested this game a hundred times and this one minor change would completely DESTROY the BALANCE of my perfect creation?” But, out of respect for the sanity of all parties, I would always sleep on it, and respond to the email later with a clearer head. Most of his suggestions were actually very helpful, and if we didn’t make the proposed changes, they usually spawned another equally viable solution.

Chris and I have gotten to a creepily trustworthy point in our business relationship. It helps that we became close friends shortly after we signed a contract for the original VivaJava. So, if I’m pulling for dry-erase coasters after playing Saint Malo, and he says “no, that’s stupid and messy.” I back down. And when he wants to throw everything possible into the basic boxed version, I say, “you’re going to confuse everybody; are you crazy?” And we compromise on a basic and Deluxe version in the Kickstarter. But, generally, I respect his magnificent graphic design mastery, and he respects my game design hunches.

And now that we have Angry Dice, all future arguments will be settled in the Anger Arena.

6. If you could play VivaJava Dice with one historical figure (no longer living), one mega-celebrity, and one person from the gaming world (designer, reviewer, publisher, etc), who would they be?

brigham-youngHistorical figure: Brigham Young. I joined the Mormon Church when I was eight. I no longer practice, but I think if Brigham Young would have played VivaJava Dice with me before taking the saints to Salt Lake City, he would have at least considered amending the “hot drinks” statement to specifically mean alcohol, and not coffee. Seriously, just think of how many Mormons play board games and how many Mormons won’t buy VivaJava Dice because it’s a game about a drink that you cannot consume if you want to enter the Temple or the Celestial Kingdom. We could have called the game, “Postum Party” but literally only LDS members would understand.  There are so many positive benefits to coffee consumption, I guess it’s something I will never understand until they invent a time machine with an espresso-maker inside.

Mega-Celebrity: Ryan Gosling. ‘Cause he’s dreamy.

Game Designer: Friedemann Friese. One thing that Mr. Friese likes for some reason is a board game that has no points to total at the end of the game. I don’t know why this is one of his design goals (it usually invites major kingmaking situations), but I know that VivaJava Dice would be right up his alley. He’s also one of the only board game designers that has a unique personality that is expressed through his games. And while VivaJava Dice might not have enough “quirk” for him, I bet he’s an awesome gamer buddy. He’d probably understand the strategy right away and start crushing with research only to lose in the end to my bold and aggressive black bean Blend.

7. From Twitter it seems that you’ve read some of my Kickstarter Lessons and possibly followed my Kickstarter campaigns. What is one piece of advice or something I did on Kickstarter that you really agree with and would like to see more of, and what’s something that you have a different spin on that you’d like to share?

vivaboxI’m really impressed by the International Shipping options and how you were able to control costs by establishing a presence within the Amazon warehouses with the European Union/Germany. I don’t see a whole lot of companies following in your footsteps on that one for various reasons (international licensing for one), but the information is invaluable. And it goes without saying that your Kickstarter campaigns are perfect models of how to do a campaign right. You’re always hyper-critical of yourself, but Kickstarter thrives on community and the imperfections are what make that human connection.

One issue that was brought up recently in one of your posts was both “flexibility” and transparency when it comes to stretch goals on Kickstarter projects. As someone that follows and backs other projects, I’m okay with one or two stretch goals being posted when the campaign begins, but I actually dislike when they are ALL laid out in some sort of “Spreadsheet of Possibilities” format. Because for the general, first or second time Kickstarter project creator, this “missed potential” when the campaign ends can be a bit of detriment. And while it shows confidence, it’s also somewhat presumptive. I want to feel “involved,” not as if I’m climbing a ladder with 35 rungs and I haven’t even taken one step.

Most projects will barely succeed. And to be perfectly honest, stretch goals are the “dangling carrots” and from a purely business standpoint they should cause double-indemnity and be placed so close to within reach that the community of backers actually rev up their own “word of mouth” advertising in an attempt to achieve the goal. Having an exact plan of all stretch goals ahead of time is wonderful, but being able to see the statistics on Kicktraq after the campaign has begun and actively alter the stretch goal levels is going to be extremely helpful for any campaign. It might sound manipulative, and it admittedly is, but if you actually have that issue then you are now managing success and in a small business venture, that is amazing.

I think TC makes some great points about the stretch goals–it is a bit presumptuous to include a ton of stretch goals before the project has funded. And it’s true that stretch goals are a great “carrot on a stick” to increase a backer’s willingness to share the project. However, I think that stretch goals need to be tied to economies of scale and actual expenses, not arbitrary levels solely there to serve as the aforementioned carrots. So a balance of those two would work well, in my opinion.

If this sounds like the type of game you’d like or TC sounds like the type of designer you’d like to support, you can check out VivaJava Dice here. I’m a backer.

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