A Conversation With … TC Petty III, master barista of Viva Java: The Coffee Game

So this time I’m pleased to have TC Petty III as my guest. TC is the designer of Viva Java: The Coffee Game. Viva Java (VJ) was successfully Kickstartered last year by publisher Dice Hate Me Games. Welcome TC.

Tom: So TC, what do you want to tell us about yourself?

TC: Well, I’m a virgo.  I design board games.  My favorite candy is Caramello.  I took drum lessons for about 5 years and I taught myself to play guitar.  At one point, I played keyboards in a Viking Metal band.  My real name is Tom Petty, but no one calls me that, not because I’m offended, but because I’ve been known as “TC” for, like, all 31 years of my life.  I’m a licensed gas appliance technician.  I have a tendency to use a lot of extra commas and semi-colons; this practice is a hold-over from when I used to type out my stream-of-consciousness thoughts in high school.

Top Cat!

TC: With Boomerang, kids still know Top Cat.  Some do.  Yeah, we’re old.
I write well, but when I talk about myself I become long-winded.  So be very wary.

Tom: What do you do for a living?

TC: I work full-time as a game designer.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

But, seriously, to make actual money, I am a part-time dealer at Hollywood Casino in Grantville, PA.  The pay is nice.  The hours are terrible, but I wanted to try a little bit of the starving artist routine and focus as much as possible on game design.  It may be a dream that goes unfulfilled, but it’s an artistic outlet where I finally feel I can express myself.  And that is worth pursuing.

Tom: So your life is saturated with gaming pretty much all the time. That’s cool. I admire you for chasing the dream. I have a good friend who is a comic book writer. He did the ‘starving artist’ thing for many years and it finally paid off. He’s one of Marvel’s best writers now. And you are not alone. I know at least 2 others locally who have jumped on that boat. (hint: Chris and Daniel)
TC: I love having creative friends.

Tom: Ain’t it great?! What game got all this started?

TC: Settlers of Catan and Fleadom.  Settlers of Catan made my mind explode about ten years ago and it’s taken me years to pick up all the pieces.  And Fleadom was my first game design: a mish-mash of modular tiles, RTS games like Warcraft, Shadows Over Camelot, weirdness, and Ameritrashy dice-combat/card draws on a patch of animal fur.  It was theme-heavy (religious Flea colonies with end of the world calamities) and unique, but it wasn’t good at all.  Deconstructing my first play of Settlers and trying to recreate that exceptional first experience has been my game design goal all along.  I want make games that blow your mind.

Tom: Settlers was my first Euro too. You have one published game – Viva Java The Coffee Game from Dice Hate Me Games. Tell us how if came about.

TC: VivaJava was birthed while walking out of a Starbucks and quickly realizing that a mega-corporation would never create an angry battling game of die-hard barista wars; they’d try to be more friendly and cooperative about it to enhance their brand.  So, the entire game was created as if it were the perfect, corporate, branded, schill of an experience.  VivaJava in a can.  Even the cover art looks like an advertisement and I think Chris really nailed the style I was going for.  We were on the same page.  It was probably one of the reasons he decided to publish it in the first place.

The Coffee Game was also my first attempt at a “bigger” game.  I call it Game No. 5.  Before it, most of my games were dreamed up and developed without a focus on what I wanted the end-result to be.  I was obsessed with encouraging new ways of player interaction, not always negative.  At the time, we had been playing a ton of Poker.  And Montgolfiere’s simultaneous actions were a huge inspiration for most of my earlier designs.  Looking back, I think these mindsets pretty obviously influenced the design direction of VivaJava.

The game was in development for three years before the final product was sent electronically to Panda manufacturing.  It’s been a crazy ride.  I’ve been very fortunate.

Tom: Tell us about your publishing journey with DHMG.

TC: Not every aspect of working with a small indie publisher is perfection.  There’s uncertainty, trial and error, and the critical “reception” that suffers from most gamers assuming that an untested company’s games are inherently flawed.  If a Kickstarter company doesn’t blow people away or literally grab players and shake them, the game is quickly forgotten.  Luckily, Dice Hate Me Games does quality very easily.  After Chris Kirkman contacted me about publishing VivaJava (unexpectedly), it was his work on the prototype of Carnival that forced me to sign the dotted line.  Sure, I was dreaming of a BIG publisher picking up my dazzling, new, coffee game, but he was extremely reasonable about expectations, and of course, very excited!  I wanted a graphic designer for VivaJava, not an artist, and Chris was even more skilled than I knew at the time.  Talented, fast, and equipped with a proper Southern drawl.  And the extra creative control over my baby when working with a small publisher whose success is directly related to my game being top-notch was a welcome bonus.

I also wonder how many designers have gotten to sleep on an air mattress at their publisher’s home while they finalize the rule-book.  Oh yes. The famous air mattress. Oh yes.  And, that’s dedication!  Chris creates the art for the blend “Cup O’ Cabana” while Cherilyn and I watch High Fidelity.  We quickly became friends.  We had a good working relationship even when butting heads.

Seriously, best year of my life.  Awesome final product made with love and care and attention.  No regrets.

Tom: It is a very well done game. And seems to have gotten a great reception. Did anything change from initial concept to final product?

TC: Most of the “core” concepts in VivaJava have been the same since the initial prototype.  I’m still too new to game design to have a game that received a major overhaul from concept to publication (although that may change soon).

Tom: Explain that, the idea of being ‘too new’ to have a major overhaul. I think I know what you mean but can you unwrap that.

TC: I think, for me, and probably for a lot of new designers, if you spend months on a game and then it doesn’t work, well, you just shelf it.  You might revisit later; you might not.  Currently, I have not revisited anything that I have shelved, but like I said, I’ve only been designing games for about six years.  This is why I’m always afraid of “licensed” games (Star Wars, LotR).  Sure, the designers on big licenses mean well, but if they have a shovelware title on their hands, they don’t have the option of “shelving it.”  They are getting paid to complete a project.  They have deadlines.  And as long as it is “thematic” it will be given a pass by those who love that license.  It’s hard to make a good board game, and even harder to do it with time (and fan-boy) pressure.

However, I feel dumb that a Turn Order Track was one of the last additions to VivaJava.  It streamlined so many fiddly things and if you’ve played the final game, it probably seems essential.  But, those are humbling game design moments, when the simplest of ideas take so long to discover.

Tom: What is unique about it? How is it different from other games?

TC: I think most all of the gameplay elements in VivaJava have been done before.  There’s worker placement/role selection.  There’s engine-building and tech-trees, chit-pulling, poker hands, variable turn order, and multiple game-ending conditions.  But, these have been pared down to base concepts on purpose to allow for the most unique plus; VivaJava doesn’t just “play up to 8 players,” it was designed specifically to be the only Euro game that is Best with 5-8 players.  

Tom: I absolutely agree. The game is much better with more than 4.

TC: Honestly, I still like it, but I recommend playing first with more.  The game has the distinction of actually adding more mechanics to the game to support Less players.  Usually games do the opposite, which when you think about it, makes no sense.  Adding more players adds more downtime and complexity already, why add another handful of rules?

Tom: I will say I’ve played an early version of the ‘inspansion’ but didn’t care for it. I understand that it has been improved considerably since then. I really need to play VJ again.

TC: I have a friend who didn’t like the Inspansion too.  

This is a picture of that game.
This is a picture of that game.

He also thought that “Batman & Robin” was the best Batman film of all time after seeing it in theaters. All joking aside, it’s not easy to scale from 3-8 players.  I like it best with 8, some might only have that number on special occasions, so it’s nice to have the option.
Tom: Playing best at 6-8 does make it a unique game. The first time I played it, at Casa Kirkman with you in fact, was with a full complement. It was very fun.  

TC: I still haven’t played “If I’m Going Down” yet, but I remember you explaining the prototype for Chris if I’m not mistaken.  Games really bring cool people together.

Tom:  IIGD is a good game. AJ did a fantastic job responding to feedback and the final version is better than the prototype I have. My son really enjoys that game.

The first, I like to call “forced cooperation.”  Every round, a player chooses which country of the world they will explore.  Whatever region this country is in (there are three regions) will determine which team they are on for that round.  Players are forced to work together for a round and then change alliances next round.  It creates an interesting dynamic of positive player interaction, where it is usually in a player’s best interest to work nicely together.  This also makes the social game an integral part of the experience and table-talk is required.

The second is a “degrading” market.  Once all players score for Blends they have created, these Blends degrade by one bean and are rearranged if this changes their ranking.  So, the Best Blends are temporary and become weaker over time, but players control the market by adding or not adding new Blends to the list.  And it’s always moving.  I hope more games use this degrading concept in the future.

Tom: I really like the ‘forced co-op’ mechanic. I do think it is for the most part unique in that the game isn’t a co-op game. The changing situations created by this and the degrading market are true highlights of the game. I had a difficult time getting my mind around the blends thing at first.

TC: It’s tough, because the most accessible aspect of the game is the Poker hand ranking scale.  It’s not that VivaJava is difficult to learn, it just has a wonderful strangeness to it.

Tom: I will agree with that.  

TC: It can even throw experienced gamers for a loop who are used to multiplayer solitaire or player interaction that is all negative.  Once you realize that the game is about happiness and flowers on the surface and strategic spite underneath, you begin to realize how perfect a business simulation this game really is.

Tom: That’s a good way of describing VJ. I hear that you have a couple of games in the works, one with babies and one with pirates. How about some info on those?

TC: So, let’s talk babies first.  One of my good friends, Jim Carl, created a game called “Explorers” which he brought to a party for a first playtest.  It was a tile-laying game where players tried to make it across the board first.  In all honesty, it didn’t go over well.  Player elimination, natives were attacking, lose-a-turn cards, impassable terrain, and movement was achingly slow.  But, I loved the idea of tile-laying to create a racetrack which was controlled by the players.  In fact, Jim Carl usually has a lot of good game ideas.

Without his blessing (but eventually with his blessing), I started creating my own Rock-Climbing game based on the tile-laying racing mechanic.  Players create the rock face as they race to the top.  But, I needed some figures to represent climbers.  So, of course I found some “king cake” baby figurines at Michaels to use.  Chris Kirkman saw the pictures I posted, dubbed the game, “Rock Babies” and the name has stuck.

Rock Babies on the move.
Rock Babies on the move.

Rock Babies is a coin-flipping, tile-laying race game, with all the trappings of a trashy filler game.  But, there are two key game elements that make it strategic.  Each turn, a player’s first action is to draw a tile and play it “anywhere”.  That means, bad tiles can be played in front of those in the lead, good tiles can be played in front of yourself.  Then, players climb by flipping energy coins.  Depending on where your baby is on the mountain-side, you regain a certain amount of coins every turn.  Each rockface tile has a coin total in the corner, saying how many coins must be flipped to enter the tile safely.  The cool thing is payment is “the act of flipping” not the result.  So, if I need to enter a 3-coin tile, I flip 3 coins.  No matter what the outcome is, I have already made it to the tile.  I then lose whatever energy coins are face-down.  The press-your-luck aspect comes into play when I don’t have enough energy to make a climb.  And there’s always the Danger Coin.  When you end your turn, you move your piton to your current location.  If you fall, you fall back to where your last piton was placed.

Tom: I want to play this. It sounds neat. I am working on a tile laying game myself inspired by Swamp People so I’m interested in how you get the tiles out and results of those tiles.

TC: Pirates of the Carbon Copy started as a joke between me and Darrell Louder, but the mechanics inspired us and we forged ahead to create a prototype in November.  In the game, you play pirate accountants trying to return home with as much loot as possible before tax time.  Problem is, the Royal Navy has set up blockades, so the only way for you to safely pass is to have forged receipts for all of your goods.  In the game, however, these receipts (cards) allow you special actions (royal privileges) if you play them.  So, players have to balance how much plundering they do with how much time they spend forging receipts and playing them, all the while time is counting down and they’ll receive huge penalties if they don’t make it to the homeland for the deadline.

Cool mechanics.  A deck of cards that act as a count down to the tax deadline.  You never know exactly “when” the game will end, but you see the countdown and the tension is always present.  Four different colored dice are rolled each round, and players take three action using these same dice results.  What’s unique is that the player can use the die color, the die number, or simply expend a die a if it were an action point, to take the three actions.  There is attacking and buried treasure and gold and rum and hexes and rondels galore, and some receipts can be used when it is not your turn, keeping the player interaction high.  Also, the player screens look like Pirate ships (c/o Darrell).

Tom: Darrell mentioned this one in our interview so I wanted to get your perspective. It sounds right up my alley too. I like the concept of Rich Dice and am using it in a game my son and I are designing about hunting. I would be interested in seeing this one too.  

TC: Using dice in every way imaginable so that players never “PASS” an action.  That’s the difficult part.

We set out to make THE gateway hobby game.  Darrell is an insanely fast and thorough graphic designer, and I complain a lot and make hard cuts.  I have a tendency to make one change, pace around for an hour, thinking about things.  Darrell could have the game printed and for sale within that time.  It’s a good dynamic.  He keeps me from complacency.  I keep him from getting super-excited.

Tom: Standard GFG question: What are the aspects of a good player?

TC: A good player recognizes that hobby games can be complex and prepares accordingly.

Knowing now how a game designer feels when their baby is thrashed by reviews or ratings, makes me give players one piece of advice in this modern world of gaming.  Read the rules BEFORE you set it down on the table.  If rule-books make your eyes bleed and steam emit from your ear holes, set the mood if you have to.  Put on some Romance era piano sonatas, light some scented candles, and read the manual by a crackling fire.  But, seriously, gone are the days of Milton Bradley.  You can’t plop the game in the center of the table, flip over the box lid and read the rules aloud.

Tom: I agree. Unfortunately for a lot of ‘our’ games there’s research involved to enable you to play them. That’s a BIG barrier to new gamers. But, as you said, if you know that you are going to have to at the very least read the rulebook PRIOR to playing, that gives you a headstart. I think one of the grails should be to simplify or boil down the rules for easier understanding. AND good grammar and graphic design in the rulebook. For goodness sake, get someone outside of gaming to read the rules before you publish. Designers/publishers, please get fresh eyes on these things before you commit.

TC: Totally.  What sucks is that people can’t seem to agree on what is a “good” rule-book.  Seriously though, get other eyes to proofread.  The best thing that Chris did was to put the VivaJava rules up during the Kickstarter and ask for feedback.  

Tom: That was a good and EASY thing to do. There are enough people out there in our community who are editors, etc. and are more than willing to peruse a document.

TC: Definitely.  One person even translated the entire VJ rule-book to Hungarian with zero prompting.  The community is willing, so abuse them.

Tom: We’ve had zombies, pirates, city building, deck building. What’s the next hot theme in board games?

TC: Oh, definitely fictional, pseudo-historical Euro-style games.  Lords of Waterdeep was based in a DnD fictional universe.  I’m expecting more along the lines of the Tempest series from AEG or the litany of Steampunky titles.  Basically, paste a “geek-friendly” theme onto a traditional Euro.  Not saying its a bad idea; in fact, I heartily support it.

Tom: That’s a new one. I think you have something there. You’re very active and plugged into the game design community. How did that happen?

TC: Luck and Twitter.  

Tom: Yeah, Twitter is pretty awesome for that.

TC: Indeed.  I recommend Twitter to every game designer.  My feed is filled with gems of ideas everyday, and I’ve met a ton of cool people and other designers that like to give feedback.  It helps that I truly enjoy these people as well.  Instead of awkward silence when we see each other in person, I can instantly skip small-talk and start commenting on current events.  It’s like a Google Hangout, but in real life.

And, because of my own search for a publisher, I met John Moller and attended the first Unpub.  Since then, Unpub has grown.  I’ve been to at least five of the minis, I believe, and helped run two of them.  It keeps me involved and giving back to the community.  I take no credit for the growth.  John has spearheaded this thing, setting up events across the U.S., even reaching out to the UK for some upcoming events, I hear.  Unpub 3 will be bigger than last year, Unpub 4 will be even huger.

With Kickstarter, the barrier to entry for publishing has been lowered, and Unpub is simply connecting those new and established publishers with the designers that will hopefully make them rich.  It’s nice to be in on the ground floor with something like that.

Tom: What’s your favorite unpublished game right now?

TC: Compounded was my favorite from 2011, but I can’t include that one anymore.  I don’t have a clear winner for 2012.  Some excellent games I’ve played this year:  Roll for Amusement – Garrett Herdter, Phobos – Brad Smoley,  East India Trading Company – Paul Owens, City Hall – Michael Keller, and I’m always interested in what Ben Rosset is cooking up.

Tom: Compounded is SO good. I can’t wait on it. I hear very good things about East India. I haven’t heard of the first two.

TC: Soo good.  I met Garrett at an Unpub Mini, then got to visit his honey bottling business to roll some dice.  Roll for Amusement is an interesting balance of press-your-luck amusement park building, with strategic multi-purpose cards.  I’m also a member of the Table Treasures design group, where I met Brad Smoley.  Phobos is an area-control, time-control, tile-laying-driven, cave-building, gem mining game on a moon, with robots.

Tom: Had me sold at time-control and amusement park. That’s a theme that doesn’t have a lot of games around it. Hmmm….What are you currently playing the most?

TC: My own prototypes, honestly.  I don’t hate them yet, so that’s a very good sign!
As for REAL games, I got a copy of Seasons for Christmas.  And I’ve been playing Glory to Rome, Chicken Caesar, and Coup.  Glory to Rome gets better and better each time I play.  Chicken Caesar is a big hit with every group I introduce it to.  Coup is a nice, focused, bluffing game.  Once I get my copy of Myrmes this month, that’ll be my new obsession, I’m sure.

Tom: I hear good things about Chicken Ceasar. I hope to play it soon. I’m interested in Coup. That one sounds fun.

TC: Coup is very cool.  Although I keep getting the rules wrong apparently.

Tom: What two pieces of advice would you give aspiring game designers?

TC: Number one: same advice every designer gets, every time.  “Worry about pretty art/design LAST and only when the component in question is nearly final.”  I’m still guilty of this cardinal design sin and no designer ever listens to this advice, but I’m getting better at being flexible and simple.  I write on everything.  I cross things out and literally throw pieces in the trash.  Don’t take your first prototype and print it out with The Game Crafter.  Wait.  Playtest ten more times.  Things will change.  Don’t let the art be better than your game.

And when your game is 95% complete, and you’re ready to hawk it to publishers, do every thing you can to have a face-to-face demo.  You can build a relationship through Twitter and emails, but nothing is a good substitute for direct interaction.  Do a little research.  Find out a convention that the publisher will be attending, figure out “who” makes decisions and shake their hand.  For example, tell Stephen Buonocore (StrongHold Games) that you have an excellent craft beer for him if he sits down and plays a game with you.  Tell Chris Kirkman (Dice Hate Me Games) that your game has a player tableau.  Elevator pitch the hell out of them and snag them for a real demo.  If you believe in your game, this is your best shot and it’s totally worth your time even if rejection comes.

Tom:What game surprised you and how?

TC: SpaceTeam for iOS.  It’s weird to call a video game “real time,” but it’s an electronic board game that requires everyone to be in the same room.  Each player is given a unique and randomly determined control panel with labeled buttons to press and dials to turn.  The object of the game is engage the warp drive, but in typical sci-fi fashion, every single time you warp, there’s always a million settings to activate and change and disaster looms around every corner.  On your screen it might say “Set the Ambiblathe to Maximum.” But, the problem is, there’s no Ambiblathe dial on your screen, so you have to yell out to the other players “Set the Ambiblathe to Maximum,” and whoever has that control is supposed to move that dial.  All the while, every single player has a different task that pops up on their screen and is yelling directions as well. Absolute joy.

Tom: That does sound fun. I need to check it out. What is next for you?  What else is in the que?  

TC: Unpub 3 is coming up very soon (Jan. 19 & 20) and I’m bringing two officially registered games with me:  VivaJava: The Coffee Game: The Dice Game and Club Zen.  Plus, Pirates of the Carbon Copy will be there.  Club Zen is a worker placement game where players are trying to become the most relaxed at a resort.  Clocking in at 2 hours, it’s a solid medium-weight Euro game and my new personal baby.
Tom: I so wish I could make Unpub3. 40 designers and 60 games!!  

TC: That means 40 people are guaranteed to be in attendance.  It’s awesome!

2012 was a very productive year.  Tri-interval Velo-synchrometer, Rock Babies, The Message, VivaJava:TCG:TDG, Club Zen, and many more half-baked ideas just nearly there.  The queue is even longer, with a game about the end of the world, a victorian morality board game, a DVD-based Euro game about Mad Scientists and a revamp of an older game about Weather Forecasting.  Umm, yeah, so every odd-ball theme imaginable.

Tom: VJ:TCG:TDG????!!, I’ve heard of Rock Babies and would like to play it. Pirates sounds fun. I just watched ‘The Crimson Mutual Assurance’ yesterday. That DVD game sound like a groundbreaker to me.  

TC: That Monty Python skit is great.  Sadly, it has little to do with the Pirate game other than general accounting involved.  The mechanic of having to have a receipt for everything you plunder makes the game excellent.

And as a side-note, if I’m able to make a Euro game that actually uses a DVD (or tablet app) in an integral way, I win.  I have yet to play a DVD game that is even remotely strategic (or fun).

Tom: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

TC: Companies need to stop putting people on the cover of their games.  The medieval/renaissance cartographer, or the grinning band of raucous pirates, or the smug aristocrat looking at the camera and challenging you to build his mediterranean city’s architecture one stupid tile at a time.  I’ll never get the fascination.  And it’s such a needless barrier for entry for new gamers.  If I saw Caylus at Target, I’d be like “yeah, that looks boring.”  A clean, snazzy title in the center or a bad-ass castle is so much better.  The board game audien ce is broader than people think; let’s invite those new gamers in!

Also, I’m lucky because I have a higher percentage of female playtesters than most, but I still want to see more female designers.  How many have I met at Unpub?  Umm, let me think about that for no amount of time: zero.  You’re out there somewhere.  Board games are very male-centric and will continue to be so until those of the feminine persuasion jump in.  Get involved.

Tom: Oh how very true. Male centric. Daniel Solis lamented the same idea recently. How few female designers there are. I can only think of two – Susan McKinley Ross of Qwirkle and Frank’s Zoo’s Doris Matthaus of Frank & Doris game company. That’s a good topic for a future discussion. AND I should try to get

How can people contact you?  Are there any links you would like folks to visit?

TC: Hit me up on BGG (TheCrippledWerewolf) and follow me on Twitter @puppyshogun.

Thank a lot for joining me TC. It was a real blast getting to know you. I am looking forward to playing so games with you the next time you are in Durham!

TC mentioned Unpub3 a lot. Unpub3 is January 19 & 20 in Magnolia, Delaware. You can find more information here.unpub3_250-nd

Thanks for joining me and TC. I hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I did. Please leave a comment below.

Coming up on Go Forth And Game: My interview with David Gregg, Nightfall’s designer, a long overdue review of Belfort, an interview with designer Paul Owen, and a new Question of The Month. Y’all come back now, ya hear!


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