Viticulture Essential Edition
In Viticulture, the players find themselves in the roles of people in rustic, pre-modern Tuscany who have inherited meager vineyards. They have a few plots of land, an old crushpad, a tiny cellar, and three workers. They each have a dream of being the first to call their winery a true success.
The players are in the position of determining how they want to allocate their workers throughout the year. Every season is different on a vineyard, so the workers have different tasks they can take care of in the summer and winter. There's competition over those tasks, and often the first worker to get to the job has an advantage over subsequent workers.
Fortunately for the players, people love to visit wineries, and it just so happens that many of those visitors are willing to help out around the vineyard when they visit as long as you assign a worker to take care of them. Their visits (in the form of cards) are brief but can be very helpful.
Using those workers and visitors, players can expand their vineyards by building structures, planting vines (vine cards), and filling wine orders (wine order cards). Players work towards the goal of running the most successful winery in Tuscany.
Viticulture - Essential Edition comes with components for Viticulture, but adds some of the expansions from Tuscany, including 36 Mama & Papa cards, Field cards (previously known as "Properties"), expanded/revised Visitors, and 24 Automa cards (solo variant), along with a couple of minor rule changes.
20 minutes per player
Designer: Morten Monrad Pedersen, Jamey Stegmaier, Alan Stone
Artist: Jacqui Davis, David Montgomery, Beth Sobel
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Price: $47.99 Amazon.com
Viticulture is one of Stonemaier Games’ mega-hits. A mid- to heavy-weight worker placement game for 2-6 players, it is extremely tight, deeply strategic, and beautiful to look at.
Viticulture is a game about winemaking. There are absolutely no objectionable aspects to the game, but if the theme of wine is troubling, be warned.
Old-world Italy. Beautiful architecture, scenic landscapes, delicious cuisine. And don’t forget the world-famous wine! Stonemaier Games’ Viticulture puts players in the roles of vineyard owners. They tend all varieties of grapes to produce the most delicious wines they can.
The main action is played out on a central board, divided into Summer and Winter sections. Each game round represents a year. Players also have their own individual tableau boards, where they can build helpful structures like a trellis, a tasting room, or an irrigation system.
Before I go any further, I will say this outright: there is a lot to this game. Though the mechanics are surprisingly streamlined, Viticulture is far from “easy.” Therefore, it would be impractical to cover every facet of the game (not to mention, it would take a while). So instead, I will give a very general rundown of how it works, and then explain why I enjoy it so much.
The goal of the game is to get the most points, and making wine is the primary way to do so. As in a real vineyard, winemaking is a multi-step process. Players plant and grow grapes, which they then harvest, crush, and ferment. Once they have wine, they age it in a cellar until it is ready to be shipped.
Viticulture abstracts this entire process into game form, with a space for just about every action a player could wish to take. Want to plant grapes? Place a worker. Want to harvest grapes? Place a worker. Want to train more workers? Place a worker. (Man, I wish “Inception” jokes were still funny.)
It’s worth noting that the actions are taken in seasonal order (that is, all Summer actions are taken before any Winter actions). This plays to the theme; it makes sense that grapes would be planted in summer and harvested in winter. As in most worker placement games, the turn order is quite important, since each action may only be taken by a certain number of workers per round.
At the beginning of each round, players do a draft to determine turn order. One by one, everyone selects an available space on the turn track. Players then take turns, in the established order, placing workers and executing their actions.
Many spaces on the turn track offer a bonus. In general, the later a player decides to act in the turn sequence, the better the bonus will be, but the harder it will be to snag the optimal board spaces. Likewise, going first yields no bonus, but the player has an entire board’s worth of actions to choose from.
Action spaces fill up quickly, so it’s helpful that each player has a “grande” worker. This special worker may take an action in a space that is at capacity, meaning someone can elbow his way into a full space to take an action he otherwise couldn’t.
When all workers have been placed and all actions resolved, grapes and/or wine in players’ vineyards age by one year. This tends to make them more valuable down the road. Workers are then collected from the board, and another round begins.
Let me say again that this is only the most bare-bones rundown of Viticulture. I didn’t discuss the different types of cards, the asymmetric starting resources, the bonuses offered by structures, residual income, or selling grapes/fields. Again, there is a lot to this game, so I’d prefer to focus more on why I so enjoy it, rather than how all the mechanical cogs work together. (I recommend checking out some of the awesome how-to-play videos on YouTube for a more in-depth rules explanation.)
It’s very unlike me to be crazy about a euro game—especially a heavier one—but Viticulture is an exception. It is the kind of game that takes a couple of playthroughs to really understand, but when it clicks, players will start to see just how strong its design is.
This is a deeply strategic experience in which players need to reconcile long- and short-term goals. For example, it is important to plan ahead, harvesting grapes early so they have time to age throughout the game. At the same time, however, it is also important to play cards, build structures, and do other “right now” actions.
Players must constantly wrestle with their order of operations. Every turn, they will be thinking, “I really need to take action X, but if I do so, will action Y still be available on my next turn?” (Spoilers: It won’t.) Viticulture is a tight design, and it scales amazingly well; it is just as good with two players as it is with five.
Theme matters a lot to me, so it is awesome that every facet of this game feels thematic. For instance, a player who has built a tasting room earns a bonus when giving a vineyard tour. Makes sense, right? In the same way, players can make beverages like rosés or sparkling wines in exactly the way you would expect: by combining reds and whites. Though the game may be a bit intimidating at first, this thematic integration really helps new players understand what is happening. (For me personally, this is a huge plus.)
Though winemaking is not exactly action-packed, Viticulture has a very nice crescendo to it. In the beginning, as players are building their engines, it may look like the game is going to take hours and hours to play. Once players’ vineyards are chugging along, though, things really ramp up, and a single player may score 6-8 points in a single year. (To put this in perspective, the game-end is triggered when someone reaches 20 points.)
A sure sign of good design is when a game has multiple viable approaches to its strategy. Viticulture players can experiment with planting lots of grapes, building lots of structures, acquiring all their workers, playing as many cards as possible, or a mix of all of these and more. Amazingly, it seems that no matter how a player strategizes, he or she can always be competitive.
A few months ago, in an act of sheer hubris, a friend of mine tried to win without ever filling a wine order (for context, wine orders usually account for the majority of a player’s overall score). By the end of the game, we were neck-and-neck, and he had never sold any wine! The fact that the game accommodated such an outside-the-box strategy showed me just how balanced and robust it really is; I know a lot of games that would fall apart if someone tried something like that.
Viticulture is an exceptional “next-level” game. I never thought I’d see the day when a meaty euro would be in my Top 10, but here we are. Viticulture is a modern-day classic, and I absolutely love it. I would not recommend it for someone who is brand new to gaming—it may be a bit much to comprehend—but once all players have their feet wet in the gaming hobby, this is a must-play.
+ Very tight at all player counts
+ Amazing integration of theme and mechanics
+ Provides a great deal of room for strategic exploration
+ Gorgeous production quality
- Can be a bit difficult to explain to new gamers, because of the amount of nuance involved