Review: Viticulture Essential Edition

IMG_1647

Length 20 minutes per player

Release Date 2015

Designer: Morten Monrad Pedersen, Jamey Stegmaier, Alan Stone
Artist: Jacqui Davis, David Montgomery, Beth Sobel
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Category: Strategy
Players: 1-6
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.

Content Guide

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.

Review

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.

The individual player board. Notice that two grape cards are planted at the top, in the “field” area. If one or both of these fields are harvested, the player will have grapes to use. (Grapes are kept on the crush pad in the lower left. The player currently has both red and white grapes, as indicated by the glass beads.)

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.)

Some spaces provide a bonus at certain player counts. In a game with more than two players, the first workers placed on these spaces may get to draw an extra card or harvest an additional field.

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.

In this two-player game, blue is higher on the turn track than white. Therefore, blue goes first and earns a purple card. White goes second and earns a point.

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.

Blue was first in the turn order, so she got to place a worker first. She chose the “Build One Structure” action. White also wants to build a structure, but in a two-player game, only one regular worker may take each action. Thus, since the space is full, the only way to do this is to use his grande worker.

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.

This wine order requires a 3-value red and a 1-value white wine. Since the player has these in his cellar, he may fill an order to earn the listed reward.

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.

The Bottom Line

Viticulture is the kind of game people will still be enameled with in 50 years. It's a timeless design, and like fine wine, it gets better with age.

 

9.6

Author: Stephen Hall

A bard pretending to be a cleric. Possibly a Cylon, too. I was there when they dug up the "E.T." cartridges.