Reviewed by: Herb Levy
(Stonemaier Games, 2 to 6 players, ages 13 and up, 45-90 minutes; $60)
Wine is often thought of as “the nectar of the gods” being a source of inspiration for centuries, its virtues extolled through literature of all sorts (even poetry). So it is no surprise that this inspiration has spilled over into games. Wine making, its pleasures and perils, have been the topic for several games over the last few years. The inspiration continues as players attempt to be the most successful winemaker inViticulture.
In Viticulture, designed by Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone, each player begins with their own vineyard mat and a supply of wooden pieces of various shapes and sizes in their chosen color. The vineyard mat depicts three fields (to grow grapes), a small cellar to hold wines (with room to upgrade to a medium or large cellar), an area to chart harvested grapes (red and white) as well as buildings that may be constructed to grant a player useful abilities. Players also begin with a randomly dealt “Vine” card and three workers (two regular sized meeples and a large, “Grande”, piece) plus some money (lira).
The central and larger board shows the aerial view of the grape-growing grounds with spaces for all the actions available each game year as well as places to put the four decks of cards (Vine, Summer Visitor, Winter Visitor, and Orders).
A game round is a year broken into the four seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter). Each season allows certain actions to be taken (but worker placement only occurs in the Summer and Winter seasons).
With Spring, the player going first (and this is done randomly for the first – and only the first – turn) chooses WHEN he will take his turn for the remainder of that year. By placing his token (a “rooster” to indicate when the player is “waking up” his crew), a player guarantees his turn position for the remainder of the year. As might be suspected, going first is an advantage but benefits are available if you choose NOT to go first. For example, going second allows you to draw another vine card, third, an order card, fourth, some gold, fifth, a summer or winter visitor card, sixth, a Victory Point and seventh gains you an additional, albeit temporary, worker to place sometime in the year. (Why these bonuses are valuable will soon become evident.)
With Summer, players, in order as determined during Spring, may place workers on the YELLOW board spaces only. (Winter spaces are colored blue.) The thing to remember here is that workers placed in the Summer are “spent”; they may NOT be placed again in the Winter season of that year. You need to be very judicious in placing your limited work force. (This is a reason why you may want to go seventh and pick up that temporary extra worker for the year.) Each action space (both Summer and Winter) offers a bonus for the first player going there. On the down side, though, each space has room for only a limited amount of workers (based on the number of players). However, all is not lost – and that is where your Grande worker comes in.
Each player has one Grande (large sized) worker available. This worker can “muscle in” on a full area so you need not necessarily be shut out of a critical action on a turn. Let’s take a closer look at these actions.
In the Summer, placing workers allows you to play a Summer Visitor Card (Visitor cards, available for use in both the Summer and Winter seasons are all good and grant you something extra to use in your quest for fine wine), Draw a Vine card (these cards represent the types of grapes you can plant in your fields), Give a Vineyard Tour (get some money), Plant Vines (place one of your Vine cards onto one of your fields, ready to be harvested later), Sell Grapes (another way to get needed funds by selling grapes you have already harvested from your fields) and Build One Structure.
Many structures may be built during the game. Structures allow you to upgrade your cellars (better cellars allow you to hold better – and more valuable – wines), trellises and/or irrigation (useful as they are required in order to plant certain vines) and more. All of these structures are beneficial but they all cost money and money can be tight.
Once all players have passed (because they have used all their workers or are saving whatever workers left for the Winter season), the Fall season commences. In turn order, players may draw either a Summer or Winter Visitor card. (These cards are ALL good but can only be played by committing a worker to the appropriate space in the appropriate season.) Finally, the year wraps up with the Winter season.
Once again, players place their workers in areas but only in BLUE spaces designated for the Winter season. These areas allow players to Draw a Wine Order card (these are orders for wine that are filled to gain Victory Points AND revenue), Harvest a Field (that’s how your grapes get onto your player mat), Train a New Worker (gain a new and permanent worker for use in the next year but at a cost), Play a Winter Visitor Card, Make up to two Wine Tokens, and Fill a Wine Order. Because money can be so tight, there is also a space, with unrestricted access, for players to get some money. But the thrust of the game involves these three actions: harvesting, making wine and filling orders.
With Harvest a Field, all cards on one of a player’s field are totaled. The combined total of red grapes and/or white grapes converts into the value of the harvest. (For example, two white vine cards valued at 1 and 2 will yield a 3 value white grape.) This is noted by placing a token on the appropriately valued space on either the red or white grape value track on your play mat. The Vine cards, however, remain in your field and are not discarded, able to be harvested the following year. You can, subsequently, add to them (up to a maximum combined total value of 6).
Making Wine allows you to convert grape tokens into wine. For example, a 3 valued red grape will convert into a 3 valued red wine. Blush and sparkling wines may also be created by combining different grapes. A white grape valued at 3 combined with a red grape valued at 1 will yield a blush wine valued at 4. Similarly, sparkling wines require combining TWO red grapes with one white to yield a sparkling wine of the combined value. You have to keep in mind that the size of your cellar impacts on the value of wines created. Blush wines, for instance, can only be held in medium or large cellars while sparkling wines can only be held in large cellars. Filling a Wine Order is the culmination of all your effort.
Wine Order cards display the types and values of wines necessary to fulfill that order. Players reveal their Order card, hand in the appropriate wine tokens and receive the noted Victory Points and “Residual Payment”. A Residual Payment is a revenue stream. At the beginning of the game, players start at 0 but each Residual Payment earned moves that player’s token up 1 on the payment track (to a maximum of 5).
At the end of each year, player’s receive the amount of money equal to their place on the Residual Payment track. In addition, all grapes and wines held by players “age”, shown in game terms by moving grape and wine tokens one space ahead on their respective tracks. (This movement may be hampered by the size of a player’s cellar since cellars can only hold up to certain values of wine.) Now, workers (and rooster tokens) return to the players, the first player token is rotated counter-clockwise and the next year of activities begins.
Play continues until the endgame is triggered by someone reaching 20 (or more) Victory Points. That year is completed with the player who has amassed the most VPs when the year ends (and there is a maximum of 25 VPs that can be scored) wins. (Tied? Then most money, followed by total value of wine in the cellar, followed by total value of grapes held, will determine the winner.)
To succeed in VIticulture, you need to set up and maximize a grape growing/wine production/order fulfilling engine to generate Victory Points. The trick is discovering which of several viable paths to victory is the one for you!
In a worker placement game, it is always a good idea to recruit more workers than your opposition as this provides you with the ability to do more each round (or season). By only starting with 3 workers to use for two seasons, the need for recruitment is readily evident. This makes going last the first few game years a tantalizing choice as it rewards you with another worker to use. Yet, another – and balancing – consideration is the benefit of being the first to occupy an action space as the bonus actions accompanying the player who is first at a location can be extremely useful (extra cards, more money, discounts on building, bonus Victory Points and more). With different rewards available at different slots of the turn order, it can sometimes be a tough decision regarding just how you wish to affect turn order.
Graphically, the game is very solid with lots of wooden pieces. Most companies would have simply used cubes to represent the various types of buildings and they would have functioned just fine. In Viticulture, Stonemaier opted for different shaped wooden pieces to represent the different buildings, a classy and pleasing choice which adds to the ambiance. The icons used on the contracts (and board) to differentiate between sparkling and white wines, although different in shape, are similar in color, a situation true to the reality of the wines but something that a cursory glance might cause you to confuse. Be careful.
The Grande worker is an excellent addition to the 2nd edition as its presence prevents you from being completely stymied from doing an action critical to your plan. But, of course, when and where to use it adds another set of decisions to be made.
As mentioned, all Visitor cards are good. While you need to concentrate on your VP generating engine, a secondary “punch” is also possible with the use of those Summer and Winter visitor cards. Singularly, they can be powerful. But, if you can pick up and keep a few of these that work together well (there is hand limit of 7 cards to prevent you from “hoarding”), you can sometimes play two at a time (taking advantage of placement bonuses) and really pack a wallop!
While the game scales well with any number from 2 to 6, four seems to be the sweet spot, keeping turns quick moving while still providing stiff competition over actions. Games tend to finish relatively tight and, with scores capped at 25, there can be instances where more than one player will score the max so be sure to keep you eye on the tie-breakers as they may prove to be the deciding factor.
As if all that is going on is not enough, gameplay is augmented by the available Tuscany expansion ($70).This expansion, credited to Stegmaier, Stone and Morten Monrad Pedersen, comes in a box the same size as the 2nd edition Viticulture and no wonder: Tuscany is PACKED with variants that you can “uncork” (keeping with the theme of the game) to add twists and turns to the gaming experience. They are presented in “tiers” that can be added, in whole or part, to the basic game. These variants include an expanded playing board to allow for actions during the Spring and Fall phases, variable starting conditions, special workers and more.
Although the worker placement style of play has seen lots of use over the last few years, Viticulture is a prime example of the genre at its best. It is a step up from the basic games of this family (such as Coal Baron, for example) and more in keeping with the difficulty level of such classics of worker placement as Stone Age. Viticulture has proven to be accessible to gamers who like lighter games while still managing to provide robust challenges for the more serious gamer. With all that it has going for it, Viticulture, like fine wine, should age quite well and appear on tables for many years to come.
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