Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser
(Eggertspiele, 2-5 players, ages 12 and up, 90-120 minutes; $60)
There aren’t many wine-themed games. This is something of a surprise as wine is imbibed and enjoyed throughout the world and is a major industry generating billions of dollars of sales each year. Well, this dearth of wine-themed games ended at this year’s International Game Days in Essen when at least three major wine-themed games were released. One of those is Grand Cru from first-time designer Ulrich Blum.
Grand Cru is a French term that literally means “great growth.” In the wine industry, it is a regional wine classification that designates a vineyard known for its outstanding reputation. It is a statement on the vineyard’s potential to produce exceptional wine. The game Grand Cru challenges players to acquire grape vines, improve their vineyards, and produce, mature and sell wine, all with the ultimate goal of making a profit. The emphasis here, though, is more on quantity rather than quality.
The central board depicts a variety of areas, including five auction panels and various tracks to record the season, demand for the five types of wine, player loans and the ever-popular wine festival. Each player receives a board representing his vineyard. There are twelve spaces for vines and improvements, with each vineyard able to produce up to five different types of grapes. In addition, there are seven barrels where grapes will be stored to mature into choice wine, where it will be sold for a tidy profit and hopefully critical acclaim.
Grand Cru is an economic game. The player who can amass the most profitable vineyard and repay his debts will emerge victorious. As with most start-up businesses, profitability remains elusive and is quite difficult to achieve. Players begin the game by taking loans and will likely continue to take loans through several turns. It takes time for players to acquire the necessary vines and improvements to begin generating a reliable cash flow. Players will be hard-pressed to balance the need to improve and expand their businesses with the need to generate enough cash to service their debt. Indeed, all players will spend the entire game in debt, as the game ends when one or more players become debt free.
Each game turn is divided into two phases: Development of the Vineyard and Year End.
Development of the vineyard. This is where the majority of the action occurs. Players alternate taking various actions which include acquiring new vines or improvements, harvesting grapes, selling wine, increasing the demand for wine varieties, and/or using improvements.
Each turn, a number of tiles representing grape vines or improvements are available. Players may place a tile up for auction with five spaces at the auction house being available at any one time. Bidding is conducted in an Evo-like fashion with players placing a marker on the space indicating the price they are willing to play. If no one outbids the player by the time his turn arrives again, he may purchase the tile for that price. Vines and improvements are placed into a player’s vineyard with the vines immediately receiving a cube of the appropriate type. These cubes represent the corresponding grape varieties and are ready to harvest.
Generally a player may only harvest one vine at a time, moving the cube into the first barrel on his board. Certain improvements will allow a player to harvest two vines at once or enjoy a bountiful harvest by placing an extra cube from the supply into the first barrel. One of the keys to success is to harvest all of your vines each and every year. A year can end quickly, and leaving grapes rotting on the vines is not only frustrating but also a significant blow to current and future profits. Thus, improvements that enhance one’s harvest are quite valuable and usually result in spirited competition at the auction house.
As mentioned, harvested grapes are placed in the left-most wine vat. At the end of each turn they automatically mature, moving one barrel to the right. Each barrel indicates the wine variety that is mature once those grapes reach that barrel. Only wines that have matured can be sold and become eligible for the year-end wine festival. For example, Gamay matures quickly, and can be sold while in the first and second barrels. Pinot Noir, however, takes the longest to mature and can only be sold when those grapes have reached the fifth-through-seventh barrels. So, the investment takes longer with some wines but the demand for these varieties can be greater resulting in greater income. Choosing to concentrate on the potentially more valuable varieties can yield greater profits down the line but will often force a player to sacrifice quick cash-flow. With interest due on outstanding loans at the end of each season, generating a regular cash-flow is extremely important.
With each sale action, a player may sell wine of one variety from one barrel provided, of course, the wine has matured. The sale price for each variety is indicated on the demand chart which players can manipulate by spending an action to increase. Each sale decreases the demand one level so there is a timing element present. A player will want to take an action or two to increase prices but there is the persistent danger of an opponent selling at thenew higher price before you have that opportunity to do so. Sold wine cubes are placed in the respective player’s barrel at the wine festival location on the central board.
As mentioned, when a player harvests their last vine, all other players get one more action and the turn concludes. A player cannot do this, however, until at least the fourth turn of a year. Still, this often occurs FAR quicker than players usually desire. Most players are attempting to accomplish numerous things on their turn: acquire new vines and improvements, use their improvements, increase demand for certain wine varieties, harvest grapes and sell wine. However, the time pressure can be considerable. If one player harvests quickly, everyone else will feel pressure to also harvest quickly lest their grapes wither on the vine. Players should be careful not to let one player get numerous improvements that allow him extra harvests.
Year End. When a year ends, several actions occur: new tiles are placed in the display, a wine festival is held, wine matures, interest is due, new loans are secured and old loans can be paid. At the wine festival, each variety of wine is examined to determine which player sold the most of that type. Again, quantity not quality is the deciding factor. The player selling the most of a variety receives three points on the festival track while the second-place player receives one point. These points are ultimately spent on various advantages which include additional harvests or wine sales, manipulating the demand charts, selling grapes as juice, receiving a few extra francs, etc. Only one player can choose a particular action, so being able to go first in this segment, which is awarded to the player with the most points on the festival track, can be a significant advantage.
The end of each year is also a day of reckoning, as players must pay interest on outstanding loans. Loan interest increases with each loan and failure to have enough funds will result in the necessity of emergency loans, which, of course, have less favorable terms. Players must also anticipate how much money they will need in the upcoming year and perhaps acquire new loans to meet those spending needs. There are no emergency loans available during the year so failure to have enough money could be a disaster for the vineyard. Players also have the opportunity to satisfy outstanding loans, paying seven francs per loan to do so. The fewer loans a player possesses the better as outstanding loans at the end of the game also cost a player seven francs apiece. Ouch.
A new year begins with vines once again being stocked with new grapes (cubes). This cycle is repeated until either one player retires all of his debt or a player is forced to secure a twelfth loan. In addition to cash on hand, players earn additional money in the following amounts:
* 5 francs for each type of grape vine in their vineyard
* 1 franc for each grape cube in their private barrels
As mentioned, players subtract seven francs for each outstanding loan. The wealthiest player wins the game and becomes the toast of vintners worldwide.
Let there be no doubt: Grand Cru is an economic game. Player must make money as the wealthiest player wins. So, the challenge is not to produce the highest quality vintage that will satisfy high-browed wine snobs but rather to produce steady quantities of wine that you sell at a hefty profit. While some of us would like to think differently, for many vintners, wine is primarily a business. Quality takes a back seat to profits. This sad reality is what is emphasized in Grand Cru.
Grand Cru is also what is known in gaming circles as an “engine-building” game. Players must acquire the proper vines and improvements in order to create consistent production that generates profitable sales. This requires skill, discipline and proper timing. There is a persistent temptation to continue to purchase new vines and improvements for one’s vineyard and ignore the harvesting until it is too late in the year. One must balance his purchases with other important actions.
Wise money management is also critical. Loans are necessary, particularly in the first several years, but going too far into debt may dig a hole that is too difficult to escape. Estimating the amount of money needed each year can be tricky, as can deciding when to pay off existing loans as opposed to holding onto the money for another year. Completely retiring all of one’s debts seems to be a smart move but this is no guarantee of victory.
An abundance of decisions, critical timing elements, money management challenges – all are present in Grand Cru, making it an extremely challenging game in which to do well. There are enough variables and options present to give players fairly wide latitude in terms of strategies to pursue. While there are some questionable aspects – grape vines and vineyard improvements aren’t customarily purchased at auctions and wine festivals usually recognize quality, not quantity – the theme does merge rather nicely with the mechanisms. Unlike Vihnos, another wine-themed game released at this year’s Spiel, Grand Cru isn’t bloated or rules heavy due to an effort to reflect all of the nuances of wine production. It is reasonably easy to learn and play.
Where the game stumbles, however, is in its sluggish start. Fellow gamer Dan Blum complained that he has grown weary of games wherein players must make “a long series of tiny, incremental moves in order to get to the part of the game where something interesting happens.” He accuses Grand Cru of committing this offense, and I am inclined to agree. One-half to two-thirds of the game involves building that economic engine that ultimately creates abundant production and healthy sales. While some are enamored with this slow, methodical engine-building process that is present in numerous games, some will find it rather dull. I realize that this is part of the design, I’d rather reach the truly exciting part of the game quicker. This would not only make the game more exciting, but it would also reduce the playing time, which is a bit long at nearly two hours.
The sluggish start that creates a rather lengthy, unexciting period doesn’t completely doom the game but it does tarnish it. Whether the tarnish is too great is really a matter of individual tastes. Those who enjoy the methodical assembly of an intricate economic engine over a fairly prolonged period of time will likely not be discouraged and find great enjoyment in Grand Cru. Others, however, will be frustrated. If this sort of thing doesn’t delight your palate, you are best advised to seek a different vintage.
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Winter 2011 GA Report Articles