Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser
(What’s Your Game?, 2-4 players, ages 12 to adult, 2 to 3 hours; $65.99)
For years, the subject of wine-making was a sorely overlooked theme in the gaming industry. There have been a few games utilizing the theme but, for such a popular and intricate industry, the overlooking of this theme was baffling. This was corrected in a major way over the past year, however, as there were at least four games published that dealt with the growing and harvesting of grapes and/or the production and marketing of wine.
The most intricate and strategic of these games is Vinhos from first-time designer Vital Lacerda and publisher What’s Your Game? Lacerda is a self-professed wine aficionado, and his fascination goes beyond the mere enjoyment of a good vintage. Rather, he is apparently a learned student of the wine industry itself. This knowledge spills forth in Vinhos which is a fairly detailed examination of the major aspects of viticulture. This in-depth examination translates into a rather complex and intricate board game comprised of numerous mechanisms. Whether these mechanisms blend together to form a top quality yield or a cheap blend is one of personal taste.
The large and congested board depicts a variety of areas, all of which play important roles as the game progresses. In addition, each player receives their own personal board (which is divided into four estates) whereupon they will place the vineyards, wineries, enologists and cellars they acquire, as well as the wine they produce. Players begin the game by purchasing a vineyard – there are eight types, each producing a different type of grape – a barrel of wine of the appropriate type, and a meager supply of money (called “Bagos”), much of which is used in this initial purchase.
While there is a lot going on here, the actual sequence of play is not terribly complex. Each of the game’s six rounds (“years” in game parlance) normally has four steps, with a wine tasting fair held at the end of years three, five and six. Let’s examine the steps in each year.
START OF ROUND. This step primarily consists of revealing a new vintage tile, which indicates the weather and its effect on wine production (ranging from -2 to +2). Further, the tile also affects the features that are in demand (taste, aroma, look and alcohol content) and indicates what type and quality of wine the three managers are seeking at the current year’s fair.
TAKING ACTIONS. This is where the bulk of the action and time consumption occurs. In turn order, players will each take one action, then repeat the process by taking another action. There is a 3×3 action chart on the center of the board depicting the available actions. A player is free to take any of the actions, but some may cost a player money based on the distance a player must move his action token and the presence of other player’s tokens on the action he desires to take.
To take an action, a player must move his action token to one of the nine action spaces. If the space is adjacent, there is no movement cost. If he moves to a non-adjacent space, however, the player must pay 1,000 Bagos. Further, the player must pay 1,000 Bagos to each player – including the neutral turn marker – whose action token is on that space. Money can be quite tight, so there is an advantage to being the first player on an action space.
So what actions are available to a player?
Vineyards. The player must purchase at least one vineyard, placing the vineyard marker(s) onto his personal board. The player may purchase no more than one vineyard of each type per turn. Further, when placing the vineyard marker onto his personal board, care must be exercised as each estate can only contain vineyards from the same region and produce wine of the same color – white or red. So, each player will be able to produce wine from at most four different regions.
When purchasing a vineyard, the player places one of his tokens into the corresponding region (the map is printed on the board) and places a “renown cube” in the box below the corresponding vineyard. More on these cubes later. Presence in a region grants players specific abilities and advantages.
Wineries. The player may purchase a winery and place it in one of his estates. Each estate can hold a maximum of two wineries. Wineries increase the production value of that estate’s wine, making them potentially more valuable.
Enologist. Not to be confused an oncologist, which is something completely different and fortunately has no presence in the game. Enologists also increase the production value of the estate’s wine, but they must be paid each turn lest they move on to greener pastures … or wineries! When choosing this action, a player may hire one or two enologists, but each must be placed into a separate winery.
Cellars. A player may purchase a cellar and place it into an estate’s warehouse. A cellar provides more space for a player to store wine and extends the maturation duration of wine produced by that estate. This also allows the player to place a renown cube into the corresponding region on the map.
Sales. The player must sell one or more wines to one of the three establishments depicted on the board. The sale price is a factor of the wine’s production and wine values. Production values are based on the number of vineyards, wineries and enologists in an estate, as well as the current weather conditions. The wine value is determined by the production value and maturation level of the wine. The player can use up to two renown cubes from that region to increase the value of the wine.
A barrel representing the sold wine is placed onto the corresponding “red” or “white” sales chart on a space equal-to-or-less-than the value of the wine. Only one barrel may occupy each space, so a player is often forced to accept a lower sales value. The player’s bank account is increased by the appropriate amount.
The sales charts are divided into three segments, representing the three establishments. It is important to make sure you have at least two barrels in a segment as this is required when retrieving them for future use. Thus, sometimes a player voluntarily reduces the sales price to make sure he groups his barrels optimally. This is a quirky little rule that doesn’t seem to have any type of relation to reality. While it does add another factor that players must ponder and properly plan for, it also adds another layer of complexity that probably isn’t really needed.
Export. The player must export one or more wines, placing the barrel(s) on or below a space corresponding to the wine’s value. The Export chart depicts various values in a 4×4 chart. The player does not receive income for this. Rather, they receive immediate victory points, ranging from 3 – 9, as depicted on the chart. Further, at game’s end, each column is examined and the player having the most barrels in a column receives the indicated number of victory points. These points range from 6 – 12. This export table is a very abstract representation of the wine export business. While it works in game terms, it bears no relation to reality.
These points can be very important, but most players do not begin to export wine until the later stages of the game. Barrels placed on this chart cannot be retrieved, so through much of the game players generally prefer to use those barrels in the sale of wine in order to generate income.
Bank. Players can only retrieve cash from their bank account by visiting the bank. While at the bank, the player may also deposit money (victory points are earned at game’s end based on the player’s bank account) and invest. The player pays Bagos to move his investment marker up. This allows the player access to money at any time during the course of the game. To access these funds, the player may choose to divest, moving his investment marker backwards and collecting the indicated sum for each space moved. This is a handy way to maintain liquidity without having to visit the bank repeatedly.
Wine Experts. The player must hire one or two wine experts. Experts are represented by tiles and each grants the player special abilities that can be used during the course of the game. However, if a player uses them for their special ability, they will be unavailable to assist the player during the wine festival. A player may only possess up to six wine experts.
Pass. If a player opts to pass, he can either do nothing or issue a press release, thereby entering a wine into the upcoming fair. In either case, the player moves his turn order token to the space of his choice on the turn order chart.
The fair is a complicated and fiddly aspect of the game. The player selects a wine from one of his estates to exhibit, determines its value, and moves his fair scoring marker accordingly on the chart. He also determines the number of wine experts he can use during the fair by consulting the corresponding chart and takes the appropriate number tile, which he places onto an empty fair slot of his choice. These slots depict two of the four wine features and give the player a specific bonus. The player consults the current values of the corresponding wine features and moves his fair marker along the chart an equal amount. Confused? You bet. This is a very fiddly aspect of the game that requires numerous chart consultations and mathematical calculations. It is not impossible to manipulate these factors to one’s advantage, but it is a tedious process.
But there’s still more. When choosing this action, a player may place one or two of his barrels onto the Managers chart. Before doing so, however, the player must make sure the wine he is presenting satisfies the criteria the managers are seeking, which is indicated on the current weather tile. The player may remove up to two renown cubes from the region corresponding to the exhibited wine in order to increase the wine’s value so it will meet the criteria demanded by one or more of the managers. Whew. There is a lot to remember and check.
So what benefits do these managers provide? They are of tremendous value and quite truthfully are a major key in contending for victory. Basically, the managers allow the player to perform additional actions. Each manager has specific actions he can grant. At any time during the two action phases, the player may move one of his barrels on a manager’s chart and perform the selected action. Some spaces grant victory points at game’s end, but this will lock that barrel so it cannot be moved again. These spaces are usually only occupied near the end of the game.
There is a cost, however. The manager must be appeased … bribed … in order to grant these special actions. The managers are lushes, so the player must give him (or her) some wine from his estate. Apparently these folks are not wine connoisseurs, however, as they will accept even the cheapest vintage. It is wise for a player to get as many barrels as possible into the managers’ area, and to keep several low-value wines in the estates in order to allow him to execute those extra actions.
MAINTENANCE. Players receive or pay interest based on their investment marker’s status. Plus, each enologist requires 1,000 Bagos in order to remain employed. Each player’s bank account is adjusted accordingly.
PRODUCTION. First, all wines in the player’s warehouses or cellars mature and are moved one space to the right. If there are no further spaces to the right, the wine spoils and the token is discarded.
Next, each vineyard produces grapes of the appropriate type. The production value of each wine tile is calculated as described above and the appropriate tile is placed in the first slot of the corresponding warehouse or cellar. Before calculating the value of each wine, the player is free to move his enologists between his wineries. If a production value of a wine is zero, that vineyard has fallen on hard times and does not produce.
Now let’s examine that wine fair a bit more. I’ve already mentioned the process whereby a wine is placed on exhibit. If a player has not placed a wine on exhibition by the end of the turn where a wine fair is scheduled (turns 3, 5 and 6), he must do so at that time. Once all players have done so, the fair begins.
Players each secretly commit a number of wine experts to the fair, keeping in mind the maximum allowable (see above) and which ones are eligible. The latter is based upon the slot they placed their number token. Remember, any experts used previously for their special power cannot be committed to the fair. The experts are revealed simultaneously and the appropriate feature markers are moved forward for each expert which depicts an arrow symbol. Players earn fair points based on the experts they played and the current value of the feature markers that match those depicted on the expert tiles they played. Got that? Yes, it is confusing.
After all of these manipulations are recorded, all wine expert tiles used during the fair are discarded and the top three players on the fair track earn victory points as indicated on the respective charts. More points are earned with each subsequent fair. These can be substantial, ranging from a low of three points in the first fair to a high of fifteen points in the final fair. The player in fourth place receives a consolation price – a wine expert tile of his choice. Further, he will take his turn first during the next year.
At the conclusion of the wine fair following the sixth year, players may use any remaining wine in their estates to move their barrels in the managers’ area and take the specified special actions. Usually this involves players moving their barrels to the spaces that award end of game victory points based on meeting the specified criteria. Only two players can occupy these spaces, and the first player there receives a larger bonus. The early bird certainly does get the worm!
After players exhaust all possible special actions, final victory points are tallied to determine the victor. Players tally the points they earned during the game, earn majority bonuses on the export chart, earn points for their balance in their banking account and points earned from the special spaces in the managers’ area. The player with the greatest accumulation of victory points is named the master vintner and wins the game.
Whew. There is a lot here … even more than what I have described. Indeed, there is probably too much here. The designer is clearly a wine aficionado and seems well versed in a wide variety of mechanisms utilized by board game designers. He has attempted to marry his love of wine and board games, with the result being somewhat mixed. His attempt to simulate many aspects of the wine industry has resulted in a plethora of mechanisms being utilized. These mechanisms do blend, but there are so many rules that it leaves one feeling as though he has had several glasses of wine too many. In other words, one feels punch-drunk. The mind reels. In wargame circles, this abundance of mechanisms added to add detail is called “chrome” – aspects of a game that add some flavor and spice but at the expense of added difficulty and complexity. Vinhos has this in abundance.
Vinhos was one of those games wherein I had extreme trouble understanding the rules and conceptualizing how the game would play. The rules are not poorly written. Indeed, they are very well written. There are just so many of them. Plus, the game is quite different, and the interaction of all of game’s aspects is difficult to understand. I was dreading my first playing, visualizing the great difficulty I would have teaching it to others. Fortunately, I was able to be a student for my first game, being taught and led-by-the-hand by Rick Thornquist, who is a huge fan of the game. This helped me tremendously and I’ve had little problem teaching the game to others.
So what is my assessment? In spite of its complexity, I do enjoy the game quite a bit. Granted, the first playing is truly a learning game. It takes at least one playing before one can get a handle on what actions are necessary to formulate a strategy that will be competitive. Once that one playing is under one’s belt, however, the game flows smoother and strategy options become clearer. One begins seeing the big picture as opposed to an smorgasbord of dozens of independent parts. It becomes a challenge to properly plan a strategy and manage the abundance of aspects properly to yield a satisfactory and competitive result. I am enjoying the challenge.
That being said, the game is certainly not going to appeal to everyone. It is complex, dense, fiddly and long. Most games will take three or more hours to complete with more time required with four players, particularly if any of them are new to the game. I do believe the game could be streamlined, removing certain parts and simplifying others. That would not only make the game more accessible to a wider audience but would also insure it hitting the table more often. As is, it is comparable to a complex quality wine. It takes time and skill to fully understand and appreciate its intricacies. Once this time and effort has been put forth however, the result is a wine – or in this case a game — that can be fully appreciated and enjoyed.
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