One Sentence Synopsis: Wine in a box has never tasted so good.
Jamey Stegmaier is a big name in the board game Kickstarter community. His blog is one of the quintessential resources for new designers looking to crowd-fund their game, offering great advice and insightful walkthroughs on, quite literally, everything from a campaign’s inception through its delivery. As one of the founders of Stonemaier Games, Jamey’s Kickstarter advice comes from firsthand experience of some very successful campaigns, including the dystopian dice worker-placement game, Euphoria. Although I have yet to partake in that game, which I plan to snatch up the second the next printing hits U.S. shores, having played Viticulture I can say Jamey and Alan are also first-rate designers in addition to being Kickstarter gurus.
If I had to describe Viticulture in one word, I’d call it charming. The theme, color palette, shaped playing pieces, and details on the various boards all contribute towards transporting your consciousness to a little valley somewhere in Europe where you and 1-5 other players compete to become the best wine-maker in the region. Viticulture is first-and-foremost a medium-weight worker placement game, and players attempt to expand their work forces and utilize the limited spaces available for each action in order to plant or harvest fields, gain money, draw or play special action cards, upgrade their individual vineyards, and make wine to fill orders. In a twist, however, the game actually splits that worker-placement element into two distinct phases that both offer players unique actions, but do not allow them to re-use workers that were already placed earlier in the turn. To spice things up further, the game also incorporates an action-selection mechanic to determine play order each turn, and an aging/stockpiling element for grapes and wines that allows players to continue developing their resources outside of the traditional round actions.
I found Viticulture very easy to learn thanks in-large-part to well-written rules that do not skimp on details, yet aren’t cumbersome either. Although there’s a lot going on each turn and a lot to keep in mind, no one I’ve played with has felt overwhelmed at any point, and any questions they had regarding turn issues were generally addressed on the quick reference cards included with the game. I’ve found the game plays best with at least 3 players, and that with that number the game’s advertised playtime of 1.5 hours is spot-on. Adding more players doesn’t disrupt the game’s balance since action slots are locked/unlocked depending on the number of players, but if you play with 4 or more you should count on games spanning past the 2 hour mark unless you’re veterans of the game or worker-placement genre, and everyone has their turns planned out in advance. Although you can play with 2 people, I don’t find that fosters as much of a good, competitive atmosphere as the game does with 3+.
So, let’s get right to how the game plays. Each player starts the game with their vineyard board, 3 lira(coins), 1 Pinot grape card, a random summer visitor card, 2 workers, and a grande worker. Once the starting player is determined, the turn proceeds through 4 phases, each matching one of the seasons.
During the spring phase, starting with the first player each person selects the order in which they’ll take the rest of the turn by placing their rooster meeple on the wake-up track Each rank has a corresponding reward the player immediately collects, making for interesting decisions as players balance the free cards, money, or in the case of the last rank an extra temporary worker, with getting to place workers during the turn sooner than others.
The summer phase sees players place their workers in turn order on the various action spaces on the left half of the main game board. Getting to a spot first not only ensures the player gets to take that action, but it also gives them a special benefit; in some instances it might be to use the action twice, rather than once, and in others it’s extra money, a victory point, or even a discount The various actions include drawing grape cards, planting fields, generating money, or playing summer visitor cards which generally help with the other various summer actions. This is also the phase when players upgrade their individual vineyards by purchasing buildings. Certain buildings, like the trellis or irrigation, are required to plant higher-yield grapes, while others may help generate victory points under certain conditions, or let players store longer-aged wines in their cellars.
After all players have either placed their available workers or passed, play then proceeds to fall. Each person gets to decide whether to draw a summer visitor card or a winter visitor card which, much like the summer visitor, generally have effects which assist with that season’s actions.
The final phase of the turn is winter. In turn order players are able to take actions with their remaining workers. The beauty here, though, is that the actions have all changed, and none of the actions available in summer are available during winter. Since workers aren’t collected from the board until the end of the entire turn, players must therefore make sure to save enough workers from the summer phase to ensure they can take any needed actions during winter. These include harvesting grapes, recruiting a new worker, making wine, drawing or playing winter visitor cards, and drawing wine order cards or fulfilling wine orders.
While there are a couple of different ways to score minimal victory points, the main way players accrue VP is by completing wine orders. Wine orders are filled by turning in the specified wines on the order card, matching the type (white, red, blush, or sparkling) as well as at least equaling the age number on each. In return players receive an immediate boost in points, and possibly advance their token on the residual income track in the bottom right corner of the board. At the end of each turn, players gain up to a maximum of 5 lira based on their previously completed orders.
To complete the orders, players must obviously have gone through the process of harvesting grapes and turning them into wine with the appropriate ages. Each grape card includes a white grape and/or a red grape symbol with a number in it. When the field the cards are in is harvested, the player adds the number on each grape symbol up to a max of 6 and gets to place a see-through token on their grape crush pad at the corresponding number. If they so choose, players can continue to leave the grape tokens on their crush pad,and at the end of each turn they’ll each advance by 1 spot on the tracker. Otherwise, if players are satisfied with the value of their grapes they can use the wine making action to turn the grapes into wine. White or red grapes are used to produce white or red wine, or they can be combined in different combinations to create either blush or sparkling wines. As long as a player’s cellar allows, they can continue to age the wines after they’re made to potentially fill more lucrative orders.
At the end of the year, players age their grapes and wine, reset all their workers, collect residual income, and the first player marker passes to the next person. If a player reached 20 victory points at some point during the turn, everyone compares their total victory points and a winner is declared.
I absolutely love this game, and it has become my go-to worker-placement game if my group wants to play something medium-weight. I strained long and hard to try and think of relevant criticisms or complaints, but I’ve largely continued to draw a blank. Some of the cards in the various visitor decks are more sought-after than others, and can result in some rather productive rounds for players who get them. For example, if someone gets a couple of cards from the winter deck that let them take multiple actions, and then they get to the visitor card space first during the winter phase which then lets them play two cards instead of one, that person’s turn may seem a little ridiculous. I’ve also never found a use for the yoke upgrade that’s a purchasable space on each player’s board, but I recognize why it’s there and I can see it being useful, especially in later rounds, if you had extra money and actions/cards to have built it early in the game.
Viticulture is exceptionally well-balanced, and after multiple plays I don’t think there is really one strategy or path to victory that’s more beneficial to pursue when compared to others. While it’s possible for someone to take themselves out of the running if they make very bad decisions a couple of turns in a row, that’s really no different from any other game that relies on engine building and final scoring. In fact, I’d say Viticulture is more forgiving in that respect than most worker-placements, as a slow start does not necessarily mean you’re going to get trounced if you play your cards right and look for creative ways to disrupt opponents or make up points.
The theme is also exceptional, as you’ve probably already surmised from previous images. Viticulture is a great idea for a game theme anyway, and Stonemaier Games has done a superb job in that theme’s execution. Each marker or token is shaped to look like what it’s supposed to represent, or at the very least are given shapes that are relevant to the theme. The art on all of the cards and boards is all very well done, and is presented in a style that oozes a “wine-country” vibe; the detailing on the player boards and the main game board make me feel like i’m looking at a painting hanging in a villa somewhere in Italy. Even the color palette of rich earth-tones found throughout the components connects back to the wine theme.
The component quality is also exceedingly good. The box itself is made from sturdy cardstock, and is big enough to easily fit all the components inside the well-designed insert. The main board and player boards are likewise a very good thickness, and they’re actually double-sided to include one version that has none of the labels for more experienced players to enjoy the art unfiltered. I also especially like the use of clear, rounded crystals as the grape and wine tracking markers. You can see the values underneath through the crystals, and they’re actually slightly magnified so it’s easy to tell at-a-glance exactly what the ages of your resources are. And the coins…well…I’ll get to those at the end of the review.
As for functionality, Viticulture’s mechanics are integrated well into its theme, and allow for a variety of strategic decisions on each turn as well as for long-term planning. There are two mechanics I’d specifically like to focus on though that I think speak to that the most. First, the grape and wine aging mechanic. Aging is an integral part of the wine making process in the real world, and I think its inclusion in the game is ingenius; it fits the theme perfectly, and gives players more options when it comes to planning. Harvesting ahead of needing various levels of grapes lets players get a jump on some of the more difficult, high-value wines they’ll likely need in the final stages of the game, and if they end up not needing those grapes after aging them players then have the option of selling the grapes for more Lira than they would have originally. This also means low-value grapes are never useless, and that grapes harvested early in the game aren’t rendered obsolete. They’re an investment, and that investment continues after they’re made into wines since players may continue to age the wine if their cellar level allows. Again, this means turning grapes into wine early in the game isn’t a total waste of time since players are able, if they’d like, to gradually increase their values to help complete more demanding orders. Plus, having a couple of grapes and wines in the pad or cellar is never a bad idea for those times when the actions you need are already used.
Secondly, I mentioned the grande worker earlier, and you’re probably wondering what the difference is between that worker and normal ones. The grande worker is a great concept that actually wasn’t included in the original retail version of the game, but it added such a strong additional strategic element/choice that it’s now included in every box; although each player can choose to use their grande worker as a normal worker, the grande worker has the added bonus of being able to use any action regardless of whether its has any remaining free spots for the turn. This really is a game-changing inclusion compared to other worker-placements, and I mean that in the best way possible. Action denial is a huge strategy in all worker-placement games, but it can be very irksome to have a turn basically completed wasted because you couldn’t take the one action the rest of everything hinged on. The grande worker allows each player to overcome that potential hangup once per turn, while still maintaining action-denial as a potential way to disrupt other players. We’ve had the outcome of multiple games come down to literally the last winter phase, and having a player either succeed because of their strategic use of their grande worker, or lose because they needed to use multiple actions in a specific order and were denied at one or more spaces. It’s a welcomed strategic element, and one I’m glad is included as an integrated part of the game’s mechanics rather than as a gained bonus ability like it is in some other worker-placement games (e.g. Lords of Waterdeep).
To wrap up, I’d like to mention an add-on you should absolutely invest in. The Lira the game comes with are thick cardboard, and are perfectly functional. However, Stonemaier recently Kickstarted an expansion for Viticulture called Tuscany, and with that expansion made available metal Lira. I missed out on the Tuscany campaign so I’m waiting for it to hit retail, but I still ended up tracking down the coins and buying them. They’re amazing, and I’m glad I did. They have a great weight, and perfect colors for integration with the rest of the game. Don’t take my word for it though: see yourself.
COG Takeaway: Viticulture is, quite frankly, one of the best worker-placement games I’ve ever played. And no, that’s not just the wine talking. It’s easy to learn, quick to set up, and keeps fiddliness to a minimum, yet still manages to retain all the complexity, options for paths to victory, and strategic depth as much heavier titles in the genre. The game is exceptionally well balanced, and the additional order-selection and aging mechanics merge perfectly with the main worker-placement element to take the game beyond basic action-selection, and to really bring the theme to life. And what a theme it is. The components, colors, and artwork create a wine-country cornucopia right on your table; the only thing missing from the box is the wine itself, but that omission is easily remedied by a quick trip to your local store. Do yourself a favor; go get the wine, find a copy of Viticulture, order the metal Lira, and enjoy. As for me, I’ll anxiously await my opportunity to try Tuscany, and if I’m lucky I’ll find a copy of the Arboriculture expansion from the first kickstarter as well. Bon Appetit! (Note: as others have pointed out, Arboriculture is actually included in Tuscany. Yay!)
Have you played Viticulture? What are your impressions?