Board Games, Reviews

Review: Viticulture Essential Edition

IMG_2177      Viticulture Essential Edition, published by Stonemaier Games and designed by Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone, is a game that sets out to extract, distill, and bottle the challenges of running a vineyard into a clever worker-placement game. Admittedly, I don’t know much about wine. Just a few weeks ago I was at a bar waiting to watch a magic show. While the bartender was

busy entertaining the patrons on the other side of the bar with some sleight of hand, I looked over the wine selection and decided try a Cabernet Sauvignon– a wine I knew little about but had recently learned was also a type of grape thanks to Viticulture Essential Edition. Now, like I said, I’m no expert, but I am pretty sure Cabernet Sauvignon wines are supposed to be red. So, I was surprised when I was handed a glass of white wine. I thanked the bartender and silently pondered my options. I could ask him if this was indeed a Cabernet Sauvignon, but I would be letting on that I didn’t know anything about wine. Alternatively, I could try to enjoy the wine I was given even if it wasn’t what I wanted. Well, I could either swallow my pride or swallow the unwanted wine. But then another thought popped into my head: maybe I was supposed to play the indignant patsy and call his supposed blunder to attention. Maybe the bartender was setting up a magic trick whose denouement would result in the white wine turning into a red. I dismissed this last thought and chalked up the whole thing to inexperience. After all, the more likely explanation was that my superficial knowledge of wine was even shallower than I thought. In the end, I kept quiet, sipped my wine, and tipped generously–possibly ruining the bartender’s magic trick.

How to Play

   In Viticulture Essential Edition, up to six aspiring vintners take turns placing their workers during the summer and winter seasons, vying to become the most reputable vineyard owner. Players earn victory points by fulfilling wine orders, leveraging summer and winter visitors, and giving tours of their vineyard. The game is played in a series of years, each round representing one of the four seasons. During spring, players decide turn order by choosing whether their workers will wake up earlier or later. There are seven slots to choose from, each granting the player a bonus. The later the wake up time, the better the bonus. If a player chooses the earliest wake up time, they receive no bonus, but they get to place their worker first during the summer and winter seasons for that year.

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Wooden rooster tokens are used to select and track turn order. Wooden tokens in the shape of corks keep track of scores.

During the summer season, players send out their workers to claim critical action spaces that allow them to draw vine cards, plant vine cards, draw or play summer visitor cards, build structures on their personal vineyard mats, or give tours. Once all players have placed all their workers or have decided to pass, everyone moves on to the intermediary fall season where they may draw either a summer or winter visitor card (more on visitors cards later).

     Players who have available workers can use the winter action spaces which allow players to harvest their vine fields (creating grape tokens), crush grapes (creating wine tokens), fulfill wine orders (discarding wine tokens), and train new workers. Players can also sell grape tokens for a quick Lira or two and enlist the help of winter visitors. At the end of the year, players recall their workers and age their grapes and wine by sliding their corresponding tokens along their respective tracks on their personal vineyard mats. The first player marker, a meeple representing a bunch of grapes, moves counter-clockwise and players choose a new wake-up time for the new year.

     On paper, Viticulture Essential Edition doesn’t sound overly complex–you place a worker and take that action, all with the goal of developing the best vineyard–but Jamey Stegmaier’s take on the genre gives players a selection of interesting choices to make. The available summer and winter action spaces scale based on the player count. In a two player game every action only has one space. At the three to four player and five to six player counts there are two and three action spaces are available, respectively. So if you need a vine card to plant and all the available spots have been taken, you’re out of luck until next year-or so it would seem.

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Your grande worker gets things done.

One of your three starting workers is called a Grande worker. Grande workers let you muscle in on an otherwise occupied and unavailable action spot. Think of the Grande worker as someone who knows how to get things done. The action spot for planting vines is taken? No problem. Just send your grande worker and get the job done. Yet using the grande worker has its own strategic considerations: send it out in the summer and it’ll be unavailable in the winter, leaving you vulnerable to getting squeezed out of an action that might delay your plans a whole season. At the three and up player counts there, some of the action spaces trigger bonuses such as getting an extra coin, planting two vine cards instead of one, or even gaining a victory point when you fulfill a merchant order. You want to be the first to an action space with a bonus, but other players want those bonuses as well. These bonus spaces create tension when selecting what action spaces you send your workers to during your turn. Oh, and that Grande worker? That Luca Brasi of the wooden meeple set? He may be able to plant your field when all the plant action spaces are taken, but he won’t collect any bonuses unless he gets there first. The grande worker and action space bonuses in Viticulture Essential Edition add a tactical urgency to its implementation of the worker placement mechanism.

Variability

     There’s a good amount of variability in Viticulture Essential Edition. At the onset of the game, players randomly draw mama and papa cards. Mama cards grant you your two starting workers, your starting hand of cards (combinations of the various vine, wine order, and summer and winter visitor cards), and sometimes, if you’re lucky, your mama might also start you off with two Lira. Your papa always starts you off with a Grande worker, a few Lira, and a choice between a varying amount of extra Lira or an extra worker, a victory point, or a structure.

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     Adding a variable setup in the form the mama and papa cards not only adds variability to each game, but it also gets players thinking about possible strategies. Maybe your mama left you two vine cards and a winter visitor card that when played allows you to train a new worker for two Lira instead of the usual four. Your papa, on the other hand, lets you choose between an extra worker and three Lira. Should you take the extra worker from your papa and train a new worker during the winter phase with the winter visitor card your mama left you, setting yourself up to start off the next year with five workers? Or do you take the money instead of the worker and start off by building new structures that will allow you to plant the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vines that will yield valuable grapes when harvested?A papa card might ask you to choose between money and a windmill which grants you one victory point every time you plant a vine. The variable starting points created by your mama and papa cards offer an interesting puzzle right from the beginning. It also lets players start off along different paths, so if some players start off with vine cards already in hand, they won’t all need to vie for the few action spaces that provide vine cards. The overall effect of the variable setup is that the game feels less rigid and allows players to embrace and explore varying approaches to victory.

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     Visitor Cards bring further variability to Viticulture Essential Edition.These cards represent various visitors that might show up at your vineyard and offer you their help. The cards are a clever and essential part of the game in that they offer a choice between two or three benefits, nearly assuring that at least one of the choices will be useful to you whether you’re in the early or later stages of the game. The Architect, for example, can be used early on to build any structure at a steep discount of three Lira, but it can instead be played later to score a victory point for every you’ve structure you’ve built that has a value of at least four Lira. The Landscaper visitor card is especially handy when you need a new vine card and the draw vine card action spaces are all taken. Just use a worker on a play visitor card action space to play the Landscaper to draw and plant a vine card. You’re not only sparing your grande worker, you’re also using one worker to perform two actions. But what if you don’t need any more vine cards? What if your fields are already filled to capacity? Well, the Landscaper card gives you the option of using it to switch around two vine cards on your fields, letting you mix things up around in order to increase harvesting efficiency. The visitor cards are very powerful, but drawing from a randomized deck can lead to player frustration as they contend with cards that might not be of use to them. Perhaps players would feel more empowered and less subject to random luck if they were able to choose a card from a set of five or so randomly drawn cards instead of blindly drawing cards.

     Personally, I don’t mind the various random decks of cards in Viticulture Essential Edition. It can be very exciting to draw a card that tempts me to rethink my strategy. Sometimes a newly-drawn card will pair nicely with your current strategy like a white wine and, uh … did I mention I’m no wine expert. I enjoy thinking about how to incorporate actions and bonuses into my current strategy.

     During one game, a savvy player earned six points after playing a winter visitor card that let them fulfill an order and gain an extra victory point. The player leapfrogged over me and now had nineteen points, nearly triggering the end of the game by crossing that twenty points threshold. We all knew we had one more year ahead of us before the game ended. Unfortunately, my wine tokens needed a couple more years of aging before I could sell them off. I knew there were visitor cards that let you age wine on the spot, but I didn’t have them in my hand and I wasn’t about to waste a worker to try to draw the needed cards. During the summer phase, I bought back a field I had sold earlier, taking the bonus spot that grants a victory point. With my second worker I gave a tour, and since I had previously built a tasting room, I gained another victory point. I was only two points away from the lead! During the fall phase, I drew the Judge visitor card, which allows you to Draw 2 (summer visitors) OR Discard 1 (Wine) of value 4 or more to gain 3 (victory points). What luck! With my second to last worker I decided to draw one more wine order card, hoping to draw an order I could actually fulfill. No luck. Well, one more worker to go. I used my Grande worker to play my Judge card and scored 3 points, putting me in the lead by one point. I sat back and hoped it would be enough. Not a chance. While I had been scraping together my last few points during summer and winter of that final year, the player who had leapfrogged over me had harvested grapes, made wine tokens, and had just now filled a wine order that propelled her three points ahead of me. I didn’t win, but I loved having that feeling using whatever I had at my disposal during that last stretch of the game to squeeze out a few more victory points. I think Viticulture Essential Edition really shines in those moments where you have to think on your feet and rely on luck just a little bit while using what you’ve already built to stomp out a few more points.

Presentation

     The overall design and presentation of Viticulture Essential Edition is carefully crafted with an eye towards elegance. There are plenty of iconic wooden meeples representing irrigation towers, trellises, cottages, and workers, that look really nice on the game board and on your own player board. There’s also tiny wooden bottles and wooden corks in each player’s color that are used to mark income and victory points, respectively. The glass beads used in Viticulture Essential Edition as grape and wine tokens are not only functional, but aesthetically pleasing in the way they refract and enlarge the printed values on the crush-pad and wine cellar tracks, rendering them reminiscent of grapes or droplets of white and red wine. It’s clever design choices like this that show the care and attention that Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone put into Viticulture. The art by Beth Sobel has a classic feel that fits well with the theme of old world wine-making. The art on the main board and personal player boards beautifully depicts a quaint rustic vineyard amid a pastoral landscape. The quality of components, art, and overall presentation truly set Viticulture Essential Edition apart from most worker placement games.

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Final Thoughts

  There’s plenty to do in Viticulture Essential Edition, yet the game never feels like it overstays its welcome. One moment you’re building the structures you need to plant vines and the next you and the other players are rushing past the twenty point goal that will signal the end of the game. While the game might present one too many random elements for players who dislike the luck-of-the-draw in their games, the various card decks go a long way toward keeping the game varied and fresh after multiple plays. Viticulture is definitely on the lighter side of the worker placement genre of games, but it’s also very engaging if you’re the type of player that enjoys bits of randomness to puzzle over while working on your own player board. After all, a little randomness in one’s life can be simultaneously challenging and interesting–even if sometimes you draw a white grape vine card when you’re hoping to draw a Cabernet Sauvignon vine card.



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