If I’m going to beg for your bids and/or thumbs, you should probably know a little bit more about what you’d be getting, right? I mean, besides knowing that you helped a great cause in stroking my eg – – er, supporting the Worldbuilders organization.
A long time ago in a galaxy…actually this one right here and not that long ago…PSS ace reporter, moral compass, and all around nice guy Bill “I don’t know why we call you Stu” Thomas met up with the designers of Viticulture to talk about their game and give us a preview of it.
The game has since established itself as a solid entry into the worker placement euro genre. Personally, I am amazed and confused at how the game accomplished this feat without my official seal of approval, but it’s high time I added my voice to the chorus of enthusiasts. Especially what with the auction going on right now. Which obviously I was waiting for, otherwise you would have had this a long time ago.
Viticulture is a worker placement game where the players are competing to have the most successful vineyard. As far as theme goes, I enjoy this, but it’s not for everyone. I have several friends that enjoy Lords of Waterdeep but do not like Agricola, something that never ceases to baffle and confuse me. Another friend was very hesitant to try it as he said “I’m just not that interested in wine making.” After a bit of cajoling, he finally caved and gave it a try…and surprise, surprise, he enjoyed the game.
Look people, I get that theme plays a part, but don’t let that get in the way of playing a good game. Another friend reluctantly picked up Pinata when she couldn’t get a copy of Balloon Cup. They are literally the same game (save a tiny rules change), with different themes. But I digress, let’s get to the actual game.
Viticulture plays over a number of years (not literal) with each year broken into 4 seasons. The game end trigger is when one player reaches 20 VP. The current year finishes, and then the player with the most VP is the winner.
In Spring, you determine who goes first. This is one of the things I really like about Viticulture. In a lot of worker placement games, getting to take the first action is a big deal. Such a big deal in fact, that there is a space devoted specifically to it. It takes a full action to claim the right to the first action on the board on a future turn. For a genre of games whose main currency is a very limited supply of actions, this is a costly investment, one that a lot of players make. Once you take that action, that starting position and all inherited advantages are yours until someone uses an action to take it from you. The system works for sure, but Viticulture takes a different approach to this that I really enjoy. The starting player token rotates around the board with each year, but the starting player does not necessarily take the first action of the turn. There is a scale of positions with increasing rewards the later in the turn you go. Rewards include (but are not limited to) lira (the money for the game), sweet sweet VP, and bonus workers for the turn. So if you absolutely have to have the first action, then (assuming it’s there when it’s time for you to place your initiative order) you will get no other reward for doing so. Everyone who goes behind you will get something for their choice, and the further back they go, the greater their reward will be.
Summer gives us a lot of the meat of a worker placement game by means of Very Important Actions. Stuff like constructing buildings (which allow you to plant certain types of vines, give additional action options and create better wines); drawing vine cards (which will ultimately determine what types of wine you can make); planting vine cards to harvest later (instant gratification is a rare thing in WP games); play Summer Visitors (cards with special abilities that typically affect planting); give winery tours (generating money) or sell grapes (sometimes you’re broke, have a surplus of grapes and/or not enough cellar space).
Autumn is a brief mini-phase where each player chooses to draw either a Summer Visitor card or a Winter Visitor card.
Lastly in Winter, you get the other meaty part of a game. You grew the grapes in summer…now what? Winter actions include harvesting your grape fields, storing and aging grapes for future sales or crushing, crushing grapes into wine, playing Winter Visitors (cards with special abilities that typically affect harvesting and aging), train new Workers for the next year, and filling wine orders.
The last Winter action deserves a bit of special attention as in my opinion, it is the most vital to success. Filling a wine order scores VPs and residual income in future turns, which makes things easier (though not easy) going forward.
Play of the game is relatively simple…strategy and “correct” play is much less so, which is true of most games of the genre. You only have a certain number of actions per turn, limited by the number of workers you have (doi) but those workers have to last all year; so if you go crazy in Summer, be prepared to be twiddling your thumbs during Winter. Knowing the best way to balance your workers effectively between the seasons is key. Visitor cards can be powerful (and some detractors claim swingy) but you really have to play them at the right time in order for this to be true, and in that case, you’ve been working towards that end…which means that you haven’t been working towards other ends. This is another place where Viticulture shines. There are multiple and more importantly VIABLE paths to victory. Yes, you may want to build early but the building spot is in high demand and you get muscled out of it. Well, give tours. It’s not easy to build things with no money. Acquire better vine cards for more valuable wines. Play Visitor cards to augment you in other ways.
One of the game’s scaling mechanics is that each action space has 3 spots that can be used, and the number of those spots that are available vary with the number of players. The order of these actions matters as well, as depending on when you take the action, you receive an additional benefit…but only if you can use the benefit. You can’t take it just to block the space unless there is no other option for that action.
Things what I like about Viticulture:
1. It’s no secret that I like worker placement games, and I’m a fan of gamer masochism. In the excellent Agricola, you have to balance advancing your farm with making sure your family stays fed. It’s a pretty delicious tension created in that “oh shit” moment when you realize it’s a harvest turn and food is in scarce supply and a quick scan of the table reveals that you’re not the only person who has made that grim realization. It quickly devolves into a brief but cutthroat battle to avoid huge point losses for your negligence. This is not present in Viticulture…and I don’t miss it. What can replace this delightful tension?
2. Your choices matter. A lot. Your workers have to last the entire year, and are used in two separate parts as I mentioned earlier. It can be a deliciously agonizing choice to decide how many workers you save for Winter, which is made just a bit worse by watching other players happily build in the summer. Don’t worry, they’ll be doing the same watching you in Winter. Late in the game when there are a lot more workers occupying the board, this tension mounts further.
3. It plays wonderfully to the theme. I know I said earlier that themes matter more than I think they should, but I think it speaks to the quality of a design when it can create a realistic feeling of what it represents might be. When I’m Lording over Waterdeep, I never feel like I am sending Wizards to Learn Chronomancy or trying to Take Over the Thieves Guild with a judicious application of guile and muscle. Those are just currencies I acquire through different means that I use to buy VP. Viticulture oozes theme, and it fits it like a glove. I’ve never operated a winery, but I appreciate having to wait for wines to age to get better results (this is reminiscent of the outstanding Tzolkin), but to be careful that I keep my production smooth.
4. It’s oh so pretty. Viticulture is a very visually appealing game, and second only to 7 Wonders in terms of aesthetic appeal, which is saying something as 7 Wonders is gorgeous.
What do I think as a designer?
Stonemaier has done a remarkably good job with this game and have a really elegant design that is simple to understand and has a delightful complexity to its depth. They took several steps to make sure that spite plays were limited; making multiple spots available on actions, having actions that only you may take on your mat and making many of the Visitor cards have benefits for other players, even if you benefit more. The only thing that I would consider changing in a game like this would be a mechanic that adds to the theme. Real vineyards splice grape breeds to create new breeds. Viticulture kinda does this, but not in a official “this is what is happening” capacity. The other thing I would include is inclement weather. Sometimes harvests are damaged by extreme heat or cold. I would probably implement this by means of an event deck and have counters for it by actions that specifically protect from it. Event cards might say “This bad thing happens. If you have taken (action) then this beneficial thing happens instead” I can’t say for sure that that would add to the game, but it’s an aspect of real wine making that is absent from the game.
Viticulture breaks relatively little new ground in the worker placement genre, but combines a number of mechanics and balances seamlessly with its theme to create a unique experience that holds up well to a lot of replayability, which is a benchmark for quality games of any genre. It may not always be the game I’m hankering to play (like The Resistance, Coup, or Chaos in the Old World), but I’ll never turn down a game of Viticulture, which is not something I can say of many games.
I would recommend Viticulture to any fan of the worker-placement genre, and if you act quickly, you can claim a super-limited edition of it while helping an awesome charity; but if it’s not mine you’re bidding on, you’re dead to me.