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What wine goes with Captain Crunch? – A Viticulture Review

Viticulture-Board-Game“One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters…But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.” – Charles Baudelaire

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.

You can appreciate this game even if your taste in wine is terrible.
You can appreciate this game even if your taste in wine is terrible.

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.

You may actually know one of these people.
You may actually know one of these people.

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.

Final thoughts:

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.

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9 thoughts on “What wine goes with Captain Crunch? – A Viticulture Review

  1. There are two points I’d like to add to your review.

    Firstly, I think having to split your work force between the summer and the winter phases creates a very interesting decision space and that dreadfully delicious ‘if only I had one more action’ moments. This leads to a fantastic internal conflict of choice- especially since you can pick up a useful visitor card inbetween those two phases – and you have to assess how much you can get done in winter as well (with players potentially blocking you).

    Secondly, the visitor cards were often a big luck factor in the game. Having luck factor into the game can make a game more accessible. That being said, it can be frustrating to pick up cards that are utterly useless to you, while watching others play cards that can perform actions far better than you could with your workers. If there was one aspect to the game that I would change in an attempt to improve it, it would be this and it is consistently picked up by the various groups that I’ve taught the game to, and played the game with. I think changing this might also help, to some extent, with the end game problems that have been noted by players (i.e. there are too few ways to earn VP’s in the last year).

    One of the people I taught the game to, made the comment that perhaps the decks could have been split into two groups, an early game deck and a late game deck (with perhaps a change over at the 10 VP mark). I have already tried to somewhat stack the decks (so that the cards that are useful early in the game come up first and the cards useful later in the game come up last) and it certainly helped the game flow and lower frustrations.

    However, I found that the cards, to some extent, was a missed opportunity. I would have much preferred that the cards be used in a way that synergizes with certain strategies and pushes the players in directions they may not have gone in otherwise. While some do this, many are basically powered up versions of normal actions you can take (or combinations of actions). Trying to maximize the benefit that a card play can give you always makes you feel good when you manage to make it pay out.

    Thanks for the review! I always enjoy reading a well organized and thought out review.

    1. Hi Val,

      I agree completely with your first point, and definitely the card coming in the middle of those two tends to make that even more difficult. I have found that I tend to draw Winter cards in Autumn because I labor under the delusion that they will be immediately useful. And on occasion they are, but the more I play the game, the more I realize that Visitors as a general rule are all about good timing, and the best timing is not typically defined by “can this be played immediately?”

      Your second point is *really* interesting to me. I’ve felt that they *can* be swingy (but are not always so), but the idea of splitting them into early game and late game decks with a mid-point switch is a fantastic solution to this, which should create a better flow and more dramatic/tense games. There’s nothing I like more than a hard fought game, with neck and neck scores and a photo finish.

      I see what you mean about the cards, and your statement makes me think of Agricola. My Professions and
      Minor Improvements either give shape to my strategy, or they are largely ignored. I find that ignoring the Visitors in Viticulture is something that you do at your own peril, but that’s okay…this is a different game.

      That said, there are always things you can do house rule elements like this to create a better game experience. Epic Thunderstone was born that way, and while I prefer to go by the rules, Epic is also enjoyable, although a radically different game that plays with the same parts. The one you mentioned earlier is a really great idea, and if you don’t mind, I’d love it if you emailed me your recommendation on the splits so I can try it myself. I completely agree that playing a card at just the perfect moment to get the most mileage out of it is a pretty satisfying feeling.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

  2. Joe, thanks so much for the review. I particularly love the designer notes! Some of the original versions of the game had event dice (similar to event decks) that made good or bad things happen in relation to the weather or economy of Tuscany. However, we found that it just ended up really frustrating players. Viticulture is largely a game of careful planning, so if one little thing changes, it can throw you off course for several turns. However, the idea of adding ways to avoid the bad or maximize the good is very clever.

    Val–You make an good point about the cards, although I would say that some of the cards that frustrate players the most are those that fit your final criteria: Cards that push players in certain directions strategically. We’re doing a lot with the cards in Tuscany that will take care of your concerns (and elevate the cards to a new level).

    1. Jamey, I would say that it depends on how much ‘pushing’ is involved and how damaging that pushing could be.

      For example, you have a card that allows players to gain cash based on how many cards they have in their hands. This often means that players will hoard cards for an extra round or two to maximize on gains and play the card first if they have the option of playing two cards. You also have another card that rewards players for having vines in each field, or uprooting a vine, or having two wines in a medium cellar, or destroying one building to gain another etc.

      While these don’t push a player into completely different strategic paths, it does reward short term tactical play in a way that doesn’t significantly compromise their long term strategy and can even enhance it. There are plenty of rewards that can be fashioned in this regard that push or subtly nudge players in interesting directions, such as rewards for having different vines planted, or a mono-color field, or multi-colored fields, or trellised/irrigated vines, or number of buildings, or number of wines in a cellar, or grapes on the crush pads, and some can even include player interactivity – e.g. rewards for highest value wine, or grape.

      Perhaps ‘strategically’ was a bad way of phrasing my point, as I was thinking more in terms of tactics than actual strategy – i.e. short term goals.

      I fully expect that Tuscany will solve many, if not all, of the issues I brought up, because you (Jamey) have a good habit of listening to what people say about your game, distilling it, and putting the information to good use. It’s always good to see a designer that can separate themselves from their work that way and not take it personally – especially when these issues are really, really minor ones in an otherwise great game.

      (As a side-note, if you’d like some help with play-testing, rules-reading and/or some local marketing for the new expansion, feel free to mail me and let me know how I can help.)

      1. Val: That’s well said, and I completely agree. The Patronage cards directly address long-term strategies–have you seen those on my playtester e-mails? If not, shoot me an e-mail and I’ll share them with you. I really appreciate what you’ve done to share Viticulture down south, and I hope to make it to Texas next year for BGG.con (I’m pretty sure Joe is going to try to make it too).

    2. Well, yeah, I think that’s true of all worker placement games. They are so very tightly controlled that something random coming along can really sour your game. The worst that happens is your optimal spaces get blocked, but you can still Plan B your way around it. I wouldn’t make the recommendation for events without a way to incorporate them into how the game plays. If you have an action space foreshadowing possible bad weather and you take appropriate response (like really viticulturists have to) then you can be rewarded for your prudence. Or you can press your luck and hope that the weather isn’t so terrible if you didn’t want to use workers on something that may or may not happen. If you wanted to have this gambling element present, you can have a number of fair weather event cards with no effects (or perhaps a minor bonus for those who took the action, like a 1 lira gain or something so it’s not COMPLETELY wasted) but with player knowledge of how many cards there are in total, and how many bad ones. There is a similar player aid in Agricola where it tells you what actions will slowly become available in what phases, but you have no way of knowing in what order they will happen. The more that are revealed, the better your odds are of predicting what is coming next and what you can do to prepare for it. So when this inevitably shows up in a later expansion, just give me a shout out in the rulebook 😉

  3. Thanks for the indepth review. I really like how you summarize the things you like and thoughts as a designer. Your summary is really great as well for people searching from their LGS while making purchases!

    1. Larry, I like the cut of your jib. If you’re interested in Viticulture, I *strongly* recommend picking up the Tuscany expansion. It adds a LOT to the game. Thanks for reading!

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