For a man so adept at handing out six-packs of whoop-ass, The Judge has a lot of time for some pretty hardcore Euros. Stuart Platt steps up once again to discuss Vinhos, a game of wine production through the medium of cube pushing…
Vinhos has a reputation amongst even established and grizzled Euro-gamers as somewhat of a monster to learn and teach. Yes, this game is not short of mechanisms. Yes, this does feel, at times, that you are simultaneously playing 3 pretty weighty cube shufflers as if you were a grand-master level chess player. Ahhh, but once you get up to speed and the variety of interlocking gears begin to make sense, you reveal a challenging, competitive and exciting journey into Portuguese wine production.
This will NOT be a detailed breakdown of the rules – as the required length would be dull, dry and would eat up poor Mr. Fox’s bandwidth in no time. Instead, I refer you to a very good Geeklist at BGG – http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/59669/vinhos-how-to-play-list – which helped me get a good grip on things from a rules perspective. My article is all about why Vinhos is worth the considerable investment of time and effort to learn and explore the game.
So, we’re wine producers based in Portugal (hence ‘Vinhos’) and over the space of six years / turns (making just twelve actions in total) we will produce wine, selling it both locally and to export markets. We then present the best of our wares at Wine Shows to generate money and, ultimately, victory points. The most points after the third show wins the game.
Gameplay is based around the movement of your action pawn around a 3 x 3 grid, with each space providing a different aspect of the process. It could be selling goods, enlisting experts or production – to increase the quantity, quality and therefore value of your wines as they are generated each turn. Placement of player’s pawns and the turn marker as it moves around the grid affect your move. Nothing is blocked, but it costs money (given to the player who’s in your way) when moving to an action that is already occupied. In addition, moving more than one space on the grid costs you as well. These deterrents don’t sound like much, but they WILL change your decisions – in Vinhos, money is pretty tight and is not to be wasted.
The game is full of difficulties. This isn’t a negative, these are difficulties in the same manner as having to feed your family in Agricola – it’s all part of the game. Reflecting life, one of these is dealing with the bank. When you sell goods, the money is transferred to your bank account. The more in your account at game end, the more Victory Points you gain. Great! However, you need cash in hand to do anything – so you have to spend an action doing banking! Your twelve actions throughout the entire game are precious. Having to spend AN ENTIRE ACTION at the cashpoint can be a killer but you’ll probably have to do it, and you have to plan for it, and hope that others don’t do it when you need to.
I haven’t even mentioned the mini-games that involve exporting & investing, let alone the Wine Show mechanism could easily be a game unto itself. It involves comparing your selected produce against specific requirements of the judges to generate bonuses, get Victory Points and unlock special abilities.
So there’s a lot going on – but does it all work together, and is it fun? To answer that properly, I will compare it to another heavy Euro I recently played called Pret a Portér [which I’ve reviewed here – Michael]. On a surface level, it’s pretty similar. Both have unconventional themes (Wine / Fashion), both involve a fair amount of cube and chit shuffling, and both have a ‘show’ format for which you need to produce and prepare. Except I found that Porter was painfully dull; it was the most transparent example of cube pushing for cube pushing’s sake that I have ever played. That theme felt tacked on and abstract. All the disparate mechanisms felt completely separate and disconnected from the main game. The flip side of that coin is Vinhos. Even though there is a huge amount going on, once you get past a 30 minute rules introduction all of the elements fit together because – both mechanically and thematically – the game makes sense.
Like Agricola (which I consider the perfect example of theme teaching the game as you play – “why do these white cubes multiply at the end phase? Oh, they’re breeding sheep”) all of the elements work together. You buy vineyards to produce more wine. Wineries are built and enologists are hired to make the wine better etc. Ryan Sturm (our fellow Dice Tower Network member) presented an excellent piece on using schemata to teach games some time ago – and he could easily have been talking about the learning process in Vinhos. The game realises there is a lot to get through and the theme makes that process a thousand times easier.
In terms of gameplay, Vinhos is a triumph. I found that each game is filled with ‘O.K, I’d do THIS differently next time’ moments. Even as a relative newbie, when you find yourself in the pits of despair as you’ve miscounted your money and you feel like you’re wasting one of those oh so precious turns, you also feel like you’ve learned – and you’ll have fun doing it.
So get past any pre-concepted notions that this will be a dry, humourless experience. Take my advice, buy yourself a good vintage, pop the cork and sit down to a cultured, full-flavoured gaming experience that is Vinhos.
Vinhos is a Z-Man Games release from 2010. Designed by Vital Lacerda, between two and four players can attempt to conquer the world of wine in around two to three hours. If you’d like a copy, it’ll set you back around £35 from the good folks at Gameslore.