The Judge, though known for his brutality in the confines of the squared circle, is at heart a man of style and taste. His shelves are lines with many fine leather bound books and his locker room smells of rich mahogany. See his wine cellar and you can tell he knows the difference between terror and terroir…
Who wants to play a game about wine making? Well, my board game playing chums, you’re in luck because straight off the top of my head I can name at least three games from the last few years that try to simulate the gathering, production and selling aspects of high-octane wine making – Vintage, Grand Cru and Vinhos. Of those, Vinhos is the deepest, most complex and nicely balanced – offering a thematic, yet tight and challenging business simulation of creating a wine empire. Today, however, we’re going to talk about Viticulture – the newly kickstarted worker placement game from first time publisher Stonemaier Games. In comparison to Vinhos, Viticulture is much earthier, agricultural, and concerned with the practical growing and crushing of grapes. It is also a significantly lighter experience, but is it a fine vintage, or a tainted and corked disgrace! Enough of the wine-y puns…to the review!
Whilst looking for a not too paltry $25,000 to fund, Viticulture smashed that initial goal and in October of 2012 finished its fund raising sprint at over $65k. A well-managed campaign, featuring temping stretch goals to upgrade the in-box components was like nectar to a swarm of bees as 942 gamers threw their money at this fledgling company. Some 9 months later, and thanks to what some call ‘production’ and I call magic, I have a copy in my hands. Now I bought mine through my friendly, local retailer so didn’t get the ‘Exclusive Kickstarter Extras’ so won’t be commenting on the deck of Arboriculture cards – though reports on ‘the geek’ suggest that they do add to the experience.
Viticulture is all about the nuts and bolts of planting, growing and harvesting grapes, then crushing, maturing and then selling the finished wine. Refreshingly, it’s a simple race to twenty victory points – and there are many (an almost Feldian amount) of ways to score. Mechanically, this is a literal ‘worker placement game’ and is split into four seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall (a new one on me, but whatever) and Winter.
The Spring mechanism is stolen (with all due credit given by the designers) from Queen Games’ Fresco. Players choose at what time they will ‘wake up’– and the relative choices of the players will denote turn order for the following seasons. There are increasingly helpful bonuses available for the later risers, but perhaps going first is more important to you. Nice choices – well implemented.
Summer is the first proper phase as players place their workers on board spaces to do ‘stuff.’ This could be buy, plant or sell grapes, receive ‘Summer Guests’ (more on that later) and build structures on your personal player board. You can even give tours around your farm for a few quick bucks / Lira. These actions are limited as per the number of players – one available space per action for 2 player games, up to three available spaces for 5 – 6 player games. This scales the game well, but does mean that a 6 player game (for instance) is a lot meaner and fiercely competitive than a 5 player game as there are simply less spaces to go around.
Autumn, erm… Fall allows players to draw another Summer or Winter guest. That’s it. Winter is the 2nd worker placement phase – the twist being that only workers that you didn’t use in the Summer are available here. This forces players to ration this resource over a year and leads to some more interesting, and tough decisions.
Winter is all about harvesting your grapes, and crushing those into Wines, plus accepting those useful Winter guests. This is also the only chance to draw and later fulfil order cards – the primary method of scoring victory points. At the end of a full year, all the wine and grapes improve in quality by one – a nice thematic touch – meaning that producing that quality one white grape becomes well worth the investment as the years tick by.
So we’re growing grapes, turning it into wine and filling orders to score points. Rinse and repeat until one player gets at least 20 victory points at turn end and then they are the winner.
What makes Viticulture stand out? Well, I enjoy the cut throat nature of the worker placement – particularly with 2, 4 and 6 players. A cursory glance at your opponent’s board will indicate if they are desperate to plant or harvest this year. Blocking those spots is a valid and highly entertaining tactic. I also love how everything connects thematically – and the planting, growing, harvesting cycle transfers what could be quite abstract mechanics into something which simply makes sense.
The ‘Guests’ have been discussed as a bone of contention amongst early adopters and I understand many of the complaints. Guests cards allow players to take additional actions, add features to their farm and, perhaps most controversially, earn victory points for certain criteria. They are also incredibly varied in how useful they are – and this effectiveness is highly dependent on your current circumstances. Now, it would be possible to change your strategy based on cards drawn – to take advantage of what they offer – though like redirecting a particularly stubborn mule, this shift of strategy can be difficult and time consuming and is often simply not worth it. Other players receiving the cards at a better time, or ones that match a current strategy will have an advantage and this could be seen as a problem. That said, they do add a great deal of flavour to proceedings and make each play different – as long as you are willing to appreciate the lucky swings that they inherently offer – which I do.
I couldn’t finish this off without talking about the bits. Due to the vast amount of over-funding sloshing about this kickstarter, the company decided to add wooden meeples for just about everything. Getting up token? How about a wooden Cockerel? Add a medium cellar to your farm? Small wooden house for that! Built the large cellar? Slightly bigger wooden house coming up! Now having so many unique meeples is unnecessary, but does make it more fun to play.
But should you buy it? If you have room for a medium weight Euro in your collection that plays from two to six – then yes! Even without the ridiculous amount of over produced pieces, Viticulture would be a fun, solid and entertaining game. The very attractive board, player mats and plethora of wooden bits only add to this experience and make it a more fun experience. With the proviso that the random guest cards can leave you at a disadvantage compared to the other players, I found Viticulture to be a very satisfying tipple. This is a full bodied and fruity game: Fresh, aromatic and well-balanced on the palate….erm tabletop.
Viticulture from Stonemaier Games was released in 2013 and designed by Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone. Though a limited release, you should be able to hunt down a copy – Gameslore sell them for £40.99 (when it’s in stock!)