Board Game Review

Just A Sip… (Viticulture Review)

When people talk about the finer things in life, they often do so whilst cradling a glass of red or white whilst doing so. A Sauvignon Blanc or a rich Merlot. Because finer people think of finer things and drink finer drinks… which explains why I’m neither fine nor a fan of wine! However, the process for making such a beverage is one that takes time and is more of an art form than a skill! Artisans of vinification take the grapes from planting to harvest to processing to bottling, and may only taste the fruits of their labour years later! Viticulture Essential Edition is a game specifically centred on this art form of production. It’s a 1-6 player game that takes around 75 minutes to play.

Gameplay

Viticulture Essential Edition is a game about the process of making wine. From seed to the cracking open of the bottle after sales. Players aim to plant vines, upgrade their plantation, harvest seeds, make wines and fulfil orders to gain points. The game is worker placement as it’s core mechanic, but also utilises hand management and contract fulfilment. The game is run in rounds set up in years, with each season being a phase of the round. Players bid for turn sequence positions in Spring, complete yellow actions in Summer, gain visitor cards in Autumn, and take blue actions in the Winter. After a year, wines and harvested grapes age and bidding begins again. The game ends the at the end of the year when any player gains at least 20 points with the winner being whomever ends with the most points, with money breaking ties.

Players start the game with a mama and a papa card to determine their starting money, workers, cards and built structures. Generally speaking, this will entail two regular workers and a grande worker and money. Cards and structures aren’t always a given. They should then choose a player colour and retrieve that board, the pieces and one of each field value cards – in values of 5, 6 and 7 Lira. Once a first player has been chosen, the game is ready to begin.

Actions On The Board

The board players place workers to have a variety of functions and purposes and come in two main varieties: summer and winter. Summer actions take place straight after turn order is decided and winter actions after the autumn season. Then number of workers which can be placed to a spot is dictated by the player count, with grande workers being placeable to spots already occupied by regular workers.

Summer (yellow) actions centre on preparing for wine production and focus on planting and building as opposed to harvesting.

  • Take a vine (green) card let’s you take one vine card to plant.
  • Plant a vine let’s you play a green (vine) card to a field. The grapes produced can never exceed the field’s value cumulatively.
  • Build a structure to enhance an action from placing a worker.
  • Give a tour of your vineyard to gain 2 Lira.
  • Play summer (yellow) cards.
  • Sell a grape or buy/sell a field from your vineyard

Winter (blue) actions centre on harvesting fields and producing wines to fulfil orders.

  • Draw an order (purple) card.
  • Play a winter (blue) card.
  • Train a new worker which will be available in the next year.
  • Harvest a field, collecting grapes in the crush pad for values associated to vines planted.
  • Turn crushed grapes into up to two wine tokens, converting grapes into equal (or less) valued wines based on storage capacities.
  • Fulfil an order.

In situations where there are no desirable actions for a player, they can place a worker to a spot on the board to collect 1 Lira. This spot is not limited to capacity, however is highly unlikely to be used.

Making Wines and Collecting Grapes

Viticulture is centred on making wines, but the process to do so is just as important as the product. Having an order to fulfil requires players to know which fields will need harvesting to acquire grapes of that value, knowing they have enough space in their cellar to store them, being able to produce the wines from the grapes (considering that blush and sparkling require combinations of grapes). They then need to time when to trigger each event to best manage their storage, actions and surplus of grapes.

There is no sure fire way to win, but many paths to an effective victory. The game forces you to take actions that will inevitably lead to opportunities to score, however players need to take some direction on how this will help. Whether that’s aiming to complete a single contract or whether it’s aiming to get early structures to open options up, players will always be provided with choice and chances to score, resulting in frequently close games once players know the basics.

How It Handles

Viticulture is a game is didn’t expect to love. I figured I’d like the worker placement, components and player led decision making to score and plan. I thought I’d dislike the theme and art. It’s got a real rustic, picturesque vibe to it – one you’d imagine was whipped up by Monet on a lazy Sunday. However, the whole package delivers a delightfully puzzly, thinky game with well integrated mechanics and theme throughout. The art, despite my initial concerns, supplements the wine making themes beautifully and makes for a game that is reliant on its theme to work. You don’t have to be a connoisseur of the finer things to enjoy this, you’ve just got to appreciate a quality game with superbly executed ideas.

Just a Taste Test…

Even in our first play of this game we were besotted. The game itself is addictive due to its punchy play and wonderfully player driven mechanics. However, where the true addiction lies is in the recognition that the game cannot be mastered. There’s the perfect balance of both decision and random card drawing in the game to ensure your experience every time is unique and that there’s no common path everyone takes to victory.

There’s something wonderful about the way choice and randomness work in this game. Your actions determine what’s available and the card drawn determine the direction you’ll take. Working with the cards you have to carve a path to victory is a synergy learned through experience. However! And this is a big however! Making mistakes doesn’t hinder progress in Viticulture. It creates more options and paths for players.

What makes this game so addictive is simply that: you cannot play it wrong or right, you can only play it effectively and ineffectively. A wasted turn is one turn more to victory, and the turns needed to win is led by cards taken, which led by choices, which is led by cards. A wonderfully designed set of mechanics working hand in hand!

Well Made and Oh So Fine!

Some games look good on the table, some feel good, and others do both. Viticulture does both. Easily. With little to no effort, the game simply being set up makes it look appealing and explains its theme easily with minimal effort. From the main board to the players’ meeple and components, the game says wine making in Italy with the air of a sophisticated artisan of old grape juice. And it both looks and feels good! So it’s a win win!

It’s surprising how beautiful the whole set up and package really is. I mean, in reality, there’s nothing quite as dry as farming in my eyes. It’s just not my jam… but this here is something special and something that hits all the right notes. The artwork set in the valleys of Italy with rolling hills and beautiful sunrises. The cards hosting people who’re part of the business showing off some really artistic imagery. And the components depicting the assortment of odd tools used in wine making. I will say that for the longest time I thought the irrigation tower was a beehive and never once questioned how beekeeping helped with wine production – but hey, I’m no farmer!

Overstocked On Plonk!

In the early game, you’ll find there’s plenty of option but some obvious choices to make. Playing the game a few times informs you that you need a big cellar for all your wines. Sooner or later you’ll be producing it and it makes no sense to be capped when doing so. The cellar expansions allow you to not only have more wine, but better quality stuff, too. Perfect for cashing in on those contracts!

An early game cellar expansion is always my go to. Wines and grapes age every year and will always progress in quality. Grapes don’t have anything to cap them, but you won’t want an 6 quality grape dropped to 3 because your underground bunker is too small! That’d be mega counterproductive. Unless it’s part of a bigger scheme, or a more focussed plan, I’d never diminish a grape’s returns. Always hold out for the biggest cellar!

A Contractual Obligation…

Viticulture is a game where you get out what you put in – metaphorically. You send workers to get grapes and, over time, those grapes become the finest of wines. But there are situations when you’ll be inundated with these bevvys. You’ll be literally drowning in them… and that’s down to the chaos of the cards. Not getting that one contract you need to cash in on your caviar accompaniment is a right pain! Time ticks on and your grapes grow more valuable and your wines finer… but eventually you may have to settle. Contacts can be achieved with values of at least what’s needed. But there’s nothing quite as heart wrenching as fulfilling a 2 value red and white order with the finest merlot and Sauvignon blanc!

In some ways, I can see how this chaotic shuffle can make folk dislike this game. Never getting what you need can drag it to a snail pace… however! For me, I think it’s a necessary evil. It prevents the perfect playstyle and ensures even the most seasoned wine tasters need to adapt. If you can’t get that card, then change how you’re playing. Harder contracts always result in better points, and are therefore always worth cashing in on when possible.

Final Thoughts

Viticulture is a delightfully enjoyable worker placement game with a beautiful theme and lovely artwork. Do I like the theme and artwork, then? No. But I can appreciate it as it has an air of Italy and vineyards throughout. It’s embedded and integral, working excellently to both support and drive gameplay in its sequence. The mechanics work well and we found the game lends itself well to ensure no decision is wasted. There are efficient ways to tackle it for sure, but it’s the learning curve and how you adapt to the situation you’re in that best shows your skills in this game. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed reviewing and playing Viticulture, and it’s a Stonemaier Game we can’t see leaving our shelves for a good long while! Bellissimo!