Review of Toscana – Dale Yu

Review by: Dale Yu

Designer: Paul Laane
Publisher: Aqua Games
Players: 2-5
Ages: 10+
Time: 45 mins
Times Played: 4 times, with review copy

Many people have referred to 2010 as “the year of the Wine game” because there were at least three wine-themed games released at the Spiel Fair in Essen that year.  Toscana was one of the three major releases sharing this winemaking theme.  I had a chance to talk a bit with the designer of the game, Paul Laane, at his Essen booth over a nice glass of wine and get a short demo of the game.

Toscana is played over a number of rounds (usually seven), and in each round players have a chance to 1) hire workers, 2) make wine, and 3) trade in the Wine Market.  One of the interesting decision making points in Toscana is that each of the three actions must be performed exactly once in each round, though it is up to the player to decide in which order he is going to perform them.  The goal of the game is to be the richest player at the end of the game.

The board is split up into two main areas – a large vineyard area on the right with plots for each of the four types of wine available in the game (red, rosé, white, and champagne) as well as water squares.  The left side of the board has the wine market, showing the values of the different wines and water, as well as the storehouses for each variety.  Above each column in the wine market is a marker with either a (+) or a (-) sign showing the trend of the price for that variety.  Additionally, each player has their own winery where they keep their personal stores of wine and water.  There is also a small chart here where a player can keep track of which actions he has already performed in this particular round of the game.

So let’s get back to those actions.  Your first option is to hire workers for your winery (as well as hiring help to manipulate the wine market).  First is to hire a wine maker.  At the start of the game, you can hire a regular worker for one red wine cube and then place it in an empty square in the vineyard or one which already has one of your workers in it.  If all four of your regular workers are placed, you can then hire one of your winemasters.  You would like to place these on the vineyard map strategically as they will help you gain wine cubes in the Winemaking action.  The cost for hiring the first two winemasters is paid in white wine cubes.  The third and final winemaster is free to place, but you may only place him if you have at least one cube of each type in your personal stores at the time.

Once you’ve placed your winery worker, you still have the option to hire someone to influence the prices in the wine market.  You could hire the Lobbyist, at the cost of one green cube (champagne), who then allows you to change the price trend markers.  There are 5 columns in the market and only 4 price trend markers.  The Lobbyist lets you move a marker, either (+) or (-) onto the column which is empty.  Then, you must move opposite trend tiles into the space that was just vacated.  The prices of these two columns change immediately corresponding to the direction printed on the tile just placed on top of the column.  On the other hand, you could choose to hire Mr. Rosé, at the cost of 1 cube of rosé, who will allow you to modify the price of any two wines by one space in either direction.  After you manipulate the prices, you also are allowed to buy or sell one cube of wine or water.

The second action option is to make wine.  When you make wine, you first place one to five boxes of water (from his own personal storage) on any crossroads on the winery map.  Any plots which directly touch this water cube AND have your workers on them will now produce wine (or water) – the color of cube that you produce is the same as the color of the square.  Squares with one regular worker make one cube of the specified colore, squares with either two regular workers OR a winemaster make two cubes of the appropriate color.   There are a few yellow squares on the winery map – they do not make anything when a single worker is on them, but they will make ONE cube of ANY color if occupied by two of your workers or one winemaster.

There may be times where you don’t have any water in your storage OR you just don’t need any of the types of wine from where your workers are.  If this happens, you can always take a single water or red wine cube instead of producing wine as described above.  It’s also important to know how you will get more water cubes as it is very difficult to make wine cubes without first having the water cubes.

The final action choice is to trade in the market.  When you choose this action, you may either buy a single color cube OR sell as many colors of cubes as you like.  When you buy cubes, you are limited to how ever many cubes are in the storehouse under the market, and you pay the current price as noted on the chart above.  You may also not buy more cubes than you can hold in your personal supply (a maximum of five cubes of each type).  If you choose to sell, you may sell as many cubes as you want to the market – even if you overflow the storage spaces – and receive the current prices as noted in the price chart for each cube.

One of the player boards. The area to mark your actions is in the lower left - and the warehouse for cube storage is in the lower right

As a player takes an action, he covers up the corresponding space on his personal board which will remind him not to take the same action again until a new round begins.  Once all players have taken their three actions (in whichever order the players desire), the prices of the wines/water are updated before the next round begins.

Some of the winetasting tiles. The left column are tile-backs, the right column are fronts. Each player has an identical set of seven of these tiles.

First, the price trend markers which are found at the top of the wine market are evaluated.  As a reminder, these are the markers that can be moved if you hire the Lobbyist.  The two varieties which have the (+) marker have their price rise by one square.  Similarly, the two varieties which have the (-) marker have their price drop by one square.  Next, the effects of supply and demand are taken into account.  Any variety which has a completely full storeroom has its price lowered by one square and any variety which has a completely empty storeroom has its price raised by one square.

Finally, there is a winetasting event where each player secretly and simultaneously chooses one of seven different winetasting tiles (from an identical pool of (+) and (-) for rosé, white and champagne and (-) only for red).  All winetasting tiles are revealed and the effect of each one is applied to the market.

There is a quick check for a game-ending condition: the game ends now if wither the players have played their seventh and final winetasting tile OR any player has 60 or more on the scoring track.   If neither of these conditions is met, a new round is started and all players must again go through and perform each of the three action choices in the next round.  If the game does end, players take all remaining cubes in their personal storage and sell them at the current market prices, and whichever player has the most money wins the game.

So when you look at the game in abstract form, the wine theme really could be anything.  The game itself is an economic market game where you try to gain cubes (whether through production or purchasing from the market at low cost) and then sell them when their market value is high.  In fact, when I spoke with the designer of the game in Essen, he told me that the initial theme of the game was science fiction with the game being set in Mars.  This was later changed to an Arabian theme with goods being traded in a desert bazaar.  As the game continued to be developed, the wine theme was added to the storyline, and the rest is history.

While the prices in the game are determined by the market, the way that the prices can be manipulated are a bit different than most other economic games that I’ve played recently.  Significantly, the prices are not immediately shifted from the buying or selling of the cubes, so oftentimes many, if not all, players might be able to take advantage of the prices in the market before they change.

However, it turns out that it’s not so easy to determine how the prices will change in a given round.  There are five ways that the prices can change – by hiring the Lobbyist or hiring Mr. Rosé during the hiring action as well as the three price updates done at the end of each round.  During the course of the Action phase, it’s hard to accurately predict how each player will choose to modify the market with the Lobbyist or Mr. Rosé.  As it gets closer to the end of the round, you have a better idea how the trend tiles will lie by round end as well as whether or not the storages will be empty or full – and knowing both of these will help you figure out the price updates at the end of the round… but this is balanced out by the secret and simultaneous choosing of winetasting tiles to end the price updates.  In the final round or two of the game, you might be able to get a better feel for the effects of the winetasting as you can see which tiles have already been played, but early on, there is very little you can do to predict the effects of the winetasting.

There is an interesting interplay between how you produce wine and how this affects both your ability to make more wine in later rounds as well as how you are able to affect wine prices currently.  Early on, red wine and water cubes are needed to set up your winemaking machine – you need the red cubes to hire workers and you need the water cubes to be able to generate wine from those workers.  You’ll eventually need the white cubes in order to hire the winemasters, but you first have to place your four regular workers before you get a chance to place the winemasters.  However, the green (champagne) and pink (rosé) cubes are what you need if you want to be able to better control the market prices with the Lobbyist or Mr. Rosé.

So, your early choices of worker placement often decide how you approach the first few rounds of the game.  Do you go for all red wine and water and try to ramp up your production as fast as possible?  Do you try to make at least one of the green/pink cubes instead so that you have more sway over the market – and then use your abilities to buy the cubes that you don’t make on your own?  Or do you go all green/pink from the start and try to fully manipulate the market and maximize early gains?  I’ve played four times now, and I’ve seen varying strategies with no one opening choice seeming stronger than the rest – though most players seem to fall into one of these three paths.  White cubes seem to be ignored early in the game as they are neither needed for early wine production nor early market manipulation.  [There is an advanced version of the game where players place down land tiles to change the layout of the vineyard side of the board – however, I have found that the variable board still doesn’t really change the opening strategies from the three paths I noted above.]

What I have also noticed is that the market isn’t as volatile as you might expect it to be early on in the game.  What has happened in my games is that the player(s) who make more green and pink cubes use the power of those colors to raise the cost of those two colors and, at the same time, drive the prices down of the others.  They are then able to sell the pink and green cubes that they make at high profit and use their money to buy the other colors they need at low prices.  The players making red/water don’t have much control over the market nor do they have much ability to sell anything to make money.  I’ve seen at least two games where some players would take their market action, have storehouses full of red and water cubes, but not be able to sell any because the prices for their cubes were at zero.  Of course, these players are instead able to continue hiring workers and making more cubes of wine each turn.  I don’t think that this is a “broken” aspect of the game (IMHO) because the market generally brings things back to the middle.

A definite thumbs up for the artwork and theming!

Before I leave the discussion of the game, I must make mention of the art.  It is definitely a distinctive package – very retro in its bold colors and shading – reminding me of the 1950s for some reason.  Interestingly, the art is also done by Paul Laane, the game designer – so this may be one of the few games where I can say safely that the overall appearance and presentation of the game turned out exactly as the game designer had envisioned!  I was immediately drawn to the game from seeing the first promo images due to the bold artwork and color palette.  The art, however, is definitely a polarizing issue; most of the people that have played the game have either loved or hated the art.  I happen to think that it is quite nice, and the style certainly sets it apart from a lot of the muted styles seen in many of the Eurogames of late.

The components are solidly made, with some nice wooden wine-worker meeples holding up wine glasses in their hands.  The rules are easy to read, with six well illustrated pages.  There are multiple graphic examples in the rules which clear up just about any question that might come up when learning the game.   The rules do come in multiple languages, but as the company that produced Toscana is Finnish, the language selection is a less common set of: Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and English.

Overall, I think that the game is an interesting take on the economic genre.  As I mentioned earlier, the theme really could have been anything – but as I am someone who enjoys his wine – I found the winemaking theme a plus.  The market itself can be very temperamental, and it can be frustrating watching the market change in unexpected ways – but this is perhaps very much like the real stock market!  However, after four plays, I haven’t found much depth to the game – there seem to be three main courses to go with the types of wine you make from the start – and then your overall success is determined by how the market happens to move in that particular game based, in many degrees, to forces beyond your control.  For many, this sort of stock market speculation is appealing, but for me it is not – it feels too much like a crapshoot.  It is a decent market game, but there is nothing about it that would cause it to stand out from any of the other economic games in my collection other than the distinctive and attractive art.  Neutral.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Valerie Putman’s opinion:  I only played the game once and I’m not really sure if there is a good game in there or not.  The problem is that I’m not intrigued enough to play a second time and find out.  I’d play it again if someone really wanted to try it, but I won’t seek it out.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue’s opinion: I have played Toscana 3 times and I like it. There is more than the appearance in the game. I don’t know why the wine theme is there: for an Italian gamer like me a wine game made by Finnish looks a bit strange and actually there is not a strong connection with the theme (Vinhos is totally different, with a strong wine theme). The main problem is that the game sometime jam if someone is without water and/or red wine in the firsts turns. So an average/good game with some nice idea but not really a wine game: I would have preferred this game in a different setting.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it!
I like it. (2) Andrea Ligabue, Doug Garrett
Neutral. (5) Dale Yu, James Miller, Valerie Putman, Mike Siggins, Rick Thornquist
Not for me… (1) Greg Schloesser

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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2 Responses to Review of Toscana – Dale Yu

  1. John Weldy says:

    I played this with Dale & Valerie at Great Lakes Games and would agree with every word Valerie said. It’s not an awful game, but other than the art there’s nothing there to make you want to play again.

  2. Mikko says:

    Yeah, it’s nice, but… I played a couple of games, but that was enough. I prefer the game with more players, though. With just three players, the market seemed very boring. With five, there’s some action, at least. Not bad, but not good enough to get played. I love the art, though.

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