Review of Grand Cru

Review by: Lucas Hedgren

Grand Cru
Designer: Ulrich Blum
Publisher: eggertspiele
Ages: 12+
Time: 90 minutes

Essen 2010 produced three big wine games. All three have a major economic production component, but Grand Cru can be characterized has the most spartan or succinct design. While the wine theme is incorporated in how the cubes mature, and the abstract wine festival each turn, for the most part, this is a strict business/economic game, where eke-ing out that last dollar is going to be very important. As I read the rules and the previews I was very excited to have a game of this nature coming out, and I plunged in with a long distance purchase.

The Summary:

The object of the game is to have the most money when the game ends. Players start by secretly/simultaneously (by the way, gamers need to invent a shorthand for this) taking a number of loans to provide themselves some starting capital. Loans provide seven dollars apiece. Then a normal turn commences. A number of tiles are presented to be acquired, and starting with the start player, players take one action on their turns.

Most of the actions revolve around these aforementioned tiles. The tiles come in two flavors: vineyard tiles, and special action tiles. The vineyard tiles are the backbone of your business, as once acquired they come with a “cube” of the appropriate type of wine, and will continue to produce one cube each turn. These cubes are harvested and sold and thus, you make your way slowly toward victory. The special action tiles are usable once a turn as well, but their function is to modify one of the basic actions, such that they are more efficient. So, as an example, one tile allows the harvesting of two cubes, rather than the normal one cube per action. You get the idea.

So, back to the actions. Each player does one action from this list on his/her turn:
-Put a tile up for auction, placing a bid of up to six dollars
-Overbid anyone else’s bid, again, up to six dollars
-Claim any tile you currently have the highest bid on, paying for it
-Buy a tile outright, for seven dollars, even ones currently being bid on by others
-Harvest one cube from one vineyard tile, paying one dollar
-Bump the sale price scale up one notch on any type of wine
-Sell all wine of one type from one of your barrels, for the price shown on the sales chart

A note about the barrels. When you harvest wine, it goes into the first of a personal set of barrels. Each turn the wine moves left to right, one barrel over. The reason for this is that each type of wine has a three turn window, during which it can be sold. So, some wines are ready earlier, but sell for less than others that take longer to mature. If you let a wine cube mature too long, though, it will go bad.

Once everyone has had at least four actions, the player to harvest the last of their cubes ends the round. Everyone else gets one more turn.

Next, some prestige points are awarded for the most and second most wine sold of each type. These points can then be spent on some actions, like claiming start player, selling or harvesting some more wine, or adjusting the sale prices. Actions are limited, and claimed starting with the player who currently has the most prestige, then going clockwise. (More about this later.)

Finally, interest is paid on loans, and more loans are taken, or loans are paid off. The game ends when anyone pays off their loans, or when someone has to take too many. Total cash is the determiner, with a bonus of five dollars awarded per each different type of tile you own.

The Uninteresting Bits:

Take out loans. Buy producing tiles. Harvest their cubes. Bump up the prices. Sell the cubes. Get money. Reinvest or pay back loans. Long term vs. short term investments. Yawn. We’ve seen it a bunch of times, right? There has to be something that sets this economic game apart, right? Well, yep.

The Interesting Bits:

By my mind, there are two major mechanics setting that feel unique to this game.

First, the limited yet variable number of actions that you can partake in each turn. Each player’s production can take a different number of actions to run efficiently. If you have several special action tiles, you will save actions doing the same things that others without those tiles would. This efficiency is offset by the cost and actions used to acquire those tiles. Similarly, if you have multiple tiles of the same type of wine, your sell actions with be more efficient. This is offset in the game by the more prestige earned by the “diversify”ers, and more end game bonus. Regardless, there will be a tension of when the round will end, that is a good thing, I think. Those with more action leeway will use the actions to pump up the prices of their wines, or acquire more tiles for later. Or, they might just end the round early on you. So, you can never be sure if you can do all you want to, and controlling the end of the round is pretty powerful.

The issue I have found with this is the turn order imbalance. If I am second in turn order, for example, then if the third or fourth player ends the round, then I get an extra action, relative to them, for no real good reason, other than I was lucky enough to sit to the left of the guy who chose start player. Now, I’m all for imbalance regarding turn order, when it can be effectively controlled (see Age of Steam). But here, it feels like a more robust turn order mechanism would be more fair and less arbitrary. As actions are in such high demand, extra ones are a big deal.

The second major mechanism that defines this game for me is the bidding for tiles. Here, unlike almost all games I have played, it costs an action to place a bid. So, I bid 3, someone comes in and either raises my bid, or buys the tile outright, and its as if my turn never happened. Negated. Lots of games have factors encouraging accurate, non-lowball bids. Here, that encouragement is huge. Making a one dollar bid is typically a waste of an action, as that will get outbid quickly. The extra kicker: You do not need the cash on hand to make a bid, nor are you ever forced to actually payfor your bid! I can just outbid someone to spite them, cancelling their action, at a cost to me of only my action. Now, this wouldn’t be a good strategy in a multi-player game, but its possible. Seems especially weird in the 2 player game, though I can’t say that I have tried it.

In the end, the idea seems to be that you can use more actions, and less cash to gain tiles, but at a risk of having your action negated. The other option is to way overpay (or maybe not) by buying tiles for 7 bucks. In my plays, there haven’t been a ton of issues with this, but the potential for a player to get overbid quite a bit exists, leaving a pretty bad taste in the mouth of that player. Maybe that is thier own fault for bidding too low?

(edit: Cargo Noir appears on the scene, using the almost exact same scheme as the core of the game. Though, in Cargo Noir, at least you have to have the cash on hand, and you are forced to pay. Still, funny the way that happens.)

Other Random Observations:

Most special action tiles are essentially tradeoffs of money and actions, to gain actions later. You need to decide if you can spare the actions and cash now for actions later.

If you are short cash when it comes time to pay interest, you get to take an emergency loan, for 5, rather than the usual 7 dollars. “A loss of 2 bucks!” you say. Not so. You don’t have to pay interest on that emergency loan, so you really only lose a buck. So, taking one loan too many or too few has the same penalty, except that being short cash during the turn can hamper your options. Hmm, seems like taking the extra loan when not sure is the way to go, but regardless, don’t fret too much about it.

As each different tile is worth 5 bucks at game end, don’t be afraid to outbid your lowballing opponent on any random tile.

Others get the chance to sell cubes before you of the color that you just spent an action adjusting the price on. So, unless you have a monopoly, or the other players have already sold all their cubes of your preferred color, adjusting the price is useless. So, setting up a situation where you have the only cubes of that color seems like a good way to get ahead in this game. Conversely, not letting someone have a monopoly is important as well.

I suppose it can happen otherwise, but it sure seems like whoever pays off their loans first is going to win, even counting the bonuses.

Final Thoughts:

When I read about Grand Cru on the Essen previews, I was excited. It seemed to me to be hardcore economic game, in the vein of my beloved Age of Steam, with lots of tension and interesting plays. In practice, Grand Cru felt a little too processional for me, with the slow accumulation of cash over the course of the game. Each move I made would pay off, but way down the road. Combined with my perceived issues with turn order and the bidding mechanic, I wasn’t even sure it was a fair exercise. My plays were interesting enough, but not brain burn-y as I had expected. There is a lot to like here, and if you have different opinions on how the two main mechanics play out, you might love this. In the end, I decided to trade my copy away.

Comments from other Opinionated Gamers

Greg J. Schloesser: Let there be no doubt: Grand Cru is an economic game. Players must make money, as the wealthiest player wins. So, the challenge is not to produce the highest quality vintage that will satisfy high-browed wine snobs, but rather to produce steady quantities of wine that you sell at a hefty profit. While some of us would like to think differently, for many vintners, wine is primarily a business. Quality takes a back seat to profits. This sad reality is what is emphasized in Grand Cru.

Grand Cru is also what is known in gaming circles as an “engine-building” game. Players must acquire the proper vines and improvements in order to create consistent production that generates profitable sales. This requires skill, discipline and proper timing. There is a persistent temptation to continue to purchase new vines and improvements for one’s vineyard and ignore the harvesting until it is too late in the year. One must balance his purchases with other important actions.

Wise money management is also critical. Loans are necessary, particularly in the first several years, but going too far into debt may dig a hole that is too difficult to escape. Estimating the amount of money needed each year can be tricky, as can deciding when to pay off existing loans as opposed to holding onto the money for another year. Completely retiring all of one’s debts seems to be a smart move, but this is no guaranty of victory.

An abundance of decisions, critical timing elements, money management challenges – all are present in Grand Cru, making it an extremely challenging game in which to do well. There are enough variables and options present to give players fairly wide latitude in terms of strategies to pursue. While there are some questionable aspects – grape vines and vineyard improvements aren’t customarily purchased at auctions and wine festivals usually recognize quality, not quantity – the theme does merge rather nicely with the mechanisms. Unlike Vihnos, another wine-themed game released at this year’s Spiel, Grand Cru isn’t bloated or rules heavy due to an effort to reflect all of the nuances of wine production. It is reasonably easy to learn and play.

Where the game stumbles, however, is in its sluggish start. Fellow gamer Dan Blum complained that he has grown weary of games wherein players must make “a long series of tiny, incremental moves in order to get to the part of the game where something interesting happens.” He accuses Grand Cru of committing this offense, and I am inclined to agree. One-half to two-thirds of the game involves building that economic engine that ultimately creates abundant production and healthy sales. While some are enamored with this slow, methodical engine-building process that is present in numerous games, some will find it rather dull. I realize that this is part of the design, I’d rather reach the truly exciting part of the game quicker. This would not only make the game more exciting, but it would also reduce the playing time, which is a bit long at nearly two hours.

The sluggish start that creates a rather lengthy, unexciting period doesn’t completely doom the game, but it does tarnish it. Whether the tarnish is too great is really a matter of individual tastes. Those who enjoy the methodical assembly of an intricate economic engine over a fairly prolonged period of time will likely not be discouraged and find great enjoyment in Grand Cru. Others, however, will be frustrated. If this sort of thing doesn’t delight your palate, you are best advised to seek a different vintage.

Patrick Korner: Grand Cru is a very ambitious design and there is lots to like here. However, the game has a very, very steep learning curve and tends to feel like it’s not working properly when not played ‘properly’.There are a number of interwoven mechanisms, all of which require some care to properly exploit. Unfortunately, learning just how to properly exploit all those mechanisms can be a very challenging process, since the game doesn’t often give you much feedback on whether what you just did is smart or silly. Even more unfortunately, doing silly things (without knowing they’re silly, of course) tends to break the game, resulting in less than enjoyable experiences for all. As a result, many new players will tend to shelve the game after one play, thinking that there is something wrong with it. There isn’t, but learning how to play ‘the right way’ may require more effort than many are willing to invest.

One good example: New players will have a hard time sorting out just how to raise prices for their wines, since it seems like using an action to raise prices will only result in someone else being able to sell at that higher price before you – and what’s the point of that? As a result, wines tend to all get sold for rock-bottom prices (unless one lucky person has a monopoly on a wine variety for a round or two), which makes the rest of the game very tough since everyone has very little cash. More experienced players will probably find this not the case, since they will be able to see what actions the other players really need to carry out and will time their price increases for those times when only they are likely to gain from it. Grand Cru is all about tough choices, and the more often you can force your opponent into having to choose between two ‘essential’ options, the better.

I actually liked Grand Cru far more than Vinhos, its closest ‘cousin’ in the wine genre, but ultimately both fall short. Vinhos is not complex, it’s complicated. Grand Cru is just the opposite – the rules are not that involved, but playing well is a very complex exercise. Too complex, actually, and the time required to fully learn the intricacies of the game is time my group is not willing to expend, reaching instead for Container, Baltimore & Ohio or Master of Economy when a deeper economic game is on the menu.

Dale Yu’s Opinion (5 games): Grand Cru is a game I really want to like. It comes in a nice cardboard box (I didn’t get the limited edition wooden version) – but maybe it should be packed instead in a eggcrate — because it’s fragile!

Grand Cru has an economic engine that reminds me a lot of Age of Steam, one of my favorite games of all time, in that there is a constant struggle of managing your debt. In both games, you need to take out shares in order to have operating income, and you need to do a lot of your planning at the start of the turn so that you have enough money to do the things you want to do. But, you don’t want to have too much money, or else you’ll waste money at the end of the turn paying interest on cash you didn’t need that turn. While the systems are conceptually the same, there doesn’t seem to be the same amount of tension around the decision in Grand Cru as there is in Age of Steam.

The reason for this is due to the “fragility” of the game – if the players don’t play the game “right”, it doesn’t work out. In order for there to be economic tension, the costs for tiles in the auction must be high. I’ve played games where the average bid was 1 or 2 per tile, and when this happens, no one ends up in a financial crunch – or at least, the number of loans that each have to take out is much lower. Now… some have contended that the groupthink at my table was “wrong”, but the way I see it, there are spaces on the board allowing for bids of 1 or 2 — if such action were to break the game, then why isn’t the lowest bid allowed 3?

The cost of the wine varieties also is subject to groupthink. I have played in a few games where players were unwilling to raise the price of grapes because they were afraid that other players would take advantage of the higher prices before the original player could sell that type. When this happens, there is less money in the game. It also makes for a uninteresting game.

I have read online that the “fix” for this is to have the players play the game better – but I don’t think that this is a good solution at all. A good game will never depend on players playing right in order to succeed, and I think this is where Grand Cru misses the mark. Neutral.

Ratings Summary of the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it! (0)
I like it (3): Greg Schloesser, Doug Garrett, Craig Massey
Neutral (7): Luke Hedgren, Dale Yu, Valerie Putman, Joe Huber, Patrick Korner, James Miller, Mike Siggins
Not for me… (0)

About Lucas Hedgren

Lucas Hedgren likes playing, designing, reading about, thinking about, and writing about games.
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4 Responses to Review of Grand Cru

  1. Neil Christiansen says:

    We have played this game a half-dozen times and put me down for “Love It”!

    I have yet to see the fragility of the game, but a lot of the the aspects that irk others (variable turn end, actions spent to bid) have added to our decision space. All of these must be used tactically if you are to win against good players.

    Grand Cru is about one thing as much as anything else: Keeping track of what other players are doing to know when an action makes most sense. This is true of the auction phase as well and whether your action is best spent raising someone’s bid, which will cost an action and could require a loan if you do not want your action to be similarly “wasted”, versus using that action eslewhere (e.g., harvesting).

    All of our games have been close and when I taught it at MittenCon, a newbie beat a group of experienced players. So I guess I don’t see that all the players have to play the game “right” for there to be economic tension; rather if they do not see how to realize value those that do will trounce them (which has happened).

    It does, however, start a bit slow. This goes away with experienced players that whiz through the first turns.

    There are some special tiles that seem overvalued and can lead to a minor start player issue that we have resolved by only allowing “buy it now” for 7 to tiles already on auction during the first year.

    Grand Cru, Navegador, and Troyes (not necessarily in that order) are my three keepers from Essen this year so far and I look forward to many more plays of each.

  2. Paul Lister says:

    Re Why the 1 and 2 spaces are there. Yes, they can tempt players at the beginning of the game into wasting an action, however they come into play later in the game as you are trying to maximise your score for tile types. A low bid is less likely to be a wasted action as other players may have other more pressing actions to consider.

    What no one seems to mention here is that this is a debut design for Ulrich Blum, and he should be commended for an interesting and ambitious design.

  3. Neil Christiansen says:

    I have seen many tiles in early turns go for just one or two. This is because opponents have to trade off whether to raise you and risk having vines that are not harvested, or harvest (and later sell or raise prices). I have put tiles out for 1 just to force someone into the decision of blocking me for something I want but incurring a chance they then leave grapes on the vine (which do not age and will not get new grapes).

    I watched a game once where nobody ended the year early to catch people with grapes on their vine, and my thought was: “Why the heck wouldn’t you?”

  4. James Moore says:

    It wasn’t clear to us that bidding someone else up was the right thing to do, at least on our first play.

    Player 1 bids 1. You’re player 2. You could bid outbid player 1, or you can just put down your own bid of 1. Bidding 2 hurts player one a bit, but it hurts yourself too. So why? It seemed likely that lots of stuff was going to go for a $1 bid.

    It’s one of the games where we’ve said we’re willing to try it again, but it just doesn’t quite make it to the table.

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