Essen Preview #25: Vintage

Designer: Gil d’Orey
Publisher: MESAboardgames
Players: 2 to 4
Playing Time: 90 minutes
Ages: 10+

Last year’s SPIEL fair at Essen brought us multiple games with winemaking theme: Vinhos, Grand Cru, and Toscana. This year’s show will welcome the latest entrant in the winemaking game, Vintage, from the Portuguese publisher MESAboargames. This time, the setting is the Douro River Valley of Portugal, the world-renowned port wine-producing region, and players are competing business owners vying to produce the highest quality (vintage) product.

Making Port Wine is a Process

Unlike last year’s wine games where production happens almost as a matter of course (except for impact of weather in Vinhos and maturation time in Grand Cru), in Vintage players go through the entire winemaking process from buying an estate, planting vineyards, harvesting grapes, transporting the wine to cellars located in Vila Nova de Gaia for aging, before the products can finally be sold for Vintage Points (VPs).  Because players will most likely go through the estate start-up process twice and the harvest-transportation-selling process at least 5 times in the game’s 7-round duration, there is a great deal of tension and interactions among players.

In the beginning of the game, all players start with one estate in the Baixo (lower) Cargo sub-region. All the initial estates come with exactly the same 3 vineyards planted (ready to produce wine), have the ‘estate quality’ of 2 and can produce 2 barrels of port wine at each harvest. Players also start with 1 barrel of brandy, a required ingredient in making port wine, as well as a ship parked at the cellar of Vila Nova de Gaia. The only difference in the budding enterprises is that the first two players (the first player in a 3-player game) will start the first round with one fewer worker.

Worker Placement with a Twist

The primary mechanic in the game play is worker placement. Each player starts with 4 (3 on the first turn if you are the first two players) workers plus one overseer, who can do the work of multiple workers. At the bottom section of the board, players will in turn take one action by deploying the required number of workers to an unclaimed spot, until all players are out of workers or have passed. This section of the board also contains two other somewhat random factors in a game that otherwise involves very little luck – harvest bonus (ranging from 0 to 2 and 2 out of 9 tokens are not in play) track and card display. In the beginning of each round, the corresponding harvest bonus token is revealed, and every estate that harvests that round will benefit from the bonus; also in the beginning of a round, 4 new cards (unclaimed cards from the previous round are out of the game) will become available for selection.

The total number of spots available for each action option in a round is dependent on the number of players. In a 3-player game, the last spot is not available. For most actions, if you are the first player choosing that action in a round, you only need to place one worker; the second player choosing the same action will need to place two workers, and so on. The overseer can be placed in a spot requiring multiple workers instead.  The options include:

  • Take a card – A player can choose a card from the card display and take it into his/her hand. The hand limit is 2 cards so if you already have two cards in hand, you’ll have to discard one before taking another. All cards enable players to perform actions more efficiently – some provides a bonus barrel in harvest or a bonus quality level, others allows you to use fewer workers to accomplish an action, and some will even allow you to take an action when all the spots are full by playing the card with the desired action symbol on it.  Taking a card requires only 1 worker, and can be done multiple times by the same player in a round.
  • Play a card – To benefit from the effects of a card, you have to place a worker in an empty ‘play a card’ spot. Some of the cards offering bonuses need to be played before you place workers for the affected actions. As card effects are only good for the current round, players need to plan carefully to make sure that they have enough workers left (and there will be an empty spot) for them to take the corresponding action that round.
  • Plant a vineyard – There are 4 different tracking for planting vineyards. Two tracks have two colors each, and the player can choose which one they are planting. One of the tracks allows the player to plant a purple vineyard, and the ‘old vineyard’ (black) can only be planted in an estate in the Cima (upper) Cargo region and only one player may select that action each turn. An estate must contain vineyards of different colors, and a minimum of 3 vineyards is required before the estate is ready for harvesting. The incentive to continue planting after an estate is harvest-ready is to improve the ‘estate quality’. Once an estate has 5 vineyards, the estate quality will increase by 1. In the Cima Cargo region, planting an old vineyard increases the estate quality by 1 immediately.  Better quality estates will produce higher quality port wine that will sell for more vintage points.
  • Harvest – a player can only perform this action once per round, whether it’s done by placing worker(s) in an empty harvest spot or by playing a card.  When executing the harvest action, players can harvest all their estates simultaneously, provided that they meet some requirements:
    • An estate can only be harvested if it has at least three vineyards planted.
    • An estate can only be harvested if it is free of previously harvested barrels (requiring players to get the production-transportation-selling engine going to take advantage of the once per round action as many times as possible).
    • An estate can only harvest port wine if the player can spend a previously harvested (located on the player board) barrel of brandy.

An estate may harvest brandy, port wine, or a mixture of both. The total number of barrels produced is indicated by the region in which the estate is located – Baixo Cargo produces 2 barrels, Cima Cargo produces 3 barrels, and Douro Superior produces 4 barrels. The brandy harvested in a round cannot be used to harvest port wine from a different estate in the same round.  Harvested brandy (brown discs) will be stored on the player board (storage limit of 3), and harvested port wine (brown barrels) will be stored on the estates themselves with an accompanied harvest quality (the sum of estate quality and harvest bonus) token.

  • Transport harvested wine to ship – The overseers cannot be used to perform the ship movement action. To move the ship, players place worker(s) on the ship-moving spot corresponding to their color. Going upstream, each stop requires a worker whether or not you are stopping to pick up a harvest. Going downstream requires only 1 worker, even if the ship makes multiple stops to load barrels. The ship has 3 separate areas, which can hold barrels from 3 different harvests (can be from the same or different estates). If a ship is at a particular harbor when that region’s estate is harvested, the barrels can go directly onto the ship, provided there is an empty area to hold the harvest.  You can always add an additional worker to continue moving your ship later in a round. Once the ship arrives at the cellar at Vila Nova de Gaia, the barrels will immediately be loaded onto the cellar on the player board.  The cellar can hold wines from 4 harvests – 2 tawny and 2 ruby wines, with barrels from each harvest in a different column.  If the cellar is full, then the ship cannot unload until there is space available. The choice between Tawny and Ruby is the formula used to award vintage points.
  • Sell wine – The selling action will apply to all barrels currently in the cellar. The player will roll a D6 (1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3) and add the result to the harvest quality token for each column of barrels.  Starting with the highest quality product, the barrels are moved into the empty spots in the corresponding category.  When that category is full, the extra barrels will go in the next category below.  Once all barrels have been moved out of the cellar, the player tallies the total number of vintage points gained by the sale and advance the score marker.
  • Buy an estate – This is another action that can only be performed at most once per round by the same player.  At the beginning of the game, each player has two more estates that can be purchased during the game. To make a purchase, the player places one of his/her estate pieces in an empty estate spots on the board, and pay the number of VPs indicated for the purchase. The new piece of real estate does come with a new worker, ready to be deployed starting in the next round (place the worker token on top of the harvest bonus token for the next round). In both the Cima Cargo and the Douro Superior regions, not all estate spots are created equal. The early buyers will get better starting estate quality, while the last player going into a region will get the worst starting estate quality.
  • Become first player – Not surprisingly, players earlier in turn order has an advantage in spending fewer workers to accomplish the same tasks so those who are later in the turn order will want to shake up the turn order form time to time. First player will not change unless someone spends an action to take it.

The game ends after 7 rounds. All leftover barrels are sold at the bargain basement price of 4 barrels for one VP. Players are reimbursed for the VP investment in purchasing estates, provided that the estate has at least 3 vineyards planted. There is a bonus of 1 VP for filling an estate with 5 vineyards.

First Impressions

I like worker placement games, and I think Vintage is a very good entry in that genre. The rules are quite intuitive (and according to the designer, true to the theme) and the game playing mechanic simple, but it is very difficult to do well. There isn’t any secret to what everyone is trying to do, but to get the engine going early and running smoothly is no easy task.  The strategic thinking goes beyond just what to do but also the best sequence in which to execute the actions to minimize worker requirements and opportunistically block other players (because now they are 1 worker short from being able to take the action that can only be done once per round). It’s probably one of those games that the first play will be full of sub-optimal moves that everyone will vow to improve upon in future plays.

As buying an estate will get you an additional worker (action), it makes sense to buy estates as soon as possible. However, players start out with enough VPs to buy into only the Douro Superior sub-region and while there are 2 estates with a starting estate quality of 4, the third one has the EQ of 3 and the fourth one has the EQ of 2. So after the first couple of plays, I started to suspect that maybe starting turn-order can be an overwhelming advantage to the first 2 players (having 1 fewer action in round 1 is a small price to pay to get a better estate and 1 more action than the other players starting in round 2).  Clearly, doing exactly the same thing as the other players but paying more workers to do it for worse results is not a formula for success. For my next few plays, I consciously tried other strategies (regardless of where I was in the turn order).  There are a number of ways one can get enough points in the first round to be able to buy 2 estates in the Cima Cargo region (highest starting EQ) in rounds 2 and 3 and save the extra action required to send the ship up to Douro Superior to pick up barrels for the rest of the game.  Also, the first player(s) may not buy estates first, especially if there are cards that may save them actions later. There are probably other equally valid winning strategies that I haven’t tried yet. After 5 plays, I am no longer concerned about the starting order advantage or the game becoming scripted.  There are some random factors (cards, die, harvest bonus, etc.) that can be used catch the leaders. For example, the card that moves the ship up to 4 moves not only reduces the number of workers needed to transport the barrels to the cellar, it may also enable the player to now sell that round (with the unused workers) instead of having to wait until the next round.

Vintage is not a complex game. Experienced players can finish a game in about 45-60 minutes (of normal play; I have not tried simple play). Usually a game of that length tends to be more family friendly without a lot of difficult decisions, or feels rushed (after you just get everything set up the game is over).  Vintage fills the bill of a meaty, strategic game that takes less than 1 hour to play.

My one complaint about the game is the board artwork. While it may be a faithful representation of the region, the colors and style makes it difficult to see some of the attributes of a region or an estate. It’s a minor issue for an otherwise solid, strategic game filled with tense player interactions.

Thoughts From Other Opinionated Gamers

Larry Levy (1 play):  Vintage is a reasonably designed game, but not one that seemed to distinguish itself on its first trial with our group.  In fact, I found myself almost totally disengaged, although that may say as much about me as it does about the game.  It doesn’t help that the theme isn’t one that does much for me and that it has lost its novelty due to the appearance of so many other winemaking games.  The gameplay also lacks a bit of excitement and seems to require the players to grind their actions out, rather than utilize “big” plays.

The game seems sound enough mechanically.  Having the actions require more workers for each subsequent use is a good idea, although it seemed that it was fairly easy to predict how your opponents would play, making this process more calculable and less dynamic.  Given the theme, I guess it makes sense to devote four action spaces to the different kinds of vineyards, but the number of spaces is disproportionate to the  importance of the action.  Overall, I thought the action selection mechanic could have worked a bit better with a little tightening up.

For a game with few random factors, the ones that are used seem to affect the action more than you might expect.  The die roll for the selling action usually doesn’t matter, but on the turns when it does, a poor roll can be devastating.  We all felt that some kind of random factor was needed here, but maybe something a little more refined would be an improvement.  The other big effect is the cards.  Some of these can really boost a player, so having the right card show up on the turns when you go first can be hugely important.  I’m not sure what to do to alter that aspect; it just may be something you have to accept about the design.

The reception for Vintage’s initial play with us was accepting, but not particularly enthusiastic.  I can see it getting more plays, but it also might prove to be a victim of the numbers game.  I could be talked into trying it again, but it’s not something I’ll seek out, so I’d have to give it a rating of Neutral.

Dale Yu (2 plays): Well, I was definitely interested in trying this one out as I also enjoyed Caravelas last year from this same company.  After my initial plays, I’m definitely interested in playing this one some more to try to continue figuring it out.  As Jennifer has nicely outlined, at its heart, it’s a worker placement game.  There are a very limited number of placements for the workers, so there always seemed to be some competition for the slots.  Additionally, the escalating costs of many of the actions added a bit of time pressure to each round, as I constantly had to decide between taking moves earlier in order to have a lower cost (though possibly giving up opportunties for cards, etc.)

From reading the rules, I was also a bit worried that the game would feel scripted because of the limited number of actions, but my first two games have shown me that this is not likely the case.  First, the cards (and the order they come up in) add in a large amount of variability.  The effects of the cards can be quite strong if played at the right time, and as such, there should always be a lot of competition for the cards each round.  Second, I think that there is some room for variety with the choice in estate location.  In our first game, all the players ended up with one estate in each of the three regions – but it certainly seems like a viable strategy would be for those later in turn order to eschew the rightmost area and try to get 2 estates in Cima Corgo.  While the Cima area does not produce as many barrels, they are of higher quality and are more easily improved (through the old vines).

The only thing that I’ve found that “everyone” does in my games is use their initial plantation for brandy barrels, and use those barrels over and over again to make higher quality wine at their other 2 estates.  I’m not sure if this is the “optimal” strategy, but thus far, I haven’t seen anyone play differently yet.  I just can see how I would make anything better out of a region that only makes 2 barrels at a time and of very low quality.

The final scores that I’ve seen end up in the mid 20-30s, so every VP is important.  It makes the 1VP bonus for having 5 vine types in an estate a worthwhile goal in the final round.  It also makes the die roll for wine production especially important as each step up in quality translates into a few extra VP.  Is the variance of the die too much?  For my group, I don’t think so — the die is already an averaging die of sorts (1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3) – and having a little bit of uncertainty in the game is a good thing, and stops the game from feeling processional.  Also, it makes the cards which add to the die roll  or the oeneologist all the more important.  In our first game, I don’t think that any of us realized how much benefit those cards would be in the final scoring.

The game is well produced with high quality boards and cards.  I agree with Jennifer that the artwork on the board (as well as the super light outlines for the estates) can be a bit confusing to a newbie, but this is probably overcome after a single game.   It looks like most games will finish around 45 minutes which is a good amount of time for this weight game.  I’m liking what I see so far, though I know I will still need to play this a few more times to get a better feel for the strategy.  Verdict so far: I like it.

Jonathan Franklin: Others have said so much that I have little to add.  I am pretty skeptical of these quickie production games.  They feel a bit samey and when I hear that there is another production of wine, coffee, goat cheese, etc. game, I don’t feel that much excitement.  Vintage was a very nice game that did not outstay its welcome because many of the early game choices are irrelevant after the midgame.  At the same time, I did not feel an intense desire to continue to explore the decision space.  One feature that I did like is that it was educational.  I never really knew much about Port, so the game was both geographically and procedurally interesting.  Why is ruby ruby and tawny tawny?  Play Vintage and find out.  I’m on the neutral/like it line. I’ll go neutral because I don’t think the decision space is that large, so it will become a tactical game that is driven by which cards appear each round.  I’d love to see a variant where you can plan ahead a bit more by seeing the cards that will be coming in next turn.

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