Review of Viticulture: Essential Edition
- Designers: Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone
- Players: 2-6
- Time: 45-90 min
- Ages: 13+
- Times played: probably around 10 plays total of Viticulture: Essential Edition and the base game
When I first talked about Viticulture in 2013, I gave a flippant Mini review:
Viticulture – it passes the initial Kickstarter game test – in that we have played it once and no one complained that it sucked, which has been the case with more than half of the KS games that have landed on the gaming table. Still needs another play prior to writing a review. The boys want to play it, so maybe I’ll get a different view of it when playing with them as opposed to the gamers.
I wasn’t sure how others would take this – but the one of the designers later commented “I will fully accept, “It didn’t suck” as a review of Viticulture. :) (But I’m looking forward to a full review as well–thanks Dale!)”
Since then, I’ve played the game a bunch more – both with the original release in 2013 as well as the new Essential Edition.
Quick Game Mechanic Overview:
Viticulture is a worker-placement game. It is played over a number of rounds until someone has scored at least 20 points. At the end of that round, the player with the most points wins. Each player has his own mat which shows his vineyard.
There are areas for planting vines, for storing grapes, for aging wines, etc. There are also a number of structures on your vineyard which help you be more efficient in your actions. Starting resources are determined by card draw – each player is dealt one Mama card and one Papa card, and the resources shown on these cards determines your starting position.
The main board has two main areas – a summer area and a winter area. Each section of the board has different action spaces, but more on that later. There are also 4 different decks of cards used in the game: vine cards, order cards, summer visitor cards, winter visitor cards. Each round equals a year, and each of the four seasons is played in turn… until someone has at least 20 points at the end of a year.
SPRING: this is essentially turn order determination. There is actually a start player marker that rotates around with each year, but it pretty much only decides who gets to play in Spring first. In this first phase, players take turns placing their rooster token on any of the 7 turn order slots. The later you end up in turn order, the better sort of bonus you will get that year. For instance, if you choose to go first in order, you get no bonus. If you choose position #6 (out of 7), you automatically score 1VP – which is 5% of the total VP you need to win the game! Once all players have chosen a unique spot on the chart, the turn order for the rest of the year follows that chart.
SUMMER: In summer, you get to place some/all of your workers to do summer specific actions:
- Draw a vine card: add a vine card to your hand
- Plant vines: this is how you get vine cards out of your hand and onto the fields on your player mat
- Build structures: spend gold and build things which make your actions better (i.e. build structures cheaper, get more money for giving yours, draw more cards when you draw, etc)
- Give a Tour: essentially, get gold from bank
- Sell Grapes: Though you normally want to make wine, sometimes you need to sell your grapes to get a bit of cash
- Play a Summer Visitor Card: Visitor cards have special actions/abilities on them which generally break the standard rules of the game
It should be noted that each action has 1 (in 2p), 2 (in 3-4p), or 3 (in 5-6p) action spaces available – each can only be occupied by a single worker. If you are playing with at least 3p, one of the available action spaces gives you a bonus for taking that action – such as drawing an extra card, or gaining one extra gold when you tour, or paying one less gold when you build a structure.
FALL: not much goes on here – players get to add a visitor card to their hand. They choose whether it is a Summer or a Winter Visitor card
WINTER: you get to place the rest of your workers in this phase (the ones you did not play in Summer). The actions are different here, so you have to decide when in the year you need your workers to work.
- Draw an Order Card – get an order card from the deck
- Harvest Field – this is how you get grapes from your vineyard
- Crush Grapes – you convert already harvested grapes and turn them into wine. The better the quality of grapes you use here, the better the starting quality of the wine you produce.
- Fulfill a Wine Order – trade in wines of type/quality specified on the card and receive between 2-6 VPs
- Train a Worker – get an extra worker for use in later rounds of the game
YEAR END (Upkeep) – in between winter and spring, you clean up your area. All grapes and wines age – each moves to the next most valuable space on the chart – as long as you have space for them and capacity to hold that sort of wine. All players discard down to 7 cards in their hand (between all 4 types) and the start player token moves clockwise. Unless, of course, someone has at least 20 points. If so, the player with the most points wins. In a weird twist, you cannot score more than 25 points, so it is possible that two players could tie at 25, even though both scored more than that, and then go to the tiebreaker to determine the winner.
The whole wine production is a multi-step process, and it takes a play or two to really get into the flow of this process. The steps needed are:
- Get vine card(s) – done in summer phase
- Plant vines – summer
- Harvest field – winter
- Crush Grapes – winter – this is a complicated sub-step. Here, you might only use white grapes to make white wine, only red grapes to make red wine, one red and one white to make a blush or 2 red and one white to make a sparkling wine…
- Age wine – year end
- Draw an order card – winter
- Fulfill an order card – winter
MY THOUGHTS ON THE GAME:
Viticulture is subtitled “the Strategic Game of Winemaking”, and I must admit that the theme is strong in the game. As you progress through this worker-placement game, you do often get the feeling that you’re toiling away in Tuscany making tasty bottles of wine. And, like I said in my first flippant review, “it doesn’t suck”. After 4 plays of the base game, I could confirm that it doesn’t suck. My initial review of the base game was Neutral, but it was well regarded by other gamers in my group, so the game continued to hit the table, and as it did, my impression of the game improved.
The Essential Edition expansion adds a few bits to the base game – the Mamas & Papas cards give each player slightly different starting resources. This is a big improvement to the start of the game as each game starts off a little different. The cards seems to be mostly balanced, so it’s rare to see someone get a huge jump on the rest of the table due to a luck draw; but the Papa cards also give each player a choice on starting conditions which helps make the start more interesting. A different set of visitor cards offer more balance to card power as well a better chance to not get hosed with a bad hand – a lot more on this later… Finally, there are also Field cards that let you sell fields you’re not using for some extra cash. This box also includes the rules changes incorporated into the game’s second edition. Finally, this version of the game also adds some solo rules – but I have never played this game solo so I really can’t comment on this any further.
As far as worker placement games go, Viticulture has a number of things going for it. I do like the turn-order choosing phase. Each player gets his turn to choose first for order, but there are some definite worthwhile bonuses that may make you choose later. I like this initial choice as both your turn order location as well as your bonus can really determine how your year goes. It’s not an entirely new mechanic – it has been used recently in Fresco and Last Will – but it fits in nicely here.
I also like the split of actions – it can be a difficult choice to choose when to use your workers. Most worker placement games allow you to use all your workers each year. In Viticulture, you have the added level of complexity of having to split your workers up amongst two completely distinct placement areas. The actions are all valuable, and it is crucial to make sure that you get the actions when you need them or else you’ll have to wait an entire game year to get an opportunity to do that action again… and this will slow down your entire wine producing engine for a year. The bonuses available for each particular action also add a nice bit of tension to the game because it creates some racing to each action in order to get the bonus.
Where the base game fell apart for me was the visitor cards. My initial review said: “They are meant to add a bit of spice to the game as they are somewhat unpredictable and can allow for great swings in fortune. For me, they are too varied and not overly balanced. These visitor cards are essentially distributed at random – you get one to start the game, one in each Fall phase, and then you can place a worker on the summer or winter Draw a Worker card space to get them.
For example, in the summer cards, you might randomly draw the Architect which allows you to build a structure at a 3 gold discount. Now, 3 gold is nothing to sneeze at in this game, and the Architect does save you from having to fight for a build structure worker space (well, it just shifts it because instead you have to fight for a play-a-summer-visitor-card space instead). But… what if you had the Horticulturist, a card which allows you to uproot 1 vine card and discard it for VPs equal to the grape value of that card (as much as 4VP). Trust me, 4VP is worth many times more than 3 gold in this game. Heck, it’s 20% – TWENTY PERCENT – A FULL ONE-FIFTH! – of what you need to win the game. In a single card that you happened to draw randomly. The winter cards have similar weak and strong cards.
Now, I can see the argument that the draw a worker card space is open to everyone, and if you really want to get one, you can choose to go first in turn order to guarantee that you can choose them… but the variability is so high, it just never seems worth it unless you’re doing the equivalent of Grand Tichu in the last round of the game because you have no other viable choice. It would be madness to put all you eggs in the worker card basket early in the game… yes, you might get a card that essentially allows you to score 3 or 4 VP – which is huge in a race to 20… but you might also draw a card which essentially gives you 2 gold.
Some of the worker cards also seem to give you powers that are so strong that they take the place of 3 or 4 regular actions. These cards also seem overpowered a bit and detract from the engine building nature of the game. If this were a 30 minute game, that might be fine. But it leaves a sour taste in your mouth to lose a 2 hour long game just because I was lucky enough to draw an inhumanely good card in the last round on a random whim.”
I’m happy to report that the new version makes the swings a lot less severe. Sure, there’s still plenty of luck involved, and the game would be really dull if there wasn’t some variability between the cards – but now, the best cards in the deck do not feel insurmountable. Since this game came out, we’ve probably played it six to eight times, and we have yet to find a combination that felt grossly unbalanced or unfair. Sure, many of those games were won by cards drawn near the end of the game, but I think that this is a viable strategy of the game – set yourself up for a good card draw… but this requires a full game’s worth of planning and success.
Overall, Viticulture: Essential Edition is a solid game, and it is a marked improvement of the base game. For me, this game shows both the shortcomings of the early Kickstarter games (unbalanced card actions in the base game) but also the dedication and skill of the folks at Stonemaier Games to continue working with the game to bring it to the current well-polished product in this box. This game has gone through a couple of editions and expansions, and while it can be confusing to keep track of all the options – this box gives me a well balanced set of components, and I don’t think that I need to look any further. I’m very happy playing the game provided here in this single package.
My initial review in 2013 pretty much hit the nail on the head. I closed with this paragraph: “With some tweaking of the cards this could be a great game, but the released version falls short of that goal. Like the wines in the game, this one could have used a few more turns of aging/developing to become a more refined and better product.” I’m happy to say that the future is now, and this game has been improved in exactly the way I thought it needed to be done in order to make it a good, if not great, game. Unlike the original, this is one which I think merits inclusion in the permanent game collection. Stonemaier Games has become one of the best smaller game publishers, and for me, this game is far and away their best effort.
THOUGHTS FROM OTHER OPINIONATED GAMERS:
Tery N: I love this game. I like the way the Mama and Papa cards work; you get some choices in what your starting resources will be and your strategy has to vary based on that. The mechanism for determining turn order is clever, and I like the tension of choosing how to spend your workers in each season. There is some luck involved; you might not get the vines that match your orders or the perfect visitor cards, but there are always options to make things work. Every time we finish playing I want to play it again, to improve on things I think I could have done better, which to me is a sign of a great game. I just picked up the Tuscany expansion and look forward to trying that.
Jonathan: I originally reviewed the expansion for Viticulture, Tuscany, in 2015,
I let Viticulture and Tuscany go two years ago, for some of the reasons Dale mentioned plus I have become less interested in modular expansions, as it leads to a long pre-game discussion about which ones to add on, resulting in a prolonged discussion.
When the Essential Editions came out, I re-acquired the base game, and agree with Dale’s comments above, but also got the new Tuscany (T:EE). There are only three expansions modules in T:EE, as opposed to the tons in the original. This is fine with me, as the base game has more legs on its own. Two of the modules are added cards, buildings (orange cards), and special powers, of which only two are used each game.
I really like the new board in T:EE for several reasons. It has four seasons, rather than two, making placement more excruciating. It also has a new area, a map of Tuscany where placing stars on the map can get you in game and end game bonuses that vary by region. In addition, the new map has the seasonal columns laid out vertically, so instead of the ‘at an angle’ actions of the base game, it now sets out your choices in a clear grid. This makes the game easier to understand because the choices for that season are all in a column. Although I wish the V:EE board were laid out the same way as the T:EE board, the addition of the extra seasons, extra Tuscany map, and added two card modules make T:EE worth your strong consideration after you have mastered V:EE.
RATINGS FROM THE OPINIONATED GAMERS:
- I love it! Tery N
- I like it. Dale Y
- Not for me.