Viticulture: Essential Edition Review – Aged Like A Fine Merlot
“Hey, Alexa, play “Wine Music”.”
As an Englishman, I am automatically subject to a few stereotypes. The first is that I have bad teeth, which is, I’ll have you know, not hugely true. Secondly, I automatically like English Breakfast tea or Earl Grey. This is completely untrue, as I much prefer coffee, or, on special occasions, a Chinese Green tea. Thirdly, we are unequivocally and unapologetically, bowler-hat-wearingly and umbrella-totingly, sophisticated. We are, after all, the nation who gave the world crumpets, afternoon tea, and Monty Python.
Well, my dear reader, today we are going to look at what is possibly the most sophisticated game on the market. Open up that bottle of Merlot you’ve been saving for a special occasion, get out your cheese board of assorted smoked and soft cheeses, and turn on some Googled rendition of Chopin. Today we are going to talk about Viticulture.
Viticulture: Essential Edition – The Concept
Viticulture is a worker placement game, set in Tuscany, in which you, as the players, play the parts of vintners looking to make the best name for yourself in the winemaking industry. It is designed by Stonemaier Games and has the same high production value we have come to expect from Jamey Stegmaier. As a game, it is officially rated quite highly, being ranked the 19th best game of all time on Board Game Geek, the international repository of games data.
That being said, it has received mixed reviews from some people due to the accessibility of the theme. Winemaking seems like a strange choice of theme and can isolate players who prefer something meatier for them to sink their teeth into. There is no doubt in saying that Viticulture is a somewhat highbrow.
That being said, Viticulture is unashamed in how it comes across, and this is a huge strength of the game. The theme is ingrained within the mechanics, and yet it, like a fine Pinot, is not overpowering to the buffet of gameplay that Stonemaier Games presents the player with right from the very first Season.
It has also led to some of the poshest and funniest lines we have ever heard around the gaming table, including such classics as:
“They didn’t use different artwork for the different types of white grape! It’s not as if grapes are hard to draw!”
“I can’t believe I got ANOTHER Chardonnay.”
How To Play Viticulture
Viticulture is a Worker Placement/Engine Building game set over the span of several years. Each year is split into seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. With each season, gameplay changes to allow you, as the player, a different myriad of options for you to do.
The game is a race to 20 points. When someone reaches 20pts, one more year is played and then the game is over.
Each player is in charge of their own family-run vineyard and wants to grow grapes, turn those grapes into wine, before selling the wine and fulfilling orders to gain points/money.
The game, as mentioned before, is by Stonemaier Games and was designed by Morten Monrad Pedersen, Jamey Stegmaier, and Alan Stone. I believe Viticulture was their first game, although the Viticulture: Essentials Edition also uses some aspects from the Tuscany expansion pack and was released in 2015.
During Spring the players determine the play order for that year using the “Wake Up” track. For this, they, starting with a randomly selected first player and moving clockwise, choose what order they want to play in. These are positioned 1-7. If you are first then you get to place your first worker first, and then there are rewards going down for each position.
The rewards are:
- Go first.
- Gain a vine card.
- Gain an order card.
- Gain a coin.
- Gain a Summer or Winter visitor.
- Gain one victory point.
- Gain an additional worker.
Once the order has been decided you move onto Summer.
Summer is one of the two main worker placement phases in each year. Around the board, there are a series of yellow circles, split into groups of three, and a set of blue circles, which are also split into groups of three. The middle one of these circles always has an icon within it. That icon represents an additional bonus to the person who fills that circle.
The circles can be filled in any order. We played a friendly variant in the rules meaning we couldn’t just block other players for no reason. If all the spaces are taken, but you really want a resource, then everyone has (what we referred to as) the “Grand Meeple”. This can be placed anywhere, not limited by the circles.
That being said, in the Summer players can only place in the yellow circles, on the left-hand side of the board. In the Winter, they will only play on the right-hand side.
The actions available during Summer are:
- Give a tour – take 2 coins (which are lira in the game). Take three coins if you use the bonus space.
- Build a building in your home vineyard, something I haven’t covered yet, and if you get the bonus space, reduce the cost to do so by one.
- Plant a vine (again in your home vineyard), or plant two if you get the bonus space.
- Sell grapes or fields to get cash. Fields can also be repurchased at a later date. You get one victory point if you do this is the appropriate space.
- Play a visitor card – these are really awesome and allow you to do extra things. Play two in the bonus space.
- Draw a vine card, or draw two in the bonus space.
Why do you want to do any of these actions and where do you grow everything? Well, you do everything in your player board, which represents your home vineyard.
So, on your player board, you have several different things. Firstly, you have fields where you can plant grapes. Grapes come in several different varieties, including Pinot and Merlot, but they essentially boil down to “red or white”. There are numbers on each vine – so a Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, may be of a value of 3 White, whereas a Cabernet Sauvignon may have a value of 4 Red. If you have both in a field, then you will have a total value of 7, meaning you can plant them in your 7 value field, but not your 6 or 5.
When you come to harvest the grapes, you will be able to make a White Grape of Quality 3 and a Red Grape of Quality 4. If, however, you have a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot in the same field then both are Red Grapes. When you harvest you will harvest the Red Cabernet Sauvignon for Value 4 and the Red Merlot for Value 3. Since they are the same colour of grape their values get added together to give a Value 7 Grape.
When you Harvest a grape you will move it down to the Crush Pad, and when you create a wine it will move to your Cellar. This Cellar can be upgraded to a Medium or Large Cellar to allow for greater quality of wines, as well as for Blush and Sparkling wines.
When you move Grapes to your cellar, although you can only do this in Winter (so I am probably getting ahead of myself in this review) then White and Red Grapes make a wine of equal quality to their own if the Cellar allows. A quality 3 Red Grape will make a quality 3 Red Wine; whereas, unless the Medium Cellar has been upgraded then a quality 4 Grape will make a quality 3 Red Wine as well (it drops down to the maximum your Cellar can hold).
Blushes are made by adding together a Red and White Grape – So that Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon would make a quality 7 Blush Wine.
Sparkling wines are made by adding together one White and two Red Grapes.
But, as I said above, I am getting ahead of myself.
During Summer you can also build buildings that may help your vineyard. For instance, Trellises and Water Towers are pre-requisites to planting some vines, the Cottage allows for drawing more visitors, and so on.
Summer keeps going until every visitor has passed.
During Fall in Viticulture: Essentials Edition, you draw a visitor of your choice, either from the Summer or Winter visitors.
Winter is the second worker placement part to the game, only this time it is not with the yellow circles, but instead with the blue. You will notice I have not said that you retrieve your workers at any point. This is because each worker can only be placed once per year. This means that if you use all your workers during Summer, you will have none for Winter. Yep, this game really requires close resource management, ensuring your meeples are used to their full potential.
On the Winter side of the board, there are a whole host of new options to play, diversifying the gameplay.
Options in Winter include:
- Draw Wine Order cards. The bonus space allows you to draw two.
- Harvest your fields. The bonus space allows you to harvest one additional field (as explained above).
- Make up to two wine tokens. The bonus space allows for you to make three. This can be out of as may grape tokens as is necessary. You could make a simple Red or White Wine for the equivalent in Red or White Grapes, or you could make two/three Sparkling Wines requiring 6-9 wine tokens (and everything in between).
- Pay 4 lira to train workers. If you use the bonus space it takes 3 lira instead.
- Play a visitor card – once again, these are really awesome and allow you to do extra things. The bonus space allows you to play two.
- Fill an order. The bonus space gives you a bonus victory point. These will give you victory points as well as residual income. Residual income means you get paid every year a certain amount.
End of Year
At the end of the year, there is a process before moving on. First, everything ages. All wines and all grapes in your vineyard get one better. So a value 7 Red Wine will become value 8. A quality 4 White Grape will become quality five. This led to the following quote from our gaming session:
“Aging the grapes is the only place the theme breaks down for me.”
“Didn’t you know we’re trying to make vinegar?”
Next, all workers are retrieved.
After that, residual payments are made. Hands are discarded down to seven cards, and finally, the first player rotates.
Then you go again until one player reaches 20pts. When they do, the year is played out.
What is Viticulture: Essential Edition like?
Viticulture is a well-balanced game and one which I do not believe struggles to put across a convincing case to be considered one of the quintessential Worker Placement games of all time. It is a highly enjoyable Engine Builder with a production quality that is second only to the likes of games like Lords of Waterdeep. There is a meeple for everything, and this helps add to the overall feel that Viticulture is a game about luxury. It is a game about making and enjoying wine. It is a game about the creation of decadence, and that is somewhat fascinating.
Don’t get me wrong – Viticulture: Essential Edition is not a perfect game. The theme is dry (no pun intended), and due to the Engine Building aspect, the start of the game is quite slow. This can put some people off.
That being said, we generally enjoyed it, and I think that comes down to our sometimes pragmatic approach to games. Namely, as a group, we don’t tend to care about the themes, but more enjoy good mechanics, of which Viticulture is in abundance.
Viticulture is a game of parts. Yes, there are seasons, but there are also different goals. Like all good Worker Placement games, there are several ways of putting yourself ahead in the rankings; however, there are also some parts that are narrated or dictated for you.
Namely, the first objective of the game is to get vines. Once you have vines you are then looking for the best way to produce. Finally, you need to sell. That can become mechanical when you look back at the game after having played it, but it is not something you don’t tend to notice when playing.
One thing we didn’t count on is how important the visitors are. They can have hugely powerful abilities, and thus can really help swing the game.
Of course, the Essential Edition has several mechanics that aren’t in the base game and were actually taken from the expansion. One of these that really impressed me was a way of making the game asymmetrical at the start. Rather than have all players start with the same resources, we were all dealt a Mama and a Papa card at random. These come together to dictate your starting resource in the game. I started with Mama Jess (who looks kind of like a tragic figure, as she is the only Mama looking actively sad) and Papa Paul. This gave me two starting workers, one large meeple, five gold, one visitor card, two order cards, and either the Trellis or the coin. Since the Trellis would otherwise cost more than one coin, that was an easy choice to make.
I have to admit – the Mama and Papa cards being a way of making the game asymmetrical is possibly one of my favourite game mechanics of all time. A huge kudos to the designers for creating it.
Viticulture: Essentials Edition does have a fair amount of randomness, and a lack of luck did leave some of our gaming group frustrated (hence the Chardonnay quote at the beginning of this article). There are four decks; however, in my opinion, this isn’t a huge problem. It is less luck than presented in a game like Stone Age, although the lack of workers in order to do ALL the actions can be frustrating when you need to churn through decks to get the cards you want.
The artwork to Viticulture feels very Tuscan. The game pieces are beautiful, and the mechanics work really well.
Conclusion: Viticulture: Essential Edition Review
What is the best way to conclude a review of a game like Viticulture? Well, there are several ways.
Viticulture is a superb game with a dry theme. It manages to persuade you that, whilst you are playing it, being a vintner is a really interesting profession. It is a very well thought through game.
Is it right for first-time gamers or those who prefer lighter games? Probably not. It is not a heavy game, but the mix of the theme and the mechanics make it more of a gamer’s game. It may be one to introduce over time, as it is not overly complex, but there is a lot to do, a lot to master, and a lot that can leave you frustrated that you cannot do everything you need to.
Viticulture: Essential Edition can sometimes feel like a slow burn; however, I don’t think it is right as gamers to be put off by this. Much like the wine the game is about, Viticulture is best enjoyed as an experience. It tastes great, tingling every gamer taste bud, and leaves you happily merry on the mechanics of the game.
So, what do you think of Viticulture? Is it a game you want to guzzle down, or one you want to tip down the sink? Let me know in the comments below.