(2014 – Stonemaier Games)
It’s fair to say designers Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone had a pretty good 2013. Their two successful Kickstarter campaigns (for Viticulture and Euphoria) initiated their company’s emergence as a small publisher recognized for their design of Euro-style worker placement games. Both games were highly regarded within the board game community upon release, and in fact both have done so well, they’ve already seen second editions. Earlier this year I took a look at Euphoria and was vastly impressed with how well the game was able to merge its theme and mechanics together. A sort of symbiotic relationship that fueled what I think to be one of the most unique worker placement games on the market. Since then, Viticulture has been one that I’ve been interested in trying, and was finally able to pick up when the second edition released this past month.
In Viticulture (second edition), players partake in the wine-making business, as owners of their own vineyard. Each Round is separated into the four seasons of a year, during which players will send workers out to perform various tasks and jobs, whether it be planting vines in the field, harvesting, crushing grapes, bottling wine, fulfilling wine orders, etc. Visitors may stop by your vineyard during the year and will be able to assist you in various ways. Victory Points are collected mainly through fulfilling wine orders, and these wine orders will also award a player residual payments that he can collect at the end of each year for the rest of the game, helping to increase his income. The player that reaches 20 Victory Points (reputation within the wine-making business) or more by the end of a year, is declared the winner.
Finally, the transparent Crush Pad tokens are placed in a general area near the main game board, along with the various lira tokens. After setup is complete, the play area should look something like this:
As mentioned before, Viticulture plays over the course of a number of Rounds until a player is able to reach 20 Victory Points. Each Round is divided into the four seasons of a year; Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. Each season provides various mechanics that while different from season to season, work together to show how wine-making goes from the planting of a single grape vine, to the ultimate fulfilling of a wine order. Let’s take a look at each of these seasons and what they entail.
Each Round beings with the Spring phase, where turn order is determined. Remember that the Start Player is determined at the beginning of the game. At the beginning of each of the subsequent Rounds, this Start Player marker will rotate counter-clockwise. The Start Player will not necessarily go first during each season of the year. He simply has the option of where to place his Rooster token on the turn order track before anyone else. After placing his token, he will take the corresponding reward listed next to that space. Then moving clockwise, each of the opposing players will place their Rooster tokens in the remaining available spaces and immediately take their provided rewards.
After all Rooster tokens have been placed, the established turn order for the rest of the year (Summer, Fall and Winter) will correspond to this track (starting with #1 through #7). While players requiring their workers to get up earlier in the year will have earlier turns throughout the year, players going later will receive better rewards for letting their works sleep in longer. The following bonuses are provided depending on the Rooster position on the track:
– The player choosing the 1st space on the track will receive no reward, though they are guaranteed the first turn during the Summer, Fall, and Winter seasons of that year.
– The player choosing the 2nd space on the track will draw a new Vine card from the draw deck.
– The player choosing the 3rd space on the track will draw a new Wine Order card from the draw deck.
– The player choosing the 4th space on the track will receive 1 lira.
– The player choosing the 5th space on the track can either choose to drawn a new Summer Visitor or Winter Visitor card from the draw decks.
– The player choosing the 6th space on the track will receive 1 Victory Point.
– The player choosing the 7th space on the track will receive an additional Worker to use during the year.
Workers will be available for work during both the Summer and Winter months. As the proprietor of your own vineyard, it will be your job to decide where best to send these workers and what tasks and jobs they should perform. The main section of the game board is split into two halves, represented by yellow actions spaces where workers can be placed on the left side of the board, and blue actions spaces where workers can be placed on the right side of the board. The yellow actions spaces represent the different tasks workers can perform during the summer months, while the blue actions spaces are for the winter months. Each action area has three spaces in which a worker can be placed.
– In a 3-4 player game, only the 1st and 2nd spaces are available to workers.
– In a 2 player game, only the 1st space is available to workers.
As is standard with the worker placement mechanic, once a worker is placed on an action space, the player immediately performs that action. What is unique in Viticulture, is that while normal workers will block opposing players from using that action area if all the available spaces are full, the player’s Grande worker can be placed on any action area, regardless of action space availability. This may seem a bit overpowered at first, but take note that for most of the game (until they can train more workers), players will only have two normal workers and one Grande worker to use for both the Summer and Winter months, combined. Workers used in the Summer cannot then be used in the Winter. Apparently, they have pretty powerful unions within the field of wine-making. Therefore, there are plenty of opportunities for blocking opposing players from certain actions, and the use of the Grande worker becomes a major part of preplanning your actions before Summer begins.
Let’s first take a look at the various Summer tasks and then later I’ll go over those available in the Winter.
1.) Draw a Vine Card
2.) Plant a Vine
3.) Build a Structure
– The Windmill costs 5 lira and rewards a player 1 Victory Point every time they plant a new Vine card.
– The Cottage costs 4 lira and rewards a player with an additional Summer of Winter card when drawing cards during the Fall season (we’ll take a look at this phase next).
– The Yoke costs 2 lira and provides an extra space for players to place a worker. By doing so, they can either remove vine cards from a field or can use it as an extra space to take a Harvest action.
– The Tasting Room costs 6 lira and rewards a player 1 Victory Point each time they send a Worker to the action space to give a tour of the vineyard.
4.) Play a Summer Visitor Card
5.) Sell Grapes
6.) Give a Tour
Vineyards and wineries are known for being open throughout the year for public visitation. In Viticulture, visitors will arrange weekend trips to the winery in the Summer and Winter seasons. During the Fall, players will collect these visitor cards to use in future Summer/Winter months. Thematically, you can think of the Fall season as a time when visitors make reservations to the vineyard for the upcoming year. There is an action space in the Summer section to play Summer Visitor cards from your hand, as well as an action space in the Winter section to play Winter Visitors. For the most part, Summer Visitors will assist with income collection and the preplanning steps that go along with the actions spaces in the Summer months. The Winter Visitors on the other hand will assist more with the harvesting, bottling, and completion of wine orders. During the Fall phase, each player is allowed to select either 1 Summer Visitor card or 1 Winter Visitor card from the draw decks (2 cards if they’ve built a Cottage), and add it into their hand. Each visitor when played provides a bonus ability that is normally more powerful than the standard actions spaces.
For the most part, workers will be used to harvest, bottle wine, and fulfill wine orders during the Winter season. The Winter phase works exactly as the Summer phase, but with actions spaces available on the right side of the board (blue spaces). Using the same turn order, players will take turns placing their remaining workers on these Winter space and take the corresponding actions. Let’s take a look at each of these action spaces and how they work:
1.) Play a Winter Visitor Card
2.) Harvest Grapes
3.) Make Wine
– In order to make a Red wine, the player simply moves one of his markers on his red grape crush pad and places it on the matching red value space in the Cellar. Therefore to make a Red Wine with a value of 4, he would need a marker on the #4 space of his red crush pad.
– White wine is made in the same way, except that the marker is taking from the white crush pad and placed on the matching white wine cellar space.
– Blush wines are made by adding a Red grape and a White grape from the crush pads together. Their values are totaled, and the added total represents the new value of the Blush wine. For instance, a player can take a #3 red grape from his red crush pad and a #5 white grape from his white crush pad, add them together, and create a Blush Wine with a value of 8. Blush Wines can be made once the player has at least built a medium Cellar.
– Sparkling wines are made by adding two red grapes and a white grape together. The totaled value of all three of these grapes from the crush pads equals the new value of the bottled Sparkling Wine. Sparkling Wine can only be made if a player has constructed a large Cellar.
4.) Draw a Wine Order Card
5.) Fulfill Wine Orders
6.) Train a Worker
The Year’s End
Before the next Spring phase begins, there are a few items at the end of the Winter phase that need special attention. Make sure that the following steps are taken before beginning a new Round:
– Return all workers (including newly trained workers) to their respective player boards.
– All markers on the crush pads and cellars increase by 1. Since wine ferments over time, it only makes sense that at the end of each Round, these harvested and bottled items would increase in value.
– Players cannot begin a new Round will more than 7 cards in their hand. Therefore, if a player’s hand is over this limit after the Winter phase is complete, he must discard down to 7 cards.
– Players receive any residual payments they have accumulated over the course of the game.
– The Start Player marker is passed counter-clockwise to the next player.
The word “viticulture” is defined as the cultivation of grapevines; grape-growing. It is only fitting then that Viticulture is designed in a way to walk players through a sort of engine-building experience of the wine-making process. Thematically, much like with Euphoria, the theme is interwoven within the mechanics of the game to help bring players into the world itself. Players will take the various steps of making wine, from the planting of the vines, to the harvest, to crushing the grapes, bottling the wine, and ultimately selling it to merchants. As each year passes, it only makes sense that the bottled wine would age, and when doing so would become more valuable. This is a thematic mechanic also included in the game. Also, different jobs need to be done depending on the season of the year. It would thematically make sense then that you wouldn’t harvest grapes in the same season you planted the vines. Each season feels completely different from one another, and even in the two seasons where players send workers out to perform the various actions on the board, the summer actions for the most part are far different than the winter ones.
It’s this unique splitting of the two worker placements seasons that really helps Viticulture stand apart from others within its genre. Players only have so many workers at their disposal, and players must decide at the beginning of the year which tasks they need to complete between the summer and winter seasons. The more summer tasks they complete, the less workers they’ll have available for the winter, and vice versa. I did find it interesting that while players can block other players from certain actions spaces, there are two built-in elements that keep this from being too much of a problem. For one, almost all of the actions spaces in both the summer and winter seasons are very useful. There are times when you find that you are blocked from an action area that you had planned on using, only to find that by taking an alternative action, the reward is almost just as good. This is true especially with the Visitor cards. It wasn’t until a few playthroughs when I realized just how powerful these Visitors can be. They usually contain actions that are much more powerful than the actions spaces themselves, and should not be ignored.
The other element that minimizes the aspect of blocking is the Grande worker. I have to admit that I was a bit hesitant with a worker than can be placed anywhere in a worker placement game, but by the end of the first game it made complete sense, and only added to the overall strategy. Remember than each player only has 1 Grande worker to be used each year. Therefore, players must decide which of the 12 action spaces they’ll want to save their Grande worker for just in case opposing players block that space. It helps to open up the game a bit, but without derailing any of the strategy. As a side note, it is interesting that Euphoria also uses a mechanic to minimize blocking, while not affecting strategy. It’ll be interesting to see if this is a common design element going forward with future Stonemaier titles.
The main takeaway I have for Viticulture is this. Fulfilling wine orders in the game is, well fulfilling. After spending time planting your fields, building structures to help improve the vineyard, harvesting the grapes, crushing the grapes, bottling the wine, and completing an order, you truly feel a sense of accomplishment. The game creates an atmosphere in which you may know nothing about the wine-making process going in, but you sure do feel like an accomplished viticulturist by the end. That in itself makes the game a successful one. Viticulture being a unique, mechanically well designed worker placement game on top of that, only adds to this game’s excellence.