Viticulture: Essential Edition Review
Agriculture and board games make good bedfellows. There’s something very satisfying about taking a patch of land and watching your little business or farm grow. Viticulture: Essential Edition, from Stonemaier Games, takes the concept and runs with it, asking you to create a winery that’s not only profitable but also alluring to visitors to Tuscany.
The plot and setting are almost identical to Devir’s La Vina, which I reviewed last year. Inherit a vineyard, do better than the other players, yadda yadda, you know the drill. The gameplay is vastly different, however. Viticulture is a classic example of my favourite genre of board game, worker-placement. In each round (or year, as it is in this game), you take turns placing workers in the available slots to improve your vineyard, plant and harvest grapes, and even give visitors a tour, earning some much-needed coin in the process.
The biggest difference between Viticulture and many other worker-placement games is how much effort the game goes to, to try to bake the theme into the mechanisms. Certain varieties of grape require certain improvements in the growing conditions. Ageing wine requires better cellars. If you want to play a visitor card, you’ve got to assign one of your workers to give them the tour, putting more strain on the remaining workforce. All of that is before we even take the changing seasons into account.
Last of the summer wine
In creating Viticulture, Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone have gone to great lengths to weave the theme into the game. Half of the worker spots on the board are available in the summer (i.e. the first half of each round), and the others can only be used in the winter. The part that makes this seasonal segregation really interesting is that each of your workers can only be used once per year. So, if you place a worker in the summer, you don’t get them back for the winter.
I can only assume they’re just too tired to work in the winter? I can relate.
It leads to some interesting decisions, and plenty of room to employ a little experimental strategy. The seemingly natural choice is to use half your staff in the summer and half in the winter, but there are times you might want to min-max and throw everyone into the winter, for example. It’s not often that a game asks you to make decisions like these, and it’s something I particularly enjoy about Viticulture. It’s something that sets the game apart from the other worker-placement games in my collection.
The visitor cards also tie into the seasonal settings, where each visitor can only be played in its respective season. Cardplay is really important in Viticulture, and learning how best to combine your visitors and vineyard is the key to scoring well.
In vino veritas
Stonemaier Games have a habit of managing to work in a decent level of player interaction in their games, which is certainly not the norm for Euro games. Viticulture is no different and does a great job of employing passive interaction. Space for the workers is limited, and more often than not you’ll find yourself competing to carry out the same actions as others. The competition is balanced, like a good merlot, with the wake-up track. Before the start of each year/round, players take turns choosing the player order. The earlier you wake up and get to work, the better your choice of spaces to work. Late risers are compensated with additional cards, money, or VPs.
All of these things result in Viticulture being another game that brings out laughter and annoyance in the players, which I love. If someone takes the last spot to get something that you really wanted, the level of annoyance is directly proportional to the level of joy the person doing the blocking experiences. It’s something that is present in a lot of Euro games, but Viticulture nurtures and grows the interaction to a level that elevates it above something like Lords of Waterdeep, but still never gets as far as the outright meanness possible in games like Troyes or Hansa Teutonica.
The thing I enjoy most about Viticulture is again, another Stonemaier hallmark. The end of the game is player-driven, not turn-limited. If you’re ever frustrated at games like Ragusa or Merv, where it seems to end one turn too soon, you’ll grow to love the Stonemaier approach. The game ends when someone hits 20 VPs, and the game is scored as you play, so everyone knows when their last turn or two is coming. I’m a big fan of this, which is just another reason why I enjoy Viticulture as much as I do.
There’s a reason that at the time of writing, three Stonemaier games sit in the top 30 of BGG’s rankings. Viticulture, along with Scythe and Wingspan, define the level of expectation in modern Euro games. Not the wooden cubes and muted colours of the classic German games, but rich, thematic experiences. Viticulture takes what could have been a very by-the-books worker-placement game, and adds layers of interest and fun.
It’s worth mentioning that this Essential Edition takes a lot of what people liked from the original Tuscany expansion, and adds it to the original Viticulture game. The Mamas & Papas cards especially, which give each player a random combination of starting bonuses. It might sound like a small addition, but these guys and girls often define the way you want to start developing your vineyard.
Viticulture: Essential Edition is a great game. Fans of worker-placement will love it, and its medium-weight complexity means it’s a very accessible game too. The only reason I could think of for someone not to enjoy it is that they really hate the theme. Honestly, if you’re someone new to the hobby who wants to build a collection of essential (coincidental naming) modern games, Viticulture: Essential Edition demands a place.
If you’re looking for something lighter and more portable, take a look at La Vina, and if you want to dial the complexity right up, cast your eyes over Vital Lacerda’s Vinhos Deluxe. For the rest of us, the value for money is like picking a yellow-label bottle of wine at Tesco that’s been reduced to £10. Much better than expected for the money.
Review copy kindly provided by Stonemaier Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
Viticulture is available from our sponsor – Kienda. Sign-up using this link to get 5% off your first order over £60.
Viticulture: Essential Edition (2015)
Designers: Jamey Stegmaier, Alan Stone
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Art: Jacqui Davis, David Montgomery, Beth Sobel
Playing time: 60-90 mins