Published on January 19th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen5
The Art of Winemaking by Sun Tzu
A look into Viticulture
We were first introduced to Stonemaier Games, the company behind Viticulture, from their game Euphoria. For some reason we had just never gotten around to getting Viticulture, Stonemaier’s first game. So when they put up a Kickstarter for an expansion, with the base game as an optional add-on, we jumped on it!
Stonemaier Games promised a delivery date of “before Christmas”, which I thought was pretty ambitious with a Kickstarter that ended in April. Needless to say, they delivered on that date- we got our copy on December 23rd. Stonemaier continues to back up its ambitious production schedule with solid results.
From the onset, Viticulture was dressed to impress. Upon unpacking the games, we saw that they came with a slip case to hold the base game and the expansion, Tuscany, together. Originally I had planned on taking the contents of the expansion box and adding it to Viticulture’s main box. Most games have enough empty space in their boxes that you can consolidate games easily.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the game inserts that come with both Viticulture and Tuscany are done in such a way that removing and combining the games would lead to more confusion instead of less. With some games you are left wondering why there are inserts in the box at all, but Viticulture’s actually help organize the game even when the box isn’t kept upright.
Stonemaier Games also really delivered with premium pieces, like they had with our copy of Euphoria. Viticulture comes with wine tokens, glass beads which let you see through to the numbers on the other side, as well as a ton of custom wooden buildings. The game also uses coins, and the premium version is all made from actual metal and comes in three sizes and finishes. The coins are nice enough that I want to use them for all of my other games.
The way that the Tuscany expansion works is instead of being one large expansion that you add on every time you play, it consists of a bunch of smaller additions to the game that you slowly integrate into your Viticulture experience. The added parts get more significant as you move through the various tiers of play, changing your game more and more. With that kind of a slow build up, I wanted to make sure that I knew what it was that was being modified.
Viticulture is a worker placement game, notably divided into two parts: Spring and Autumn. Unlike other worker placement games where you get all of your workers back at the end of each discreet period, or have an action that you can use to retrieve them, Viticulture lets you go through two phases before picking up your workers.
This means that you place workers in the summer time, then in the winter, and retrieve your workers again in the spring. A little rule like this doesn’t seem like a lot, but it has a large psychological factor the first couple of times you play Viticulture. When you’re used to being able to use all of your workers all the time, it feels as if you really have to stretch out what you have.
Especially during the first couple of “years” you will feel like trying to plant, harvest, crush and bottle all in one go is impossible (for your first year it probably is). The game forces you to really think about whether you want to play that yellow card in the spring time for a bonus or if you’ll need your worker for bottling in autumn. Viticulture builds on the basic worker placement strategy by further separating your workers from each other into these two phases of the game.
Viticulture’s first player bidding system is another fun aspect of the game. Each turn, the first bid card changes hands then that person has the first chance to place their player token on the turn order track. Every position after 1st has some additional benefit that you can accrue, from cards to cash or victory points, even an extra worker for the year if you choose to go last.
Going last is never a good thing by itself in Viticulture, but at least you know that if you get last pick then you can always go for that extra worker. Just that carrot waiting there is often times enough to get people to voluntarily go last, which leads to added drama when grabbing limited spots on the board. What use is another worker if you’re blocked out of your favorite spots? Quite a lot sometimes! This is especially true if you have cards that let you get around certain choke hold spaces on the board.
Mechanically, Viticulture sticks out because it’s not just a typical “collect things, fill orders” worker placement game. While there are orders that you fill, there are several steps between collecting sets and fulfilling orders. The workflow of wine making goes: planting, harvesting, crushing grapes and bottling wine.
During the crushing grapes and bottling wine phases you are able to (at times required to) age the grape/wine tokens on your board. To fill orders most optimally your main concern will be in timing your incoming grape and wine tokens so that they won’t be sitting idly, wasting turns when you could be sending them forward.
The aging process of the game makes the timing element a hundred times more crucial, as you really feel like you’re wasting turns if your wine ever stalls its aging process because you haven’t kept your warehouse large enough to accept new incoming wine. While the shared board is about competing for space with your other players, the other half of the game is competing with yourself- planning ahead and making good timing decisions that will keep your business moving forward.
Honestly though, the best mechanic in Viticulture is the way that the end of game scenario works. While many games go for a certain amount of turns, or until a deck runs out, Viticulture is a race to the end of the race. The first person to get past 20 points on the victory point track initiates the end of the game. If you see someone inching up to that spot, it’s a good idea to throw everything you have into catching up because things can go south quickly.
The race mechanic helps keep the game ever progressing, and it gives Viticulture a sense of urgency that isn’t usually seen in the worker placement genre. Once someone gets to 15 points, everyone knows that the end is coming soon and everything gets much more dangerous and cut throat on the board as players scramble to get one up on the others.
Viticulture is also one of the few worker placement games we’ve found that works well as a two player game. The amount of spaces on the board doesn’t feel awkward in the two player mode, and Viticulture has a very similar pace in the two player game as in the three and four player games. This is definitely a game to purchase for a couple, or someone who tends to game with one other player.