Stonemaier Games are on a bit of a roll with me at the moment. A relatively new publisher, but so far they’ve impressed me with their activities. Viticulture was a Kickstarter success, easily making its funding goal and now producing a giant expansion for the game, which I’ll get on to reviewing soon – once I get my copy. Sadly I wasn’t introduced to the game in time for the Kickstarter, but credit where credit’s due, from having participated in the Treasure Chest Kickstarter recently, Stonemaier do a good job of supporting their games and keeping in touch with backers. Euphoria, another of their successful projects, is also a cool and unique game that impressed me more than I expected it to. And I’ve never been so hot in anticipation for a game by the cover alone until Scythe came along…
Thanks to my girlfriend, white wine has been firmly engrossed in my drinking list alongside cider and I’ve developed a particular liking for Sauvignon Blanc. Red will take some more time but it’s getting there. When I looked for a decent game related to this theme however, the list came up woefully short. Farming games in general don’t seem to be plentiful outside of Uwe Rosenberg, but why not? It’s a great theme! Haven’t we got bored yet with selling goods in Europe or building/connecting structures of some kind?
Vinhos seems to be the only major wine contender, but from what I’ve heard, that game is insanely complicated with the client base for who I can teach it to being quite small. Viticulture looks to be a lighter version, attempting to capture the theme of running a vineyard without making the experience too complex or “math-y”. And does it?
Designer: Jamey Stegmaier / Alan Stone
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
# of Players: 2-6
Play Time: 90 Minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: 232 / 7.71
Would You Care To Test The Wine Sir?
The mechanics are your standard Worker Placement affair. You have your own player board with areas that you build upgrades on as well as storing your workers and on each round you will place your worker one at a time to perform a special action. Turn order is dictated by a track where players stipulate how early they will get up in the morning. The longer they leave it, the better the bonus, but they risk being last. The piece to represent this is a wooden cockerel which if like most gamers you have the mental age of a child, will provide its own fair share of amusement.
The main board is split into two sections, one for summer and one for winter. Summer begins first and the actions available are restricted to that season such as planting vines, conducting tours for extra cash and building upgrades. These will allow you to plant more grapes, store more wine, gain points for various activities, etc. Players can choose to pass even if they have workers spare because those you don’t use in the Summer are then available for the Winter and you can’t go back and forth.
In the Winter, the actions relate to training new workers, harvesting your vines and producing wine while possibly completing customer orders. Players can also play special visitor cards depending on the season which give a benefit to the player and sometimes others as well.
When a field is harvested, it produces grapes depending on the vine rating and these will vary in quality and from white to red wines. Grapes can then be converted into wines (white, red, blush or sparkling) again depending on their quality. Creating the latter two requires a mix of different grapes just like in real life.
At the end of the round, players will age their grapes and wines by increasing their rating by one and then collect their annual income which starts at one and increases as more wine orders are fulfilled. Play then continues as before until one person reaches 20+ victory points and triggers the final round.
Quality Wine Can Only Be Made From The Finest Grapes
Stonemaier is setting a good trend for component quality so far. Euphoria had a really colourful board, good linen cards and cool custom dice. Here it’s no different. The money counters are sturdy and if you upgrade them to the metal coins they are downright gorgeous! The player boards are detailed and explain the main rules associated with each action and building. Grapes and wines are represented by these neat little white semi-spherical see-through counters and the cards, despite not being linen finished are still of a good thick card stock so sleeving is not required. You would expect most publishers to simply make generic building tokens or “Monopoly” houses but no, here every building you can make has its own unique wooden piece. That’s attention to detail right there!
Having the extra player boards can require a bit of table space however so be wary when playing with lots of players. Generally though you shouldn’t have an issue fitting this out and the insert has been designed to allow for easy retrieval of components without having to bag or box any of them up.
The boards alone produces a lot of (bad grape pun alert) juicy theme with the colours and artwork, but you really only notice the strength of the theme as you play the game. The actions being separated by season correspond to how vineyards will typically conduct their plans for the year. Summer is easily the best time to grow your vines and when do you ever visit a vineyard in the freezing cold of Winter?
Other little flavours here and there really showcase that some research was done when designing this game from aging wines/grapes each year to adding a tasting room to improve a tour and even the simple premise that harvesting a field doesn’t remove the vine because you only remove the grapes, not the entire root. They sound small, but they all add up to a very thematic experience and I approve of this a lot in Euro games.
It Also Takes Precision and Timing
As you can tell, Viticulture’s worker placement setup is much like other Euro games, but I always like it when the turn order depends on your own strategy rather than being fixed. Maybe I don’t want to go first this round; I’ll have a lie in and get some rest! This is particularly important in games of 3 or more players because placing a worker on a space second in line will convey an additional bonus so you’re in that tense thought process of wondering whether you should grab the space to guarantee the action for that round or take the risk that you can grab the bonus. Wait too long however and you run the risk of not having the action unless you use your Grande Worker (essentially a one-use per round boss worker) to take the space regardless.
The tension for spaces can change a great deal between even and odd player counts, much like in Ticket to Ride with the double routes. The number of available spaces changes for example from 2 to 3 players, but not from 3 to 4 and similarly not from 5 to 6. Therefore expect the game to be more cut-throat with 2, 4 or 6 players.
Doing well in this game requires good planning skills too. You ideally want to cover as many different tasks in one round as possible and keep a smooth engine of grapes and wines flowing otherwise you run the risk of stalling. Of course this is a worker placement so this is no easy task, but it really gives the game a lot of strategic depth. This can lead to a bit of a run-away player issue though if someone manages to get a good head-start and continues to perform well.
All that aside, there’s definitely multiple ways to play Viticulture. Do you get cracking making simple wines for small orders or do you build yourself up to satisfy the big customers who want the finest sparkling wine you have? Do you try to earn some extra points with upgrading your windmill for planting vines or adding a tasting room to improve your tours? You’re going to need money, but orders take time to fulfil so do you host a few tours or do you make a living from selling high quality grapes instead? It’s not quite as varied as some Euro games, but for the weight it does enough.
The Best of A Bad Bunch
The box states that Viticulture can be played with 2-6 players and typically most games tack on the higher player count to appeal to more groups. From 2-4 players the game moves at a pretty quick pace with 3 being the more “friendly version” in terms of worker placement tension.
The game can easily overstay its welcome with too many players though. If I’m spending a long time in a Euro game I’m hoping I’m sitting at a Terra Mystica session. With 5-6 players, I feel this game grinds like crazy and that’s without AP players. I recommend never teaching this game to more than 2 new players at a time and keeping your games to 4 players max in general. Otherwise you might alienate players on bad first impressions. I can only envision myself playing Viticulture with 5+ players if everyone knows what they’re doing from the word “go”, but such occasions are almost non-existent for me.
Some rules can be a little fiddly to teach, particularly to new players. Minor examples include passing the first player token anti-clockwise, but playing the cockerels in clockwise order. I know that sounds trivial but trust me you’d be surprised how often people forget that and comment on what the point of it is.
A rather more major rule that’s always fiddly is the tokens for grapes and wines. As you can see they are both grouped into the same definition. The rules for creating grape tokens are fairly easy, but converting to wine tokens always gets a few “huh” moments from non-gamers particularly with blush and sparkling wines that require more grape tokens to make only one wine token. It feels fiddly just trying to write it here. I do think maybe not putting grapes and wines in the same definition would have helped more, but I personally didn’t have a problem understanding it so maybe it’s a new player/non-gamer thing. It certainly helps if the player has an understanding of how wine is made in the first place – which means all those trips around British vineyards have done me some good!
Finally, there has been some comments regarding the visitor cards being a little unbalanced. There is a little truth to this as some cards can seem very powerful compared to others in certain situations and it’s luck of the draw if you pick them out when you want them. It’s not a major swing as you still have to use a worker to play the cards which could be used elsewhere, but you have to accept there is an element of luck involved that may put off some die-hard Euro players.
Viticulture is a solid medium weight Euro game that should be easy to pick up for gamers, but you may struggle to teach it to non-gamers particularly with the fiddly aspects such as the concept of aging your wine/grapes and creating “tokens”. Take your time and don’t introduce too many people to it at once.
Viticulture was a fairly big surprise for me when I first got round to playing it. I didn’t expect it to pack as much theme as it did in the box, but this is on the same level as Uwe Rosenberg for capturing the essence of what you’re setting out to do – run a vineyard. And it’s Euro games that achieve this that make my collection especially.
It’s been good fun to play despite its small issues and justifies its price point nicely. Try before you buy and keep the player count low, but if the theme of making wine appeals to you, you should certainly look it up. All you need to add is some cheese really…more on that later though, when I get a copy of Tuscany!
You Will Like This Game If:
- You enjoy theme in your Euro games – this feels like running a vineyard.
- You don’t want a complex Euro game – this is quite straightforward for gamers, but be mindful for non-gamers.
- You want a good amount of depth with some variety of paths to victory.
You Will Not Like This Game If:
- You might be turned off by the fiddly aspects – have your head switched on
- You don’t like the balance issue with the visitor cards
- You hate run-away leaders – it’s difficult to catch up if you’re lagging behind.
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I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.