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Viticulture Essential Edition – The Smooth Game of Winemaking

viticulture board game box frontSet in an unspecified ‘pre-modern’ era, Viticulture takes players to the idyllic vineyards of Tuscany and casts them in the roles of struggling winemakers.

Starting with three workers, a few coins and some empty fields, players must build up their vineyards with buildings and structures, employ and direct workers, plant and harvest grapes, and finally crush the grapes into wine to fulfil wine orders. They also receive a stream of regular visitors who can use their special abilities to assist the players in a variety of different ways.

Viticulture is a solid worker placement game with straightforward mechanics that combine beautifully like a nice Chianti and a plate of pecorino stagionato. Playing any number from 1 to 6 players, it’s a flexible game that can see plenty of table time.

This game, the Essential Edition, takes the best parts of the original game plus “several enhancements from  Tuscany (the expansion) selected by Uwe Rosenberg” no less. If you don’t own Viticulture already, this is the box to buy.

Cardboard + Wood + Glass = Board Game Happiness

viticulture board game board2

Being a Stonemaier game, Viticulture is very well produced, with thick player mats and lots of wooden bits like meeples and vineyard structures (cottages, windmills and so on, and yokes… whatever they are; nothing to do with eggs though). Each player gets a wooden cockerel to mark their turn order for each year. Early risers get to go first, and there’s a tiny wooden bunch of grapes to use as a first player marker.

The board has lovely artwork depicting the Tuscan countryside, and the grape and wine tokens are small glass hemispheres. It’s all very nice to look at, handle and play with.

One tiny glitch is The “Mamas and Papas” cards which carry the distinctly non-thematic non-Italian names of some of Viticulture’s Kickstarter backers, but they’re only used at the beginning of the game to specify the variable starting resources for each player and are then returned to the box.

viticulture vines in fields

The Flow of the Game – Smooth or Corked?

Viticulture’s game play takes place over a number of rounds which represent years, each split into Summer and Winter seasons. As you’d expect with a real vineyard, the tasks you do in Summer are a lot different to those you do in Winter.

Summer is mainly about planting vines, building vineyard structures (maybe a water tower or wine trellis), or enlarging your cellars to make better and more valuable wines. Winter is more about harvesting your fields, making wine from your grapes, and selling your fine vintages to the waiting buyers.

Your goal is to get to 20VPs by making and selling wines (valued at 2-6VPs each) whilst extracting other VPs from a variety of other actions, some of which are predictable (eg: building a windmill on your farm gives you 1VP every time you plant a vine) and some which present themselves during the game through the draw of the cards.

The basic flow of the game is:viticulture vine and contract cards

  1. Grab a Vine card
  2. Plant your vine in one of your fields
  3. Harvest a field to get grapes into your “crush pads”
  4. Convert some of your grapes into wines
  5. Get a Wine Contract card
  6. Match wines in your cellar to the Wine Contract and sell them for VPs

A typical Wine Contract might require a Level 8 white wine for 4VPs, a Level 3 red and Level 1 white for 2VPs, or a Level 3 white and Level 8 sparkling win for a hefty 6VPs. Juggling contracts to match the vines in your fields, and vice versa, is a major part of any game Viticulture.

You can already see that with just your basic 3 workers available each round, even simply performing these 6 actions to make and sell one wine will take 2 whole years, and that’s assuming you are able to do everything you want to do, at the right time, and get a Vine card that matches your Wine Contract.

Fortunately, as you’d imagine, Viticulture offers a number of interesting mechanisms to help you improve on this very basic approach:

Flexible Fields

Fields can accommodate more than one vine, even red and white varieties in the same field, and once they’re planted they can be harvested every year. Get some grapes planted early in the game and they will pay you with regular harvests, as long as you’re able to take the “Harvest One Field” action in the Winter of course. If you need cash you can sell any of your fields and buy them back later.

viticulture board game harvest example

Improving Grapes

Grapes and wines automatically age and become more valuable every year, with no worker action required. Vines vary in value from 1 to 4, but even the basic grape varieties, harvested early, can become very valuable later in the game. Red and white grapes can also be mixed to make blush (rose) and sparkling wines, and then used to fulfil more complex and valuable wine contracts. Plus if you’re stuck with grapes you can’t use, you can uproot them and plant new ones.

Work Those Workers

Although you start with 3 standard workers you can use an action (and pay some money) to train an extra worker in the Winter, up to a maximum of 3 extra workers. You also have a “Grande Worker” who can take one action already taken by another player, something your standard workers can’t do.

Get Extra Help

You can make use of the many visitors to your vineyard, who arrive ready to help you with special abilities as described below.

A host of other options ensure there’s plenty of choice every turn and always something useful you can do to eke out a precious VP or two.

Wake Up – Get Your Cockerel Out!

viticulture wake up chart photo

Another core mechanism in Viticulture is the selection of player order during each turn, which is done by means of the Wake-Up Track. This offers 7 places for each player to place their cockerel, signifying their workers’ eagerness to get up early and get on with their jobs that year.

If you want to be have the first choice of both Summer and Winter worker placement spots then you have to go for position 1, which lets you go first for one round but offers no extra bonuses. Positions further down the track offer valuable bonuses like an extra Vine Card or 1 VP, with the last position giving the player an extra worker for the duration of that round.

So every round there is the important decision of where to go on the track, which can be difficult and (ultimately) costly if you get it wrong. Grabbing a free 1 VP is no good if you’re bullied out of the spots you needed to fulfil a 5 VP wine contract and have to wait a whole extra year.

Visitor Cards: Help When You Really Need It

Every round, during the gap between seasons, players draw a Visitor Card from either the Summer and Winter deck; they can also be collected during the game by using the appropriate worker placement spots, and as Wake-Up Track bonuses.

viticulture board game visitor cards

Visitors come with some very useful special abilities and in fact can make or break a game, generating as many VPs as your winemaking activities in some games. You have to use a worker action in order to play a Visitor Card, so getting powerful visitors is essential to avoid weak or wasted actions. You can only have 7 cards in total (Vine Cards, Wine Contracts and Visitor Cards) so keeping a balance of useful cards in your hand is another key aspect of good play in Viticulture.

Visitor cards offer players the chance to do things like drawing extra Visitor cards, ageing your wines faster, upgrading your cellars or building structures at a discount, performing multiple tasks at once, and gaining precious VPs for various activities like discarding cards (“Discard 1 wine of value 4 or more to gain 3VPs” is a great way to bank VPs at the very end of the game by getting rid of otherwise unusable wine).

There are 76 Visitor Cards in Viticulture and they’re all different, adding a lot of variety to each game.

O Sole Mio – Viticulture’s Solo Mode

Board games with 1-player modes are becoming increasingly common, as players look for more value from their games and designers reach out to this sizeable market. Many people play exclusively solo games, and many more just want the option to break out a game without having to organise a group of like-minded guys and girls to play it.

Viticulture’s solo mode offers an “AI” in the form of an Automa, a deck of cards which simply blocks certain worker placement spots each round, forcing the player to work around the restrictions this causes. To win, the player must amass at least 21 VPs in 7 rounds, using a different Wake-Up Track location each round. In addition, each round the player gets a “bonus token” which can be used to receive the bonus of any particular action he takes; these can be used immediately or saved for later.

viticulture board game automa cardsGetting 21 VPs in 7 rounds in Viticulture is challenging and makes for an interesting solo game. Sometimes the Automa’s choice of worker spots to take has zero impact on your plans that round, but overall it offers enough of a puzzle to make the solo game enjoyable, especially when it annoyingly selects the two locations you really wanted during one season.

After two losses I won my 3rd game against the Automa by 1 point, and mostly by using Visitor abilities and benefits such as selling my most expensive wine for 4 VPs in the last round (as well as using the vacant “Fill One Wine Order” space to complete only my 2nd wine order of the game for another 4 VPs . It was such a close game!).

Interestingly Viticulture goes further with its solo rules, introducing a campaign mode, which sounds grander than it really is. This is not Viticulture Legacy, and you don’t level up or retain abilities or resources between games (maybe I should start working on that). In fact it is simply a set of 8 challenges played against the Automa, using slightly different setups or rules; the task is to complete all 8 challenges in as few games as possible. It’s a great way to enjoy the game, make it a bit different every time, discover the many different Visitor cards, and learn some tactics to employ against real players.

Is Gaming in Chiantishire All Wonderful?

My main complaint against Viticulture, and it’s not a big one, is a slight lack of competition for worker placement spots. This is purely personal taste as I know many people dislike worker placement games where their opportunities are limited by other players, but for me this is what worker placement should be about.

Interaction with other players is pretty limited apart from the competition for spaces on the board, and with multiple spots per action available in 3-6 player games, plus the Grande Workers who can take spaces which are already occupied, I find it’s too easy to do what I want most rounds without being blocked and forced to find a quick Plan B. One variant you could try is playing with a starting setup of 4 normal workers – more actions per round, but also more competition for spaces.

The residual income mechanic also seems a bit irrelevant. When you fulfil wine orders you gain VPs and usually a £1 or £2 income per round. Usually by the time you build this income to a worthwhile amount the game is either over or there’s nothing much you need the money for, which is ironic as cash is so tight during the early part of the game. I suppose you have to look on it as “better than nothing” (and it is used as a tie-breaker if players finish on equal VPs) but getting a one-off amount of cash plus a new Wine Contract card for every one fulfilled might be better, and still thematic.

viticulture board game crush pads

Viticulture – Will You Feel Winey or Whiny?

Unless someone comes up with a game about buying a holiday home in Cornwall or competing to get children into a local grammar school, Viticulture is likely to claim and retain number one spot on BGG’s Most Middle Class Board Game chart. And I’m not complaining; I’ve been on holiday to Tuscany and stayed on a vineyard. Er, twice. As themes go it should not put anyone off (if it does, please leave a comment below and say why!).

Like a decent supermarket Chianti, Viticulture is a gently sophisticated game will not blow your mind with excitement, but does offer a challenging and balanced gaming experience from solo mode right up to 6 players. It’s gorgeous, highly thematic, easy to teach, and a smooth play from beginning to end. And of course it’s a great excuse to open a bottle of wine with your game.

If you enjoy worker placement games and prefer real-world themes rather than dungeon crawling or space battling, then Viticulture is an excellent addition to your board game shelf.

5 (100%) 1 vote
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Jon Dunn

Mancunian now living in Leicestershire countryside. Grew up with boardgames, miniatures wargaming, D&D, Traveller etc. Left it all behind for work and "normal life", now happily re-engaged with boardgames thanks to Gaming Daughter (age 12), Occasional Gaming Wife (age undisclosed) and friendly local group of boardgame chums.