I enjoy the occasional glass of wine. I don’t know much about it though and truth be told I’m probably more of a beer drinker. Sometimes I’ll like one wine more than another, but most of the time I have basically the same reaction: “Pretty good!” Regardless of my somewhat limited status as an oenophile, a bottle of wine has always conjured up a host of heartwarming imagery for me: family dinners outdoors, hilly countryside with rows of grapevines, the sun reflecting off crystal glasses, and hearty laughter. OK, all this talk about wine is making me really thirsty!
Viticulture is a worker placement game about Tuscan winemaking. The game moves at a leisurely and relaxing pace, taking players step by step through the wine production process. Players operate a small vineyard growing grapes, making wines, aging them in their cellars and sending them off to thankful paying customers. Players take turns over a number of “years,” split into summer, fall and winter seasons, until one player reaches 20 points, at which time the current year is played to completion and the high score wins.
Much of the game revolves around the series of actions required to fulfill a wine order: 1) gather vines, 2) plant vines, 3) harvest grapes, 4) make wine, and 5) deliver wine. Making wine in the real world is a well-defined process, and it is no different in Viticulture. I think directing gameplay primarily towards the wine making process was a smart design choice and wisely kept the strategy focused on the wines. Had Viticulture been set up as a “point salad,” I really don’t think the game wouldn’t have worked. It’s true that points can be earned in a variety of ways in the game, but they are clearly secondary to wine production. By far the most reliable and efficient way to score is by fulfilling orders for wine. After all that planting, harvesting, stomping on grapes and a few years in the cellar, filling the order has to mean something beyond just another way to get a point.
You are of course running a picturesque Tuscan vineyard so it’s only natural to expect a steady stream of visitors and personages. Throughout the game, various seasonal visitors (both summer and winter) arrive at your vineyard and augment the flow of the game with a wide range of abilities, from point generating opportunities to extra game actions such as planting grapes and making wine.
Each game year begins in the summer, in which vine planting, vineyard tours, summer visitors and construction takes place. Then play moves through fall into the winter season, in which fields are harvested, wines bottled and delivered, winter visitors met and new workers recruited. When the year is over, your workers return, players receive income and each players’ wines and grapes age one year.* Since you gather your workers back only at the end of a year, you have to hold some of your workers back in the summer time if you want to take actions during the winter. In any given season there are far more available action spaces than workers, so it always feels like there is an abundance of available options. Combined with the special abilities of the visitor cards, which often let you take the actions usually conferred by other spaces, the game really does seem like a wide-open, uncultivated field, which is impressive considering the defined path that is required for wine making.
In general, the game incentivizes having a steady train of production with grapes and wines at all stages of completion. You never know when a visitor will allow you to use any grapes and/or wines you might have so you’ll want to have them available. You also don’t want to be stuck with a cellar full of expensive white wines and get a huge order for cheap reds. It’s up to you whether you take an wine order first and then work towards making the required wines or whether you make a variety of wines on spec and and then take orders hoping to fill them quickly. No matter your strategy, delivering on an order feels like the conclusion of a long yet pleasant journey. Every game has its moments and this is a really satisfying one, not unlike completing a ticket in Ticket to Ride. But instead of keeping secret upon completion, it’s quite fun to slap down that order card, turn in your wine tokens and cackle maniacally at your opponents as you count your points and money.
The components of Viticulture are a joy to behold. Much care went into the production of this game and it shows. The board art conveys rustic warmth and the wooden building and worker tokens are exquisitely shaped and easily distinguished from each other. The rounded clear glass beads used for grapes and wines are evocative of wine glasses and plump grapes. The graphic design is also excellent, reminding players of nearly every aspect of the game without being distracting. A nice touch is the reverse side of the board, which is identical to the front except all descriptive labels are removed so as not to distract from the wonderful images.
Each player plays on a personal player board representing his or her vineyard. Players will plant grapevines in their fields, build improvements such as windmills, trellises and wine cellar expansions, store harvested grapes and bottled wines. The center board contains spaces for the various actions players will take, where the players will take turns placing their workers. At the start of each round, players will choose one of seven spots on the center board, each with a small bonus of increasing value, and each corresponding to a spot in the turn order for the upcoming round. The better the bonus, the less likely you are to act first in the round. Go for the vine card? Pretty likely you’re going first. Go for the extra worker? Well, I guess he arrived late off the bus because you’re going to go last this round.
Players then take turns placing workers on the various action spots on the center board. Each player starts with two regular workers and one “grande” worker. Like most worker placement games, there is competition for available actions in Viticulture as there are fewer available action spots of each type than there are players. Once all the spots on a particular action are gone, you’re out of luck when it comes to your regular workers. However, the grande worker is able to take any action, even those that have no available spots. It’s a clever twist on worker placement that subtly shifts the focus from shutting opponents out of action slots to being first onto a spot. The first worker on any action gets a fairly significant bonus to that action which incentivizes players to consider empty action spaces when making choices and further serves to spread out workers and avoid habitual overcrowding on one spot.
In general, I was impressed by the interplay of the bonus slot and the grande worker. The push and pull of wanting to be first to an action vs. not worrying about being able to take your last action (assuming you save your grande for last) really opens up the game. I loved how that feeling contributed to the laid back, rustic, “what’s your hurry?” ethos of the game. The grande worker serves to reduce the stress level of the game and make decision planning a bit less binary. Without the grande worker you could easily find yourself wanting to do two things in a turn but be pretty certain that whatever you did first, the other action would be full. The grande worker elegantly solves that problem.
Like many games of this type, jockeying for various action spaces is the only part of the game where any material player interaction occurs. By being able to guarantee yourself at least one action, this already limited interaction suffers somewhat in Viticulture. However, I really didn’t miss it at all and if anything, it helped the theming of the game. I’ve always felt it was somewhat odd and intensely unthematic to block a player out of an action. “Honestly it’s my field, I own the place, I’m looking around, there’s no one else here, what on earth do you mean there are already two people planting grapevines this summer?” In any event, what we lose in player interaction, we more than make up for in better pacing, turn flow and consistency of theme.
In sum, Viticulture is a joy to play. The rare game that evokes the imagery of its subject matter in both the artwork and the gameplay, capturing the quiet tranquility of the vineyard, the gentle rhythm of the changing seasons and the steady march of fresh grapes into aged fine wine.
*By the way, there are times during games when there is something so simple, but so enjoyable that it reminds you all over again why you love this hobby. I imagine these moments are different for everyone, but for me, it’s aging my wine and grapes in Viticulture.
Designed By: Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone
Published By: Stonemaier Games
Ages: 13 and up
Time: 90 Minutes
Mechanics: Worker placement, hand management