Viticulture: Essential Edition Review
Time: 70~ minutes
Times Played: 15+
Before playing Viticulture for the first time, we watched the excellent documentary Somm, purely by coincidence. The fire was lit to do something with wine (besides consume it in large quantities). We were lucky to have just purchased Viticulture, our first game by Jamey Stegmaier, and we had no idea what laid before us.
Viticulture out of the box can look daunting. There is a dazzling array of tokens, several stacks of cards, coins, and glass beads as well as player boards and a plus-size community board. The tokens and cards and artwork are nothing short of fantastic.
In fact, if this is a game that you play and enjoy, I cannot recommend enough purchasing the metal coins that pair with the game. They are beautiful and just add to the experience.
That being said, Viticulture is anything but daunting. There is an ebb and a flow to the game that simplifies the concepts of planting grapes, harvesting grapes, crushing grapes and turning them into wine, and then selling that wine for a profit. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy task, but it’s an easy one to understand.
Before going much further, I do want to differentiate Viticulture and Viticulture: Essential Edition. Viticulture: Essential Edition is the more ‘complete’ version of the game and has pieces of the original Tuscany expansion included within in whereas Viticulture is the original printing. Think of the Essential Edition as version 2.0. I will be using Viticulture throughout this review but what I really mean is Viticulture: Essential Edition.
At its core, Viticulture is a Euro-style Worker placement game that is one of the most thematic games we’ve ever played. Not every game needs an air-tight theme (see my love of Abstract titles) but adding a unique theme to an already good game turns game night into something else entirely: an experience. Viticulture makes you feel like you are running a vineyard, competing with rival wineries to beat supply and demand. This thematic experience lends itself to one of the best draws of Viticulture: it is easy to follow and thus, easy to teach.
This game was designed to play one to six players and scales wonderfully no matter the player count.
Solo gaming is underappreciated and finding a game that is good solo but also playable with more players is incredibly difficult. Stegmaier has made several of his games soloable with the inclusion of the Automa, which is a deck of cards that simulates other players playing alongside and against you. The Automa is great as an introduction to the game and as a way to discover new ways to play and strategies to utilize as the cards differ in difficulty.
Soloable is great and all, but the real fun comes with playing this game with others. I’ll be frank, this game works at all player counts. If it’s just you and your spouse wanting a longer, more engrossing game night, then Viticulture is an ideal candidate. If you planned a heavy game night for five but someone brought a friend, then Viticulture can handle the excess. The amount of time needed to play the game will increase with each player but not enough to draw the experience out.
I roll out the Automa campaign once in a while when I want a brain teaser or a refresher if the game is on the weekend docket. The Automa itself does not always make the optimal play, but the randomness is nice as you are unsure what to expect and makes you really plan out your moves. I have lost to the Automa more times than I care to mention as it stakes out an all-important spot that I needed in the very final season.
The normal game of Viticulture has players aiming to be the first to get twenty points. The amount of time given for that task is infinite. The Automa is not that forgiving. You have seven rounds to gain your points and often times, you’ll either have just made the cutoff or you’ll find yourself just a few points shy.
The game handles its scaling so well due to the limitation of spaces that players can visit according to the number playing. What makes this so great is that a two-player game does not feel like a four-player game and vice-versa. Strategies that are used for one player count might not work for another.
But there are ways around these limitations. Each player is given a Grande Worker to start the game, which is a larger meeple than any other and that meeple allows you to take any action, regardless of spaces are, or are not, available. However, there is only one Grande Worker per player and they can only be used once per round (which consists of two seasons), so there is a calculated cost to expending them.
The Grande Worker is perfect as no one can complain that you ‘blocked’ them as there is always a work around (until they’re played). I also feel that the Grande Worker helps with analysis paralysis as it gives players a trump card to do whatever they want. There will be some AP due to the sheer amount of choices available to players but in our experience, nothing to debilitating.
Work around’s are not limited to the Grande Worker. Visitor Cards, which are specific to one of the two seasons, can grant you additional actions, money, or resources that can aid your goal of producing wine. The Visitor Cards also help cut-down on any issues of luck propelling one player ahead of others. As the card draws are random, a player could potentially begin the game with the buildings needed to plant vines and with a nice series of card draws, could be making wine on the first turn (potentially). This could give the player an advantage out of the gate but the Visitor Cards are one way to contest this.
I haven’t seen any one card that I would claim is underpowered and should be removed from the deck nor have I seen one that is overpowered and swings balance one way or another.
If you are not a fan of luck and randomization, particularly in what is designed as a strategic Euro game, then you might be frustrated or just not enjoy Viticulture. You can be screwed over due to poor card drawing that will make the rest of the game an uphill climb.
Due to these limitations, Viticulture can become a tense experience. The tension exists because you might not be able to do the action you want due to another player. You might have to expend the Grande Worker on an action you need but thought would be available (especially in the highest and lowest player count games).
I keep harking back to these limitations, but that’s what makes Viticulture brilliant. The differing of strategies not just on a game by game basis but also round by round makes it unlike any other board gaming experience. There is just so much for players to do per turn that an adjustment of strategies can happen immediately. Maybe you won’t get to turn your grapes into wine this round but you can better prepare yourself to double your output in the next turn. Nothing ever feels like you’re being taken out of the game.
Couple that with the absolutely ridiculous number of cards (Visitor, Mama/Papa, Vines, etc.) and Viticulture offers enough variance on a game by game basis to ensure that the same starting configuration will rarely, if ever, occur twice.
But that’s not what makes Viticulture one of our ten favorite games we’ve ever played. What makes Viticulture stand out is how rewarding of an experience it is. It just feels…good…to be able to watch your vines turn into bottled wine and be shipped off to a distributor. That hard work paid off but you can only relish in that success for a fleeting moment as there is always another order to fill.
What Viticulture does that we like the most is the worker placement order. Too many games decide first player by arbitrary means (last player to ride a train, last player to visit Portugal, flip a coin) and that leaves a bad taste in our mouths as we wonder how much of an advantage (if any) the first player gets. Viticulture combats this issue but allowing players to select the order of their turn (with corresponding bonus) before each round. The further down the turn order track you venture, the greater your bonus is. I will mention that in higher player count games, you need to keep track of who is next as the common practice of “player to the left” is no longer the case.
I think this turn order track is simply the bee’s knees and love how the order of your turn can impact strategy. It feels like a game before the game and removes any of the first player issues we have problems with. One of the biggest boons of the track is that if a player is at a disadvantage on number of workers available (due to not being able to purchase new workers), they can always take the available additional worker for the round off the turn track.
But is everything perfect in Viticulture? Of course not. I haven’t found that perfect game yet. But the issues we have our miniscule in the grand scheme of things.
I have made my disdain for the smaller cards known in past reviews and the sentiment remains with Viticulture’s but I understand why they’re used and since they’re never really in your hand, I don’t hold that much of a grudge. It allows for more space on the board and in the box.
The extra money cycle at the end of the winter doesn’t seem to important and feels like just a way to utilize the cute wine bottle token that is included. Money isn’t incredibly difficult to come by (maybe in six player games, which we only have a few plays with) so it doesn’t add any noticeable value to the game.
And that’s it. Small discrepancies that don’t really impact anything at all.
We absolutely adore Viticulture. This is one of the greatest worker placement games in our collection and will be our stalwart of our collection for quite some time. With that being said, I do not think this is an ideal “gateway” worker placement game no matter how easy it is to follow.
I believe the separation in actions to scoring makes it more mid-tier than anything, especially when compared to something like Stone Age, where you are placing, gaining, and spending. Viticulture adds more steps that can complicate that. I am not saying that new players will not pick up or enjoy Viticulture, far from it, but if you’re trying to teach your friends how to swim, why not start in the shallow end?
Once you’re tired of Viticulture (which takes quite some time, honestly), there are two expansions available: Moor Visitors (which adds additional Visitor Cards to the game) and Tuscany: Essential Edition, which overhauls the game board and provides new actions and resources. There is a third expansion, Arboriculture, but that appears to only be available via the original Kickstarter pledge.
I honestly cannot recommend Viticulture: Essential Edition enough. I think this is just a fabulous game no matter how many people you have in your gaming group.