Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Duration: Approx.45- 90 mins
I must confess that up until a few weeks ago Viticulture was one of my ‘wish list games’ that I never felt motivated to actually buy. It was first released via Kickstarter in 2013 and was given an expansion, Tuscany, the following year. Since the ‘Essential Edition’ reprint in 2015, which comprises of the two, (but with a few changes here and there) it’s generally known as a well-liked and popular worker placement game. So why was I on fence about it for so long?
Partly it was to do with Kickstarter. A few years ago I didn’t really understand what crowdfunding was all about, and it was only when I listened to Jamey Stegmaier’s book A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide that I came to discover the power and joy of board game Kickstarter. Viticulture was one of the first crowdfunded mega hits, whose success paved the way for many (many) campaigns to follow. It was also the game that Stegmaier learned a few mistakes from, as he mentions in the book, and that was very interesting to me. This was actually the point that I put Viticulture on my wishlist.
When the game found me through my colleagues at Board Game Exposure I was pretty psyched to finally play it (and see what all the fuss was about). What I discovered was a well-rigged engine builder with worker placement mechanics, set in the Italian countryside. But as gentle as Viticulture appears, it beats with the ambitious heart of a entrepreneur looking to grow a winemaking empire. Theme wise I was never too fussed, I’m not a big drinker (anymore!) and not a ‘wine person’. So perhaps this was another reason I never took the step to purchasing Viticulture (more on theme later). After my first game I found that it really didn’t matter if wine was my penchant or not, because I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and couldn’t wait to play again. And I can still honestly say that I don’t give much of a damn about the stuff.
So what can I tell you about Viticulture that you don’t already know? I’m not sure. But what I can do is give you my take as to what I believe contributes to it’s success.
Like Scythe (the only other Stonemaier game I have played at this point) Viticulture has a certain pace about it, it’s a slow builder. You must get your cogs in the right place and this takes a good few turns to achieve. It is a little faster to get chugging along than Scythe, but it still takes time. Patience is key. But when you do get there it flows very nicely indeed.
Viticulture has an interesting dichotomy to it. For a game with a friendly theme and peaceful setting it’s so completely competitive and tension filled. I actually love that Viticulture hasn’t got any bonus points or end of game objectives to fall back on. Points are only awarded on the score track and it’s basically a one shot deal; you do well you win, you play poorly, you lose. The first player to reach 20 points will trigger the games end, and it’s so completely nail biting as you approach the finish line.
I like that despite being highly competitive Viticulture isn’t a cutthroat game. You ultimately have the power over your vineyards destiny, and the opportunities to make it work for you (without ruining each other in the process). But you have to be strategic to get what you want. There is a level of player interaction that removes it from multi solitaire territory, but with the personal objectives you’re really setting your own goals and challenging yourself.
Games with that sweet agony of difficult decision making really do it for me. Not just like: ‘Well I could do X or Y, so I guess I’ll do X, what’s the worst that can happen?’ Every decision counts- which is fun to play with, often tricky to maneuver and actually rather thematic, which brings me on to my next point…
Theme is quite important to me, it’s not the ultimate factor in a game, but it is a factor. Some games pull off the integration of theme and mechanics very well, some do not. Sometimes it doesn’t matter too much; sometimes it’s painfully obvious it’s not delivering. Viticulture is a game where everything makes total sense. I can’t comment on the original version (with or without Tuscany) but in the Essential Edition it works extremely well. Much like a real life business you must start from the ground up, be patient and reap the benefits later on. As it’s played over summer and winter phases it’s important to utilise your workers the right time, and choose your seasonal cards wisely. I really like these cards for their various characters & thematic abilities, and found that they have the power to turn the game around at the last minute.
When discussing Scythe on The Five By podcast I spoke of the power of storytelling and world building. Although this is more apparent in Scythe it’s also present in Viticulture. For me this has a lot to do with the quaint artwork and the style of the game. Your individual play area is your domain to love and nurture. It’s satisfying to build your irrigation tower or cellar and putting the corresponding wooden shapes in their place. It feels like your creating a wonderful world of your own and it’s a good feeling.
The Yay Factor
Simple but true- there is something very satisfying about creating stuff to accumulate stuff, and seeing the fruits of your labor, every pun intended. It’s got the ‘yay’ factor when your grape(s) becomes a wine, and you complete a hefty order to grab some healthy points. It’s like ‘hey, I’m making wine! Yay!’
So yes, I enjoyed Viticulture immensely. Similar to other games that sat on my wishlist for some time, I now regret not getting involved sooner. The actual gameplay is straightforward, but the little complexities and subtle layering make it superbly re-playable. I can see myself wanting to play this on warm summer evenings and cosy winter afternoons and it not becoming stale. Unlike the red wine I kept in direct sunlight for three years and tried to drink the other day. That was horrible.
Viticulture Essential Edition is available on many corners of the Internet and you can also play via Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator. Visit the Stonemaier Games website, or the BGG page to delve a little deeper into the game and rules, and keep an eye out on my channel for a future play of the Viticulture solo mode.
Thanks for reading!