Table of Contents
|Name||Viticulture Essential Edition (2015)|
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|BGG Rank||21 [8.10]|
|Designer(s)||Morten Monrad Pedersen, Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone|
|Artist(s)||Jacqui Davis, David Montgomery and Beth Sobel|
31/8/2019 – Adjusted the colour blindness section in line with the comment from Greg Darcy.
I actually thought my review of Viticulture was going to be a good deal more positive when I sat down to write it. The more I thought about it though the more I realised the fun I had was heavily influenced by the very factors that make it such an uneven experience. In the end it got three stars – still respectable but considerably outside the standard deviation of disagreement that would normally handle such things. At the time of writing it’s considered to be a top twenty game by Boardgamegeek. That’s not a position I can endorse.
But wait! There’s still a chance for Viticulture to earn itself a boatload of praise on Meeple Like Us. It’s a game of rich components and the typical Stonemaier production qualities. When we looked at Scythe we had a lot of positive things to say on the back of that attention to detail even if we couldn’t really endorse the game in many of our accessibility categories. Let’s see whether Viticulture is planted in richer soil.
Well, we’re not off to a good start. There are a fairly significant number of problems with the palette. The first of these is the cards, which come in green, yellow, purple and blue. The latter two of these are issues for some categories of colour blindness:
To be fair, these will also be differentiated by card back but it’s an accessibility issue that didn’t have to be there especially given how you might want to identify some of these at a distance (in an opponent’s hand for example) and the icons may not be fully visible. Meeples too have issues, particularly the orange, yellow and green:
This has an impact, but not as much as you might think – it’s only relatively rarely that you want to perform an action on the basis of what workers a player has historically allocated. Mostly you’re looking at what they might do in the future. This though has some implications when it comes to scoring and identifying round order.
Notice here how some of the actions say ‘draw a card’ but they don’t actually name it? That’s another issue those with colour blindness will have to navigate. This problem will become easier to deal with as familiarity with the board builds, but the costs of taking an action that gives you a card you don’t expect can be considerable.
Your own player board doesn’t suffer from any colour issues – it’s in front of you at all times and where colour is an issue there are positional cues that can be relied upon.
Greg Darcy in the comments below though added this very insightful point that I had missed:
The Visitor cards reference other cards simply by an icon of the appropriate colour. Except I cannot tell the difference between purple and blue for the life of me. I can make out this information on the board partly because it is also referenced by location as you note. But on the visitor cards, haven’t a hope
So – plenty of problems. We can’t recommend Viticulture in this category.
Visual accessibility is uniformly poor. Let’s start with the wine tokens that add tactility to the player board but obscure key information.
Notice here too the poor contrast of the text against the coloured backgrounds – this can be dealt with to an extent through simple seriation but there are times (such as placing the first grape or wine token in a location) where the contrast issues will make it difficult for those impacted with issues in this category.
The board also suffers from poor contrast in places as well as worker spaces that fade in solidity as player count support changes. Consider here for example ‘give tour to gain £2’. The middle space is transparent although it’s hard to make that out against the path (again, a contrast issue). That means that it’s a space that is only available in three and four player games. The difference between the two and four player spaces is more marked but the visual design still isn’t exactly optimal. On occasion, with moderate visual impairments, you might not even see a space exists.
One nice feature as far as tactility goes is that each of the different things that exist in the game have their own unique form factor, although a few are sufficiently close to each other that mix-ups will happen. You have five indistinguishable workers and a ‘grande’ worker that is notably larger. You have different tokens for each thing you build in your vineyard. You have a physical way of checking what’s left to build and that’s nice, especially because they’re otherwise easy to miss on a busy board.
The currency too is very easy to work with, with a very noticeable difference between the different denominations.
Cards are well contrasted, but suffer from being extremely information dense and with the text heavily interleaved with icons that are not large enough to be distinctive. The cards are also tiny, which doesn’t help. The intricacy of some of these too is a problem since they often include specialist clauses or alternatives that need to be taken into account. Generally these cards will be kept private – public knowledge of what options a player has available is going to diminish the ability to engage in long term planning. Or at least it will rob players of even the sense they are in control of what another might do.
All of this said, the amount of information a player needs to know when playing Viticulture is relatively constrained. They regularly need to know what cards they have in hand and what spaces are available and that’s not visually accessible. They need to know how many workers they have and the disposition of their farm and that’s something available to interrogate by touch. It’s a mixed bag.
As long as a player can make out the cards they have in hand and those that are played to the board I think Viticulture can probably be played with support from the table. It’s not one I’d be inclined to recommend as a strong candidate for visually impaired players, and even less so for totally blind players.
Viticulture may inject more luck into the traditional worker placement experience than is usual, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s a relatively complex game of many intersecting parts. Let’s begin with some of the most obvious problems.
Literacy is required, and the sophistication of the various effects that visitors bring to your farm can be high. The time to use them best may not be obvious, and their utility in general may be opaque. Some have obvious benefits. Some need other things to line up before they actually accomplish a worthwhile goal. The difference between using a visitor well and using them poorly can be significant and the exact way they should be used, and in what order, is one of the puzzles each player needs to solve during play. There aren’t a lot of heuristics.
Numeracy requirements are reasonably high too, and involve comparisons, additions, conversions, seriation and more. Even when the arithmetic is straightforward, the consequences may not be. The ‘Wine Critic’ card for example gives you a choice of drawing two cards, or discarding a wine of value 7 or more to gain four victory points. What’s the sensible exchange rate of wine to victory points? That’s hard to say – it depends on how that wine otherwise features into your plans. Four is a lot of victory points for one wine, but…
Game flow changes from round to round on the basis of bidding, but also changes as visitor cards are played. The Producer card as an example lets you retrieve two previously allocated workers and this means that you’ll likely be playing back to back workers without interruption from other players. The organizer allows you to move your starting time up to another part of the wake-up chart and take the bonuses, which means you might cut in front of other players. No matter how well you might understand the flow of play in Viticulture, the visitor cards can subvert it in weird and unexpected ways.
The rules for blending wines too are not entirely transparent, and when they are understood they’re not entirely logical. I’ve seen people struggling with the juxtaposition of how blending intuitively should work and how it’s handled mechanically. To make a sparkling wine you discard three tokens – a red, a white and a white, and sum their qualities together. A two, a two and a two makes a quality six wine. That means that very high value sparkling wines can be made out of relatively poor components and that just doesn’t sit right with some people. All of this has to be moderated through the availability of actions and installed facilities in the vineyard.
There’s little synergy in the game board, although there is a sequencing that’s important – fields must be planted before they’re harvested, grapes must be harvested before they’re made into wine, cellars must be built before wines age too far and so on. The visitor cards though are highly synergistic but also only on a situational basis. You might play an ‘Uncertified Broker’ to sacrifice three victory points for nine money. And then a Politician that gives you six money if you have less than 0 victory points. And then a broker which allows you to pay £9 for three victory points. The end result of this is that you get six money you couldn’t otherwise have gotten. There are lots of these kind of useful effects in the deck but not only do they need to be figured out anew every game their utility depends on the opportunity cost that comes from spending workers to activate them. Cards in hand will also have a big impact on this since they often allow for otherwise forbidden actions to be taken at otherwise forbidden times, or at a discount.
There are lots of tokens here, and lots of important situational considerations. You can’t plant certain grapes without a trellis or an irrigation tower (or both). You can’t age or blend wines beyond a certain value unless you have the facilities. Working out what applies to you is also based on those individual components and their physical appearance doesn’t always neatly map on to what they are actually for. That’s both a fluid intelligence issue and an issue for memory.
Scoring depends on your ability to effectively leverage visitors and to line up your fields, grapes, wines and contracts. A single complex contract may take a couple of turns to be met and that has to be done while other players compete over important steps in the process. There’s a considerable degree to which the impact of your choices is deferred until later turns and that massively complicates the strategy of play. Again, this has impact on both of our categories of cognitive accessibility.
In terms of memory burdens only it’s useful to have an idea of the kind of visitors, grapes and contracts that are in the deck but that’s not going to have a massive impact on play. There are just too many options, and sufficiently high churn of cards, that turning deck knowledge into player advantage is difficult.
We can’t at all recommend Viticulture in our fluid intelligence category, but we can offer a tentative recommendation for those with memory impairments alone.
There are a number of explicitly PvP mechanisms in the visitor deck, but primarily the competition in Viticulture relates to contention over board spaces. Visitor cards often give even blocked players an opportunity to progress by bypassing worker squares entirely. However, that in itself depends on being able to play a visitor. Viticulture is looser and more forgiving in this respect than a lot of games but it’s still an issue.
Point disparities in Viticulture can be extremely high even though it’s a relatively low scoring game. The luck of the draw is massively important in all aspects – grapes need to align to contracts, and visitors need to align to needs. If they do, a player can easily dominate proceedings by leveraging early success to buying more workers and claiming the temporary worker where possible to deny productive throughput on the part of others. Not everyone is going to have the same opportunities in the game as a result. An early windfall will have long term repercussions. Similarly, a single early poor draw can have game wide consequences and the only real solution is to keep hoping for better cards coming into your hand.
That’s both useful for some people (it gives psychological cover for poor performance) and frustrating from others (your fate is never entirely in your own hands).
Players can gang up on each other by co-ordinating area denial, but there are few reasons to do it – everyone largely plays the board in front of them and don’t get rewarded simply for blocking others. It’s likely to happen largely incidentally though because generally everyone is hoping to accomplish the same broad goals.
We’ll tentatively recommend Viticulture in this category.
There’s a lot that needs to be managed on each player board. It will consist of three field cards upon which multiple grapes will be planted. It’ll have numerous constructions, wine tokens in varying stages of maturity, grape tokens of various qualities, and a single nudge of the board can essentially randomise a wine cellar. It’s entirely possible that players will have a dozen or more of these on the board at a time and it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to remember exactly what they had in the event the game state is disturbed.
Play requires holding a hand of at most seven cards, but these are tiny and will likely fit into a single card holder. That’s handy in terms of efficient use of storage but terrible for card manipulation – just shuffling the decks is a massive chore. Unfortunately most of the key information on each card is presented along the bottom which will be a problem if players are using opaque holders. Cards cannot be compressed ‘accordion style’ either because important information can be found on any part of the card. Visitor cards in particular express their effect entirely through interleaved text and icons.
The main board is manipulated mostly by placing workers and bidding on start time, and neither of these require especially precise dexterity. At most a player will have six actions they take in a round and while there are ‘action spaces’ it’s easy enough to work out from context who has made use of them.
If this sounds too onerous from a physical accessibility perspective, verbalisation is feasible but not exactly convenient. Handling the central board will be easy enough since each action has a description associated. Given the fragility of individual board state though care will need to be taken if actioning things on another player’s board. These things would include layering card stacks, placing wine and grape tokens, transferring them from one part of the board to another, aging them, combining them and more. If sitting close together that will likely be okay but the more someone has to stretch the more likely they are to inadvertently knock other things over.
We’ll tentatively recommend Viticulture in this category.
The box shows a pleasant image of a man and a woman tending to their grapes. The manual is in second or third perspective and visitor cards show a blend of men and women of varying ethnicities. It’s nicely rounded.
And that makes the setup phase a little baffling considering diversity was clearly on the agenda here. As part of the setup you draw a Mama card and a Papa card – the couple that essentially run the vineyard. It’s rare that we consider romantic / familial relationships in the games we cover since they rarely come up… and as a result it’s a little unfair to take a swing a Viticulture when other games get a pass for simply avoiding the topic. The framing of this though is heteronormative and it’s not possible to simply mix and match. The papa cards outline staring money and extra resources and structures. The mama cards outline workers, money and the cards you initially draw into your hand. The combination of a mama and papa gives you the starting configuration for your resources. You can’t have a papa and a papa or you’ll have no cards. You can’t have a mama and a mama or you won’t get your free starting structures. I get that this is intended to just be a cutesy way to randomise start state but It’s a bit of a shame that it’s framed in this manner given the effort expended elsewhere.
Viticulture: Essential Edition has an RRP of about £45 and it supports a maximum of six players, which is a lot. I think if you are likely to enjoy this kind of game – and many do far more than I – it’s a good value proposition. There’s certainly a lot of variability, complexity and depth in the box and it’s all presented with the highest quality components.
We’ll recommend Viticulture in this category. I was just a little bummed I couldn’t offer a stronger recommendation. Heteronormativity is an inaccessibility though, at least for some.
There’s not a lot of need for players to communicate during the game. At most players need to express the impact of a of the few visitor cards. There’s a high degree of literacy required to action those visitors and this is not something that will get all that much easier with experience given the size of the decks and the sophistication and precision of their effects.
We’ll tentatively recommend Viticulture in this category for those where the communication impairment is primarily in vocalisation or comprehension.
Given that almost all of our recommendations here are tentative, we can probably sum this up with ‘almost any intersection is likely to be enough to knock that back a grade or two’. Colour blindness and memory impairments for example are going to add enough of a burden to tracking game state that we’d be inclined to advise people find other games. Colour blindness and emotional accessibility concerns will perhaps (at least until board familiarity has been built up) result in people drawing or playing cards they didn’t mean in an intensely swingy game where missed plays have massive consequences. Not great. The additional complexities introduced by any of these issues when linked to communication impairments are going to increase both the amount and complexity of communication required. Particularly where physical and communication impairments intersect given the sophistication of some instructions that would be required for effective verbalisation. ‘Blend my three white wine and one white wine with my four red to create an quality eight sparkling wine’. That’s not overly difficult to express but that’s only when articulation or hearing complexities aren’t impacting on play.
Viticulture is also a game that can drag on – it has a fixed point target for players but no fixed number of rounds. As such, if players find it difficult to line up everything they may play for several rounds longer than expected. I would suspect perhaps thirty minutes per player on average, with that time-frame getting longer the more accessibility compensations are required. The estimated playing time on Boardgamegeek (45 to 90 minutes) seems laughably optimistic to me. As such, it’s easily a game that can exacerbate issues of discomfort or distress.
Well, it didn’t score especially highly in our review and we don’t have a lot positive we can say about it here. Viticulture clearly isn’t a game that’s earned much love here on Meeple Like Us. It’s definitely a game a lot of people adore but we feel there are better games we can recommend for every occasion.
Some of these though are obvious own goals and easily addressed should a new edition come along. Better contrast, better colours, less heteronormativity. Something that means you don’t shuffle the game state every time someone nudges the table. There are meaningful improvements that could be made here if someone had the will to make them. I’d love to see a version of Viticulture that drew inspiration from some of the more admirable accessibility design choices of Scythe, for example.
We gave Viticulture three stars in our review, and little more than a series of disapproving murmurs in our teardown. I don’t really think you’re missing all that much if you can’t play, and that’s fortunate because there are a lot of reasons to believe that, for many people, they won’t even have the option.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
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