|Viticulture Essential Edition (2015)
|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
|Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone
I’ve never really gotten along with wine. Whether it’s a £5 bottle of own Tesco own-brand value plonk or a rich, full-bodied Cabernet it all pretty much just tastes like lighter fluid to me. I see people holding wine up to the light and saying things like ‘Fruity but not stuck up about it. Excellent knees and decent elbows. I detect a trace of whimsey and more than a little bit of smoky insouciance. Really quite a respectable vintage’. The same sip of wine for me would get a review more like ‘Thanks, but could I have something actually drinkable instead?’.
Of course, a lot of wine reviews are actually cynical self-serving nonsense and they’re about as much use as a set of Amazon ratings when it comes to actually identifying real quality. There are variations in wine but on the whole it’s all so subjective that, in blind tests, critics often can’t tell that two sips of the same wine aren’t different vintages. It’s a bit like people claiming that they can reliably tell the difference between high quality compressed audio and lossless formats. They probably believe they can, but the facts suggest otherwise.
It’s easy to laugh at all of this, but you know – sometimes I feel the same about the often indistinguishable eurogames that float across my table. If you blindfolded me and asked me to sample a mouthful of the components I probably couldn’t really give you the deep, meaningful differences between, say, Village and Fresco. And when I do make the attempt my bet is that I sound exactly like one of those wine critics mocked above. ‘Ah yes, a heavy euro. Crunchy but with surprising elegance. Excels at low player counts – high interactivity but spatially complex. Decent knees. Excellent elbows’.
Let’s talk about Viticulture.
In Viticulture you play the role of a family that owns a vineyard. You’ll hire workers, plant grapes in fields, harvest them and turn them into wines that you cash in for points and income. Some grape vintages need special equipment to be in place before you’re allowed to plant them, and upgrading your farm is an important part of early play. I honestly think if I asked you to describe this game from its theme you’d probably get to within 90% of the basic design by following the autocorrect suggestions on your phone. It’s a textbook setup, competently executed.
To be fair there’s a bit more to it than this. There are two major things that act as the fermentation on these raw ingredients.
The first is that you have to carefully manage the grapes and wines that you have acquired, sometimes storing them long enough to age them into qualification for incoming orders. Sometimes you need to blend whites and reds together, and sometimes you need multiple vintages in order to actually meet the needs of a particularly complex contract. Your crushing vats hold grapes in the red and white variety but you can only ever have one set of grapes at each quality level at a time. Similarly for your wines, although you can only actually store vintages of high quality if you have invested in appropriate cellar facilities. Managing your cellars and crush pads is a big part of professionalising your vineyard.
The second thing is that you are perpetually drawing ‘visitor’ cards and these give you ways to subvert the basic mechanisms of the board. Viticulture is at its core a worker placement game – you place your workers to take actions and in the process you make it harder, or impossible, for others to do the same. It’s slightly more complex here too in that some actions are available only during the spring, and others only in the fall. The order in which actions are enacted are handled by a ‘wake up’ order that seems to have been heavily inspired by the one that is core to Fresco. The later you wake up your workers, the more significant a round bonus you get. I always appreciate a game that gives me a chance to sleep in and then makes me feel guilty for doing so.
Visitors will give you ‘one off’ opportunities to work around all of this. There are lots of things visitors can do. They might let you reclaim workers, or age wine quicker than it would otherwise be possible. Some come into your vineyard selling off-brand grapes that you can just shove into your crush pad without actually having to harvest them yourself. Someone may have used up all the planting opportunities but if a manager comes to visit you can still perform the action even if it’s out of season. These visitors create an elasticity and adaptability in the game. They let you actually plan for the future because you draw them into your hand and keep them until you need them. Eurogames generally speaking aren’t usually particularly good at facilitating ‘great moments’ where you do something surprising and phenomenal, but Viticulture is better than most at permitting that kind of play.
The counter-point to this is that it also makes Viticulture a game where the luck of the draw can be far more important than careful curation of your vineyard. The grapes you can plant are based on a draw, so – luck. The contracts you are asked to fulfill are based on a draw. So – luck! Visitors – luck. There’s a lot of luck here. It’s such a major feature of play that it essentially puts all your key traditional strategic thinking in a blender and hits ‘puree’. If you derive joy in a worker placement game by depriving people of their key opportunities, the visitor cards pretty much make that impossible to carry out effectively. If on the other hand you find that to be something of a dry alternative to actual player interaction, there’s more to like in here.
When the cards go your way it’s easy to think Viticulture is a more thoughtful game than it turns out to be. When they don’t, it can be anxiety inducing – the race to winning is heavily influenced by the speed at which you leave the blocks. If, in your initial draw, you get a grape card that you can’t plant you’re stuck wasting actions until you either draw one that works or somehow scrape together the necessary cash when you have no functioning income. Meanwhile your opponents are already bottling their first vintage and getting ready to sell it off. On top of everything else, Viticulture is also a race game. It’s a sprint to a set goal that means the speed at which you get everything up and running is a vital component of success.
But let me digress for a bit.
If any of you ever played the Sims 3 you would likely have been impressed, at least to begin with, by the massive range of activities in which you could engage. A range that got larger and larger the more expansion packs you bought. In one expansion pack they introduced the ‘nectar making’ career. This was their Family Friendly version of oenology. You’d plant some vines, harvest them, stamp them into juice in your crushing pad, and then pass them through a nectar maker to turn them into nectar you could sell. I always had one Sim in my household that liked to garden, and this was one of the ways we brought money into the house.
In comparison if you wanted to make money with inventing you’d go to a scrapyard. Harvest some scraps. Throw them into your inventor desk, and then turn them into inventions you could sell. If you wanted to be a cook you grew ingredients. Harvested them. Threw them into the kitchen and turn them into food you could sell. After a while of playing you realise that all of these activities are paper-thin facades over the same skeleton. They had all the look of the thing but never really had the feel of the thing. That’s why the game could offer two dozen careers but they all involved your Sim driving away to a building you couldn’t access and then arriving back home with a pay packet some time later.
I feel this exact same way about a lot of games from this time period.
Viticulture plays like Fresco which plays like Village which plays like… a massive range of other games. It feels a lot like those activities in the Sims – they imply a range of experience that just isn’t really carried through to conclusion. Fundamentally there’s very little in the design that meaningfully expresses the purported game theme. The wine crushing and blending of Viticulture is an interesting addition but it’s still something you work through the user interface of selecting actions from a menu. You make wine to sell wine, but you may as well be making garden gnomes or meth. It’s a clever mechanism that never really finds purchase in the context of the rest of the game and thus doesn’t feel at all satisfying.
There’s rarely any great need to worry about aging grapes, particularly if you’re aiming for blends. Field management feels unnecessary because your ability to fulfill orders in the first place is bottle-necked by contract availability and the number of contracts that can be fulfilled. In the last game we played I sold off a field early and never at all felt its loss. Two fields full of cheapo grapes got me everything I needed because the process of planning and harvesting is just too ponderous to really benefit from more investment. Everything about the game seems to take pleasure in making the task of cultivating your vineyard into a chore. I get that’s where a lot of the challenge comes from, but it’s not especially fun.
To be fair Viticulture gets more exciting the further it goes on. It gets more and more interesting as you build up your vineyard. At best though that just feels like it’s finally reaching the pacing it should have had from round one. It seems like all you ever get from expansion is a greater economy of scale rather than new ways to actually more effectively accomplish the necessary tasks of the vineyard. Adding a trellis lets you plant things you couldn’t otherwise plant. Similarly for an irrigation tower. They don’t feel like they let you do more things – just that they unlock options from which you probably shouldn’t have been blocked in the first place.
Further to the pacing problems, the game suddenly runs out of tension when you actually lock a few of your routines down in place. Income has a hard-ceiling that’s reached after fulfilling a mere handful of orders. Money loses all its value once you’ve got everything you require. There are abundant sources of cash reserves, but few sinks into which they should drain away. Even grapes are only as valuable as the contracts in your hand and all of that is handled by random card draws.
In other words – think of a game like this as being a game of maximising ‘points earned per action’. You don’t get appreciably more for arranging the circumstances for careful aging of high-quality grapes than you do from just grinding out some mediocre house reds or leaning heavily on visitors. It’s a lovely system of careful forward planning that is, in the end, all but squandered. The plus side of this is that it means you do have alternatives to growing wine if you want to win. The minus side is… that’s a bit weird in a game with this theme, right? It doesn’t feel like an engineered circumstance, but one that came about through the accidental incompatibilities of its architecture.
I think this is a feature of a lot of these games from the period – they feel like 80% of the design comes from a flat-pack game design depot and the other 20% struggles to really integrate into the whole. What you end up with is a shoogly game with an uneven leg. Nothing really grounds in the other systems and as such they start flapping loose at the extremes of the experience. There’s no functional economy in here that matches up production and consumption. Not of time, not of money, and weirdly not of wine-making.
It’s still a fun game, but like the systems themselves you need to let yourself get a little loose in order to enjoy it. It’s not a deep, strategic masterpiece of careful and meticulous wine-growing. The card draws make it too difficult to steer for that to be true. It’s also not a boisterous game of bluffing and funny card plays. It’s too po-faced for that. Its erratic design decisions keep it from feeling like a fully integrated game, but it has plenty to keep you occupied regardless. The production quality, as you might imagine from a Stonemaier game, is outstanding but ironically manages to undermine its own user experience through its ostentatiousness. We’ll talk about that in the teardown. It’s a game of wild contrasts and it never feels like it lives up to its own design promise.
But yeah. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s perfectly fine. I couldn’t though give you a single reason why you might want to actually seek it out in preference to literally dozens of games we’ve covered for this blog. I don’t know you though – maybe the missing link in your game collection is a competent if uninspiring game of erratic wine-making. If it is, then let’s just say ‘You’re in luck’ and we can both go our separate ways.