I got a review copy of Viticulture, and here’s what I think of it. I wasn’t a part of the wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, so I’m unbiased by that.
The game: Viticulture by Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone, published by Stonemaier Games in 2013 after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Elevator pitch: A worker-placement game where you develop a vineyard in Tuscany: plant vines, harvest grapes, crush them into wine and then sell that wine, while managing your workers and money.
What’s in the box? Lots of stuff, in an unusually high box. Beautiful boards (common board and player boards), several decks of cards and really groovy meeple sets for each players, with unique and unusual custom meeples. Components of this game are very nice (except for the fact that almost every single component says “Sponsored by…”).
What do you do in the game? Game proceeds in years. Main action happens in summer and winter, when you place workers to plant vines, harvest grapes, crush them into wine and fill wine orders. There are also cards you can play to make your actions more efficient or to gain other benefits. There are limited spaces for actions, so turn order can be critical.
Lucky or skillful? Mostly skill, but there’s a luck element in the cards. The visitor cards, which give you benefits and make your actions more efficient, can be quite powerful – in some situations. If you draw cards that do not fit your situation, tough luck. The key here is to adapt, and of course you can aim to draw more cards, to make the odds of getting good cards better. Nevertheless – a good card in the right place can make a big difference, and there’s some luck to that.
Abstract or thematic? The wine theme does make sense: the process of planting vines, harvesting grapes, crushing them and so on flows well. There’s of course the usual worker placement gripe – why can’t I harvest my vines, just because those other guys harvested first? If you can get over that somehow, the theme works well. The beautiful art helps here as well.
Solitaire or interactive? This is a constructive game. There’s no way to attack your opponents. The game would be fairly heavily in the solitaire end, except for the theme-breaking limited opportunities to do actions. Those are the key source of interaction in the game. You’ll have to think about what your opponents are going to do and just how early you need to be on the turn order if you want to do what you need to do. I like low interaction, and I found the level of interaction in this game quite pleasing.
Players: 2–6. I’d say the game is best with 3 or 4 players (haven’t tried the two-player game, though), but it does work with five or six. That’s quite well done. Six-player game with all new players is not the best way to play the game for the first time, though, as it can drag a bit if players don’t know what to do.
Who can play? Stonemaier Games suggests 10+. Not for small children, this one, clearly, and my kids aren’t old enough to say whether that 10+ is true. The theme will probably put kids off anyway. Experienced board gamers will have no problems with this. Viticulture is not particularly heavy, and the game flow is fairly simple, so I wouldn’t be too worried about introducing this to casual or occasional gamers, either. Even non-gamers with an open mind and an interest for the wine theme might make a good audience for the game.
Length: Box says 60 minutes and Jamey Stegmaier says that can be true for six-player games as well. Don’t count on that. Our first game took almost two hours (but didn’t particularly drag at any point), and a second three-player game took well over an hour. A slow player will slow down the game a lot, as there are plenty of small actions, and if each action takes a while to think… With fast players and some more experience, 45–60 minutes is probably a realistic timeframe, but not with new players. Also, the game is over when a player reaches 20 points, and I think experienced players will generally finish the games in fewer turns as they are more efficient. The exact moment of the ending can be a surprise, which is fun, as opposed to all those other games with set amount of rounds.
What’s to like: Beautiful art and a meaningful, interesting theme; clever worker placement mechanism with a fluid turn order mechanism; making powerful, efficient card plays; playing with up to six players; the way the game is quite productive and constructive, even when you lose you feel like you achieved something.
What’s not to like: Luck element inherent in the cards, and the frustration of drawing currently-useless cards, like very difficult wine orders in the early game; it’s yet another worker placement game that adds relatively little to the genre and just combines the best ideas from other games; “why I can’t harvest my vines just because those guys did it first?” effect.
My verdict: I wouldn’t have bought the game myself; I’m not particularly keen on worker placement games. Viticulture is more evolution than revolution: I don’t think it brings much new to the genre, just combines good mechanisms from other games. Well done, that’s quite something, and I think Viticulture does it well. After my first game, the game felt a bit random, and the cards seemed overly powerful. After the second game, everything clicked better. The cards are powerful, yes, but that’s just why you have to make sure you draw enough cards to get the ones that are good for you.
I don’t think Viticulture is a must-try, but for those who are interested in the wine-making theme, it’s certainly worth checking out. For the fans of worker placement genre it’s another solid game in the genre, with some new ideas and an interesting combination of old ideas. If you don’t like worker placement games, on the other hand, I don’t think Viticulture is going to change that.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Viticulture gets Suggest for now, but I can see eventually dropping my rating to Indifferent once I’ve had enough – this is not a keeper for me, but something I’ll enjoy for a while – probably quite enough to justify the price, had I bought this – then move on.