$30.00
Mark Wilson
United States
Columbus
Ohio
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So when I first wrote this review, there were none up on the BGG forums for the Essentials Edition. I literally just forgot about it for months, and it seems a shame to have it go to waste. Anyway...

This assumes you’re familiar with the Essentials Edition (EE), and how it differs from the 2nd edition of Viticulture and the Tuscany expansion. If you need a refresher on how to play, or the differences, I’ll refer you to the excellent "Watch It Played" series:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5fcDctkFFE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WULNjYOeNE

This review is based on initial reactions after a handful of plays, which includes 2P, 4P, 5P, and solo sessions.

A Note on Rating

This is a very positive review. And with a lot of “special edition” games, there’s a tendency that the people who buy the game are those that already enjoy the preexisting version of the game, so ratings are artificially inflated. So, for reference and with that in mind, I had never played Viticulture until this version.

Stonemaier Games

Until this game, I was probably the biggest Stonemaier Games fan that didn’t actually own one of their games. Jamey & Friends are wonderful with customer service, feedback on questions and concerns, and trying to create a business that is focused on creating a community of dedicated followers. I heartily recommend pretty much anything the company does, because you can feel assured at their attention to detail, knowledge and skill at producing games, and dedication to their customers.

Components

The components as a whole are lovely, and there are lots of them. Of special interest are the individually cut building pieces.

My only nitpick is that the art of the Visitors and Mama/Papa cards doesn’t match the rest of the artwork in the game, and as a result can look a little odd. It’s not bad, but neither was it a highlight for me. Others I’ve played with have commented on this as well, that they seem "off" from the art in the rest of the game.

Also, the portrait on the back of the Papa cards looks exactly like Tom Hiddleston. I point this out as an observation, not a critique. It may be a really good thing for many people.

Thematic Integration

Maybe the biggest compliment I can give this game is that it made me think about theme in a different way. Even in well-done thematic games, there are usually points where there is a gap between the theme and how your actions feel, for lack of a better descriptor.

But in Viticulture, the meeples truly feel like workers, not cubes or chits. The actions all work toward the end goal in tangible, thematic ways. I’m directing my workers to harvest grapes, make and sell wine, and usher visitors to my vineyard. It never feels like "get {x} card to do {y} action" or "acquire {x} cube/meeple/structure to accomplish {y} task." It feels like I’m sowing fields, upgrading my facilities, and building a wine business. There’s little to no break between mechanics and theme. Even the turn order is handled thematically and strategically, with your rooster "waking you up" at a certain time, thus determining order. I feel like worker placement can lend itself to this more than many game genres, but Viticulture shines above even other entries in the genre in this respect.

So the theme is great. I like the idea of winemaking. But it’s the thematic integration with the mechanics that truly separates this as a gaming experience.

Gameplay and Balance

In previous editions, the potential imbalance of card draws was pointed out as a flaw. A lot has been done to mitigate that, with a more balanced selection of visitor cards drawn from both 2nd edition and Tuscany.

That said, card draw still matters, and luck will come into play with it. In my first session, I would have won with several different visitor cards late in the game (and different wine order cards, for that matter). Alas, I got 4-5 cards that were less useful and lost by a point.

So this isn’t gone entirely. But I also don’t see it as a negative. There’s plenty of strategy, but it’s not intended to be devoid of luck. I like this sort of variance, especially when it’s paired with numerous opportunities to play strategically to mitigate such swings.

Otherwise, there are lots of strategic avenues to pursue, lots of interesting and nerve-wracking decision to be made, and a tangible sense of accomplishment at your efforts.

In terms of categorizing it, it’s well within the traditional worker placement genre, and if you’ve played games such as Lords of Waterdeep or Stone Age, you’ll be right at home here. It’s listed as 2.9 weight on BGG, which feels about right compared to the 2.5 of Waterdeep and Stone Age and the 3.6 of something like Agricola.

Essential Edition Additions

The Mama and Papa cards are a simple, welcome addition. And it also gives you a "family" to own your business, if you want to take the theme deeper. Same with the field cards, which give you an additional, and often powerful, monetary option early in the game.

The rule tweaks all help to polish the game (which does sound like it was a bit rough around the edges at launch). And the new cards, as mentioned earlier, help mitigate balancing issues.

I’m not a huge solo gamer, but I was happy to give the Automa cards a try for some solo gaming. Capped at seven rounds and with one player, solo plays are a lot quicker than even 2P sessions. But in my two solo plays, both felt tense and came down to the final turn or two. I won both, but in one it came down to the final winter Automa card before my victory was assured. The difficulty can also be adjusted if you feel that the normal difficulty is too easy or hard. Personally, I feel like this is a nice way to explore the game and its strategic possibilities, but not something that’s going to match a 2-6P game in terms of excitement. But for solo gamers, this is a wonderful addition.

As a whole, what I feel the additions do is add in the best elements of Tuscany that don’t increase the complexity. If you have a dedicated gaming group, Tuscany may be the way to go. But if your cast of co-players constantly changes and rotates, as it does for me (my main group is quite large), you’re always going to be teaching the game to new players, and it’s going to be impractical to include many of the denser Tuscany modules. This is what made the EE an excellent version for me.

Negatives?

The length can balloon at higher player counts, but this is only an issue if someone in your group doesn’t know what they’re getting into. The 90 minutes listed is fine, but if you’re teaching the game or playing with 5-6P, add 30-45 minutes.

Others have remarked on the balance, and I suspect there may still be scattered issues here. Getting out to an early meeple advantage isn’t always insurmountable, but sometimes feels like it (it’s possible to max out your meeples on Turn #1 with the right visitor card). "Runaway leader" is a common gaming term. Viticulture doesn’t have that, but it may sometimes have an "uncatchable" leader issue. Because the same rough "point engine" is being built by all players, it can be hard to close the gap that forms by midgame without a specific catch-up mechanic. While I can’t point to this as a hard rule for determining a winner, I also don't have enough plays under my belt to offer more than anecdotal evidence. I suspect it may be an issue at times.

Alternative point options and the luck of the Visitor cards are there to mitigate this. So I’m cautiously hopeful that this concern will remain unrealized.

Conclusion

This can be a great couples’ game, works well with both newer and seasoned gamers, and has many other elements to recommend it (most mentioned earlier).

I’ve rated this a 9/10 in my profile. My gut reaction to playing for the first time was 10/10. Since that time, I still feel like it might deserve that rating. But, like a fine wine, I’m going to let it age a while before bestowing that distinction. However, my rating could definitely go higher or lower on subsequent plays, especially pending my earlier comments on balance. But I’m a fan of good worker placement games, which this certainly is, and the magnificent immersion that’s possible in the game overshadows any flaws for me.

I also think that the Essential Edition is a tangible step up for Viticulture, even having not played the 2nd Edition. I say that because, collectively, the new additions (Mamas & Papas, Field Cards, "best of" Visitor Cards, Automa, rule tweaks) definitely add some variance, depth, and heighten the theme. My estimation of the game would still be very high without these elements, but wouldn’t be quite as glowing.

In conclusion, my thanks to Stonemaier Games for producing such a lovely game, and I hope you all enjoy playing this gem. Cheers!
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Paul Lodge
United Kingdom
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Only recently seen videos of the game & as soon as I saw the back of the Papa card I thought Tom Hiddleston too!!
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