One of the better games to emerge from the Essen Spiele Faire in 2003 was Santiago from the new design team of Claudia Hely & Roman Pelek. The game garnered several nominations for various awards and was widely applauded by the gaming community.
This year’s Essen saw the couple release Die Weinhändler, a small card game that is not to be confused with the less-than-stellar Dominique Ehrhard release from 2000. I purchased this new release mainly because of the theme. You see, my wife really enjoys wine, so I figured she would be attracted to the game on this basis alone.
When I read the rules a bit later, I was very surprised to learn that I had actually play-tested the game back in April at the Gathering of Friends! Even though the game needed a bit of tweaking at that time, I had enjoyed the experience, so I was looking forward to playing the finished product. I was not disappointed.
Players represent wine collectors / traders attempting to gather valuable collections to store in their cellars. This is accomplished through a series of bids, wherein players offer their existing bottles as enticements to secure other, more valuable wines for their collection. The player who is able to amass and properly display their collection will be admired by wine connoisseurs from around the globe.
The game is comprised of a deck of cards depicting bottles of wine of different varieties and vintage. Wine fans will enjoy the numerous varieties, including Merlot, Portugieser, Dornfelder, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and more. Each variety is subdivided into three vintages, which can also be differentiated by the shape of the bottles. The wine will be rated with 1 – 3 stars, depending upon its age. Of course, the older the wine, the more valuable (3 stars) it is. Each card also depicts a numerical value, which increases with the age of the wine. Included in the mix are a handful of empty bottles, which carry no value, but do serve an important function. Gold tokens to track one’s wealth complete the game’s components.
To begin the game, each player receives five cards, and another four are dealt face-up to the table. The game then follows the following sequence of play:
Bidding Round. This is an intriguing part of the game, and the mechanism borrows heavily from Reiner Knizia’s Money. Fortunately, at least for me, Die Weinhändler is much more exciting and interesting than Money, a game I always found to be very dull.
The start player either offers one or more wine bottles for trade, or passes. In clockwise order, players must either offer bottles whose total differ from previous bids, or pass.
This means players can make offers which are actually LESS than previous offers. The key is that each offer must be DIFFERENT than previous offers. The bidding continues until all players have passed, so players are free to supplement their previous offers when it is once again their turn to bid. If a player passes without offering ANY cards, he may take two cards from the deck, keep one and discard the other.
Wine Exchange. Once all players have passed, the player who offered the greatest value of wine receives the four cards from the display. The player with the second-highest offer receives the cards offered by the highest bidder. Likewise, the player with the third-highest bid receives the cards offered by the second-highest bidder. This process continues, with each player receiving the cards offered by the player who was immediately higher than them on the bid offer. The cards offered by the low man on the totem poll are placed into the face-up display.
Place Cards in Wine Display. Players holding more than six cards MUST place cards into their display. Basically, players are forming pyramids with their wine bottles. The bottom row can contain no more than five bottles, and logical pyramid building rules must be followed (we’re talking physics here!). Once a bottle is placed, it cannot be moved. Usually, it behooves a player to hold bottles in his hand until he is forced to place them.
As bottles are placed into one’s pyramid display, money is earned. Each wine bottle placed earns money immediately. Each bottle earns money equal to the number of stars depicted upon it (1 – 3). Further, the idea is to group the bottles by variety and vintage. Players will receive an addition 4 bonus points if they group three identical bottles of the same variety together, or 1 point if they group three different bottles of the same variety together. Such groupings can be horizontal or diagonal.
Empty bottles do not score points when placed, but they can be covered by full bottles later during the game. Thus, they can be used to temporarily occupy spaces and allow the pyramid to grow, and reduce one’s hand when the limit of six is exceeded.
Fill-up Display. The face-up display is then re-filled to four cards. Remember, the cards bid by the lowest bidder in the round are placed into the display, so often only a few cards must be revealed from the deck in order to fill the display. The player who offered the highest bid during the round now becomes the start player for the next round.
When the deck depletes, one more round is played. Players add all of their cards they can to their pyramid and the corresponding points are earned. The player with the greatest wealth emerges victorious and wins the admiration of his peers.
The bidding and placement mechanisms really make this game. In order to acquire bottles you need, you must offer bottles from your current in-hand collection. This often requires you to switch your collection strategies during the course of the game when the opportunity arises to acquire even more valuable bottles and complete sets. During each bidding round, you are constantly forced to reevaluate your bidding, making touch choices on what is required in order to maintain the collection you desire. Of course, this may well change with each new card offered by an opponent during the bidding. Often, you find yourself coveting a particular set of bottles, and then struggling to offer the correct numerical value of bottles in order to insure that you can acquire those cards. For example, if I desire to acquire the cards offered by Jim, then I must make sure I bid an amount less than Jim … but close enough to Jim’s offer so that no other players squeezes in between us and scoops his bottles. This often requires me to offer bottles that I really didn’t want to lose. There are constant tough, agonizing choices throughout each bidding round.
Yes, it is possible to sometimes not have the cards you need in order to make an offer which will gain you the bottles you covet. Hey, that happens. If you could always acquire exactly what you need, what fun would that be? Part of the game’s fun is making do with the resources (bottles) you have, and trying to better your position for future bids.
Since players can only hold up to six cards in their hands, they are often forced to play cards into their pyramid display before they are truly ready. This forces yet more interesting and touch choices on the players.
I found the game to be tense and filled with those tough choices. I was thoroughly engaged throughout, and felt it was a true challenge and struggle to achieve my objectives. Although I ultimately earned the victory, this was no cake-walk. There were numerous times during the game that I felt I was doomed, and had to really plan properly to pull myself back into contention. For me, that is one of the marks of a good, engaging game. Just like a good glass of wine, Die Weinhändler is full-bodied and satisfies the palate.