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Board Game: Viticulture
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Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Executive summary

For those who don't want to read a long review I'll start with a short summary.

Viticulture is
- a worker placement Eurogame about building the most successful vineyard in premodern Tuscany
- a victory point race with some interaction, but few options for harassing other players
- currently only exists as prototypes
- in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jameystegmaier/viticultu...)
- suitable for geeks and non-geeks alike
- great fun.

Full disclosure

I recently got back from a trip to Tuscany where among other things I visited a small vineyard and bought some of their wine. Roughly a week after coming back I noticed a Kickstarter campaign (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jameystegmaier/viticultu...) for a game about running a vineyard in Tuscany. This coincidence caught my attention so I got interested and asked to see the rules for the game. One of the game designers, Jamey Stegmaier, made a PDF with the rules available on Kickstarter. The rules were finished, but not illustrated.

While reading the rules I wrote down some suggestions for tweaking the text and sent them to Jamey who was very friendly and open to feedback. I did a couple of extra rounds of minor editing and ended up exchanging quite a few mails with Jamey and a few days ago I got files from him that allowed me to make a prototype of the game.

I write this in order to disclose that by being a bit involved in the project and having communicated with one of the designers, I might be considered biased. I have of course tried to keep this in mind while evaluating the game and will also provide the opinion of my wife with whom I played the game.

Furthermore it's important to note that I've only played four games (all with two players) so far, so my experience with the game is fairly limited. On the other hand I've studied the rules quite closely and since there's very little information available about the game except from what the designers themselves have provided I feel that it's worthwhile to post my impressions. I'll update this post if I get the opportunity to play the game again.

EDIT August 2015: In the spirit of full disclosure I'll add that I'm now part time employed by the publisher of Viticulture, Stonemaier Games.

Gameplay

The rules for Viticulture are available online (https://www.box.com/s/9975b4c7a92f242e3325) so I won't give a detailed walkthrough of them, instead I'll try to give you an idea of how the game plays.

Viticulture is a worker placement Eurogame where the players compete to make the most successful vineyard in premordern Tuscany. The designers state that it's inspired by Fresco and Stone Age. I haven't tried those games, but Viticulture reminds me of Caylus and Puerto Rico though it's less complex than those two.

The goal of the game is to be the first player to score at least 20 victory points. Victory points are mainly awarded for selling wine, but can also be obtained in other ways.

The game is played in turns each of which represents a year and is divided into four seasons.

The first season (spring) is mainly a bookkeeping phase where wine and grapes are aged thus increasing their value and income is generated for wine orders fulfilled during previous years. Furthermore the players determine the play order for the rest of the year by each placing a token on a scale from 1 to 7. The numbers determines the player order (lower numbers goes first), but the higher numbers give increasingly better bonuses, such as an extra card or a victory point.

After spring comes summer where the players take turns to place one worker in the order determined during spring. Workers are placed in one of six activity areas each giving the player an action such as planting a vine, drawing a card or building a new structure (there are seven, each of which gives different benefits). At each of the six activity areas there are spaces for one worker per 2 players in the game.

During fall each player draws a visitor card with a choice of either a summer or a winter visitor. These visitor cards can be played during the corresponding season giving certain benefits such as an engineer that allows the player to build a structure at a discount.

Finally winter is a worker placement phase like summer with six activity areas available each giving the player an action such as harvesting grapes, crushing harvested grapes to produce wine (red, white, blush or sparkling) or selling wine to fulfill a wine order card drawn previously in the game by discarding wines of the type and at least the age specified on the card. Fulfilling wine orders give victory points and a small stream of money for the rest of the game.

The game continues year after year until one player has at least 20 victory points. When that happens the year is played to the end and the player with the most victory points wins (in case of ties there are some tiebreaker rules).

Finally it should be noted that the rules were changed while I played the game (a rule was moved from the expansion to the main game). I’ll post an update when I’ve had a chance to consider the change.

Components and pricing

Since the game hasn't been produced yet and some of the artwork isn't finished yet it's not possible to give a final verdict on the components, however so far the artwork seems splendid and I'm especially fond of the image making up the main part of the game board. It looks good and really suits the theme of the game.

What I can comment on, however, is that the amount of components seem quite fair, even generous compared to the price: 118 cards, 1 game board, 6 player mats, 61 wooden tokens, 150 punchboard markers, 60 clear acrylic tokens and one token of unspecified material.

The price for this during the Kickstarter campaign is $39 and the component quality will be upgraded if stretch goals are met. You should add shipping costs ranging from free to $20 depending on where you live. There's also a $10 Kickstarter expansion of which few details are publically available, but I'm sure that Jamey is willing to tell more if asked.

The photo below shows my prototype of the game. Components are scavenged from Carcassonne and Targui with some standard playing cards and sleeves thrown in to stabilize the printed out cards. There are fewer components in the picture than will be included in the final game. The main game board is an A4 print out that's too small, I hope to make a larger laminated version soon.

Board Game: Viticulture


Setup, teardown and playtime

Setting up and packing the game away should in total take less than 5 minutes, which in my opinion is more than fine when compared to the playtime.

The rulebook lists the playtime as 45-60 minutes. The first game we played took roughly 2 hours where I explained the rules as we went along. The next two games took around 1 hour 15 minutes, and the fourth roughly 1 hour. This time includes our young son needing our attention every once in a while.

I would guess that the playtime will scale almost linearly with the number of players, which leads me too...

Scalability

The game can be played with 2 to 6 players and the designers have attempted to make the game scalable by making the number of spaces at each activity area dependent on the number of players - there's one space at each activity area for every two players. Thus the number of spaces available per player does vary a bit.

Furthermore when playing with more 3 or more players you get a bonus for placing the first worker at each of the activity areas, thus a 2 player game will differ from a game with 3-6 players in this regard.

Not having played with more than 2 players I can only guess as to how the game works with more players. I foresee no problems with up to 4 players, but I think that turns might start to drag with 6 players.

Hostility

This game is intentionally designed so that player's can't be to hostile towards each other. However you can mess with the other player by putting a worker at exactly that space that the other player really needed. I think that this is more pronounced when playing with only two players.

Interaction

As mentioned you're fairly limited in your options to mess with the other players and there's no trading between players, so in these regards the game is low on interaction. On the other hand the placement of workers on the limited number of activity area spaces and the play order chart does offer interaction. Describing the game as 2-6 simultaneous solitaire games with a victory point race added would be wrong, but not without a kernel of truth.

Discussion

There’s a great sense of development through the game because your goals and strategy shifts as the turns go by. The beginning, midgame and final victory point rush all feel different.

Having played only 4 games I don’t have a full grasp of the strategies yet, but it seems that there are several possible winning strategies and more importantly you have meaningful choices to make almost all the time, which in my opinion is the hallmark of good game design. The quality of the game design was also apparent in the fact that while there’s always something to think about analysis paralysis was never a problem.

On the negative side the game may become repetitive after a large number of games, but according to the designers the expansion available to Kickstarter should add quite a bit of replayability. I have no way of knowing whether this is true or not since I haven't seen the expansion.

In general the rules seem tight, well thought out and easy to follow, however I think that they could give room to runaway leader syndrome since there's no real checks in place to stop a successful player, but on the other hand there’s also no single mechanism that gives huge advantages, for example 5 workers aren’t even close to 25% better than 4 workers. Furthermore all 4 games I’ve played have been tense more or less to the very end.

The artwork and the game mechanics meshes very well with the theme of the game and together creates a great atmosphere, though a few mechanics (such as grapes increasing in value instead of going bad when laying on the crush pad for several years) does jar a little, when considered from a real life vineyard perspective.

The verdict

The most important question is: Did we have fun? The answer to that question is a resounding yes. The game felt tense and exiting throughout.

Quality of the rules: High. (A few things could be clarified a bit. I’ll write to Jamey Stegmaier about that. So far he’s been very willing to tweak the text in the rulebook.)
Need to consult the rules during gameplay: Low.
Luck factor: Low to medium. (There are random card draws, and while some cards are better than others we didn’t have problems with overpowered cards.)
Suitability for non-geeks: High. (The complexity, playtime, setup/teardown and interplayer hostility are all at a level where non-geeks shouldn't be scared away, though new players will probably lose their first game and compared to Monopoly it'll seem complicated.)
Can be explained to non-geeks in this many minutes: 10. (I would recommend just starting to play and explain as you go along.)
Rating: A conservative 8/10. (More plays are needed to be sure what the exact rating should be.)

At the end of the day the reaction of my wife who’s only a very casual gamer says it all: After each game she asked to play again and while I was writing this review she asked a couple of times whether I was done, so that we could play again.

Feedback wanted

Since this is my first review and since English is not my native language I would really appreciate feedback on everything from spelling mistakes to the content and structure of the review.
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Jason Fordham
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Your English is more than fine, and your review seems more than fair.

I like critique as much as praise, and you seem to balance both well.

I'm biased as I'm both backing this game on KickStarter as well as looking very much forward to it!

Enjoyed the review!



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Jamey Stegmaier
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Morten--Thank you so much for taking the time to review Viticulture. Your review is very fair and balanced--I really like the way you broke down the various sections, as well as the "suitability for non-geeks" mention.

You also mentioned something that's really important to me when playing a game that I've completely forgotten when promoting the game: setup time.

Also, as for the lack of hostility (which is REALLY important to me), the one little structure I just decided to move from the expansion to the main game should reduce the possibility of hostility even more. Although I want interaction and competition between players, I don't want want to allow for spite to play a role in the game. As a game designer, you can't control how players feel towards one another, but you can control their ability to express any negative emotions through the game.

Thanks Morten!
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Yours Truly,
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There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no. Somehow we missed it. Well, we'll know better next time.
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Quote:
Feedback wanted

Since this is my first review and since English is not my native language I would really appreciate feedback on everything from spelling mistakes to the content and structure of the review.
English is great; couldn't even tell it was not your native language.
Content and structure were also great. Sometimes I find reviews can be too brief, or others go on for too long, but yours was just right and I like how it was structured. I'll keep my eye out for more of your reviews!
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Morten Monrad Pedersen
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@Jason and JohnnyDollar: Thanks for the feedback - I really appreciate it .
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Morten Monrad Pedersen
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@Jamey: Yes, the "suitability for non-geeks" is a factor that I find very useful to see discussed in a review, and setup time is (among other things) important in that regard.

The hostility element is also very important for many non-geeks, though a lot of geeks probably feel the opposite way about this, so it's a fine line you'll have to tread.

I'll post an update to the review when I've had the chance to consider the game change you've made - though when that'll be I don't know since I'm going to Norway on business for a couple of days.
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Drinky Drinky
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Your writing style was superb. Better than most of us native speakers.

I am a bit impartial as I have already backed the product, as well as increased my backing =P

I find as a gaming couple, we end up trying to teach games to other couples. With the room for 6 players total, minimal cut-throat mechanics, but lots of room for strategic planning, and appealing artwork I am greatly excited for this game.

Also being I am a HUGE worker placement fan tends to help as well.

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Yeah the 6-player capacity is relatively unusual for euros, usually they wait for the 1st expansion to add that
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Morten Monrad Pedersen
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krechevskoy wrote:
Your writing style was superb. Better than most of us native speakers.

I am a bit impartial as I have already backed the product, as well as increased my backing =P

I find as a gaming couple, we end up trying to teach games to other couples. With the room for 6 players total, minimal cut-throat mechanics, but lots of room for strategic planning, and appealing artwork I am greatly excited for this game.

Also being I am a HUGE worker placement fan tends to help as well.
Thank you for the kind words

And yes, I think is a great game for couples for the reasons you outline.
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Morten Monrad Pedersen
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A small update: My wife and I played three more games yesterday (for a total of seven) and we're still really enjoying the game.
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Cameron Chien
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Awesome review, your English would put many native speakers to shame

Cameron
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Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Zeede wrote:
Awesome review, your English would put many native speakers to shame

Cameron
Thank you for the kind words, that great to hear .
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Morten Monrad Pedersen
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I finally had the chance to plat the finished game yesterday. I played it twice with an old friend, so that I now total 8 2-player games with two different opponents. If you're interested you can read my impressions here. The executive summary is that I think that my initial verdict was correct and that the art and components are great.
 
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