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Subject: A review of the FIRST COPY PLAYED IN THE UNITED STATES! WOOT! rss

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Thaddeus Ryan
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I promised Jamey I wouldn’t make the inevitable comparisons between Viticulture and wine. I know these will be forthcoming in future reviews, such as:
"A well-balanced blend of strategy, with the aroma of meeples and a note of tannins"
"Tastes of Agricola, Stone Age and Fresco, with a nose of Puerto Rico"
"Like your favorite white, but you don’t have to decant! Kidding, you don’t decant whites."

But all of them seemed lame and I promised Jamey I wouldn’t go that route. Jamey who was kind enough to bring his advance copy of Viticulture over to the smallest game night I’ve yet hosted. Jamey who is also probably one of the best at explaining games (we had played Libertalia the same night), and one of the bravest in tackling such a project as making a game about wine production a reality on Kickstarter.Yep, Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier games who is a regular in our 2013 gaming group. coolWoot!

The Box:

Let’s start with the open. Jamey brought over his advance copy - that’s right the FIRST COPY in the UNITED STATES for us to play. Kickstarter backers have been excited about the quality of illustrations, the custom meeples, and the overall production values. You won’t be disappointed - it looks even better in print. The main board that keeps visitor and vintage cards, turn order, and worker placement for each season well-organized is both tidy and artful, reflecting careful consideration. The custom meeples are very cool and the layout of player cards (your own vineyard) add clarity to the vineyard operations. Everything is functional and it looks beautiful. Production was top-notch: playmats, cards and lira are quality stock, and the illustrations add to the feel of 19th century Tuscany. I know some of the other backers personally and it was gratifying to be able to pick them out in caricatures before I read the names at the bottom. Jamey and Alan’s design team really outdid themselves.

One other big pro to the initial design is that Viticulture plays up to 6 right out of the box. That's unusual and wonderful, and it means that any expansion(s) are going to be on substance, not just extra of the same pieces.

The Gameplay:
The fact that Chris (our other friend) and I both beat Jamey in our first game should tell you that this is not a complex game to pick up. Once I realized that we were really mimicking vineyard production in the turn order, it fell into place and turns flowed smoothly. We had the advantage of learning from Jamey, but I can’t think of anything that we had to ask him about that wasn’t in the rule book.

Each turn is one year, broken into seasons:
* In Spring you choose initiative, obtaining no bonus for going first and increasing bonuses the later you go (including instant VPs and extra workers).
* In Summer you can construct buildings, buy or plant vines, sell grapes, give tours and have summer visitors.
* In Fall each player chooses a visitor card (summer visitors help with planting, winter visitors with harvest and ageing).
* In Winter you can harvest fields, crush grapes, store and age grapes, have winter visitors, train new workers and bottle and fill orders.

It’s this last activity - filling orders - that you’re ultimately trying to get to, and you’d have a very difficult time winning without it. Filling orders confers VPs (from a budding reputation) and residual income from wine sales, which gives an ongoing advantage in each new year. All three of us focused on building our wine-making and order-filling capacity, but we approached in different ways. I trained and maxed out on workers rapidly, Jamey attracted visitor bonuses by building a cottage, and Chris collected a variety of grapes for future harvests.

Each of these strategies gave a slightly different feel to the game and it works partly because of the scarcity built into play. The first one to do an action gets a bonus, the last one may not get to do the action at all. In our three-player game there were two slots each for construction, planting, buying vines, etc., so we really had to take divergent routes. So initiative can be make-or-break at the end of the game, but no less vital is having a plan B at all times. I really liked that, unlike some games where scarcity means you sit idle for several turns, in Viticulture you’re not going to be idled if you plan well. If you approach Winter with a visitor card in hand, a field to harvest, or grapes to crush, your workers will be able to do something.

The Strategy:
I spoke to this above. There’s considerable strategy to use here so long as you keep your individual turns flexible. Jamey said that he expected a game to last around 7 years - that’s 7 full sets of seasons, and ours I think was 5 years. The end was extremely close, with Chris at 24, me at 23 and Jamey at 21. Because of the scarcity in actions and the random benefits conferred by visitors, the random nature of grapes drawn and orders taken, I think games will generally be close by the 3rd or 4th turn.

The Seasons aspect is a very clever implementation of role-selection. Even though Spring is really just an initiative auction, the bonuses chosen or forsaken help position a player for the next three seasons. It's intriguing that twice in our game Chris and Jamey jockeyed for the high bonuses, which meant that I could go first but also have my pick of the earlier (and lesser) bonuses.

Summer plays distinctly from Winter, building up capacity versus utilizing it for VP gain. Because workers played in Summer cannot also be played in Winter, you run into a trade-off and I can see a lot of "uh-oh" moments when the first player decides to save his or her workers for Winter only to find that the other players are doing the same.

I may not have emphasized enough that Viticulture is quickly quite competitive. You’re going directly against each other to vie for scarce cards, scarce spots for your workers, even if you’re not directly attacking one another. Actually most of the cards we drew that affected other players did so cooperatively or positively, which was very welcome and I think kept the game positive and competition very friendly.

One thing I want to know in my new games is whether there’s potential for a runaway leader scenario. I hate getting trounced in EVE by the first guy to take a system, or in Settlers by the first one to build a city on ore and brick hexes, or in Race for the Galaxy by a military player with all conquest planets in his hand. I’m really happy with Viticulture on this point because the runaway leader, while not impossible, is going to be difficult to develop because there’s not a dominant action that you can continually play each round to generate a production churn machine. Part of it is that you simply cannot repeat the same action endlessly. Construction helps to a point, you can only plant so many vines, workers are essential but once everyone trains up that advantage is equalized etc., and the scarcity built in to each worker’s action means that you really have to be ready to play 2 or 3 possible actions each season.

Probably the most important bottleneck (no pun intended) from scarcity is in filling orders. In a 3-player game, only 2 orders can be filled each winter, and it’s unlikely that one player will fill both. That limits the possibility of a runaway leader problem since the benefits from filling orders are what will move a player the furthest in a single turn.

Theme and Fun:
I’m putting these together because they’re really inseparable. Most people don’t introduce themselves to strangers with "... and role selection is my favorite mechanism", unless you’re an irredeemable geek like Jamey . Most of us have to throw in "and I really like games with pirates/aliens/wine/ cavemen/Incas/hobbits" just to get a conversation going. Viticulture's primary themes are wine and economics but the secondary theme is that hard-to-fill "I think my wife/girlfriend/cute-girl-from-work will actually play this with me and not feel embarrassed about the aliens/robots/elves" genre. There’s something both entrepreneurial and historic here, and it’s very easy to relate to if you’ve ever been to wine country. That allows for a relaxed gameplay even when its challenging and competitive.

Don’t like wine? It’s still an economic production game. I think it’d be a kick if Stonemaier Games adapted this to scotch or beer as well, but we’ll save that for an expansion (hint).

Verdict:
I’m excited for my copy to arrive and I’m looking forward to future launch events, as well as the planned expansion. Stonemaier’s work here is all-around excellent, Alan and Jamey and their design team pulled off a really top-notch production, a game that’s enjoyable, deep and has high replay value. Thanks to Jamey for giving us the first play, (and, by the way Jamey, do you mind bringing it around for our April meetup so we can try the 6-player?)

If you want to check it out but didn’t get in on Kickstarter, look up Stonemaier Games at Geekway 2 The West in May.
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David Parrott
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Great review. Looking forward to the game in the future, I missed the kickstarter but pre-ordered through Stonemaier Games. Sadly since had to cancel but hoping to pick it up on this side of the pond when I can.

For those not getting to a con and wanting a copy it's available for pre-order on their website. :-)

http://www.stonemaiergames.com/buy/
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Kristian Pesti
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Thanks for the brag-hidden-as-a-review! ninja

No, really, thanks for the review, really waiting forward for my copy and see how it plays out... (My wife didn't really appreciate my "everything printed on a white paper" PnP version so I didn't even test drive it with our gamegroup.) Amazing you got to try out the advanced copy!
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Thaddeus Ryan
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Diffler wrote:
(My wife didn't really appreciate my "everything printed on a white paper" PnP version so I didn't even test drive it with our gamegroup.) Amazing you got to try out the advanced copy!

You reminded me! I took pictures of our session. I'll upload them tonight so you all can see it.
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Jamey Stegmaier
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Thanks Jeremy! I really appreciate your enthusiasm for the game.
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Sarah Reed
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Thanks for doing this review! Makes me even more anxious to get the game. May can't come quickly enough!!
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Drinky Drinky
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Mr. Cat. Hold on I think I know my next move, just give me another minute....NO!!!!!!!
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Great Review, can't wait for both copies to arrive here.

Also I'm guessing Jamey's copy was probably the first played in the US.
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A Brave New Geek
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Is it better than vinhos?
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Kai Teo
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or grand cru ?
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Thaddeus Ryan
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krechevskoy wrote:
Great Review, can't wait for both copies to arrive here.

Also I'm guessing Jamey's copy was probably the first played in the US.

It is, but he told us that he didn't get to play his before we came over. Like we were his first group. Though I bet he tells all his gaming cirlces that they're his first.
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Jamey Stegmaier
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I actually had just received my copy, and I played it for the first time with Jeremy. So it was literally the first play of that copy.
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Jamey Stegmaier
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abravenewgeek and Eric--I obviously can't say if the game is better than Vinhos or Grand Cru, but it is markedly different than both of them. Grand Cru is an auction game, whereas there's no auction in Viticulture. Vinhos...well, Vinhos is a lot of things. If you want a super heavy, meaty game, you will probably like Vinhos more than Viticulture. But if you want a mid-weight Euro game with short-term tactical and long-term strategic decisions, I think you'll like Viticulture more than Vinhos.

I'm sending the game out to plenty of reviewers in June, so you'll get to see plenty of unbiased reviews. Who is your favorite game reviewer?
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Sometimes life is scary and dark. That is why we must find the light. -BMO
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First, Jamey, congratulations on getting the game out and congrats on such a great production. I'm very much looking forward to my copy.

I think my two favorite reviewers are:

Lance aka Undead Viking

and

Tox of Crits Happen

As a pure reviewer, Tox has become my favorite because I believe he plays games many many times before he reviews them. Both reviewers also are very good at communicating their likes and dislikes and whether they like a game or not, you will know if it will suit you.
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A Brave New Geek
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Thanks man - good luck with the game.
 
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Jamey Stegmaier
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DI--Thanks for the recommendations. Tox actually reviewed the pre-final art version of Viticulture. He's a great guy, and I particularly like that he films and writes out his reviews. Lance is great too. Both of them are getting review copies.
 
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Heh, I missed his review! Just watched it. He gave it a 'hit'. I wonder if you can convince him to re-review a production copy? I know that high quality components impact his review process.

I wonder if he played with the Arboriculture expansion?
 
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Jamey Stegmaier
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He's definitely getting a final copy of the game, and I think he's going to revisit it for a partial review. I'm aiming for a Crit this time.

I think he played with the base game, not the Arboriculture expansion.
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Kevin B. Smith
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jameystegmaier wrote:
I'm sending the game out to plenty of reviewers in June, so you'll get to see plenty of unbiased reviews. Who is your favorite game reviewer?
He doesn't do conventional "reviews", but Rahdo's videos are probably the best at telling me whether or not I'm going to enjoy a game (regardless of whether or not HE enjoys it).

EDIT: I just remembered that you did a pretty good playthrough video already, so while I would love to see the Rahdo treatment, it's probably less important for this game than for many.
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Jamey Stegmaier
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Thanks Kevin! I wasn't aware of Rahdo, but I just subscribed to his YouTube channel.
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Devin Schwartz
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jameystegmaier wrote:

I'm sending the game out to plenty of reviewers in June, so you'll get to see plenty of unbiased reviews. Who is your favorite game reviewer?



is my favorite reviewer based on his comprehensive pictorial overviews. Check out this geeklist for some examples of his work.
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Jamey Stegmaier
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Awesome! I just subscribed to him on BGG.
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Mark Chen
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@Jeremy: Thanks for the interesting review! I guess you guys played the base game only? Will love for a review of the Arboriculture expansion as well!

@Jamey: You may want to check out Joel Eddy, who is one of my favourite boardgame video reviewers. Ryan Metzler from The Dice Tower is a good choice, too!

Best Regards.
Mark
 
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Jamey Stegmaier
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Mark--Thanks for the recommendations! Both Joel and Ryan are getting a copy of the base game to review. Ryan played it back during the Kickstarter campaign, but I'm looking forward to hearing his thoughts on the final version.
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Will Moller
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I've heard good things about a new guy on the scene:
Will Moller
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He's very level-headed, fair, clear, and a snappy dresser to boot! He's not one of your run-of-the-mill greased up snake oil game reviewers. I think the word the best defines him is 'classy.' That's 'lassy' with a 'C' out front.

More relevant might be UFBRT by
Paul Springer
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, but he only reviews a few games a year now it seems, and rarely are they games new to the market. Still, high quality stuff.
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Julia Ziobro
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abravenewgeek wrote:
Is it better than vinhos?
"Better". A loaded term.
My short answer is yes.
My long answer is, they are very different games; Vinhos is complex and meaty, and can vapor lock those prone to AP. Viticulture is lighter and is (to my mind) more enjoyable. It is less cut-throat and requires more quick decisions.
Vinhos is about building a multi-faceted engine to drive your entire wine-making business; Viticulture is about day-to-day management of a handful of workers who complete a smaller operation.

I think they are both good games, but Viticulture is more fun and less epic.
meeple
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