Monday, May 27, 2013

Board Game Review - Viticulture

Every now and then, when I read the rules for a game, I get a pretty good idea how the review is going to go. Like, when I read the rules for Viticulture, I was thinking, 'I am going to be talking about how charming and relaxing and family-friendly this game is.' I always play the game before I decide for sure, but I am usually pretty close.

In this case, though, I was wrong. I was thinking Viticulture, a game about making wine in Tuscany, was going to be light and cute and jovial. I guess I was looking at the subject matter more than the game itself. I mean, if you see a game about growing grapes to make a nice pinot in the hills of Central Italy, you're thinking it will probably be long on charm and short on tension, right? Not too competitive, just easy-going and mellow.

So, so wrong. Viticulture is wildly competitive. There's so much you can do to screw your opponents that winning can be a matter of stopping the other players from doing what they need to do. It's important to manage your own resources to get ahead; it's more important to deny your friends the chance to do the same.

What I thought was going to be a rose-colored sunset game of picking grapes and swishing wine in my mouth before spitting it into a bucket turned out to be pretty ruthless. It really comes down to the limited actions. In a two-player game, only one person can plant grapes in any given year. Same with harvesting grapes, or crushing them into wine, or selling wine to people who want to buy wine, or training a new worker for next year, or any of the many other things that you need to do to win this game.

And that makes Viticulture a very competitive game. Sometimes you'll harvest before you're ready because you need to make sure you can beat your friends to the opportunity. You might grab a spot when you don't need it just to keep an opponent from getting to it first. It's fun, if you're in the mood for some cutthroat strategy, but it's not the relaxing charm I thought it was going to be.

Which, to be honest, disappointed me. The art in Viticulture is so beautiful that it made me want to quit my day job and move to Italy to make wine. It can take a couple minutes to understand all your options, but a surface look at the game makes it seem like everyone will leave smiling and relaxed. The only way you'll all be smiling and relaxed after this game about making wine is if you each actually drink a whole bottle while you're playing. I wanted to drop into the theme of this game like falling slowly into a warm bath, but while there's a great, competitive game here, it just doesn't match the theme.

Sometimes, the rules don't even make sense with the theme. When you can't harvest your grapes because your friends beat you to it, it's hard to see how that works, thematically. I mean, you've got a worker ready to go pluck grapes all day, and he's looking forward to it because you've been telling him since July that he was going to pick grapes. And then he goes out to the field, and you have to send your foreman running after him, and the foreman goes, 'Stop! Ernesto! You can't pick those grapes!' And Ernesto says, 'Why not?' And the foreman explains, 'Because two other vineyards a long ways from here already picked their grapes.' And then Ernesto says, 'Eff this. I'm moving to Napa Valley. You people are idiots.'

The thing about Viticulture is that it's a very fun game. It doesn't really do anything Agricola didn't pretty much cover, but it's a tense, competitive game, even if you can't send ninjas to the other vineyards to burn down their tasting rooms. The problem is that it doesn't look like it should be tense and competitive, it looks like it should be relaxing and charming, and the theme doesn't go with the mechanics. The theme is great. The game is great. But the theme goes with the game like peanut butter and ranch dressing. Both are awesome, but they're not exactly a perfect match.

Still, though, there's a lot to love about Viticulture. It's strategic and relentless and fun, with great art and beautiful design. There are wooden counters for everything, custom cut to be trellises and wine cellars and bottles of cabernet sauvignon. Everything about the game oozes charm, and so I'm very excited to see the next game from this publisher, Euphoria. That game is on Kickstarter right now, and I'm hoping to land a review copy of that when it comes out, because if Viticulture is any indication, these cats know how to make games.


2-6 players

Great strategy and planning
Tense and competitive
Beautiful art and amazing production values
Very charming theme

Mechanics don't seem to go very well with the theme

You can score a copy of Viticulture right here, and also see what a beautiful game it is:

And while you're at it, check out Euphoria. If it's half as good as it looks, it's going to be awesome.

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