Take a visit to wine country in this classic worker placement game
We have a tonne of worker placement games in our collection – it’s one of our favourite mechanisms in a game – but it’s amazing how different designers constantly invent new ways of implementing it so their game stands out.
Like the way Raiders of the North Sea has players placing a worker and gaining the benefit before removing a different worker and gaining that benefit too. Or in Crisis where all workers are placed before any benefits are taken, and actions are then taken in sequence, so actions taken earlier on in the chain may help or harm your later actions. In Rise to Nobility you use dice as workers and the value of the dice determines the strength of the action. And then there are the games with more straight forward worker placement mechanisms like Everdell or Agricola.
Viticulture is an absolute classic worker placement game, set in gorgeous Tuscany, where players have inherited an old vineyards which they must turn into profitable wineries in order to win the game. Plant, harvest and crush grapes while developing the infrastructure and inviting useful visitors to help you, before selling your wine for a healthy profit. But how does this game work, and is it justifiably one of the most popular games of all time?
How the game works
The game is a race to 20 points, ending the round that any player reaches or exceeds that target. Each round takes place over the course of a year, seperated into the four seasons, starting in Spring.
Your main aim is to fill point-scoring wine orders through the production of wine, while along the way developing your vineyard so that it is more efficient and profitable.
In Spring players will determine the turn order for the year ahead. There is a “wake-up” track with varying benefits next to each spot, getting progressively better the further down you go. The first player that round places their cockerel meeple on the wake-up track, gaining the benefit of the space they went for. Continuing around the table, each player then selects their preferred spot on the wake-up track until everyone is done.
From then on that round, the turn order is based on the order of the wake-up track, starting at the top. If anybody took the top spot, they get no benefit, other than the fact they will go first for the rest of that round. Otherwise, the benefits get bigger the further down the wake-up track you went, but with the downside you’re likely to get last dibs on the worker locations that year.
Summer is when work starts on your vineyard! There are a number of worker placement locations to be visited in summer, such as planting new vines (or ripping old ones!), building structures on your vineyard, giving tours for much needed money, playing visitor cards and more.
Each location has a bonus space which rewards the first visitor with an extra treat, be it a discount on the building you’re constructing, an extra VP, the ability to plant two grape vines instead of one, etc.. Subsequent visitors miss out on these bonuses.
The locations on the board are also limited to how many workers can be placed there. In 2 player games, only one slot can be used, in 3-4 player games there are two slots at each location and in 5-6 player games all 3 slots are available.
Each player has 1 “grande” worker who can be placed at any location even if it is filled. Worth saving for that all-important action!
Players start the game with two regular workers and one grande worker (but can train more regular workers in winter), each worker can only be used once per year so once you’ve placed as many workers in summer as you want to, you can pass. That means some players may end up carrying on taking turns even after others have finished for the season.
Nice and simple- players gain either a summer visitor card or a winter visitor cards. These cards can be played at their dedicated worker locations in the relevant season and can be extremely powerful in the game. They do things like give discounts on buildings, allow you to make extra wine, gain more cards, fulfil orders etc. so don’t overlook these! The bonus spots on each location allow you to play two cards instead of one. However, in Fall you are just deciding which to gain into your hand. If you’ve built your cottage, you get 2 cards instead of 1.
Winter is much like summer (except for the weather and lack of visitors), in that there are board locations to be visited by your workers. These include harvesting your grapes, making wine from the grapes on your crush pad, filling wine orders, training new workers and more. As in summer the player first in wake-up order goes first. There is likely to be fierce competition for the locations in this season especially as the game nears its conclusion.
When you harvest, you add up all the values for red and white grapes on a field and add wine tokens to that number on the crush pad. So if I had a field with a value 3 red and a value 1 red, I would place a wine token on the 4 on the crush pad. When you make wine, you move that wine token onto the equivalent value in your cellar, provided your cellar is big enough!
Some of the orders require rose or sparkling wine which involves mixing red and white grapes together.
When filling an order, you discard the relevant wine tokens from your cellar and move your VP marker up the track. Some orders also give you a residual income, which means at the end of each subsequent year you gain additional money. These are so useful to get, especially in the earlier rounds because you need money to built structures and to hire additional workers.
At the end of each year, grapes and wine age (move up one in value, yummy!), players take residual incomes and remove their workers from the board ready for next year, assuming nobody has hit 20 VP yet.
Its worth talking about the structures you can build in Viticulture as these will vastly improve your ability to run your vineyard. In summer there is a location that allows you to build a new structure on your vineyard. On your player board you’ll see where they are placed, how much they cost and what they do. In my opinion the absolutely key ones are the trellis, irrigation and the cellars, though the others are good to have as well.
The trellis and irrigation allow you to plant more (and higher value) types of grape which is why I would consider these essential purchases.
The other “must buys” are the medium and large cellar. At the start of the game you can only produce wine up to value 3, with no possibility to create rose or sparkling wine. The medium and large cellar allow you to make wine up to 6 and 9 value respectively.
Viticulture is a superb game. Though the worker-placement element to it is fairly straight forward (put down meeple, gain benefit, and the bonus if availble), but the limited spaces and the way that turn order is determined makes it so interesting and tactical. You really need to think about where you want to end up in the turn order, weighing up the immediate benefit of the placement versus the risk your opponents will use all the worker locations you’d planned to use.
If you notice the other players aren’t likely to use the same places as you this year, you can afford to go lower and grab a VP or even the extra worker. However if you desperately need to plant two vines instead of one, or make three wines instead of two, you’re better off guaranteeting first turn. Then sometimes you’re gambling on what your opponents do, if you select the 2nd spot (extra vine card), will someone go ahead of you for no benefit? Or will they leave you in first, giving you a bonus and first player?!
The only downside of this method is that in a 2 player game there is inevitably less competition for the wake-up row so the second player in turn order gets a huge choice of benefits.
In general I would say this game is less exciting for 2 players due to there being only one spot at each location so it means you’re often trading turns (one year I harvest, next year I make wines etc.) but at every other player count its pretty delightful.
I like that it’s not possible to adopt the same strategy every game as the cards you’re dealt (especially the vines at the start) will put you on a different path. Every player is dealt a Mama and Papa card at the start which will give them different starting resources (often a choice between extra money or a building etc). This also shakes things up as it puts the players in different starting positions.
Another thing I like (I guess this may put some people off, I don’t know?) is that resources (mostly money) are pretty hard to come buy, at least until you can get some residual income on the go. One of the worker locations allows you to give a tour of your vineyard to tourists and gain 2 lira (+1 extra if you take the bonus spot). Most buildings cost at least 4 lira, and training a new worker costs 4 as well. That makes for some pretty crunchy decisions because early in the game you really can’t afford to build AND train in the same round.
The game does give you the option of an early influx of cash though, you can sell one of your fields to gain 5, 6 or 7 lira (depending on which you sell). However, once sold, you can’t plant on that field unless you buy it back. It’s great that money isn’t that easy to come by and can force you into deciding to sell a field.
Another mechanism that works really well for Viticulture is the fact the game ends at the conclusion of the round where a player reaches 20VP. This gives other players the opportunity to try and surpass that (including the player that triggered the end game) so adds an extra layer of intrigue. In one game I was on 19VP at the start of the year but with no wine in my cellar (so no possible orders to fulfill that year). I decided to take the 1VP bonus on the wake-up chart to trigger the last round, because my opponents were on 15, 13 and 13 points respectively. All three of them managed to fill orders in the final round and gain a couple of extra VP on top, and I ended up coming joint last 🙂 was an epic last round though!
It looks fantastic too, really giving off Tuscan vineyard vibes with the art style on the box, board and cards. The only slight moan is I think the actual worker location ovals look like they’ve been pasted in using custom shapes on PowerPoint. I especially love the glass wine tokens which are very dainty. The other components are of similarly high quality, each player having a very cute selection of buildings to go with their workers and even a tiny wine bottle as the residual income marker.
Overall it’s a great game, simple to understand, beautiful on the eye, deeply strategic and incredibly satisfying to play. I’ve heard rumors that the Tuscany expansion takes this game to the next level, so let’s see what we think of it next…can’t wait!
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