Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Kotas Reviews Viticulture

Well, it's a brand new year we've found ourselves thrust into, eh? Last year was not the finest year for Kotas Reviews Everything. We had a lot of interesting reviews, but the review volume was much lower than I hoped it would be, with only 33 reviews all year! That's our lowest number of reviews since 2013! Isn't that crazy? Well, no. Been busy. Anyway, let's start the year off right with a board game review. Come with me into a land of vines, grapes, and being ruthlessly efficient with your employees. Ladies and Gentlemen, let's look into the world of Viticulture.

As fashionable as a Hallmark Card, and just as intense.
In case you weren't aware, board gaming is currently in the middle of a new Golden Age, or so I'm told. While board games have always been popular, the release of Settlers of Catan in 1995 kicked off a 24 year rise in the popularity of board games that continues to this day. I mean, heavy board gaming never really went away. My parents used to do marathon sessions of Diplomacy in their college years, and I remember playing Axis & Allies in high school, along with other classics like Hero Quest, Talisman, and in college, Cosmic Encounter. Still, with the rise of web video series like Tabletop in the early 2010s, and the advent of Kickstarter to fund much smaller production runs of "prestige" games like Scythe, Kingdom Death: Monster and today's subject, board gaming has never been hotter. Granted, I liked complex board games before it was cool, but you know, I'm glad everyone else is catching up.

Today we are looking at Viticulture, the first game release from the company Stonemaier Games, funded via Kickstarter in 2012, and released in 2013. Since then it's had an expansion (Tuscany), a second edition, and the version I have, which is the Essential Edition of this game of strategic wine making. This version incorporates rules updates from the second addition along with a few elements from the original Tuscany expansion. I got it as a Christmas present. Let's take a look at the board!

And what a board!
(Original Image from Shut Up & Sit Down:
Yeah, I should have snapped a picture of the game I played recently, but I didn't so I'm forced to "borrow" from another source. Anyway, my spouse and I played this with another couple, while our children devastated a room that wasn't the one we played in. Setup took a bit of time, for sure, and then explaining the rules took a bit longer, and we ultimately decided "let's just figure it out as we go". This worked surprisingly well, but I had watched a video on how to play so I was somewhat familiar with the game already. Anycrap, Viticulture is a game where you all are vineyard owners trying to become the most prestigious vineyard in all of...wherever the hell you scoring the most victory points. Victory points can be scored for a number of actions, but most of them will come from fulfilling wine orders (the purple cards). 

So, you may ask, how do you make wine? First, you have to plant vines in your fields. Then you have to harvest vines to get grapes. Then you have to crush the grapes into wine and store them in your wine cellar. Then, once they age up correctly, you can sell the wine! Seems simple enough...until your buddy decides they simply MUST crush grapes this winter and takes the last slot available to do so, and now you are stuck making one lousy coin. Ah, the joys of worker placement games. Each player has their own board, and interacts with both it and a central board. You start the game with a certain amount of workers and some money, along with a few cards and other bonuses based on your draws from the "Mama" and "Papa" decks. Then you randomly determine who the first player is, and the game begins with the Spring season. 

The game progresses through a full year on a turn, starting in Spring, where the players determine their action order for the rest of the year. Except for the first slot, each "slot" in the turn order grants a particular bonus to the person who selects it, from extra money to more cards to an extra worker for the year. Once everyone has picked a slot with their chicken token, the Summer season begins. Players place their workers in chicken order to take actions such as giving tours (generating funds), planting vines (playing green cards), drawing vine cards, building structures (which are required for some vine types, and grant other bonuses), or playing "Summer Visitor" cards that represent randos who wander into your vineyard and want to help you for some reason. Each of these actions has a limited number of "slots", which is usually about half the total player count, so you can get locked out of a slot. To ease this pain, everyone starts with one Grande Worker, who can ignore this rule. Once everyone has placed all they want to, and passed, the Fall Season begins. Everyone draws a new Visitor card (Summer or Winter), and then the Winter Season begins.

Bear in mind you do NOT reclaim workers from spaces until the end of the year, so if you used 'em all up in the Summer, Winter is gonna be dull. Winter is for harvesting grapes (making grape tokens), making wine (turning grape tokens into wine tokens), selling wine (playing purple cards), training new workers (getting more meeples), and playing "Winter Visitor" cards, representing additional weirdos. Once everyone has passed again, you do the "End of the Year" clean up stuff, reclaim your meeples, and start the whole thing over again with the Spring. Once someone hits 20 Victory Points, you just finish out the year and whoever has the most points wins. 

This game has a LOT of moving parts, and it takes a turn or two to get into the groove of play. Oh man, I could sell this wine for so many points and some money! But Jane just took the last wine making slot and my Grande worker was used for harvesting. Well, I can just do it later, but I'll need a bigger cellar, so I will need money, etc, etc. Once you get a decent wine making engine going, you can churn out a ton of wine, but if you didn't make time to sell as you go, you could still be behind in victory points at the end of the game. Or, if you go all in to try and end the game early, and make a mistake (like I did), you can give your opponents more time to catch up and ultimately take the win for themselves. A random worker card can really speed up your plan, or throw a wrench into it as you try and redirect your efforts into a new direction to take advantage of a powerful card you drew. It's fun, it's thoughtful, but it can be VERY slow...right up until it isn't. We played for three hours, and we probably could have gone another one, but I rushed to end it and everyone followed suit in a flurry of victory point gains. It's quite the time investment and can be somewhat confusing at times, since you often don't go in "table order", but by the order of your chickens, which is not something I'd ever thought I would say.

On the FACE Rating System, I give it 2 Smiley Faces. I enjoyed playing it quite a bit, but it's a heavier game than most and requires about a movie and a half's worth of time to experience. It is certainly possible to trim this down with familiarity, but the 45-90 minute claim on the box is a dirty, dirty lie. The theme is certainly there, but it supports the mechanics, rather than the other way around. All in all, if you like heavier board games and have a few hours to spend, it is a great way to relax with some friends, and maybe have a few glasses (or bottles) of the stuff you are pretending to make.

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