Thank you for checking review #34 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
An Overview of Viticulture: Essential Edition
Viticulture: Essential Edition is a game designed by Jamey Stegmaier, Morten Monrad Pederson, and Alan Stone and is published by Stonemaier Games. The box states that it can play 1-6 players and has a 45-90 minute play time.
In Viticulture, the players find themselves in the roles of people in rustic, pre-modern Tuscany who have inherited meager vineyards. They have a few plots of land, an old crushpad, a tiny cellar, and three workers. They each have a dream of being the first to call their winery a true success.
The players are in the position of determining how they want to allocate their workers throughout the year. Every season is different on a vineyard, so the workers have different tasks they can take care of in the summer and winter. There’s competition over those tasks, and often the first worker to get to the job has an advantage over subsequent workers.
Fortunately for the players, people love to visit wineries, and it just so happens that many of those visitors are willing to help out around the vineyard when they visit as long as you assign a worker to take care of them. Their visits (in the form of cards) are brief but can be very helpful.
Using those workers and visitors, players can expand their vineyards by building structures, planting vines (vine cards), and filling wine orders (wine order cards). Players work towards the goal of running the most successful winery in Tuscany.
Viticulture – Essential Edition comes with components for Viticulture, but adds some of the expansions from Tuscany, including 36 Mama & Papa cards, Field cards (previously known as “Properties”), expanded/revised Visitors, and 24 Automa cards (solo variant), along with a couple of minor rule changes.
Setup and gameplay for 1 Player
A standard solo play has the board set up mostly like in a game with two players. There are three exceptions: the Automa deck is shuffled and placed by the board, a clear token is placed on each of the seven wake-up slots on the board, and a neutral color’s cork token is placed on the 20 spot of the scoreboard.
If you are playing through the campaign mode (listed in the rule book), then your scenario might dictate some additional changes to the setup such as placing your score marker on -5. I won’t go into the details on all of these.
At the start of the Summer and Winter seasons you will draw the top card from the Automa deck and place a neutral worker on each space for the current season that is listed on the card. This could be anywhere from 0-3 spaces, as there are some Tuscany-only spaces (all of these have notation showing they belong to Tuscany). The spaces listed in the opposite season are ignored. A variant to increase difficulty would be to keep drawing more cards until at least two spaces in the current season have a neutral worker.
Your turns in the game will play just like the game with more players, with one key exception: you can only choose each wake-up position once. At the end of the seventh year (meaning you’ve selected all seven wake-up positions), the game will be over. When you select a wake-up position, you take the token for that spot in addition to the bonus typically provided by that wake-up spot. This token can be used at any time during the game to take the bonus middle action on the board when you place a worker (such as gaining +1 VP when filling an order).
Just like the 2-player game, you use only the left-hand spot on each space which means that a neutral worker will prevent you from using that space unless you send your Grande Worker to the space.
At the end of seven years, you compare your score with the neutral player’s score. They will always be at 20. If your score is below 20, you lose. If your score is exactly 20, you lose. Anything higher than 20 is a win.
This game is very thematic. For a euro-style game, that isn’t a common thing to encounter. You choose when to wake up, determining the order in which you’ll take your actions (not relevant in the solo game, but still worth mentioning). You plant grapes in the fields. You have to harvest those grapes. You have to crush the grapes to make them into wine. You can then sell the wine for money. You can give tours of your winery. Hiring more workers allows you to get more accomplished. Various people can visit your winery, providing a wide range of benefits. When you sell orders of wine, it provides repeat income each year. Your grapes and wines age each year, increasing their value. The tasks you can do each season are varied and fitting for each season. A ton of thought and effort went into this game, and this is about as close as you can get to bringing about a thematic experience in a worker placement game.
If I’ve mentioned this once, I’ve mentioned it half a dozen times. When it comes to solo gaming, setup and teardown time is an important factor. While I love some solo games that take time to prepare, there is a premium to be placed on ones that can get to the table and get started quickly. I was surprised at how fast this game turned out to be for setup and teardown. Pleasantly surprised. I can pull this game out, set it up, play it, and put it away in roughly 45 minutes. I can finish a game and reset it to start a new one in under 5 minutes. Both of these things are great benefits to the solo gaming experience.
The Automa is a fantastic system. It requires minimal work/effort from the player to operate. It really is as simple as flipping a card and placing a few wooden pieces on the board. Done. Now you can move back to what you really care about: planning and playing your turn. There is nothing fancy or complicated about the Automa system, which really shines in this game. Scythe steps it up a few notches in complexity, but if you tried that and didn’t enjoy it then you might find the ease of Viticulture to be more to your liking.
I was intimidated during my first play of this solo, wondering how it was even possible to score 21 points in seven rounds. After all, it usually takes 3-4 years before the semblance of an engine is even in place to start scoring points from filling orders. It takes a measure of luck in drawing the right cards at the right time, but also some effective and efficient planning around what you are dealt and draw early in the game and managing your resources well. You have to make sure to avoid wasting actions, as the difference between winning and losing often comes down to 1-2 moves on the final year. All of this provides a thrilling and fulfilling experience.
The game, when playing it, still feels exactly like playing Viticulture. I don’t find myself playing an inferior version of the game, which is something I always appreciate. Not only does the game function in a very similar manner, I also have an objective to accomplish even without using the campaign or variants included in the book. It is a straight-forward, but a challenging, task that is set before you. You have to get at least 21 point. Anything less than that and you lose. It isn’t a “you scored X last game, now try to beat that this time” sort of game. And that is something I really like.
I was skeptical about the campaign system. A worker placement game where you play a series of solo games in sequence? Let me tell you, this is where the solo play really shines. Each of the eight objectives provide their own challenge. I felt great after the first one. I felt robbed when I lost on the second and quickly turned it around and won. I squeaked by the third one. I’m 0/3 on the fourth one. Yes, they have a way to make it easier by giving yourself an added boost with each loss on a scenario, but I refuse to use that. I can win without it. I’m even stubborn enough to use the same exact Mama and Papa cards three times in a row, coming so close in the last one that I would have won if it didn’t use two spots in the last Winter. And guess what…those were the exact two on the card. I’m only halfway through, but I can already affirm that this solo campaign is legit in its challenge and a lot of fun to challenge.
As great as the Automa system is, this doesn’t always provide a perfect simulation of playing against an opponent. First off, there isn’t a you-go, I-go system to it. You know all of the spaces they will be occupying for the season so there is perfect information to plan around. There are times when they’ll take spaces you almost never touch and that will make you happy. There are also times, though, when they’ll take the exact spaces you needed and leave you taking an inferior turn to what you would have preferred. Playing with the variant requiring them to be on 2+ spaces each season helps make it feel tighter and more restrictive, but it still isn’t quite the same as playing an opponent who might be able to block your first move, but you can swoop in and do the other one you need before they take that from you. You don’t get that chance against the Automa. You just have to sit on your Grande worker, using it for the one action you definitely need to perform this year.
There will be games when the randomness seems stacked against you. For instance, you might be drawing all white grapes to plant and all orders needing red grapes. That Automa might decide to pull, round after round, the cards that place them exactly on the spaces you need to get things moving forward with what you have. That can be really disappointing. Any game with drawing cards has that random factor in it, but like most card games you’ll find the majority of the plays will come down to how well you can maneuver and adapt to the cards you are given. There are paths to score points apart from filling orders. With a time crunch in effect, you can’t sit back and draw cards every turn until you get what you want. You have to find out how to make what is in your hand become the cards you need. Which is what I love about the game – in spite of those occasions where it all feels like you lost due to random chance.
This game really surprised me. I knew it was a highly-rated game and that a ton of players have heralded it as being a great game. I knew that, being a worker placement game, there was a really high chance that my wife would enjoy the game. I had hoped that the theme might even be something to draw in non-gamer in-laws. We still haven’t tried that out, but I still am clinging to the hope that this might be the sort of game I could use to broaden the hobby.
What I had not hoped, nor expected, was just how much I would come to enjoy the solo play of this game. The solo system is seamless without a ton of rules overhead and without making the player choose from a list of options. The Automa’s turn, quite literally, is done in under a minute. This allows the game to get out of the player’s way and allow them to get back to their next turn where they try to strategize and plan around what the Automa has placed. What seemed remarkably simple and uninteresting has become my favorite method of playing a solitaire game because it simulates possible decisions from another player.
Even better is when you embark onto the campaign, playing through a series of eight challenges where you have different conditions that you need to overcome while working your way to 21 or more points as a final score. In seven rounds. Add in the variable starting with the Mama and Papa cards. And, if that isn’t enough for you, there are ways to make it harder such as drawing Automa cards until at least two spaces in the season are blocked, or by setting point requirements you need to reach by the end of each year or else you lose. And this is all available without forking out extra to pick up the Tuscany Essential Edition expansion, which I understand makes this game have an even longer replay value for gaming solo and in a group.
To put things in perspective, I find that every time I consider playing a solo game this is one that pulls my attention. I always want to play it again. I can usually set up, play, and tear down in around 45 minutes which is a perfect length for a solo game. It resets quickly, making it easy to string together 2-3 plays in a row. And every game turns out differently based on the Automa, the cards drawn, and the Mama/Papa cards you begin with. It provides a challenging and enjoyable experience every time I play it, and I still have many more plays to go. I will probably only log around 100 solo plays in 2017, and it is very likely that this game will be at least 10% of those plays.
In 2018, that will probably continue to be a trend as I will hope to find a copy of Tuscany under the tree.
If all this isn’t clear enough, I will end with this: if I could recommend only one solo game to a gamer without knowing anything about their taste/experience/preference in gaming, this would be the game I would recommend. It gives clear objectives to complete, a simple-to-navigate solo system, and a challenging puzzle to complete every time you play the game. This may not be my favorite solo game, nor the best solo game out there, but it is definitely high up there. It is the type of solo game everyone can enjoy and should try, and belongs in every solo gamer’s collection.
Check out more of our reviews at the following Geeklist and be sure to let me know what you thought of this game.