Viticulture is one of my very favorite games. And the Essential Edition is a pretty complete package. So I wasn’t really expecting another substantive Viticulture expansion. But this year we got Viticulture World, which changes Viticulture from a competitive game to a cooperative one. And I was pretty excited for more Viticulture.
The very core mechanics of Viticulture remain in place. You plant vines, harvest grapes, make wine, and then fill orders. The basics of most of the other actions are the same too – selling fields, trading, tours, building structures, training workers, and playing/drawing all of the different cards. In order for the team to win everyone has to get to 25 points within 6 turns and the team has to collectively get enough influence. A space where you pay a stack of cash to gain influence is added. Plus, each game you’re playing on a particular continent with its own deck of event cards. These cards may help or hinder (how often they do which depends on the difficulty of the chosen deck), but they always give some additional way to gain influence. There’s also an ability to upgrade the actions and the worker slots for those actions, so a new action is added to buy these innovation tiles. Further, all of the actions are either summer or winter, and all of the non-grande workers have plastic hats (literally) that indicate which season they can be assigned in. Training a worker means taking off their hat (so they can work in either season), not adding more workers.
If you just look at that surface structure, you might think that the gameplay is still very in line with standard Viticulture. Sure, you’ve got an event deck that might push players to assign to a particular spot in a particular year, have them give resources to each, or mess with the other resources bonuses. But in practice the nuances of those action spaces are very different because of how the bonuses on the spaces work. Each action has one slot available for a 2-3 player game, and two for a 4-6 player game. (Note: As is the case with most Stonemaier games, Viticulture World includes a solo mode. But I do not play board games solo, so I can’t really tell you anything about it beyond that it’s there.) And there are no bonuses for the ‘good’ slot for each action. So players need to heavily coordinate which actions to take, so that everyone can get their fields running quickly enough. And the game is even more tight-fisted than original Viticulture. It’s not just that you’re trying to get three players to use that one planting space. It’s that there’s no built-in way to double-plant, so getting everyone a decent field is twice as many actions. And there’s no way to double-draw those vine cards, so ideal fields are less likely. Money is back to being tight because you will need to buy innovation tiles. I don’t think it’s possible to win without those upgrades. So let’s talk about the innovation tiles.
There are two types of innovation tile. There are oval tiles that cover up the worker assignment slots. Once you’ve place an oval upgrade, any number of workers can assign to take that action. And if they’re a trained worker (no seasonal hat), then they might get some sort of bonus (money, drawing cards, aging grapes). But simply freeing up the action slots is a big, big thing – when it gets near the end of the game and everyone is trying to get hit that harvest grapes/make wine/fill orders cycle every turn, it’s far easier to pull off when the players make the one grande worker per player bear all of the weight.
Depending on the action, you might get a bonus just for playing the oval tile. Or it might cost even more. Basically most of the ‘you have to take this action’ slots cost more – planting, harvesting, filling orders, buying innovation tiles.
Then there are are rectangular innovation tiles that upgrade the actions themselves. These tend to be potent. Play two cards. Draw two cards. Build two structures. Harvest all of your fields. Make more wine. Pay half price to train workers. And many of these have a kicker. It’s not just that workers are half price; you also get an influence. You don’t just play two cards, you also get money or a victory point. You don’t just make more wine, you get to age something as well. With the upgraded action tiles you’re getting back the bonuses and then some. It is random, however, what you’re going to get to upgrade. On each turn there are two rectangles and two ovals available. Whether you get the better upgrades – and whether you get them in a timely fashion – is up to fate.
These aren’t the only changes, but they’re the big ones. The wake-up track is also replaced with a spring and fall bonus wheel. The players collectively decide who takes which slot on the turn order/spring bonus outer part of the wheel. We most frequently choose an extra worker or more money, but drawing cards or a bonus VP are also available. When a player passes into fall, they can choose to take cash, age a grape, or draw a card of their choice (again, money was by far the most popular option). Grande workers gain a new power – when they assign where someone else’s worker is, it allows the two players to make a single trade (cards, money, grapes, that sort of thing).
For components, there’s a double-sided game board (one side uses structure cards while the other does not), a bunch of blue and yellow hats, the innovation tiles, replacement versions of old visitor cards that don’t work with Viticulture World, new mamas and papas (the strict gender/color matching has been removed, so it’s possible to have two mamas or two papas, but the mechanics are the same), an event deck (and possibly some other cards) for each continent, and a wooden token to track when an event is affecting action on the board.
Like I mentioned at the start, Viticulture is one of my favorite games. I like that Viticulture World exists, giving the ability to play cooperatively if that’s desired. However, it’s also the case that, unless my group is specifically looking to play cooperatively, I would opt to just stick with competitive Viticulture. The base gameplay is still great, but Viticulture World adds a mix of both randomness and overplanning that, for me, isn’t ideal.
Basically all of the randomness in Viticulture World happens at the start of the turn – the innovation tiles and (if you choose to shuffle it instead of using the re-planned order) the event deck. Yes, if you end up drawing visitor cards then this can change things, but the absence of easy access to double-draw and double-play spaces means that visitor cards are pretty weak and we didn’t use them much once we got the hang of the game (on a personal note, this makes me a bit sad, because I usually really like to use a bunch of visitor cards when playing Viticulture). Because there is basically no randomness after the start of the turn, this means that the strategically correct thing to do is for everyone to just plot out every single action of the entire turn in advance. And you will need to at least heavily discuss what you want to do at the start of each turn because Viticulture World can be challenging, even on the easier settings – this is not one of those cooperative games you pull out at the last minute almost every time.
Now, if a lengthy, crunchy strategic discussion at the start of each round is what you’re looking for in a cooperative game (something like Freedom: The Underground Railroad), this will be great for you. Personally, that is not my favorite sort of cooperative experience – I like it better when there are more frequent injections of the unknown so that the group can’t spend an extended period of time picking out exactly what the next 17 moves will be.
But there does have to be some randomness, or else you could just plan out the entire game. And the biggest source of that is the innovation tiles. Which rectangular tiles show up and when they show up can make an enormous difference in the particular strategies that the group will pursue. For example, the strongest innovation tile is probably the upgrade for selling wine, because it makes the action give you victory points and generally makes selling wine a far stronger strategy than filling orders. I don’t know if we lost a game when the sell wine upgrade came up by turn 4.
Less significant, but still there, is which oval innovation tiles show up. I said earlier that these tiles ‘might’ give a bonus. They all have some sort of bonus icon on them, but a lot of them are arrows – you get the bonus for whatever action space is in the direction the arrow is pointing. But that means they only do anything if there’s actually an oval innovation tile on that action slot. Most of the time it isn’t possible to make that work out, so for the most part those are effectively blank. So you’re mostly hoping for the oval tiles that provide a direct bonus. Especially early on being able put a money-generating tile under an action that’s going to be taken a lot can make a big, big difference.
In addition, although it may not produce randomness (unless you want it to), it shouldn’t be overlooked how drastically the different continents can change the game. Everything has to be card-sized, but there are things like mini player boards and alterations to the main board in some of them. Being able to choose different continents really enhances replayability. Just having the cooperative expansion is another option too. I like competitive Viticulture better than I like cooperative Viticulture, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for cooperative Viticulture in the rotation. It’s worth checking out for fans of the game.
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