Viticulture -- well-balanced worker placement with excellent solocampaign
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Game: Viticulture Essential Edition
Designer: Jamey Stegmaier, Alan Stone, Morten Monrad Pedersen
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Player count: 1 - 6 players
Set-up time: ~4 minutes
Play length: ~30 minutes
Win condition: win/loss
how the solo game works
Put wine markers on all special spring actions -- we'll call them bonus markers from now on. Pick a colour for the automa, and take all workers plus the VP marker in that colour. Put the automa VP-marker on 20 VP and your own marker on 0 VP when playing on normal difficulty. Shuffle the automa deck, and give yourself a mama and a papa card to get your starting resources.
In spring, you'll choose your bonus and take both the bonus and the wine marker that's on there, to put towards placement bonusses in summer and winter. In summer, you flip the top card of the automa deck, and place automa workers on all mentioned spots for that season. Then place your own worker(s) in any available spot. Your big worker can be used to occupy a spot with an automa worker, but bonus actions are only available if you hand in a bonus marker. In fall you'll take a visitors card, the automa doesn't do fall. Winter is the same as summer, but with automa workers on the winter action spots.
Race to at least 21 points to beat the automa, or play the agressive variant if you want more tension, where you'll have to meet a certain amount of VP after each year.
Want to play the campaign? Print out the scoresheet that's in the files section on Boardgamegeek, and start with the first of eight challenges, each featuring a different starting, in-game or end-game condition.
Clear wording, clear iconography, solo-play is explained at the back of the rulebook, with an added page for extra difficulties and the campaign.
missing in solo
Viticulture is at its core a worker placement game. Other important mechanisms are contracts and hand management. The bonus based turn order* that exists in multi-play isn't there in solo; the automa will always place all their meeples for the current season first.
There's no tension weighing bonusses against turn-order in spring; the automa always goes first. There's a more tactical decision however, deciding on when you'll take which bonus.
Viticulture is a surprisingly quick game, sometimes playing in under 25 minutes, and at the same time the game has an excellent crunch to it.
I love the variety the solo campaign brings. As said, each challenge comes with a different condition, be it a starting or end-game condition, or a change of rules during the game itself. It forces you to rethink your strategy before starting a new challenge, which is excellent for the lazy strategist I am. (I usually pick a strategy I feel comfortable with and stick with it until the end of times.)
You'll usually start out with a tight group of 3 workers, and you'll have to think carefully about when to use them. Emphasis will be on workers placed in summer at the start of the game -- save the one you'll need to train workers --, shifting to more winter actions as you progress. I love that you are free to use your workers as you see fit, sometimes skipping a whole season to invest in the next.
I love the planning that comes with the automa blocking spaces. If there's an action you absolutely need this year, be sure to hang onto your big worker until then, because it might not be available when you need it the most. There's the element of surprise -- sometimes you'll draw an automa card that will leave you with all worker spots still available, and sometimes you'll draw one where all of your planned spots are taken -- but it never ever feels unfair or frustrating, it just forces you to think two steps ahead at all times.
Taking bonus actions is a real treat in Viticulture, and you best be careful handing out those bonus tokens, because that one bonus token you hung onto until year 7 might just mean you'll beat the automa by one point.
The components look fantastic -- the different buildings and other meeples, the glass tokens -- and my copy came with a revised insert that works beautifully on the table. The new trays with lids are perfect for putting out on the table with your solo game: officially, they're meant for the six different player colours, but I've put in the coins, my own player colour, the glass tokens and the automa meeples.
With so many vine cards (42) and so little cards you'll burn through in a game (about 4-7 in my case) you can have a bit of bad luck drawing cards. I once played a game where no red vine cards came up, but I only drew wine order cards that included at least one red, rosé or sparkling wine.
Adding a score sheet for the solo campaign would have been nice, but you can play without if you want to, noting your score in your BG Stats or on a piece of paper that you'll misplace somewhere before finishing your campaign.
Also: all the beige. I must say I'm not much enjoying the artwork as I play, but it seems to fit the theme -- yes, I associate beige with cobwebbed cellars and dusty wine labels. Luckily, you'll have your buildings and tokens to spruce up your player board.
I am no wine drinker so the theme didn't attract me at first, and this is definitely too beige for my taste, but it's just not about the looks. Viticulture is indisputably a fantastic worker placement. The theme fits the game like a glove, the seasons have a nice balance to them, money is scarce but not too much so, there's a lot going on without it being overwhelming, and I absolutely love all of the planning that goes into a successful play. The element of surprise in the automa cards gets you an excellent challenge, and if you ever feel like the wins come too easy, you can up the difficulty. And if you're ever worried about replay-ability, the variety in rules within the campaign forces you to change your strategy from game to game, making sure you'll not soon get bored with this truly great worker placement.
* On Boardgamegeek the mechanism 'Turn Order: Auction' is listed. Here, the bidding on turn order would involve not taking any bonus in order to get the first player marker.