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Viticulture World

Every so often a game is released that takes the board game world by storm and makes that elusive transition from 'flash in the pan' to 'true classic'. Stonemaier Games is no stranger to classic games and has produced another couple of its own: Scythe and Wingspan. In fact, Stonemaier have become so successful that they now forego the more usual Kickstarter (or should I say crowdfunding) model and simply announce that they are releasing a new game and watch the pre-orders flood in.

This particular new instalment is actually an expansion to their 2013 classic Viticulture, designed by Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone, which, whilst well-received at its release, really hit its straps with the release of the 2015 Essential edition: a game that currently stands at #30 in the BoardGameGeek rankings.

Stonemaier Games' expansions are also interesting curios in that they are often as well received as its original games. Many, such as the Tuscany expansion for Viticulture, or the Rise of Fenris expansion for Scythe, are considered to be essential additions to the base game. This is a feat in itself when so many of today’s modern board games suffer from excessive bloat as a result of the plethora of expansions that are added with sometimes seemingly little or no thought of the impact on the players or the gameplay.

Viticulture World is an expansion that takes an entirely different direction to the normal, well-trodden path of most other expansions because it takes the game of Viticulture and twists it into a fully cooperative experience for up to six players. It's been designed by Mihir Shah and Francesco Testini but it's not a standalone expansion: you'll need to combine it with either the original Viticulture or the Essential edition.

The components and art are precisely what we have come to expect from Stonemaier Games, namely high quality. The expansion comes with a new player board, tiles, several sets of cards and a large number of blue and yellow plastic stetson style hats. Andrew Bosley's art is subtly different to the Beth Sobel original but the differences are complementary as opposed to jarring.

Viticulture World plays very similarly to its competitive cousin and it has the same rhythm to the actions taken: planting grapes, harvesting grapes, making wines and filling contracts. So what’s different? Well, the game retains the same worker placement mechanic, a version of the unique wakeup track and the residual income track. However, everything is just a little bit tighter. You only have six turns to complete the game, there are no bonus worker placement spaces at the start, and you can only keep five cards at the end of the round. These constraints make the game even more of an optimisation puzzle when compared to the original Viticulture, but more of that later...

At the start of the game, you select a region to play and that will set the difficulty for the game. At the start of each round you will draw an Event card which will give some background to wine growing in the region and skew the rules of the game in some way. I won’t spoil anything, but there are some interesting tweaks and bonuses to go after. Then the players collectively decide where they are going on the wakeup track, and from then it is on to the Viticulture worker placement with a twist.

Firstly, you get all (well four) of your workers to start but they have little hats on them and that means that you can only use them in the specific season based on their hat colour. So that training action that used to get you more workers now just removes those hats and makes the workers more flexible. This seems like a great gameplay tweak to me and a rule that really could get added to the original competitive game to reduce that race to train workers.

The next change is that the worker placement spots and the actions can be upgraded using a special Summer action. This either makes the spot usable by any number of workers, which is great when everyone wants to fill a contract, or it upgrades what you can do on an action. However, it is more than just the bonus spot of the original Viticulture; it’s more like turbo-charging the action for the rest of the game. The choice of which of these upgrades to place out on the board adds a delicious decision space to Viticulture World.

Finally, there is a Fame mechanic. This drains everyone’s money to reach 10 Fame, which is an additional winning condition, in addition to all players having to reach 25 victory points, and clearly helps to balance the game for the player count. It’s a simple, if slightly uninspiring, extra track for the players to deal with.

On the face of it, this is almost the perfect implementation and distillation of Viticulture into the most excellent vintage co-op game that could be crafted from its constituent parts. However, there is that puzzle element to the game that we probably need to address. In the original Viticulture that flow of actions that I referred to earlier (plant grapes, harvest, make wines and fill contracts) had an overall positive effect on gameflow because there is rarely Analysis Paralysis over a single worker placement decision. Most of the time, everyone had that brain-exploding minute at the start of each round as they worked backward through their turns to decide where to place workers to achieve their overall objective for the round. Viticulture World ramps up this element and actually makes it even more acute because now you have a round timer: you need to get those 25 points in six turns... I can see some people feeling that the brain burn is perhaps a little too much as a result. It makes you think even further ahead than you would when playing its competitive cousin.

So, if you like your co-ops with everyone staring at the board with silent, almost psychotic intent to work out how they can squeeze out a couple of extra points, then Viticulture World is probably for you - and don’t get me wrong here, there is also a trading mechanic added in so you can trade cards and grapes with your buddies to ensure everyone can make it to that 25 victory point target. However, I can see a risk that one player might try to quarterback the entire team’s round because, even when playing one of the so-called easy regions, this is not a game where you can afford to waste your workers on suboptimal tasks. Viticulture World is an excellent gamers' game expansion. Just be warned that if you're looking for a light, breezy family co-op with a gentle flow, this is probably not your glass of Pinot Noir.

(Review by Jason Keeping)

#Viticulture #ViticultureWorld #cooperative #solo #solitaire #Stonemaier #workerplacement #puzzleoptimisation

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