Viticulture: Tuscany Essential Edition Review

By MARK WILSON

Year Published: 2015

Players: 1-6

Playing Time: 45-90 Minutes

One of the first reviews I ever did was of the Viticulture: Essential Edition. I’m revisiting it years later because I have some new perspectives on the game, and simply editing the old review didn’t seem like enough. For reference, here’s the old link.

This is listed as a Tuscany: EE review, but it’s impossible to remove it from the regular Essential Edition. So I’ll be discussing both, and focusing on positives and negatives of various elements of the game, and how those will relate to different gaming preferences. A little bit will be pulled directly from that old review, but this is approximately 75% new content.

Components
The components as a whole are amazing and pastoral, and there are lots of them. Of special interest are the individually cut building pieces. Stonemaier rarely disappoints in this department.

My only nitpick is that the art of the Visitors and Mama/Papa cards doesn’t match the rest of the artwork in the game, and as a result can look a little odd. It’s not bad, but neither was it a highlight for me. Others I’ve played with have commented on this as well, that they seem “off” from the art in the rest of the game.

Also, the portrait on the back of the Papa cards looks exactly like Tom Hiddleston. I point this out as an observation, not a critique. It may be a really good thing for many people.

The Loves & Criticisms

Love: The theme comes alive for many, myself included, in what feels like a natural merging of mechanics and concept. I particularly love the wake-up mechanic, and overall I very much feel like I’m managing workers to build a wine-making business.

Criticism: In previous editions, the potential imbalance of card draws was pointed out as a flaw. A lot has been done to mitigate that, with a more balanced selection of visitor cards drawn from both 2nd edition and Tuscany. However, this remains a sticking point for many, as your card draws are the most “swingy” element of the game. I personally don’t mind this balance between strategy and luck, but for fans of more controlled strategy, it’s a consideration.

Criticism: You don’t need to make wine to win. Or nearly so. A “cards-only” strategy has propelled some to victory, and a wine-lite strategy works for many more. For a game ostensibly about wine-making, this can have the effect of making the game seem merely like a shuffling of resources, and thus less thematic. I’ll come back to this criticism in a bit.

Love: There are many paths to victory. This is the other side of the criticism above, so some don’t see it as a negative that winemaking isn’t the only major route to victory. I like this sort of variance, but only to a point. Again, we’ll talk more about this in a bit. Overall, there are lots of strategic avenues to pursue, lots of interesting and nerve-wracking decision to be made, and usually a tangible sense of accomplishment at your efforts.

Criticism: The length can balloon considerably at higher player counts. For a game night, this might not be an issue. For a casual gamers’ couples date night, though, it certainly can be. YMMV depending on the context of your gaming groups. At 1-4, though, the game time is nearly always manageable. I’ve had problems at 5-6 players, though, especially when one or more players is newer to the game. It can be a bit rough on them.

Essential Edition Additions
The Mama and Papa cards are a simple, welcome addition. And it also gives you a “family” to own your business, if you want to take the theme deeper. Same with the field cards, which give you an additional, and often powerful, monetary option early in the game.

The rule tweaks all help to polish the game (which does sound like it was a bit rough around the edges at launch). And the new cards, as mentioned earlier, help mitigate balancing issues.

I’m not a huge solo gamer, but I was happy to give the Automa cards a try for some solo gaming. Capped at seven rounds and with one player, solo plays are a lot quicker than even 2P sessions. But in my two solo plays, both felt tense and came down to the final turn or two. I won both, but in one it came down to the final winter Automa card before my victory was assured. The difficulty can also be adjusted if you feel that the normal difficulty is too easy or hard. For solo gamers, this is a wonderful addition.

As a whole, what I feel the additions do is add in the best elements of Tuscany that don’t increase the complexity. This is what made the EE an excellent version for me.

Tuscany: EE Additions & Commentary
The Tuscany EE adds three modules, which can be mixed and matched as you please. Let’s tackle them from least game-changing to most:

Special Workers: Two are drawn from a stack of potential workers, each of which has a special ability. You can train these special workers for one extra coin. Some abilities are excellent, others are situational. It adds some additional choice within the same framework.

Structures: Structure cards add to the number of structures you can build on your personal player board. Some offer one-time use abilities, others ongoing benefits, and others a personal action space. This again extends an idea that’s already present, but will occasionally shunt the game more toward personal player boards than the main board.

Extended Board: The largest both physically and conceptually, the board introduces actions in all four seasons, new wakeup bonuses that are season-specific, some new or replaced action options, new or expanded action bonuses, and a small map in the corner of the region where you can generate influence for one-time bonuses and endgame scoring. This is the module that will alter game flow meaningfully, and present a new area (the influence map) to find backdoors into certain resources or to compete with your opponents for the endgame VPs.

Comment #1: The expansion as a whole is probably geared toward existing fans who have played a lot and want new options, and as such the new options will be very welcome.
Comment #2: If wine-making wasn’t always central in the previous versions, the addition of new wakeup bonuses, influence bonuses, special worker bonuses and structure bonuses is going to exacerbate that tendency. The shuffling of resources via these mechanisms and the many preexisting cards means that filling wine orders will near the point where it’s just another possible point track, not the central, most necessary one.
Comment #3: By shifting the game further off of the main board (via structures and influence), it’s going to decentralize a lot of the action and collectively decrease player interaction. For those who like solitary engine-building, this will push it in a pleasant direction. For fans of cramped, tense races for resources, this will push it in the wrong direction.

Which Criticisms Have Merit?

Much of this is going to be “eye of the beholder” stuff, because, as mentioned, if you already understand and enjoy the Essential Edition, Tuscany is more likely than not to enhance your enjoyment. That’s the good news.

The slightly more nuanced, and potentially bad, news is that Tuscany isn’t going to work for some, even those who enjoy earlier editions.

For starters, it’s a more complicated, longer experience. More to think about, more to manage and track, and multiplied by however many players are playing. This can be a long game; it originally occupied the ~90 minute space for me, but with Tuscany and 5-6 players (and usually with one of them learning) I’m learning to mentally allot 2.5 hours or so to this. Extra length alone isn’t bad, but it needs to be accompanied by a better experience to compensate.

This also brings with it downtime. Lots of downtime. When I play Tuscany now, I usually have in-depth side conversations going on with other veterans of the game, because we have our seasons more or less planned out while the newer or more AP-prone players deliberate. I’d love to stay silent during this time, but if I’m at a table with friends and the game is about 80% downtime, it’s inevitable that I’ll need a distraction.

Second, yes, actually making wine isn’t necessary anymore. I’ve seen people win convincingly with “engines” that involve little more than using the trade action a bunch, prioritizing space and wakeup bonuses that offer a VP, getting the Tasting Room bonus as early as possible, and mining the card decks for things that will enhance or speed up those things. 

The more difficult question is: “is this good or bad?” In a vacuum, more strategic options aren’t bad. But in this instance, in practice, I won’t lie, it feels a bit cheap. After his second straight victory with the strategy outlined above, a friend of mine commented “it’s a mockery of the game” when commenting on his strategy. And it was hard to argue as I watched him flip field cards over and over for the space bonus and simply amass resources with the intent of trading them for VPs, not to use them for the purposes they were ostensibly created for. And this was in sessions with those who knew the game…maybe not experts, per se, but not novices either. At this point, the game isn’t about wine making, it’s resource- and point-salad, with wine being merely one of the resources.

Lastly, the corner map and new structures really do feel disconnected from the game to me. I’m a gamer who likes the tension created by tight worker placement games. Viticulture’s action and tension takes place on the main board, which is a great cauldron for gaming drama. Shifting multiple players to their personal play mats, or to another resource bin in the corner, is antithetical to what makes the game great for me.

I’m a fan of the Essential Edition, and enjoy a lot of individual ideas in Tuscany. But something is lost in the addition of so many of them, to the point where it becomes a miasma of resources instead of the thematic, lovely, mid-weight worker placement game I fell in love with.

Avalanche of Editions & Tuscany’s Place in It
Viticulture has – in its relatively short lifespan – had a ton of editions that all feel markedly different from one another. The 2nd edition mostly cleaned up the original, which was followed by the full Tuscany expansion, the game’s largest group of new options to-date. This was enjoyed by some, but the popularity of the eventual Essential Edition is evidence that Tuscany may have added too much for the game’s core audience, who largely ended up using only the few modules that made it into the initial EE. Tuscany: EE creates another bump for those looking for even more options. There are also a lot of sub-addons to all of these that allow for cross-compatibility depending on what version you started with.

The good news is, you can find the version and add-ons that are best for your group. The bad news is, it’s not necessarily going to be easy to figure out which is the best for your group. For example, I had to purchase Tuscany: EE to find out that it wasn’t the Viticulture for me. Tuscany EE is going to create another niche audience within the larger Viticulture fanbase, which isn’t a bad thing, but it won’t work for every gamer or group.

Mechanically, Tuscany EE doesn’t add anything that will make or break the game for pre-existing fans or non-fans. It seems geared toward existing groups who are dozens of plays in and need some new options, which is great. Maybe if I played with a spouse, or simply a small group that wasn’t constantly rotating, Tuscany EE would seem less onerous to teach and get through. The extended board in particular has the chance to refresh the game. I think the regular Essential Edition is plenty, though, not just as an intro to the game, but as the final destination for some Viticulture fans. I suspect that many will never need to graduate to Tuscany EE.

Verdict
This can be a great couples’ game, the regular Essential Edition works well with both newer and seasoned gamers, and the game has many other elements to recommend it. My initial unmitigated love of the game (from the earlier review) has matured into a still-strong but not uncritical enjoyment.

I think the Tuscany: EE expansion is highly dependent on game group but is perfectly catered to the existing fanbase the game has developed. I wouldn’t call it a great couples game at that point, though, unless the couple are pretty regular gamers, because the amount of setup/teardown overhead and resource/mechanic/option density take it beyond what I’d consider for a social-first, gaming-second evening. If I’m hosting a game night with non-gamers, this risks turning into a slog.

I’m torn, because I see genuine merit in the extended board and its four seasons and variable wakeup bonuses, but I recognize that this comes with the drawbacks mentioned above, which ultimately makes Tuscany a noticeable step backward for me. Tuscany EE’s extended board should be a welcome change of pace, but ultimately it’s not as tight an experience as the regular EE’s gameplay, and it steers the game in a direction I’m unwilling to follow.

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