If you are new to this blog series, check out my intro article. In this series, I hope to cover a number of board game apps and give my thoughts without talking much about whether or not I like the game. Today’s review covers the new Viticulture app by Digidice.
Viticulture is a worker placement board game themed around producing wine, designed by Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone. If you’re not familiar with the “worker placement” term, check out Ryan’s Board Games 101: Worker Placement video. The original version of Viticulture (2013) was actually Stonemaier Games’ first developed game. This particular app implements the Essential Edition of the game, which smooths out some rough edges from the initial game design, and currently sits at number 21 on the BGG Top 100.
Players take turns placing workers on different spaces to complete various wine growing related actions: plant vines, build structures (these help you grow grapes, store wine, and do other random bullcrap that serve little value), harvest grapes, make grapes into wine, and fulfill orders. Wines and grapes age as they are stored in cellars and “crush pads”, apparently simulating how wine is made (but I’m no enologist). This happens over several years, split into seasons with possible actions thematically available during summer, and different actions available during winter. All of these actions help you build a victory point engine, and ostensibly, the game is a race to 20 victory points.
The worker placement aspect is fairly straightforward: place a worker on an action space, allowing you to do the action and blocking the action for others. The catch here is that (depending on player count) there can be more than one space for placement of workers, including a bonus space, and each player has a special “grande worker” which can take the action of an already covered spot. Two other interesting wrinkles: the use of “visitor cards” which provide special actions, and a turn order/reward tradeoff called the “wakeup track”.
Worker placement in the summer season
In this review, I talk about the aspects I like (DMExalts), and the bits I don’t like (DMExcoriates) about the Viticulture app. I have played primarily on my iOS devices (iPhone and iPad), where it sells for $8.99 US, but there are Steam ($14.99) and Android ($9.99) versions available. I’ve played the app about 10 times in preparation for this blog, so I am well prepared to chat about it.
- Tutorial: The tutorial goes through concepts one by one, making it relatively easy to pick up the game and gameplay. I feel like after finishing the tutorial, you can mostly play a physical copy of the game. As with any game, subsequent plays are necessary to get a grip of the strategy and tactics needed, but as far as understanding the rules, this app does “the teach” well.
- Resource/Wine Management: I don’t know how many times I (or my opponents) forget or mix up aging wine and grapes, making wines, or collecting residual payments. The app manages this for you (but takes away the tactility of the physical game) and I appreciate the inability to accidentally cheat or hurt yourself by poor upkeep.
Resource/Wine management handled pretty well
- Regular updates: On initial launch, there were some pretty significant bugs that affected gameplay/visualization of what was happening. Digidice quickly worked to squash these bugs and the game has dramatically smoothed out.
- Advanced Mama and Papa Rule: You have the option to enable the advanced Mama and Papa rule (I would always do this) which gives you the option of two different Mama cards and two different Papa cards (which you can mix and match, so I guess they are swingers?). These give you unique starting conditions in terms of cards, monies, and/or a starting structure. And no, the back of the Papa card is not intentionally Tom Hiddleston’s likeness.
- The AI: Like I said in my Race for the Galaxy review, this AI is challenging and robust and is implemented using a trained neural network, which means even on the easiest setting it can be HARD to win. For more on why neural net based AI’s are tough to play against, you might want to check out this article about the Viticulture AI. But…
- The AI: Good Lord is it frustrating to play against the AI. Because it is trained by a neural network, the actions it takes don’t seem logical to a human, and often the AI manages to win by not making or selling much wine at all, but by taking Victory points from other means. On the one hand, it has taught me some good strategy tips when playing my physical copy (no spoilers), but it made the game sort of unfun for the first few plays until I figured out how to keep up. I know a lot of experienced Viticulture players may use similar strategies, but it sort of feels against the spirit of the game.
- Speed of play against AI: Unless you put the “speed” setting on “fast”, the AI turns take an excruciatingly long time. I feel like I make a decision as quickly as the computer does (or faster) on a regular basis. I feel like it makes the game drag a bit.
- Pass and Play: If you think waiting on a robot to play is annoying, try waiting on a human, where you have to pass over the device every 30-60 seconds. Because each player’s turn boils down to: place a worker then do the thing, the turns are relatively short. If you like chucking your iPad back and forth with your partner at a frequency of once per minute, maybe you’ll enjoy it, but I found it tiresome.
- The UX/UI: It’s not particularly intuitive. I know the game well, and in my first few plays, I had a hard time finding what I was looking for. It can be especially difficult to see what your competitor has going on. There are ways to attempt to show all the pertinent information, but the window can get quite cluttered quickly.
The UI, feeling a bit busy
- No way to remove overpowered cards. There is at least one papa card that rewards players with an extra worker to start the game. This is highly advantageous and I know a lot of people remove this card to balance play.
- Gender specific language. This is just frustrating at this point! At the time of writing this (July 30, 2020), the intro text refers to “a winegrower who wants to lead his winery…out of his competitors..” How hard is it to make this independent of gender? Ugh.
An example of irritating gender specific language
This app was met by great excitement for me because I like Viticulture as a game, but after 10 plays or so, I think it will be a while before I choose to play it again in app form. The AI is both exhilarating and exhausting to play against, but really the app makes me want to play my physical copy more. The variance in price by platform is also a bit off putting.
End game: bow to my wine making prowess
If you already like Viticulture and have the physical version, I would probably get the app to get more plays in and refine your strategy. Of course, the app also has the benefit of allowing you to play with friends from a distance.
If you haven’t played Viticulture and are sure you will dig it, so yourself a favor and buy the physical copy (about $45 US on Amazon). The tactility of wooden meeples and glass beads to represent wine really lends to a more pleasant experience than the app.
Physical copy at the end of a solo playthrough
If you’ve never played Viticulture and aren’t sure about it, I would find a friend with a copy (I hear it’s pretty popular) and try it out first, because for an app, the price point is a little high.
Have you tried the Viticulture app? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments!
Dr. Benjamin McPheron
Ben (or Dr. McPheron of DMExplains) is an associate professor of Electrical Engineering and a hobby Youtuber, making videos primarily for the purpose of engineering education, although he occasionally dabbles in music parodies. He is an avid board gamer, and enjoys playing a variety of games with a preference towards heavy economic games. His favorite games include Race for the Galaxy, Agricola, Brass: Birmingham, Pipeline and Vinhos Deluxe.