Euro style games, and especially worker placement games, are my jam. That’s a fact most readers would recognize from the reviews I post and my annual top tens. I especially love if a euro game combines a unique mechanism with something that catches my eyes — maybe an interesting theme (19th century whaling? Beer making in monasteries? Yes, please.) or art that pops off of the cover (Coimbra and Otys come to mind).
So, it should come as no surprise that Viticulture has long been my favorite game. This euro style game designed by Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games has everything I like about these types of board games — the game looks stunning on the table, has relatively simple mechanics that belie deep strategy, and has a cinematic build up to a tense ending.
Recently, Stonemaier Games sent us a review copy of Visit from the Rhine Valley, containing 80 new cards with beautiful art by Beth Sobel, and co-design credits from Jamey Stegmaier and Tido Lorenz.
Here’s some background before I dive into the review so you know where I stand on Viticulture: I have the Essential Edition, plussed up with some Stonemaier metal coins. I have played Tuscany, and found it fun but unnecessary to my enjoyment of Viticulture, but have never added any of the expansion cards (like Uwe Rosenberg’s Moor cards).
One more note: the review assumes you have played Viticulture, so I will give just a brief high level overview if you have not played it yet. (Or stop reading, and geaux straight to your FLGS and play it. Seriously, geaux, I’ll wait.)
Viticulture is a worker placement game where players have been given a struggling vineyard by their momma and poppa, and will compete with other vitners to plant new grapes, make wine, and sell the wine for victory points, all while welcoming summer and winter visitors who can help them with the production. The game is essentially a race to score 20 victory points to trigger the end of the game, and the player with the most points wins.
Visit from the Rhine Valley is a tiny box expansion / supplement for the base game of Viticulture. It comes with the 80 cards in the set, and no instructions of any kind. These cards are meant to replace the summer (yellow backed) and winter (blue backed) cards that you already have in your box, with forty of each color in the box (four of which are for use with the Tuscany expansion). Jamey specifically stated in his blog that the cards are not to be mixed up with the previous edition, because their focus is different and imbalances will be created.
The cards are the same size and quality as the set in the base game. The entire box easily fits into my regular Viticulture: Essential Edition game box, which was a real plus: For the most part, the art is recycled from the base game except for a few new shots and card types. I’ve seen a chance few complaints about this, but not from this quarter. For one, there is no need for the expense of new art as Beth Sobel’s art is comfortable and recognizable, and in any case, an expansion like this is all about the game play.
There is a unique art asset on the back of the cards, however, that depicts a typical scenic overlook on the Rhine River, which makes it easy to see what deck you are using for the game.
When my sister’s family was stationed in Wiesbaden back in the 90s, I ventured out to the Rhine Valley for a few days with her. We traipsed all around the Marksburg castle area, sampling great Rieslings (one memorable one produced at a vineyard right near the Lorelei rock) which we could buy straight from the producer for $3 or $4 a bottle. The picture on the back of these cards looks almost like a snap shot I took near the Niederwalddenkmal monument just outside Rüdesheim, Germany as we took the skyway up to the top of the hill.
The memory of looking down over the verdant green hills stamped with thousands of acres of Riesling grapes planted vertically along the valley still gives me goosebumps even after all of these years. The little picture on the back of the cards triggered those pleasant memories for me all over again. There is truly nothing like the Rhine Valley anywhere that I have found in America.
All in all, it is a simple but top notch production in a bite-sized package.
How does Visit from the Rhine Valley differ from the base game set, or even the Moor visitors set? If you have played Viticulture more than once, then you know that there is always an enterprising gamer or two who spies a quick and cheap strategy — get the Cottage piece early, and start cycling heavily through the visitor cards, as many as you can each round.
Digging through the summer and winter cards can easily yield six to eight points a hand later in the game. Both Bradly and I have won Viticulture games without ever producing a single bottle of wine, just using the bonus points on the cards and on the action / wake up spaces. I remember well a memorable game with the CENLA krewe where it came down to me racing to the 20 points, tossing cheap point cards before Marshall and Phillip could get their engines into overdrive. Good times.
But instead of enjoying a thematic 90 minute experience, players who play against the cottage / cards strategy end up feeling like they gulped down an Oregon pinot noir that was opened two weeks ago.
Rhine Valley turns that strategy on its head. Although there is tension in the cheap point strategy, the real fun in Viticulture is in making the wine. There is so much theme built into the wake up area, action spaces, cards, and player boards that the game never feels abstracted at all. It truly feels like the players (and Viticulture surprisingly plays up to six as well as it plays two) are competing with each other to make the best wine instead of trading cubes in the Tuscany region.
Rhine Valley really amps up the wine making without sacrificing strategery. Each visitor card seems geared to helping you start, refine, or boost your engine, but it is up to you to decide how your vineyard will prosper.
Will you be the box wine king, churning out easy to fulfill orders of low value wines? Maybe you will sell off your extra grapes for points or bring lots of visitors each summer for taste tests to supplement your points? Or will you go for the higher production grapes on one solitary field, hocking the rest of your family’s property in an effort to upgrade your vineyard and get the best prices for your five star appellation?
You can be any of the above with these cards in the game box, or even follow a myriad of other strategies bent on revving up your wine production engine in your own unique style.
BUT IS IT FUN?
This one may be one of the easiest “is it fun” segments I’ve ever written. If you like Viticulture, then you’ll like Rhine Valley. If you are not into euro games, you probably will not enjoy these cards. (Why are you even playing Rhine Valley if you don’t like euros in general, or specifically, the worker placement mechanic? There is a table of gamers about to play Forsaken Forest over there, and they need a fourth.)
But that is the easy, hot take. The real question you should ask yourself is this: If you already like Viticulture, do you really need the Rhine Valley cards in your box?
I say yes, for one simple reason. I really like the diamond area of the board — you know the “plant grapes, harvest grapes, crush grapes, and fulfil orders” area. To me, that’s the heart of the game and the reason I suspect Jamey wanted to design a board game about winemaking in the first place. I am not criticizing the cottage / cards strategy outlined above; in fact, in many ways, it is a refreshing way to play especially if you are not happy with your starting grape position or you want a different challenge.
But it ain’t wine making.
Rhine Valley brings back the emphasis on making efficient decisions about wine production not about throwing away cards for points. Everyone is competing on a level playing field, modified a bit by the Momma and Poppa cards, of course, because everyone is trying to best each other’s wine production efforts.
What kind of vineyard will you run? Which buildings do you really need for your vision? How often should you harvest? How many fields should you maintain? Can you beg off of grabbing the bonuses in the later wake up areas to ensure you can get to the spots you need in the winter time? All of these will be decisions every player will have to make with these cards in the box.
Playing Viticulture with the Visit from the Rhine Valley cards feels like the first time you discovered Mountain Dew comes in more than just the base flavor. Your heart skipped a beat with the thought of trying out ginseng infused raspberry flavored dew or Taco Bell inspired flavors. That’s the effect of the Rhine Valley, too. I don’t think Rhine Valley fixes anything that was broken as some reviewers have said. But, it does amplify the best part of Viticulture’s game play.
If you want cards that bring a little more firepower to the marketing and production aspects of your vineyard’s production capabilities, then get a bottle of this and play some Viticulture with the cards from Visit from the Rhine Valley.
Also goes great with Mountain Dew Baja Blast. Just saying.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!