Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fine Wine

I've now had two opportunities to play a board game I added to my collection a while back: Vinhos. It's a game set in the wine country of Portugal. Players purchase and maintain vineyards, preparing special vintages to showcases at wine festivals and impress the critics.

The first time I played, my friends and I were all a tad overwhelmed. As is often the case with the more involved German style board games, things only seemed to make complete sense a good ways into the game. This was especially true of Vinhos, as the first time a "wine festival" is held is at the halfway point of play. (Two more such festivals come later.) But we all generally liked the game, and agreed we'd try it out again some time.

But the second time, somehow, all of us actually came out more confused. Maybe it had been too long since our first playthrough. Maybe we were casting a strategic eye in more directions this time. Maybe we were all a little more buzzed than last time, as we'd all decided that a game about wine making ought to be played with everyone at least enjoying some beverage, if not actual wine. I think we're all still generally liking the game... but man, does it have a lot of weird stuff going on.

First of all, there's the way actions are taken. The nine possible actions are laid out in a 3 by 3 grid at the center of the board, and you place your action marker on the center square to start the game. Each turn, you must move your marker to a space and take that action. (So you can't take the same action twice.) If you don't move directly adjacent (which in this game, includes diagonal), you must pay money for the move. If you move to a space occupied by any other players, you must pay each of them for the move. If you move to the space where the current round indicator sits, you must again pay the bank for the move. (Different actions are thus costlier on different rounds of the game.)

Money wise, the game gives you both cash on hand and a bank account marked on a track on the board. Purchases must be made with cash, but any profits you make from selling your wine go to your bank account. One of the actions you can take is to go to the bank, where you withdraw money for spending, and/or "invest" in a way that compounds your interest to grow your bank account faster. It reminds me somewhat of the "supply and demand" mechanic of Power Grid, not that the two systems are in any way similar, but in the way that a lot of effort was spent on creating a game mechanic to approximate a form of real world economics.

At each of the three festivals of the game, each player must showcase one wine. Are you showing a wine praised for its color, alcohol content, aroma, or taste? Well, there are six spaces on the board to occupy for this, each one marked by a different pair of the four wine characteristics, and each having room for only one player. Players can "pass" on one of their actions in the rounds leading up to the festival, and issue a "press release" declaring right then and there what wine they'll show. This let's you get the jump early to occupy the particular combination of two traits you want to focus on. Whether you announce early or wait until the festival itself, you're declaring which two kinds of "wine experts" you'll play at the festival.

Yes, there's more. You can acquire wine expert tiles, who can be used repeatedly for minor benefits they provide, or played and discarded at a festival (if their type matches one of your two showcased traits) to advance your status on the wine festival track. Position on this track awards points at the end of each festival.

Actually, there's even more... you can sell wine, export wine, get in with a critic who allows you to take bonus actions and lock up end game points. You can kind of see why we were overwhelmed. And yet the whole thing is not only drenched with flavor, it's loaded with a lot of interesting mechanics, some of which I haven't really seen in any other board games.

So I am inclined to recommend Vinhos, even though I'm nowhere close to understanding it. For the moment, I'll give it a provisional B. I'll update somewhere down the road if I play it enough that that changes.

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