Viticulture and The Gallerist
a comparative review
16 April 2017
In latter half of last year, I bought two board games: Viticulture and The Gallerist. I've enjoyed them both, and have been struck by their similarities. Enough to inspire me to write this note comparing the two of them. I've played each one about a dozen times. I play most often with just my wife, but have played each game a couple of times with a larger player count too.
Their biggest similarity is a theme of running a business by a mechanic that places workers on action spaces. Both games have a primary production process that the game revolves around. In Vitculture, it's a vineyard with a core production process of planting grapes, harvesting them, turning the juice into wine, and fulfilling wine orders. In The Gallerist, we're running art galleries: discovering artists, buying their art, promoting them on media, finding buyers, and making the sale.
In both games the themes come through strongly. Eurogames aren't known for their themes, when I play Dominion I never feel immersed in the process of conquering a kingdom, I'm immersed in deck building. The theme is only a sprinkling of flavor. I'm not claiming that these games are meaningful simulations of the business of wineries or art galleries, they are games built with a first priority of being a good gaming experience. Both games have plenty of mechanics that sacrifice realism to that goal of being a better game. But there is enough theme to permeate the game, it may be an abstraction of running a gallery, but the moves make sense with that context. The theme is strong enough that it not just adds flavor, it also makes the rules more coherent.
Both of these games are often referred to as "worker-placement" games. If you're not heavily into modern board games, you may not be familiar with the term "worker placement". It's the name of a common gaming mechanism that first got people's attention with Caylus in 2005 (although it had appeared earlier in a couple of obscure games). Caylus is a popular and highly regarded game, still in the top 50 games on Board Game Geek (BGG). The mechanic got yet more attention by shortly afterwards being the core mechanic in Agricola, which for a while was the number 1 game on BGG. The mechanic has been widely used since, perhaps to the point of excess.
The idea, as done in Caylus and Agricola, is that each player has a number of worker pieces. Each turn, they may place one worker on a place on the shared game board. Placing the worker in that place allows the player to perform some action, such as gaining resources, or building a house. Once one worker has gone into a place, nobody else can use that place this round. Worker placement introduces player interaction and tension. I make first move in this round and need wood and clay. Both are separate actions, and although I have two workers I can only take one before Cindy plays. I want wood more, but it looks like Cindy wants clay but has enough wood. So if I take clay first, then hopefully Cindy will leave the wood alone. As well as that decision, there is the tension too as I wait to see if that wood pile will make it until I can place my next worker. The round continues until each player has placed all their workers, or passed, at which point various end of round events happen and everyone gets their workers back, clearing the places for the next round.
Viticulture takes this mechanic but adds a couple of twists. The places are divided into two seasons, and I can only use the winter places during the winter phase of a round. When there's more than two players, each action has additional places - which helps scale the game well in its 1-6 player range. Lastly each player gets a special "Grande" worker who can take an action even if all the places are filled. These mechanisms mean that blocking isn't as catastrophic as it would otherwise be.
I suspect weakening the blocking effect is important here due to the central role of a single long production chain. In Agricola I have a few short chains (wood -> fences -> sheep, reed + clay -> improvement) so should my first choice place get blocked, I can choose another path to make progress on. Blocking a step in Viticulture's longer chains is more likely to have an impact that would cripple my game.
The Gallerist also has a shared game board that all the players use to select actions by placing workers - however the mechanism works quite differently. Each player only has one worker. If another player's worker is on the place I want to go to, I'm not blocked, but if I do take it that player gets a bonus action. My decision is whether I'd rather take the action and give the bonus, or pick an open place.
Art on display (The Gallerist)
Whether The Gallerist should be described as a worker placement game is a topic of dispute in the community. On the whole I'd say it isn't. It is true that The Gallerist's core mechanism is placing a worker token on a shared board to select actions. But, for me, worker placement is more than that - it's about the interaction of blocking action spaces for an entire turn, resulting in the kind of decisions and tension I described earlier. These effects just don't appear during The Gallerist, which removes a key part of the feel of the game that unites the worker placement mechanic of Caylus, Agricola, and Viticulture.
While The Gallerist's approach to worker movement is different to Viticulture's worker placement, the two games are again similar on having a central production process. Such a central process results in similarities on how I decide on the best sequence of actions. In both cases I need contracts to sell the final product, but it's often useful to get the contract first, and then try to develop the art or wine to match the contract. Both games require me to think about how to get a good match between product and orders.
This is different to many games where the sequencing is more linear. In Agricola I need 2 clay to build a fireplace, so my sequence is simple: first get the clay then build the fireplace. In Viticulture and The Gallerist, there's more options. I can get the contract first and then look for some art to satisfy it. I choose how long to hold and promote the artist before selling the art. Should I extend the wine cellar now, or let the grapes age for a year or two and do other things before extending? These games share the characteristic that instead of mostly making me choose between advancing several short chains, they make me choose how to sequence actions on a longer production chain.
These games are also alike in their outstanding production quality — truly beautiful games. Viticulture has a lovely board, with lots of little details. The wooden pieces are nicely cut, the cards are well illustrated. The Gallerist has more modern and streamlined design, distinctively arty. Both games have high quality components, with thick cardboard pieces that are a pleasure to handle.
No boring wooden cubes here! (Viticulture)
Strictly, having nice components doesn't affect gameplay. Castles of Burgundy is a fine game, despite the tinny chits. But I do find I enjoy a game that little bit more when I'm playing with nicely designed components. This pleasure does, however, come at a cost, with these games having suggested retail prices of $60 and $80. This is pricey considering copies of the excellent Castles of Burgundy and Dominion list at $40 (and usually can be picked up for rather less).
So these games are alike in that they present a strong theme, in a very nicely produced package, with a play mechanism that moves workers on action spaces on a shared board. That's the similarity that struck me between the two as I played them. But they still are significantly different games, and not just between wine and sculpture. Their big difference is that Viticulture is lighter and more random. Card draws play a big role in Viticulture's play, the wine orders you can fulfill come via a card draw, as well as the kinds of grapes you can plant. I've certainly felt like cursing the cards as they refuse to give me a good match between orders and grape vines. There are also vistitor cards that provide special bonuses, again at random. That's not to say Viticulture is a luck-fest, I certainly feel that good play will win more often than not. But the cards do make it the kind of game where you have to adjust your play to what cards appear.
Mismatch of vines and orders. (Viticulture)
The Gallerist's level of randomness is far less. A good example is again the orders. Like Viticulture you sell your goods by getting a matching order card. But in The Gallerist you don't blind draw from the top of the deck, instead you see four cards face up to choose from, and if none of those are to your fancy, you can replace all four and pick from the new cards. There is a good bit of random setup to the game, which subset of artists appear, which bonus tiles appear where in the international market — but these are defined before play begins. The little randomness that's left is similar to what you get in Puerto Rico — small enough to be nearly negligible.
A choice of contracts (The Gallerist)
The Gallerist is heavy for other reasons too. In Viticulture you choose your action and resolve it quickly, but many actions in The Gallerist are multi-step affairs. Buying art isn't just handing over some money and getting art, instead you hand over the money, move some visitors to the plaza, take some tickets, increase the fame of the artist, put your new art in your gallery, and put new visitors on top of the art pile. Each step is clearly stated on the (excellent) player card, but I do find I have to make myself explicitly follow the steps on the card, or I'm likely to miss out an important part of the clockwork. After a couple of successive games, maybe I can trust myself to carry out an action without checking the card, but if I haven't played for a few weeks, I certainly need to use it again. Writing it out like this probably makes it sound worse that it is in the game, but it does make for less smoothness in the game play.
A good way to summarize the rules weight of a game is how long we needed to play the game before we felt we got the hang of of the rules and mechanisms. For Viticulture it's a few rounds, maybe half way through a first game. With the Gallerist it's more like one or two full games.
It's interesting to compare The Gallerist to other recent heavier Euros I've tried recently, such as La Granja, Trajan, and Mombasa. When I played La Granja, I had the feel that the game was a "mechanics salad", with all sorts of different mechanisms thrown into the game. The Gallerist also has a mix of mechanics, but I feel there is a difference in that the mechanics feel more integrated, both with each other and with the theme. With the other games I had the feeling of the designer liking a mechanic and wanting to put it in the game, while with The Gallerist my sense was more that the designer wanted to include an aspect of the theme and looked for a mechanic to represent that. (But I must be wary of making too much of this thought. I've played The Gallerist more and as I bought it I'm likely to suffer from post-purchase rationalization.)
The greater complexity of the The Gallerist has made it more difficult to introduce to new players, I have to warn them that their first play of the game will really be about exploring the clockwork of the how the game works, rather than playing it well. But playing it regularly with Cindy, I've enjoyed gradually understanding more about how the various mechanics fit together. It's given me a journey of discovery of how to play the game well, and this compensates for The Gallerist being less approachable for newcomers.
The rule books for both games are excellent, which is particularly important for a game as heavy as The Gallerist. One lost opportunity, however, would be to make more of the theme in The Gallerist's rules. For example, in a BGG post on thematic tips, Lacerda suggests that scoring the VIP/investor bonuses should be imagined as a party / business lunch. I can understand a feeling that putting these kinds of comments in the rules is limited by space, but having them in there makes it easier for me to understand why the rules are working the way they do. One of the benefits of a theme in a game like this is that it adds coherence to the rules, making it easier to remember them.
I indicated earlier that there's less blocking over the places for the workers to go to in these games, and since blocking places is a major element of interaction in worker placment games, does this mean these games are the infamous "simultaneous solitaire"? In Viticulture's case I'd say that although there are mechanisms that limit blocking, I still find myself regularly worrying about being blocked from the places I need, because the mechanisms for sidestepping the blocking are compensated for by the long central production chain. The interaction through contention for places is about the same as it is for games like Agricola and Caylus.
The Gallerist doesn't block at all, and in this game the interactions are more subtle. I notice Mike has bought a contract for some photography, so this may be an opportunity to discover a photographer in the hope that he will cultivate the photographer and I can ride on his coattails. Sarah has taken a bonus tile for investors, so perhaps I'm better off concentrating on getting VIPs into my gallery.
Games like The Gallerist are particularly prone to the simultaneous solitaire critique by new players. In the first few games I'm trying to figure out how the game works and how to optimize my own position. Only once I have a handle on that can I start to think about other people's actions and figure out how to leach money from their moves. I'm not at the point where I'm doing enough of that yet, but I have a sense that there is that aspect to the game once I have more practice.
This is an area where discussion on games can give a false impression. A lot of comments on games are made by people that have only played it once, or a few times at most. Much discussion is driven by games reviewers who see many games, but don't have time to play a game like The Gallerist often enough to judge its depths. As I play a game like this, I want to hear from people who've played the games several dozen times. I'd love to read more about discussions on strategy from experienced players, but such material is rare. I like the trend for video reviews and play-thoroughs — they helped me to decide to get these games. But I'd also like to see a video play-through by experienced players that goes into the thinking that comes from experience. Such a play-through would help me get more out of the game, but also help a new buyer judge whether there truly is depth a game like this.
Comparing to the classic worker placements
It seems natural to compare these games to the classic worker placement games in my collection: Caylus and Agricola. The obvious contrast is Viticulture, which stands apart due to its lighter feel and greater randomness. I wouldn't call Viticulture a gateway game, but it is a good choice to pull out once a new gamer has tried things like Carcassonne or Dominion and is ready for something with a bit more rules complexity to it. It's also a good choice when we're the mood for lighter fare.
The Gallerist is similar to Agricola and Caylus in weight. There's enough difference in mechanics to make it a worthwhile complement to those games. The theme is much stronger in The Gallerist, and the interlocking mechanics make it a different type of puzzle to work with and a different nature of interaction between the players.
So I've had both games for a bit now, long enough to judge how happy I am with them on my shelf, and I like them both. While they scratch the same itch for a strong business theme game, they differ in how much mental effort we want to exert. I expect them both to hit the table regularly in the future.
16 April 2017: First published