Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
I don’t drink. Never have. Can’t stand the smell of beer, never bothered trying hard alcohol, and I prefer fruit juice to wine. Art imitated life when it came to Vino, a game themed around the management of Italian vineyards. Dry in the most pejorative sense, Vino fails to generate excitement. That it fails to capture the imagination is all the more remarkable considering the game’s evocative setting and colorful terminology. Whatever appeal they might have held is quickly leeched away by the repetitive, formulaic gameplay.
The map of Italy is divided into nine regions, each with a linear series of vineyards of increasing cost. What makes a 300 lira vineyard three times more expensive than a 100 lira vineyard— a better view, precious metal deposits, free HBO—is left to the player’s imagination, since in game terms the only difference between them is the price. Each region can support a different assortment of the game’s five grape varieties. All of a player’s vineyards in a region must grow the same type, but no two players can grow the same in the same region.
On each turn players secretly choose two regions in which to purchase vineyards. If multiple players choose the same region, the one already owning the most vineyards there gets first crack and can therefore buy up all the cheap vineyards. Cash is tight in the early game, so a few liras here and there adds up.
Players track their vineyards growing each variety by adjusting the positions of grape-colored beads on their inventory cards. Here Goldsieber/Rio Grande falls prey to Peter’s Pet Peeve #4: components that roll. Elfenland, with its roly-poly cylindrical markers (what’s wrong with cubes?), struck this nerve as well. It probably sounded like a clever idea to use round grape-like beads to track players’ wine inventory. But these things are small and hard to distribute at the start of a game without losing some off the edge of the table. Bad idea. Next time choose function over form.
Each players in turn can sell as much wine as they wish, but of only one variety per turn. Here’s where things get complicated and a bit counterintuitive thanks to a bizarre twist in the game’s winemaking metaphor. The payoff for your sale isn’t linear, nor is it strictly incremental—you get as much for selling six as you do for seven, but there’s a jump when you move up to 7-9. A reference chart tells the story. Your inventory card tracks your vineyards, not your wine. If you have six Pinot Noir vineyards, you can sell six loads of Pinot Noir. If you sell less than that, you don’t wind up with barrels of Pinot Noir stockpiling in your cellars—it’s as if the rest never existed, at least until your next turn. This can be extremely hard for players to internalize. In effect you’re not deciding how much wine to produce, but how many vineyards actually go into production. “Saving” your Pinot Noir will not result in an accumulation of the stuff. It’s an unexpected twist of the winemaking metaphor, and it doesn’t stop there.
Counterintuitively, after selling wine a player must give up some of the vineyards used to produce it! Abandon all hope of justifying this mechanic within the bounds of the game’s narrative. As with sale price, the number of forfeited vineyards depends on how much wine was sold—consult the chart again. The vineyards can come from any region or multiple regions. Ideally you’d like to lose your least expensive vineyards while retaining a majority in the region so you can buy them back the next turn. Otherwise you might opt to lose more expensive vineyards rather than open up a ripe opportunity for opponents to grab cheap land. In fact, players who snap up the cheap vineyards early have an enormous advantage, as they’re often able to lose them and buy them back repeatedly yielding a higher profit margin than their competitors.
Buying and selling would be a straightforward minimax calculation if it weren’t for the addition of a demand curve. Whenever wine is sold, its demand drops (consult that chart again to determine how much). But demand for wine overall is a zero-sum system, so the seller must increase the value of other wines to compensate. Whenever wine is sold, the value of the sale is modified according to its current demand. Oddly the benefit is per sale rather than per unit, so you can’t make a killing by playing the market. This system encourages collusion between players who have concentrated their holdings in the same two wines, as they’re always able to increase the demand of one of their two wines and be confident that even if the other player sells it first, that player will increase demand for the other wine they share.
The other way the game tries to shake things up is by positing that certain vineyards are under the government’s jurisdiction. These vineyards can be bought normally, but when the last non-government vineyard in a region is purchased, all unowned government vineyards are immediately given away. The player owning the most vineyards in the region gets the first freebie, the player with the second-most gets the next two, and the third-place player gets any that remain. Much of the game’s strategy involves timing your purchases to benefit from these handouts or deprive opponents of them (by purchasing government vineyards, for example, so there aren’t any leftovers for the third-place player). Since each players can only purchase lots from two regions each turn, it’s important to plan ahead and pick your battles carefully. Selling wine forces players to lose vineyards, which alters the balance of power in the affected regions. Players must decide whether to regain their lost lands or seek their fortune elsewhere.
There’s also a degree of second-guessing at work. Suppose for the past three turns I’ve lost vineyards in Toscana only to buy them back immediately, and this turn I’ve lost those vineyards again. My opponents might reasonably expect me to buy them back as before, and therefore they probably won’t even bother going to Toscana. I might therefore surprise my opponents by shopping elsewhere, expecting those Toscanan vineyards to remain available for me on the following turn.
The game ends when the last government giveaway occurs, which is entirely dependent on the players’ purchasing habits. The winner is the player with the most vineyards. Cash, in the end, is useless—it’s merely a tool with which to purchase vineyards. Since vineyards beget money which begets more vineyards, players who luck into the cheap vineyards have an edge which can easily be parlayed into a strong lead.
Vino is an ergonomic nightmare. Players must repeatedly consult charts for various values. Payoffs in particular lack any intuitive rhyme or reason. Players frequently want to know which grape varieties their opponents are growing in each region, resulting in much neck-craning to decipher inventory cards not designed for that purpose. Given the victory condition, it’s important to know how many vineyards each player has— but the only way to get that information is by more neck-craning and arithmetic or by counting the dozens of chips on the board one by one.
Vino’s gameplay isn’t compelling enough to overlook these problems. The glacial pace is compounded by the sameness of each turn. Conflicts are indirect. There’s no way to sabotage, steal, reduce, or otherwise affect an opponent’s holdings. In fact, changing the market demand and buying vacant plots are the only actions which affect your opponents at all. That’s not to say there’s no competition, but the manner in which it’s carried out at arm’s length left me cold. Which regions to visit is really the only decision to make each turn— the rest almost plays itself. Slowly.
Vino isn’t broken— the mechanics fit together (if not with the theme) and work as apparently intended. Unfortunately, the result is a long, almost solitary exercise in repetition.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)