Vinhos Review

Writing’s been tough the past couple of weeks. I’m hesitant to use the word “writer’s block” because that seems like a copout but the words certainly aren’t flowing out of me, and discouragement is quick to rise up. I get into that situation where I can’t find the words, so my mind wanders, and then I think “I’ll just check twitter” or “I’ll fill up my glass of water” before I write any more. That turns into a cycle of distractions, which fuels more frustration. Such cycles aren’t new to me–I’ve been fighting them for at least 10 years. Recently, though, there’s been a new distracting thought: “I wish I could play a quick game of Vinhos”.

I wasn’t particularly enthused about Vinhos when I first played it. I knew about this Vital Lacerda guy, and his games looked precisely like the kind of games that I would enjoy, but that first play was baffling. Sure, it was pretty and there were some neat aspects here and there, but that wine fair thing was confusing, the action process felt unnecessarily obtuse, and I never seemed to get my vineyards to a satisfactory place. I could play Viticulture and get the same experience in a more expansive and easier to learn game.

I tried other Lacerda games and grew to love The Gallerist and Lisboa in particular. But only recently have I returned to try out Vinhos some more. I found that as I got past the rules confusion I learned to love the game because I was approaching it on its terms, not mine. Vinhos isn’t Viticulture, even though they share a similar theme and look. Indeed, in many ways they’re extremely different. Viticulture is all about the build-up–you’re getting grapes to make your vineyards better. You’re getting buildings to make your winery better. You’re getting more workers to make your future actions better. Viticulture is about growth, and even though it can be a fairly quick game (especially without the Tuscany expansion) it feels like you’ve gone through a journey. You’ve built something.

Vinhos is a quick game disguised as a long, complex one. Sure it has many of those same “growth” elements as Viticulture–you’ll probably get more vineyards and improve them–but that’s the least interesting part of the game. In the twelve actions that make up a game of Vinhos you’ll feel like you’re being jostled about on a busy sidewalk as you navigate not only the labyrinthine puzzle of Lacerda’s making, but the other players all similarly trying to reach their destination. 

The primary decision points all take place in a center 3×3 grid that threatens to lose itself among all of the visual delights on Vinhos’ board. Echoing the gameplay, the visual design of Vinhos spreads out into branching tendrils that promise new and exciting things wherever you look. By new and exciting things I mostly mean grids. Glorious, wonderful grids! There’s one for the wine fair and one for both kinds of wine-selling destinations. The aforementioned action selection space is a grid, and even the stack of wine experts you can recruit are to be displayed in a 2×2 formation. Just about the only thing that’s not a grid in Vinhos is the map of Portugal.

As you take your turn you’ll need to move your pawn to a new place on the action selection grid. Though there are restrictions. If you don’t move to an adjacent space you have to pay. If you move to a space that’s occupied by the round-tracking pawn (which cleverly always seems to be in the place you want to go) you have to pay. Go onto a space where someone else already is? You pay them.

On one hand, this tightening of an already-tight selection can serve to narrow your heuristic operating space, leading to quicker decisions. On the other hand, the penalty can sometimes be worth it, so it’s a matter of evaluating your decision making with a number of off-stage sticks poking you in the ribs. You could pay 2 bucks to land the space you want, but then you won’t be able to afford the other action you want the turn after, unless you divest some money in the process, but then you’ll be two spaces away from the banking spot–and you’ve just tried to formulate a plan for ⅓ of the entire game.

See what I mean when I say Vinhos is actually a small game? In a move Lacerda would most notably repeat in The Gallerist, end game bonuses are available to the players from nearly the beginning of the game, and taking one can sometimes be the correct play. In many eurogames of this nature there’s a distinctive narrative progression as you invest and plan before getting the payout in the last portion of the game. Lacerda has smashed all of that together so that you’re playing the beginning game and end game all at the same time. There’s no time to do anything else. You’re planning what you want your vineyards to look like from the very first play of the game. You’re eyeing end-of-game bonus points as you prepare for the first wine fair. You’re mentally allocating all of the wine you’ll produce for the rest of the game by the mid-point.

Of course, this particular cadence will feel too pressure-filled and claustrophobic for some, and I was certainly among them on my first couple of plays. But give it some time and like a closed wine it’ll open itself up to new depths.

You’re not limited to just the 12 primary actions. As Lacerda would repeat many times in his later designs, every time you do something it’s like you’re nudging a marble down the beginning of a Rube Goldberg machine. As you submit wines to the wine fair (the one part of the game I’m still not enamored by), you’ll potentially get to place one or two of your little barrel figures in a space at the top of the board that you can later use to perform bonus actions–if you pay one of your precious wine harvests. You can also hire wine experts which give you bonus actions.

But none of this is simple to calculate. When you submit your wine for the wine fair is fogged by a host of other decisions about when you want to perform certain actions. Which wine you submit is determined by the quality and type of wine the experts want that season–or whichever wine you don’t already have allocated for another purpose. Submit that big bold red with some age and you’ll unlock the bonus actions you want, but you’re sacrificing the ability to export it for precious prestige points. Experts can give you bonus actions, but they also help you in the wine fair, which can be worth a good number of points. But if you use them for the wine fair they go away forever (having been outed as being hired by a competing winery? I don’t know the backstory).

Remarkable that Vinhos was Lacerda’s first published design (other than an Age of Steam map), as in many ways it feels like his most mature. Tension drifts around every corner, and there are new pitfalls to stumble into on each play. Last game I was faced with the harsh realization that my barrel pieces were going to run out, for instance, and that I was planning for things I could not actually accomplish. I’d never been in a situation where that was an issue, so I was playing more efficiently than before, but still–a new problem to puzzle over.

Why are these barrels piece limited when they’re put to multiple disparate uses? Probably to put people in precisely the predicament I was in. It doesn’t make thematic sense, but neither does the fact that visiting the bank can take up 1/12 of the life of a winery’s formative years. I’ve been told that the “updated” version of Vinhos gets rid of the banking complexities and that some people consider it a better game, but I’ve never bothered to learn the rules to the simplified update because I am a proud man and something of a snob. I try not to be proud of the pride or the snobbery, though, so at least give me that much.

Frankly, the intricacy of Vinhos speaks to a genuine love of the complex eurogame that I found lacking in the reductive Escape Plan. There’s an innocence to the glee in which Lacerda doesn’t make anything easy. There’s always another layer to consider, a previously forgotten about complication that you’ll remember to factor in next time (you tell yourself). The fact that you can always divest from your bank holdings in order to get cash now at the cost of game-long payouts but you have to spend a precious action to invest, deposit, or withdraw funds is the kind of euro in-joke that would make Martin Wallace grin.

Vinhos is embellished with plenty of such obviously gamey bits that I’d complain if they didn’t all work so well. Around the core of this small game Lacerda has built a euro playground. It’s not perfect, but the best things so rarely are. Maybe I can get a game of it going tonight.

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Score: 8.5/10

More Info

1-4 Players

Length: 1-2 Hours

Learning Curve: 4/5

Brain Burn: 4/5

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