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Designer Diary: Epic Breakthroughs in Viticulture

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

There are two types of game designers: Those who start with mechanics and later incorporate an appropriate theme, and those who start with theme and later incorporate accompanying mechanics.

I’m Jamey Stegmaier, and I’m a mechanics guy.

I collect mechanics from board games I play, games I read about, games I hear about. I collect mechanics from non-board games—particularly sports, smart phone games, and web app gamification. I collect mechanics from books and blogs about behavioural economics and psychology.

Over time, I’ve accumulated a list of mechanics that reflects the 12 Tenants of Board Games that I believe in

  • Quick setup/easy to learn.

  • Balances, not checks for close games.

  • Conflict, not hostility.

  • Choices, not luck.

  • Scaleability.

  • Unique production/creation.

  • Variable turn order.

  • Fast pace/smooth flow.

  • Multiple paths to victory.

  • Point-based end-game trigger.

  • Reasonable duration.

  • Replayability.

I’ve been designing board games since I was a little kid, so I’ve been accumulating mechanics and the above tenants for many years (I’m 31 now). So around this time last year, given the success of certain games I had seen on Kickstarter, I decided to design a game for production. The vineyard theme was one that I had on my mind for a while. I think the brilliance of board games is that they allow us to be someone we’re not for 60-90 minutes, all in the comfort of our dining rooms. We can be kings and farmers, wizards and CEOs (but usually kings).

Few people actually get to own a vineyard, but I know many people who romanticize the idea. There’s something universally appealing about rows of grape vines and the end result, wine. Thus I liked the idea of each player taking the role of a vineyard owner.

With my mechanics, philosophy, and theme in hand, I got to work.

The core concept of Viticulture (which was briefly called “Trellis” at the inception of the game design) has remained the same since the beginning: Players plant vines on their fields, produce wine, age the wine in cellars and sell wine over the course of four seasons per round of the game. However, Viticulture has evolved quite a bit over time, enough for a thesis, so I’m just going to focus here on the epic breakthroughs that other game designers might find helpful.

Epic Breakthrough #1: The Push and Pull of the Theme

The original version of Viticulture was wrought with them. Although the game wasn’t set in a specifics locale at that time (that would come much later), the particulars of the art and science of making wine were heavily engrained into the game. Each player had three different types of soil to choose from, each of the wines was highly variable in terms of when they gained or lost value, and each of the seasons brought with it a roll of a die that would result in a good or a bad red grape vinesthing happening to all players.

The flavour those thematic characteristics added to the game was great, but did they make for a smooth gaming experience? Not at all. The soil was frustrating to new players and didn’t add any strategy for experienced players. The way different wines gained and lost value at different times was really hard to keep track of and rarely made a tactical difference. And the dice…man, those dice. Cool concept, but players felt like they were at the whim of the dice instead of in control of their strategy. Which is probably how real-life vineyard owners feel at times, but it just didn’t work in game form. So I toned down the theme. This wasn’t a one-time change; really, it came and went in waves. Sometimes I’d add more theme (i.e., I changed the cost requirement to plant vines from money to pre-built structures necessary for those vines to grow, and I added a “crush grapes” stage between harvesting fields and having wine in the cellar), other times I’d take it away (i.e., grape tokens age just like wine. For a while they spoiled after a year or didn’t age, but that just discouraged players from harvesting). It’s a constant push and pull, but you have to be willing to make the best choices for gameplay in the end.

Epic Breakthrough #2: Do You Feel Lucky?

It was really important for me to create a game about choices, not luck. I love the game Agricola, which has very little luck. I admire games with even less luck than Agricola—games like chess and Rise!, in which all players have the same choices.

So Viticulture started off as a game with very little luck. Every card was spread onto the table at the beginning of the game so that no player had more information than the others. There was some variability, as each game started with a different set of cards. But it needed more variability, as well as the excitement of the draw. Plus, all of those cards took up a lot of space on the table, and it was tough to see the finer print from far away.

So eventually I converted all that public information into four decks of cards. Drawing cards always involves a little luck, but I made sure the cards are balanced, and I added a myriad of ways to obtain cards to mitigate less than desirable draws.

Epic Breakthrough #3: Well, This Is Frustrating

I’ve learned a lot about the value of playtesting through the design process for Viticulture. I knew it was important, but it has surprised me time after time when I think the game will play a certain way and yet in real life it’s completely different.

The #1 thing I learned from playtesting was to pay attention to frustrations players were having, even when better strategy could wash away those frustrations. A lot of the early frustrations came from harvesting vines into wine, because you might have two vines on the same field that produce the same value and colour of wine, and there was only one slot in the cellar for each wine. My co-designer Alan solved that problem by making the vine values per field cumulative.

Another early frustration came from the way wine orders were filled. At that time, the wine orders were directed towards different countries, the capacity of which depended on each country’s actual wine consumption and overall pickiness about wine quality (indeed, that version may have ended up offending some people). The problem was that the countries made it really easy for players to jump ahead and stay ahead, and once the other players caught up, the capacity for the wine orders was already filled. Over time, that evolved to wine orders that were specific to the values of wine and were on cards in hand—not on the table—so that each player could work towards their own goals.

Epic Breakthrough #4: Wait, Is This Solitaire?

For several months, we had a solid version of the game, but something was missing. We couldn’t quite put our finger on it until one day when one of the playtesters said, “I like it, but feel like I just played a game of solitaire.”

By trying to limit the potential for hostility, I had removed all aspects of interaction and conflict from the game. Players could do whatever they wanted on their player mats, and they weren’t affected by anyone else’s choices. They didn’t even have to pay attention to what everyone else was doing.

Around the same time, another playtester pointed out that it was getting difficult to keep track of all the different choices. We had taken steps to increase the number of paths to victory and to have the viability of those paths change during the course of the game, but in doing so, there were a daunting number of choices and no good way to keep track of them.

It was the perfect conflux of feedback, and our solution was clear: Viticulture needed a common board. A shared space where your choices might block other players’ primary choice, but they would still have other prime options to take. A visual element that would tie all the choices together into one cohesive whole that made sense.

So we added a board. We kept the player mats, of course—players still had control over their individual vineyards—but we added a board that made sense of all those choices.

That’s when everything really came together for me. Up until that point, I enjoyed playing the game, but only because it was my creation. After I added the board, I genuinely started enjoying the game. I wanted to play it again and again. I wouldn’t have launched the Kickstarter campaign if I hadn’t experienced that moment.

Jamey Stegmaier

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