Ask your gaming friends, “Want to play a game about wine?” and there’s a strong chance they’ll leap to conclusions. Some will think you’re about to suggest Viticulture by Stonemaier Games. (The others might think you mean Spin The Bottle!) It’s fair to say they might not think you’re talking about La Vina. It’s slipped under the radar, a little bit.
Now, it’s impractical and unfair to compare Viticulture and La Vina from a mechanisms point of view. The differences are vast. But theme plays a strong role in our desire to pick one game over another. Both of these titles feature vineyards, grapes and wine-making. Can La Vina stand out from Viticulture’s imposing shadow, then?
Grapes Growing In Viticulture’s Shadow
La Vina is a set collection card game from Devir Games for 2-5 players. You stroll along a vineyard, plucking grape cards as you go. The aim is to collect certain types of grapes, so you can fulfil public wine orders, which are worth points. Hand management plays a key role, but so too does push-your-luck, to an extent. La Vina has captivating, interactive features. Can you read your opponents’ intentions?
Each player has two Baskets, with capacities for a certain quota of Grape Cards. You’ll also select a random array of public Winery orders. These have requirements on them in the form of quantities of grape types, or a blend of grape types. These are face-up for all to see, so you know what things to aim for. Each one can get completed a certain number of times, so it’s very much first-come, first-served. Players also have a set number of barrel tokens, which they place on these orders when completed. Once a player places their final barrel, that triggers the game end.
A narrow playing board takes precedence, acting as an ‘aisle’ through a vineyard. It’s separated into a series of spaces (scaled for player counts). For set-up, you shuffle 72 Grape Cards, and deal out two cards, above and below each space. (A total of four per space, then.) There are five varieties of grapes (the fifth being ‘empty’ vines – boo!). Some are rarer than others.
All Grape Cards have a number on them (1-5). This represents the quantity of grapes, and higher is always better. Some cards have a Tool symbol in their bottom-right corner – I’ll talk more about these, later. You’re supposed to fan out the two cards above/below each space. The point of this is so that the top card reveals the bottom card’s grape type, but hides its Tool (if it has one). This is a little fiddly to achieve while maintaining secrecy but doable.
Grape Scott! What Will You Reveal For Your Opponents?
On your turn, you move your grape picker to any vacant box along the aisle. (There are two boxes per space.) You can then take the top card either above or below that space. You then place it into one of your baskets, providing you have room. You don’t replenish cards straight away. This means that players later on could get the card underneath the one you plucked. And they’ll be licking their lips if it’s a high-value or sought-after card!
The way turn order works in La Vina is akin to Tokaido, or Glen More II. The player at the back of the line takes their turn next. You always have to move forward on your turn, and you must move into a different space. You cannot share a box with another player. This provides a fun predicament: do you race ahead to grab the card you need? Or do you try to hang back and focus on quantity (rather than quality) of cards?
Once your grape picker is in among the aisle, you have a different choice on your following turn. You may take a Grape Card from your current space before you move, or you can take a card once you’ve landed in a new space. You cannot opt for both. This has a huge impact on player interaction. Sometimes players might try to hang back, waiting for other players to pluck grapes first. Then they’re left with a card that appeals to them, underneath. Or, they might take grapes before they arrive in a space. They’re hoping that someone else will have removed the undesirable top card in that location, by the time its their turn again.
The Benefits Of Passing Out (Without A Hangover!)
Once you progress out of the aisle, you cannot go back into it this round. Instead, now you get the chance to fulfil up to two wine orders. You have two baskets, after all! When you opt to complete an order, you hand in all the cards from one basket to achieve the order. You can’t combine grapes across two different baskets to complete one order.
Winery Cards come in two different types. Monovarietal wine orders only want a single type of grape. For example, one Winery Card requires ‘7+ Pinot Noir’. This means you have to pay in Pinot Noir Grape Cards only, and their value must be seven or more to qualify. If that’s the case, you get to place one of your barrel chits onto the order, and earn the stated points.
The other type of Winery Cards are Coupages. These are happy to take two (or more) different types of grapes. Even a Coupage, though, will want one type of dominant Grape Card. You have to pay at least half of the total coming from that dominant grape type. If the Coupage Winery wants, say, ‘7+ Garnacha’, you pay in Garnacha cards totalling a value of at least four or more. Then you make up the difference with at least one other grape type. Once you’ve paid, place one of your barrel chits onto the Winery and earn the stated points.
There’s a third type of Winery, which is the Winemaking Cooperative. This Winery isn’t fussy. It takes any type of grape, and any quantity. The payout for this is the sum of the Grape Cards you paid in, multiplied by 0.5. This is handy if you have a basket full of high-value grapes, but they don’t match any other kind of order right now.
Especially so because La Vina is, to some extent, a race. The game ends once someone places down their final barrel. Everyone completes that round. Sometimes, visiting the Winemaking Cooperative is a way to rush the end-game. It’s very possible to win the game by completing lots of little wine orders, rather than one or two big ones.
Billhook & The Boots (I Loved Their Second Album)
Other features within the game raise La Vina beyond being a simple set collection game. There are three types of Tools, and each offer ways to grant flexibility on your turn. The Billhook lets you claim any card from the space (so, the bottom one, if you like). The Shears let you take two cards from that space. The Boots let you take a card from a space that is behind you along the aisle. (Great if you raced ahead, but then later players revealed an appealing card.)
You earn Tools if you select a card with a Tool icon on it. You then claim a corresponding Tool token from the supply and can spend it on a later turn. Some cards might turn your head if they include a free Tool. There’s only a limited number of Tool tokens, though. If the other players are hoarding that Tool type when you come to claim one (from an empty supply), then tough luck.
This can happen, and it can be frustrating. However, players can only hold two Tools at any one time. Talking of which – players can combine two Tools to get a mega-turn. Shears + Boots, for example? Take any two cards from a space behind you. It feels like Tools are better off spent than hoarded. La Vina is a race, remember. You need to be looking at completing at least one order per turn to keep pace. Spending Tools on a regular basis helps you achieve this if the drawer of the cards is against you.
Stop Whining! But You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Basket
Hand management plays an important factor in La Vina. Your two starter baskets have capacities of two cards and three cards. You’ll soon realise when playing, that two cards (and even three) isn’t enough space. Not if you want to complete the bigger orders. The largest is a Coupage, 15+ Cabernet Sauvignon. The minimum to complete that is three ‘5’ value cards in one basket. Will the cards fall your way? Will your opponents let you snap the ‘5’ cards up?
There is an option to upgrading a basket at the end of your turn, once you’ve passed out of the aisle. There’s a set number of 3- and 4-card baskets available. Each basket has a points cost attributed to it. To buy one, you have to pay the difference in points value between the basket you’re getting rid of, and the one you want.
A 2-card basket is 5VP, and the hallowed 4-card basket is 12VP. You’ll find that some players try to rush the first round, and complete any order that earns them at least 7VP. That way they can immediately buy that 4-card basket. There’s not enough of these large baskets to go around, though. Deciding whether to invest points into a larger basket feels worthwhile if you’re aiming for larger orders.
The Great Grape Race
Having two baskets feels a bit like holding two face-up hands. But you do have a bit of flexibility with regards to managing your baskets. At any time, you can move all wine cards from one basket to another – providing there is room to do so. This is a handy way to make up for an earlier mistake in judgement.
You can also remove all cards from your basket to the discard pile if they’re of no use to you. Painful from a pride point of view, but at least by dumping them, you free up your basket to pluck better cards later. The alternative is visiting the Winemaking Cooperative and scoring half the VP value.
One little boost to passing out of the round first is you get a Wildcard Grape Counter. This counts as any grape type of your choice. It might be the extra one you need to fulfil that order. It’s enough of a carrot to make players think twice about passing early to earn it. You can stockpile these over the game, so they can accumulate over a few rounds to help you with tougher orders.
Passing first also means you’ll be first in the next round. That’s important because it means you’ll get first dibs on the array of cards that get replenished. New cards sit on top of current cards, and the debate begins once again. Which cards do you want? Which cards do you not want to reveal? And which cards do you hope your opponents will reveal for you?
‘Old-Country’ Charm Artwork
The slender vineyard aisle is cardstock that slots together like a jigsaw. It’s a little confusing that the rules call the circles in the spaces ‘boxes’. La Vina is a card game primarily though, and the artwork on the cards has essences of ‘old country’ about it. The four types of Grape Cards look like they could be art from a wine guide you’d find in an old book from the ’70s. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. I rather enjoy it.
Each wine card has a colour coordinated banner, plus a symbol for colourblind players. These colours match the dominant grape type banners on the Winery Cards. They all have varying images of vast industrial wine cellars. Not cold, modern facilities. These are generations-old family-run businesses, the kind you could picture in Tuscany or Bordeaux. The orders have clear barrel silhouettes on them, VPs easy to read.
Each player gets a playing card with a character on it in their player colour. These are caricatures (three are men, two are women). One of the men looks a little nefarious – pencil moustache, white suit, odd pose, eyebrows raised. He looks a little out of place in among the other seemingly innocent character art. It’s as if he’s some kind of AI bot you need to beat! (He’s not. The smallest player count is 2P.) Each card has two little slots on it for you to place your Tools, which is pleasing. The yellow skyline is striking alongside the box’s heavy use of ‘sangria’, ‘boysenberry’ purple.
The victory prestige point chits deserve a huge round of applause. They come in denominations of 1/5/10/50 and they’re all equal parts adorable and exquisite. The 1s are blue and yellow seals of approval. The 5s are pink and sky-blue labels. The 10s are bottles themselves, and the 50s are mini diplomas. These could have been mere circular coins or bland VP markers… but they’re not. Two thumbs up.
Final Thoughts On… La Vina
La Vina is a hidden gem from José Ramón Palacios. To my tastes, the art is wonderful in a cosy kind of way. The best thing about the game though is trying to manipulate the way – and rate – at which cards get revealed. You want to try and control turn order in such a manner that you’ll get the cards you want. And, in time to complete the orders you want. It’s all too easy to create a bland, seen-before set collection game. La Vina adds a drop or two of player-to-player psychology into the mix. It becomes a fascinating experience.
Some players got a little bitter about not gaining access to the 4-card basket. However, games like La Vina thrive on the fact that everything is a race. The race to gain the appealing cards. The race to exit the vineyard first to claim the bonus wildcard grape. Then the race to complete orders before they’re full. The race to upgrade your baskets before they’re all gone. There are stakes everywhere.
The fortunate thing is that you can win by completing smaller orders on a regular basis. Yes, some of those bigger orders can net you as much as 24 points! But if it takes you two turns to accomplish it, that’s the same amount of points as scoring two 12-point orders. Due to the range of Winery Cards, it’s fair to say you’ll get a different range every game. They’re not wild in how they differ, but due to the fact some cards are rarer than others, it does provide variety. Once you’ve got your practice game out of the way, you’re looking at 35-45 minutes game time. Which is about enough time to warrant a top-up. Now, where did I put that corkscrew…?