Viticulture, having been initially released in 2013, was soon followed up with the first version of Tuscany - a cacophony of modules to switch up the base game. No more than a year later, Stonemaier Games took the rather odd decision to release Viticulture Essential Edition in 2015. This streamlined version of the game included a few of the 'Tuscany' modules that the designer felt should be incorporated. Then, in 2016, Tuscany: Essential Edition was made available for purchase, including a select few of the remaining modules.
Confused? You aren't the only person. Fortunately, you are now only able to buy the Essential Versions at retail.
There are a number of expansions on the market that could be considered "essential" additions to the gaming experience. What does 'Tuscany: Essential Edition' bring to the table that could place it in that category?
What's in the Box?
First, let's talk components. The box for Tuscany: Essential Edition is smaller when compared to its predecessor, due to the reduction in modules contained within. However, the overall quality of the wooden pieces, cards and boards is up to the usual Stonemaier Games standard. Few are instantly recognisable, particularly if you happen to have played Scythe.
Not only does Tuscany: Essential Edition contain a whole host of new cards and game pieces, but it also provides an Extended Game Board to use in place of the original. This itself adds a bunch of extra actions, and streamlines gameplay. The board itself is larger in size, and double-sided, with one side incorporating the Structures module - more on that later.
If you are familiar with Viticulture, you will recall that each round (year) of the game is played over just two seasons, Summer and Winter. This changes somewhat in Tuscany with the addition of both Spring and Autumn (Fall), which become their own phases of the round, with many new spaces and actions for players to take. This seems to make more sense, given you are meant to be managing a vineyard after all.
Credit - Stonemaier Games
One of my slight bug-bares with Viticulture was how turn order changed between rounds, and the fact there was no real way of influencing this. The first player marker would simply move anti-clockwise, meaning the first player in one round would be second in the next, and so on.
In Tuscany, this is done away with. In its place, the wake-up track has been completely revamped, and with it how turn order changes between rounds. Firstly, there are now seven spaces to choose from. Players may only initially choose to wake-up in spaces 2-7; however the player that wake-up in the seventh row in the previous round MUST wake-up in the first row for the next round. But why would you choose one row over another, what are the benefits of waking up earlier or/ later than others?
Firstly, waking up earlier means you take your initial turn in each season before your opponents. When passing between seasons, players will acquire bonuses dependant on which row they wake-up in. Waking-up later provides more/bigger bonuses as you pass into the following seasons. This decision on whether to take turns earlier for fewer bonuses, over perhaps waking-up later for extra goodies (but potentially being blocked from the actions you need) is a tough call.
Not only that, but whoever 'Passes' out of winter first, will have first choice on which position they will wake-up in for the following year (Round). There have been a few instances in games I have played whereby a preemptive pass in winter has led to a player gaining the upper hand, even when they had a left-over worker still to place.
On the bottom left-side of the Extended Board is a map of the Tuscany region. This map is split into distinct regions, and forms part of the new Influence Action mechanic. Players begin the game with six Influence Stars. As an action space in Spring, and as a bonus in other seasons, players may either place or/ move one of their stars. When placing a star onto the board, the player may take the bonus granted for that particular region - each bonus being distinct from others (a card, or money - moving stars already on the board to a different region does not grant the initial bonus).
At the end of the game, whoever has the most stars in a single region will receive the Victory Points depicted. This is where moving stars between regions can be key to a player's winning strategy, as the extra bonus points obtained in this way could swing the game in their favour.
One minor change from the original is that the end-game is now triggered when a single player passes 25 victory points (20 in the base game). This is mainly due to the fact that points can be slightly easier to acquire as the game progresses. Playing to 20 would likely mean the game comes to a rather abrupt end.
The first new optional module added to the game in Tuscany is that of the Structure Cards and player boards. This is another optional module, as one side of the Extended Game Board does not include space for the cards. Whereas the focus of the base game was to produce wine. sell wine and build your engine, one argument was that there was a little too much luck involved in drawing higher value grapes and visitors.
Structures can provide an interesting alternative to this, and help streamline the way wine is produced, even allowing the discarding of grapes/wines to gain bonuses and/or victory points in some interesting ways. Newer players may choose not to focus too heavily on this approach; however, seasoned veterans are likely to find this boosts their economic engine a great deal. I for one will always delve into the structures deck.
The final optional module available in Tuscany is the Special Worker meeples and cards. At the start of the game, two Special Worker cards are randomly drawn. Players may choose to hire one (or both) of these throughout the game in place of the basic worker meeples at the school in the winter season. These can act as standard meeples, but they also come with a special action that you can choose to take. I won't spoil all of the actions here, but suffice to say one will handily help clear other players' meeples from spaces on the board…
Credit - Stonemaier Games
Final Thoughts on Tuscany: Essential Edition
The name may hint towards where this expansion sits in terms of necessity, Tuscany: Essential Edition is, in my view, a must buy for owners of Viticulture. It could be argued that it would have been good to include this all in the base game, but such is life. The expansion itself is great value for money, at just over £20. The new Influence action, as well as the Special Worker and Structures modules, adds a hefty sprinkle of variety & replay-ability to an already outstanding game.
I am a massive fan of Viticulture. It was my go-to game for a long time, and Tuscany: Essential Edition cemented that, helping to propel it to the number one game in my collection. I particularly enjoy the engine-building aspect to points scoring. There is little to no catch-up mechanic contained within, but I have only ever witnessed a few instances where one player has romped to victory.
That, for me, is the sign of great game design. Few handouts are given along the way, but it is the person that strategises and plans ahead that will end up the victor. Some may point towards the randomness of the card draw (Visitors/Vines/Orders), but I believe there is enough game here to look past that. It should also be mentioned that there will be a new card expansion released in time for UK Games Expo 2018, which may well 'fix' this issue for some.
Although not as 'heavy' as its competitor in the same genre, Vinhos, Viticulture and Tuscany provide a shallower learning curve which makes it far more palatable and appealing in my view. Not to say that those who tend to play heavier euros won't find enjoyment here. I have played this with players of differing experience levels, and more often than not, each and every person has come away saying how much they enjoyed it.
And so, let's raise a glass to Stonemaier Games and Tuscany: Essential Edition - Cheers!