Terroir: A Lesson in Winemaking

Games can be great at teaching.  Titles like Influent attempt to game-ify the process of learning a new language, while games like Papers, Please opt for a more “immersive” approach, teaching the player not about real-world events specifically, but about the circumstances that no doubt surrounded the events it parallels.  What I find particularly interesting, though, is the games that don’t so much “teach” as they “encourage to learn”.  I’d argue that games like the Civilization series are a perfect example of this; while they don’t specifically mirror history (unless Gandhi was secretly a psychotic warmonger), I know of several friends who have started researching historical civilizations and figures simply because they got a taste of the available knowledge in a game of Civ.  It’s in this category of games that Terroir finds itself, both to its benefit and detriment.

Terroir is a wine-making simulator in the vein of city-builders like Tropico; just on a smaller scale.  You start out with a single winery and one plot of land to grow grapes.  From there, it’s up to you to manage your hedges to ensure your grapes are ripe for the harvest, then pick, press, store, and bottle them.  Afterwards, you can enter your concoctions into contests, get them judged by famous wine critics, and above all, sell them to the masses.  It’s a quiet, chill experience, but manages to be reasonably compelling in the “just one more turn” (“just one more year” in this case) way that Civ players know well.

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Here’s the thing, though: if you don’t know anything about wine production (cue me slowly raising my hand), Terroir is liable to leave you feeling out in the cold.  There is a tutorial, but it feels like more of an information dump as opposed to a practical way to learn the game.  It also throws in a ton of technical jargon that often isn’t well-explained in the context of wine-making; e.g. Acidity is the “fruitiness” of a wine, and contrary to what I thought, people don’t like super fruity wines.  Plus, it doesn’t give any real indication of what makes a good wine, save for “experiment and see what works!”  That’s all well and good, except the game’s slow pace works against it here; it frequently feels like it’s crawling along, so feeling like you’re not even making any progress can compound one’s frustration.

These feelings of aggravation persisted for a while until I decided to look for some outside help.  Eventually, I came across some “Wine-Tasting for Dummies”-esque sites which started breaking down the types, the terms, and so on.  Suddenly, things started to click.  I started actually getting a sense of what “tannins” were and why it was important to have them in certain wines.  Not only that, but I found some charts that gave indications as to what was important in different types of wine.  Fun fact: a good chardonnay has significantly different qualities from a good cabernet sauvignon.  Other fun fact: I’m an idiot for not knowing that sooner.

Before I knew it, I had my “wine guide” open on one monitor and Terroir on the other, regularly switching between the two to make sure I was making the best decisions possible for my production line.  I’d pause to calculate how long different wines needed to be barreled to negate some less-desirable qualities from that year’s harvest.  Additionally, I found myself just scrolling through my online resources to learn information that wasn’t critical to the game; finding a whole new world of information to immerse myself in was fascinating.

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With my newfound knowledge, I was on top of the world.  I started making well-balanced wines that the critics loved!  Five stars all around!  Visits from esteemed political figures!  However, some experimentation with a new chardonnay line was ultimately my downfall, largely caused by a disparity between my online guide that suggested high acidity and the game which seemed to favour a more balanced blend.  That did cause me to raise some questions about both the validity of my source and the accuracy of Terroir’s simulation.  If every wine is just supposed to be balanced and average, what’s the point of making multiple kinds?  Further research is required to see if I missed something.

Now, this does mean that there’s a definitive “formula for success” in Terroir; once you figure out what characteristics are desirable in specific wines, your business is pretty secure, barring a crap harvest or excessive experimentation.  However, the game allows you to enter your creations in regular wine contests, upgrade your facilities, and engage in random side objectives thanks to a “chance” deck.

While I may have made it sound like I cracked the code of Terroir and quickly mastered it, that’s far from the truth.  In fact, despite the fact that it took me far too long to write this piece, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the title.  There are blends that I didn’t try making yet, balances that have yet to be tested, and facility upgrades that remain unpurchased.  Terroir is far from perfect, but it’s an enjoyably relaxing experience that motivated me to actually go out and learn about something new.  And really, that’s quite a nice change of pace from platforming and shooting dudes in the head.

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