When I first saw a Kickstarter go up for Frutticola, a new economic Euro game from Giovanni Fiore and Virginio Gigli for 2-4 players, focusing on farming fruit, turning them into preserves, and selling them in a fluctuating market, I thought to myself, “this is my jam” (sorry). The 45-60 minute advertised playing time made things extra a-peeling (oh my, I’m sorry).
Fiore is a first-time designer, but Gigli is a seasoned gamecrafter, responsible for some of the most celebrated titles of the past decade, including Grand Austria Hotel, Lorenzo il Magnifico, Coimbra, and the forthcoming and much-hyped Golem. Design bonafides aside, the theme seemed delightful, the cardboard trees and little plastic fruit and jam jars adorable. So did the final product preserve (please, forgive me) my excitement? Or would the bad apples of production and component issues threaten to spoil the whole bunch (ugh, so sorry, really trying to address this issue).
The broad strokes of the game can be described as such: Players put worker and farmer pawns on action spaces, acquiring various fruit and storing them in their limited warehouse space, converting them into jam, and selling them at the market. The price of fruit goes down with each sale of that type of fruit or jam. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.
The game is played over a series of 4 rounds (seasons) culminating in a big Christmas sale, where everything must go. Each round can be broken up into three phases.
- Action Card Selection
- Action Phase
- End of Season (maintenance and reset for next round)
The Action Card Selection phase is actually the most novel part of Frutticola, and truly felt borderline ingenious. At the start of the game, each player is either dealt a hand of 5 actions cards, or may choose to draft them (I’m always on Team Draft, for what it’s worth). Each action card has 3 vital bits of information.
First, there is a number that dictates player turn order. Then, there is a column of little farmer and worker faces, which will dictate not only how many farmer and worker pawns the player will receive that round, but also the order in which they must play them. Finally, most cards feature a special power (or impediment) specific to that play which lasts for the round. Lower numbered cards typically give players fewer pawns, and either no special power or a handicap, due to their likely early turn order. Higher numbered cards often give players more pawns and powerful boons for the round. The game round begins with each player selecting one of their 5 action cards and playing it simultaneously.
The Action Phase sees players deploy their pawns to various spaces and perform a variety of actions, such as gather fruit, convert fruit to jam, sell fruit and jam at the market, obtain powerful development tiles at the town store, acquire fertilizer and pesticides, or recruit additional apprentice pawns. Some spaces have access limitations, both in the number of pawns that can be placed there, as well as the type of pawn that can be placed there. Some of the more bountiful trees (where fruit is harvested) can only be harvested by farmer pawns; apprentice pawns can only be recruited by workers.
Additionally, certain actions are benefited by specifically sending either a farmer or a worker to them. But therein lies the rub. You must play your pawns in the order that they appear on your action card, which leads to some interesting decisions. Do you play a pawn in a suboptimal location out of necessity, or do you wait until the proper pawn comes up in the order? This is a common choice that must be made.
Once everyone has placed all their pawns, this signals the End of Season phase. Players retrieve their pawns, the price of each fruit goes up one price level, and players then select their action card for the next round. After the 4th round, all prices instead drop one level and players participate in the Christmas Sale, which is one last opportunity to sell all remaining jars of jam or sets of 3 identical fruits.
What’s the opposite of putting lipstick on a pig? That’s not a riddle, that’s an honest question. Smearing mud on an evening gown? Pouring ketchup on a nice steak? Because that’s the feeling of playing Frutticola. The gameplay is good. I think the concept of the action cards is actually quite imaginative and engaging. The imposed order in which your pawns must be placed, coupled with the action spaces being optimized for specific types of pawns is an interesting puzzle. Bravo, miei amici Italiani, bravo. Unfortunately, everything else ranges from inconvenient to terrible.
Much has already been said about the game’s poor production quality. It’s clear the die-cuts did not go all the way through the punchboard, so many people who backed the game were forced to use an exacto knife to liberate the pieces without tearing or otherwise destroying them. This is particularly challenging with the trees, as their shapes are intricate and difficult to cut out. The cardboard itself is cheap, and very easily became delaminated during the struggle to extract the pieces.
This game sat on my shelf for quite a while before I actually chose to play it because I got so frustrated trying to punch this game out that I gave up part-way through. That said, if it was simply a production foul-up centered on poor die-cutting and cheap cardboard, that would not have derailed the game for me by itself. One of my favorite games in the past few years is Barrage, another Italian Euro with well-documented production woes and cheap components that managed to survive that initial… well… barrage of criticism. Frutticola will need more than a minor fix in component quality to climb out of the gutter.
Plainly speaking, this game seemed to not have been playtested with the final components. There are simple yet glaring user-interface issues that I imagine would have been noticed if the designers or playtesters actually played the final version. In a 4-player game, there is the question of where to put the trees. The fruit the trees provide for a specific player count are shown on one side of these three-dimensional trees, as are the costs in fertilizer or pesticide. So that means at least one person is always looking at their backsides. We struggled to find a good way to display all the trees so everyone could see them. This is a case of the developer of the game being too clever by half. These trees could have simply been flat cardboard tiles or another central board, but instead, they made impossible-to-punch trees that easily tip over and can’t be viewed by all the players at the same time.
The font on the action cards and on the development tiles might as well be WingDings, because it’s virtually inscrutable, and tiny to boot. The fruit pieces themselves are cute, but they’re also tiny and largely spherical. While they do have one flat side meant to keep them in place, it doesn’t stop them from frequently rolling off the players’ warehouse tiles.
Finally, there’s the box itself. This is a MASSIVE box for a game that could easily fit in a box half its size. There is no insert either, so this fragile, poorly manufactured game just rattles around inside, with these rough and ready trees just tumbling around like dollar bills in one of those carnival money-blowing machines.
There are simply too many design flaws, beyond the poor component quality and production woes, for me to recommend this game in its current state. It’s telling that on the game’s BGG entry, no names are listed for developer, graphic designer, insert designer, editor, or writer (did I mention the rules are not good either?). It really felt like the publisher, Giochix.it, was asleep at the wheel, and it makes me feel bad for Virginio Gigli and especially first-time designer Virginio Fiore, who really did bring some interesting ideas to the table. Perhaps if the game is reimplemented and all the aforementioned issues are addressed, Frutticola would be a solid game. But for the time being, the juice is simply not worth the squeeze.
Final Score: 2.5 stars – A decent Euro game that suffers from too many design and production flaws to recommend in its current state.
• Terrible production and component quality made punchboards unpunchable.
• Bad design/development decisions leading to unwieldy user interface.
• Terrible box/insert/storage implementation.