Sunday, March 9, 2014

Agricola Review

When I first got into board gaming, Agricola was the game.  But it looked complicated.  I read the rules online, but didn't get much out of them.  Then I tried it out at a convention, borrowing it from the library.  But you know how library copies of games can be.  Whoever played it last just unceremoniously dumped all the pieces back in the box helter skelter.  So after an hour of sorting everything back out and setting up the game, I got half an attempt in with it, then we had to quit.  I tried again the next day, and this time someone taught us how to play.  Then they left us in the dust.

To put it bluntly, my initial experiences with Agricola did not endear me to the game.  However a nugget of affection stuck with me.  So much so that years later when I was looking for a heftier worker placement game than Lords of Waterdeep or Stone Age, I came back to Agricola.  This time around, my experience has been much better, and it's now one of my favorite games.

Agricola was released in 2007 by Z-Man Games, and was designed by Uwe Rosenberg.  It's a worker placement game that tasks you with building up your farm, and not starving.  Players will have to plow fields and plant crops, raise animals, and build additions onto their house in order to grow their family.  In the midst of all this, you also need to feed your family at an increasing pace.

Rule Summary

There are a lot of rules in Agricola, so this is going to be a higher level overview than I've typically done.

In Agricola, you start with an empty farm, with a two room wooden house, and two family member.  You'll share a communal action board, with a lot of actions printed on the board, and more being revealed after each round.  During a round players will alternate taking actions with their family members by placing them on the action space they want.  No other player can take that action for the remainder of the round.  Once all family members have taken an action, everyone gets their guys back, and you start the next round, revealing a new action card.  Rounds are grouped into Stages, and at the end of each Stage you will get to harvest from your fields, feed your family, and breed your animals.

The communal action board, all set up and ready.

There are a wide variety of action spaces, many of which combine actions.  For example, there is a Sow and/or Bake Bread space, as well as a Plow and/or Sow space.  However, while the actions may be printed in a variety of combinations on the spaces, the actions themselves don't change.  Probably the first action available to you is taking resources.

There are several resources in the game, and Wood, Reed, Clay, Stone, as well as Sheep, Pigs and Cattle all accumulate.  Meaning that if you don't take them during a round, more will be added to them sweetening the pot.  Other spaces just give you 1 or 2 of a resource.  For example, Wheat and Vegetables never accumulate.

One way to build up and earn points is by expanding and renovating your house, and growing your family.  By spending building resources and taking the appropriate action, you can add rooms to your home, and upgrade it to better building materials.  Clay or Stone houses are worth points at the end of the game.  Once you have extra rooms in your house, you can begin growing your family.  This is vital for two reasons.  It allows you to take more actions during a round, and each extra family member is worth 3 points at the end of the game.

That woodcutter I
was talking about
Another way to earn points is by growing crops.  This requires you to take the Plow action, which allows you to place a field tile on your farm.  After that you need to collection some Vegetables or Wheat.  Once you have a field and something to plant, you can take the Sow action.  When you sow, you place the plant on the field, and then add a few more on top it.  At the end of each Stage of the game, you'll get to take one of those Veggies or Wheat off that field for free.

The third major way to earn points is to raise animals.  By building fences and stables using the appropriate actions with lots of wood, you can make pastures.  These pastures can hold animals that you collect.  Then at the end of each Stage, the animals will multiply if you have at least two, granting you a bonus animal.

Mixed in with all this are Improvements and Occupations, which are my favorite part of the game.  Naturally, there are action spaces on the board which allow you to play these, and most have a cost associated with them.  They largely allow you to bend or break the rules, let you get more for an action, or award you with bonus points.  For example, I think the Woodcutter allows you to take extra Wood whenever you take Wood as an action.

This will be your top priority
However, Agricola isn't a straight line of progress towards a bigger and better farm.  While you may be getting more animals and more crops at the end of each Stage, you also need to feed your family.  Every family member requires two food.  Luckily for you, there are a ton of ways to get food.  There are action spaces on the board which give you food.  You can slaughter animals for food using various Improvements.  You can also bake bread converting Wheat into generous portions of food using Improvements.  But if you can't feed your family, you'll need to take a Begging card for each food you were short.  These are worth -3 points at the end of the game, and there is typically no way to get rid of them.

Once the game is over, players will score their farms.  They'll get points more or less for everything.  Every crop and animal has it's own category.  As well as fields, pastures, family members, your house, stables, Improvements, and bonus points.  About the only thing that doesn't give you point is spare building resources.  Plus you lose points for undeveloped spots on your farm.  You also lose points if you didn't engage in a several of the scoring categories at all.  For example, if you end the game with zero Sheep, that's -1 points.  After all that, whoever has the highest score wins.

Timelapse of play.

How accessible is the game to new players?

Agricola can be a rather punishing game for new players.  There are a lot of unique actions that can be taken.  Now every action is governed by thematic rules, which helps you remember how they go.  But there are still a lot of them.

Probably the most difficult part of Agricola is the multiple economic systems that run side by side.  Food is almost a red herring.  You need enough to stay alive, but you really want to focus on building up.  It could be that I'm awful explaining rules, but I find that no matter how well I try to explain Agricola, a "gotcha" leaps out to snag new players.

What could have been done better?

Now would be a good time to
offer some helpful advice.
Probably the most difficult part of Agricola for new players is just developing a sense of how all the parts of the game hang together.  The different economic paths are mostly separate, with planting not having much to do with husbandry, which doesn't cross with growing your family.  But without all the action spaces on the board being visible at the start, it's difficult to mentally map how you get from an empty farm to a fully developed one.  The reference card lists when the actions come into play, but that doesn't help a lot when you don't know what the actions are.

What I really would have liked to see is some sort of flowchart.  Something that shows you how Plowing, taking Grain/Vegetables, Sowing and Harvesting are cyclical.  I think this would really help players develop a sense for how the game works in an overall sense.  Because the rules as printed are very detail oriented, and don't really give you a big picture sense of how the game is played.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

There are two sides to Agricola.  There is the side where no matter how well you do, you look at the farm you literally built with your own two hands, and feel good.  It's colorful and cute, and full of stuff.  Then there is the side where you look at your neighbor's farm, without a single scrap of undeveloped land, and feel like crap.  This is especially the case once you start adding up all the negative points for all the things you don't have.  A lot of this is perspective.  If you are a glass half full, not overly competitive type, you probably won't mind playing Agricola against a more experience opponent.  If you are a glass half empty type of person though, you may be in for a bit of a demoralizing time.

Whichever type you are, experience matters in this game.  A lot.  I can hardly list all the benefits of experience.  Probably the most important is that you better understand the pacing of the game.  You know when you should aim for another room on your house.  You adjust to the increasingly rapid feeding phases.  You can plan ahead for the actions you know you'll want, that aren't on the board yet.

What could have been done better?

Experienced players really need to help guide new players through Agricola.  Make sure they get more family members, and actually build up their farm.  Go over their hand of cards with them, and help them pick the best ones to play early.  Try to talk them out of taking the Day Laborer action, even though it keeps them fed and nobody else wants it.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

I absolutely hated Agricola the first time I played it at PAX East 2010.  I thought it was fiddly claustrophobic, and marginally confusing.  I just didn't understand how it all came together.  Regardless, the experience stuck with me, and 2 years later I desperately wanted to try the game again.  I think I just wasn't ready for a game that complex before.

Agricola is very enjoyable now.  I enjoy skirting the line of starvation to try to build up my farm as much as possible.  I love the variety in the Occupation and Improvement cards.  The game definitely feels like you are building up a farm.  There are a ton of bits in the game, and nearly every action has you placing an improvement of some sort on your player board.

Are they playing Agricola
inside Agricola?
So aside from a rough first experience or two, Agricola is very enjoyable.  It has a very brisk pacing, especially with 2 players.  It also seems to be very well balanced for all numbers of players.  Although they aren't kidding around when they say the game is 30 minutes per player.  I also want to point out the artwork.  It just has a very playful style.  I reminds me of a children's book a little bit.  It makes Agricola just fun to look at.

It feels good watching your farm grow.  Getting free produce and animals during the breeding and harvest phases is a huge relief, because it means your food engine is working.  Not having to worry about food while other people are scrambling for the Fishing space is great.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

So much of what's enjoyable about Agricola is building up your farm.  To that end, deluxe meeples really enhance the play experience.  I haven't gotten a set myself, but it's on my to do list.  Problem is, they seem to be perpetually sold out!  MeepleSource might have some one day.  Mayday Games also has a bunch which fluctuate in availability.  You can usually find enough of these, in the quantities that Agricola requires on Amazon though.  For example, here are a bunch of Animeeples , Vegeemeeples & Resource Meeples and lastly Farmer Meeples .  There is also a Goodies Expansion with appears to have the deluxe meeples and much more, but it's a little out of print right now, so you'll be paying a steep premium.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Aside from Caylus which I've only experienced in passing, Agricola is probably the most strategic worker placement I've played.  It's those feeding phases that does it.  Right off the bat you need to develop a food engine, and work towards growing your family.  You have 8 actions during the first Stage to try to get something off the ground.  If you waste them, it gets progressively harder to keep up.

There are a lot of cards
Coming to your aid will be the cards you were dealt at the beginning of the game.  I find these usually nudge me one way or another in my strategy.  They may make growing crops or raising animals more efficient, or give me a point bonus for something.  Probably my favorite ones just give me extra resources.  I always end up burning myself on the cards that cost food though.

There is a shift towards the end of the game, away from building towards anything crucial to just maximizing points.  You should feel a bit out of the woods about halfway through Agricola.  You'll have an ok economy going, and enough actions have been revealed on the board that you can cobble something together if someone takes the spot you were eyeing.  It's here that I think things get incredibly tactical.  With so many actions, and frequently extra workers too, you just have to do your best with the last few rounds available to you.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

Agricola is full of tense decisions.  It's a classic in the genre of "You can't do everything you want".  I think that's a genre at least.  I find the most interesting decisions involve the resource accumulation.  It's just so tempting to hope another player doesn't take the space.  Funny how rarely it works out though, but you can't help but be greedy.

There are a perfect number of turns in the game.  You can get a lot done, but not everything.  It really forces you to prioritize strongly.  It also forces you to specialize a great deal.  Action space constraints are going to organically force the players down very different paths, towards very different farms.  I love how everyone at the end of the game had solid reasons for everything they did, but we still pursued wildly different strategies.

A good example of an end game farm.

The scoring also creates plenty of interesting dilemmas.  It sort of forces you to try to do a bit of everything.  There are some diminishing returns on most scoring categories, with family growth and your home being a notable exception.  So you really have to weigh the penalty you'll take in one category against striving further in another.  The Improvements can also offer powerful alternate point strategies when you find yourself left out of everything else.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

There is one small problem with Agricola.  The game can only be as interesting as your competition.  If someone isn't playing that competitively, you'll get everything you want with little trouble.  Agricola can also be absolutely brutal.  There are no catch up mechanics for trailing players, or any throttling mechanics on the leader.  It is still a masterful design, but if those things matter to you, you might take issue with Agricola.

Physical component design and limitations?

Agricola has a plethora of well done components.  The quality of all of them is top notch.  However, there are a lot of parts.  If you don't have a good storage solution, the setup and tear-down time can be prohibitive to a good experience.  I mentioned it before, but the first few times I played Agricola it was with a library copy that just had all the parts unceremoniously dumped in the box.  It completely ruined the game for me.

What could have been better?

Luckily for me, I found the perfect Plano box for Agricola. The Plano 3601 Thin is fantastic.  It has enough room for all the components, and still easily fits back inside the original game box.  All I have to do in order to setup the game is open the lid and I'm halfway there.  It's an enormous improvement over using a dozen different bags for all the resources, and dumping them out so everyone has access to them.

This thing is perfect

Long term prospects?

I can't think of many more games that have had the legs Agricola has had for me.  Like most enthusiast in this hobby, I have a bad habit of rotating through games quickly.  Once I've belted out a few months worth of plays, games frequently get retired.  They might see the table again once a year.  But Agricola is a game I can return to over and over again.  I never get bored of it, and I've never felt like any game did Agricola but better.  Granted, I haven't played Caverna yet, but I doubt my mind will change.

The biggest thing that has kept Agricola in my thoughts are the variety of Improvement and Occupation cards.  It comes with an astounding 3 decks, and more are infrequently available.  Some people think that the game can be decided by everyone just showing their hand of cards and picking the obvious winner.  But that seems like an incredibly cynical take.  I've never once felt that way.  It might help that I never mix the decks.  I think that helps keep the power level of the cards relatively equal.

So for me personally, I look forward to playing Agricola for years to come.  It represents the upper bound of complexity I enjoy in a worker placement game.  It also maintains the variety I crave in any game.  So here's to another year with Agricola.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this review. A friend (who does not live nearby) recommended it to me but I really wanted to know more about the game before spending my money, as the game is not cheap, and you have explained it very well. I'm pretty sure I will be buying it, if my husband agrees.