“Man is so made that he can only find relaxation from one kind of labor by taking up another.” – Anatole France The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
I’m coming back and reworking my review of Agricola for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s an absolutely terrific game. I don’t ever remember seeing it come off of the Hotness List on BGG, which says a lot. Secondly, I totally didn’t get it right the first time around. Not only have I experienced a great deal in terms of how I approach and write my reviews, but I’ve grown as a player of the game, and I feel some of my original statements are incorrect. Agricola is a game that totally deserves better treatment than it got way back when. Let’s jump in!
A few years ago, I picked up Agricola because it was consistently getting strong positive reviews on BGG, and have never disappeared from The Hotness List, which in my experience is a fairly reliable barometer for game quality if it manages to stay on there. It can also be fickle at times with a game landing there through hype and then disappearing a week later. If you go look at the Hotness List and see a game, come back two months later and it’s still there, odds are you’ve got a quality product. But that was the end of my reasoning. This game has been on the list for so long, it HAS to be good! Not the most sound argument, but there it was. Agricola was also my first step in Euro-games past Settlers of Catan (and varying expansions)
Some sixty American dollars later, it was in my possession and I was a bit overwhelmed with all of the bits (remember that prior to this, Settlers had been my only Euro experience) and a rulebook filled with small type. I didn’t come into it with excitement/anticipation, just the assumption that it was going to be awesome. Sometimes things work out, and this one did, but at that particular point, I didn’t know that. Totally intimidated by the presentation, it got shelved for a while. Eventually, my curiosity (and desire to know I hadn’t thrown money down a hole) won out and I went back to it.
Man, that first game is rough. That’s something I warn new players about, odds are strong that your first time out you are going to fail spectacularly. If you don’t mind an element of masochism to your games (and most Euro fans don’t mind or even appreciate a little pain in their game) you’ll do fine. I was no exception to this. Like so many others before me, my first farm was an unmitigated disaster and told the harrowing (see what I did there?) (you see, in addition to meaning “distressing” a harrow is a farming tool used to break up soil.) (and this game is about farming) (It’s funny because…you know what? Nevermind.) tale of an impossibly inept family in the Middle Ages who were absolutely terrible at farming and would have starved to death had they not shamelessly begged for enough food to survive. So, I suppose it was a fairly accurate assessment of how it might have gone down had I actually been farming in the Middle Ages.
The game itself scales up to 5 players. The majority of my games have been one-on-one, and I think it makes an excellent two player game. Recently Z-Man Games released a simplified 2 player version called Agricola: All Creatures Big & Small. In this version, you don’t have to worry about feeding and/or expanding your family in that version, which removes much of the tension. I’ll try it out (Hello GenCon!) before casting final judgment, but I find Agricola to be pretty perfect as a 2 player game. Once the players understand the game, gameplay happens pretty quickly. The game can also be played solo, but as of yet I haven’t tried it.
I was surprised that a game about farming could be so much fun. Each player is trying to build a successful farm over the course of 14 rounds. It’s competitive and cutthroat, sometimes indirectly. In the end, you’re trying to score more points than the other players, but there are often times when making a play that will cost someone else points can be just as effective. There are many possible strategies to adopt, which greatly lends to the replayability of the game. Strictly speaking, Agricola is a worker placement/resource management game where the most finite resource of all is time. Those 14 rounds fly by much faster than one expects.
Efficiency is your best friend in this game, and a savvy player who uses their actions to wring the most effect from them will conversely enjoy the most success. This isn’t as cut and dry an idea as it seems though. Getting the most from your actions requires some degree of forethought and planning.
Each turn you can take various actions to improve your farm. Each action requires the placement of a family token, each player starts with 2. At base, this means that you have 28 actions to build your farm. These are punctuated with 5 Harvest turns where you must feed your workers or suffer HUGE penalties. Generating a reliable food engine is pretty critical to success. You can gain more Family Tokens (ultimately purchasing more actions) but doing so increases the amount of food you have to generate, and this is something you must balance with taking actions that get you points. Food is not worth any points at the end of the game, so focus too much on accumulating it and you’ll sacrifice point scoring opportunities.
Each way you choose *not* to develop your farm incurs a penalty, so it is often better to try to do a little bit of everything than a lot of one thing.
The actions available to the players are laid out on the game board, and each action may only be taken by one player per turn, so planning the order of your actions is also very important, as well as the flexibility to know how to make the best of a situation where your best options have already been taken. This is also where the blessedly rare spite moves come into play. It’s almost never a good idea to take actions specifically to block someone else’s progress without a plan for your own farm being helped, but clever play order can create situations where you can deny your opponents certain actions at critical times while still advancing your own game.
The random elements in the game are defined in a couple of ways. First are the actions available. The 14 rounds are divided into 4 Phases, and certain actions appear in certain phases. The order that they appear in is random though, so you can’t always plan out something perfectly. For example, you know that the “Build Fences” action will be available in Phase 1, but you don’t know when it will come available as Phase 1 lasts for 4 rounds, with one new action being revealed per round.
The second random element comes in the way of Occupation and Minor Improvement cards. Playing these cards is completely optional, and they will give you special rules to play with. Playing Berrypicker might let you take food tokens whenever you collect the wood resource, or an Ox Team might let you plow multiple fields in a single action if you have some Cattle Tokens. There are 3 different decks in the base set to play with that vary with complexity, and numerous deck mini-expansions to further extend replayability These help to keep each game unique and interesting, though you can easily play and win without using Occupations or Minor Improvements at all. This is actually one of my solitary complaints about the game, in that there are a number of Occupations and Minor Improvements that are auto-uses, and some that are very niche in their usefulness and will often not see play. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think a drafting mechanic would go a long way towards solving this.
The materials are solid. It’s a Euro game, which means by law it has to include a bunch of colored wooden cubes. There are different meeples available online for people who want their vegetable tokens to be vegetable shaped and their boar tokens to look piggish.
One of the things I love best about this game is while it has an admittedly steep learning curve for that first game, the game is elegant in its simplicity and by your second game, you have a MUCH stronger idea of what to do. It’s also always a satisfying game win or lose. I’ve never played a game of Agricola that wasn’t followed by a discussion of events in the game and what the players thought they might have done differently in hindsight. I’ve never encountered a sore loser or a bored winner. Only once or twice have I seen blowout victories, most games are hard fought and end with a small score difference between the winner and last place.
Agricola is one of my favorite games, and one I see playing many times over the years. Interestingly, Lords of Waterdeep shares a LOT in common with Agricola, though my gaming group typically prefers the latter to the former. Lords of Waterdeep is a little more simple and certainly more forgiving, but in the end, I think it’s the theme that gives Lords of Waterdeep the edge in popularity among my group. In my estimation, both are wonderful games, but Agricola presents a higher degree of difficulty and ultimately a deeper, more rewarding experience.
Or maybe I just embrace my gamer masochism more than those sissies.