Sunday, February 21, 2010

When the Mrs. Goes Away: Agricola

(Sunday, Monday, Saturday)

Agricola is a farming simulation game in which players take on the role of a fifteenth century farming couple. Your goal is to build and develop your farm to be the most advanced and well balanced one amongst those playing. Okay, so how do you accomplish this?

Agricola belongs to a category of titles called 'worker placement' games, which means, in Agricola's case, that each player takes turns using one of their family members (the workers) to claim one of many action spaces on a game board. When chosen, each of these spaces gives that player an opportunity to better his farm in some way. For instance, particular spaces might allow you to:

  • receive a load of wood (which can allow you to later build fences or an addition to your house)
  • renovate your home from a wooden shack to a much more prestigious clay hut!
  • add cattle to your farm (though you best have a fenced-in pasture to contain them, or at very least a cooking hearth to make use of them before they run away!)
  • plow a field, or sow some wheat seeds into an already plowed field
  • have a baby!
Each player begins a gaming session with exactly two family members--the farmer and their spouse. As the game progresses opportunities to grow your family will arise, allowing each couple to have up to three children who will naturally be expected to help out on the farm, and thus increase the number of family members available to choose additional actions on the game board. Hey, farming life is difficult--once little Tommy can walk, gosh darn it, he should be able to plow the fields and mend the fences!

Though Agricola is very much a thinking game with some very deep strategy, it succeeds over other games that may be so described in a number of ways:

  • The complexity of the game can be varied to a great extent. Some of the great variation and replayability of Agricola lies in the decks of cards that allow players to build 'minor improvements' and take on beneficial 'occupations' over the course of the game. These cards can either be omitted to simplify the game (useful especially when teaching the rules to new players), or upgraded to more complicated and interactive cards when players are ready to up the ante.
  • A player's progress isn't recorded in terms of generic 'victory points' (as in Caylus or El Grande) but rather in tangible farm improvements. It is especially helpful and rewarding for new players to see their progress advance by having a couple of fenced pastures, a plowed field, some sheep, or a new addition to their house, rather than 'oh joy, I now have 27 victory points!'
  • Agricola has a very strong theme that keeps players interested in the game. All the mechanics seem to fit the theme very nicely so it really feels like you are developing your farm:
  1. One grain sown into a plowed field nets you three grain over the course of several rounds.
  2. Owning a pair of any given animal results in a baby animal of that type at the end of each round.
  3. Adding a room onto your wooden house costs you five wood resources (for the walls) and one reed (for the roof).
  4. For you to increase the size of your family you first need to expand the size of your home.
  5. To hold more than one animal on your farm (one can stay in your house as a pet!) you need to build a stable or fence in pastures.
As I mention above, however, to succeed at Agricola you need to master a great deal of strategy. Those who have more experience at the game will generally have a great advantage over new players. The three games I played last week were all won by those who had played the game previously, and always by large margins. I had probably half a dozen games under my belt beforehand, and won two of the three contests. David, the only other board game enthusiast amongst the players, and the only other to have played Agricola previously, won the remaining game. Though the game has been a lot of fun to play thus far (and not just because I've been winning!), I would imagine Agricola will be even more rewarding once some other players get a few more plays in and really start to even the playing field.

1 comment:

Dave said...

The amazing thing about Agricola is that even though it does heavily favor experienced players, I've noticed that non-gamers still enjoy it even when they lose by a wide margin. Maybe they've lost big time, but hey, they still got to build a nice little farm.