Boardgame Reviews

Agricola 2016 Review – Old McDonald Had A Farm, And On That Farm He Had A Wooden Cow

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Designed by: Uwe Rosenberg
Published by: Z-Man Games
Players: 1-4

Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.

 

This week I learned that excitedly telling a friend about a fun board game you’ve been playing before then explaining that it’s about farming is a sure-fire way to make sure said friend never talks to you again. And who could blame them, really? When one thinks of interesting and engaging themes farming doesn’t really come to mind, especially when you realise that the game is set long before the time of tractors and other big machines. Somehow, though, Agricola makes plowing fields, sowing crops and raising livestock interesting.

Now, Agricola is hardly new. It’s been around a while and has claimed a place in the annals of boardgame history. But now there’s a new 2016 revised version, so this relative boardgame noob (who has never touched the game before) is going to jump in and see why Agricola is so appreciated within the boardgame community. What makes farming so freaking great?

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In Agricola your goal is to score as many points as possible before the final 14th round, and to do that you’ll need to feed your growing family, expand and upgrade your house, construct small and large improvements that make life easier, take on new occupations, plow fields, reap crops that you sow, build pastures and look after animals. This all takes the form of a worker-placement game, so you’ll be taking your family members and putting them down on the main board to take certain actions. Once a space has been occupied nobody else can lay claim to it, bringing in a layer of strategy where you can deliberately screw people over by claiming spaces you know they want or need. Who knew farming was so vicious?

It all starts off simply enough; you’ve got two family members and thus two actions you can take per turn, and in the standard two player gamer there are ten spaces on the board to occupy, letting you do things like get some wood from the forest, grab some clay, gather food, take some grain or expand your house. But then things become more complex, because next to those starting spaces are a whole bunch of empty slots, and each round a card will be placed in one of those slots that introduces a new potential action into the mix. This deck of cards remains the same throughout every session, but the order in which new actions appears will differ, forcing you to adopt new tactics on the fly or continue planning for the future. Cleverly, though, it gets easier to know what’s coming later, and not just because the deck is thinning out. The board is divided into 6 stages, which are then also broken up into rounds. There are four cards for the first stage that can go in the first four round slots, and three that can go in the next three slots, and so on. Obviously this means there are more variables to consider in the early game, while later you can be more confident in regards to what cards are coming. Clever.

So you begin with some basic options, but the game grows quite quickly. You start off perhaps doing things like spending two actions to grab some grain and plow a field in preparation for the sowing action popping up. Or you might opt to gather wood so that you can begin placing fences to house the sheep coming from the sheep market action which will be revealed fairly soon. A longer term strategy might be to begin gathering resources to expand your dwelling so that as soon as the option becomes available you can begin adding new family members to your farm, granting more actions per turn and a reasonably high amount of points toward the end of the game.

But before you begin encouraging the husband and wife of the farm to start boinking 24-hours a day you really need to think about the basic economics of sustaining a family, or in other words you need to be able to feed them or else risk taking Beggar tokens which will take three points away from you at the end of the game apiece. Growing crops and herding livestock might be the way to points, but underpinning everything is a basic need to feed family members, and thus providing for them is the very first strategy you need to lay out. At the beginning of the game there are two primary options; the Day Labourer space provides exactly two food, which is the precise amount needed to feed one family member every Harvest, a phase we’ll get back to later. Meanwhile there’s a Fishing location, one of the game’s many accumulation spaces. That is to say each turn resources will be added to the space until someone claims them all. In this instance the Fishing space acquires one food token per turn. These are fine for the first couple of turns, but as the game goes on you’ll want a more secure method of getting food so that you don’t have to constantly waste actions feeding your family, especially since Harvest phases get closer together.

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This is where the Major Improvements come into play, a set of ten cards that you can purchase/build that will provide extra benefits, primarily in the form of being able to turn grain, vegetables and livestock into food. To build one you need to take the appropriate action, once it becomes available, and spend some resources, but once you’ve got the card it’s yours forever and will even give you some lovely bonus points at the end of the game as a sort of thank you. Isn’t that nice? At the low end of the Major Improvements you might just buy a cheap fireplace that let’s you bake grain into bread worth three food, but you could scale up by constructing a more impressive hearth that not only lets you bake much better and much more filling bread but that also lets you roast livestock for food, too, without even having to take an action. There are other Major Improvement cards, too, that let you trade in the big three resources (wood, clay and reed) for some extra food during Harvest, and that will also provide bonus points at the end of the game based on how many of those resources you have sitting in your supply. Typically one of your first goals is going to be to acquire a Major Improvement card so that you can secure a method of getting ample food without having to waste too many actions.

You’ve also got a hand of fourteen cards that are dealt out at the start of the game to consider as well. Seven of these are Minor Improvement cards, while the other seven are Occupations. Essentially all of these cards provide small bonuses and effects that aren’t large enough to be the lynchpin of an entire strategy, but will certainly bolster your chances if played correctly. You might, for example, get a card that will let you plow a field for free every time you take the Day Laborer action that gets you two food. It’s a great card for the early game, letting you quickly set up fields for future crops while still feeding your family. Usually only a few of these cards get played throughout the course of a game. It’s here we also find the biggest difference between this new version of the game and the original. Old Agricola had around 180 cards that provided plenty of variety, whereas this new version has stripped that down to 90 with the goal being to create a more streamlined experience where there’s less chance of having your game crippled by a bad draw. Certain cards have also be redesigned to balance things out a bit better. Having never played the original game I can’t comment on how much this has changed the feel and balance, but personally I never wound up with a hand of cards that felt utterly useless. Naturally depending on my strategy some cards were handier than others, but generally speaking I was never left feeling like my chances had been damaged

But let’s get back to the nitty-gritty of actually building a farm, shall we? Every player gets given their own little board that represents their personal farm, which by the end of the game will hopefully be brimming with crops and livestock and people because unused spaces means points will be taken away  the end of the game. Let’s start with crops. Firstly you’ll need to acquire either a grain or a vegetable, both of which can also be used during the Harvest as 1 food each. With that in hand you’ll need to plow a field, followed by taking yet another action that let’s you sow as many empty fields as possible, provided you’ve got enough grain or vegetables to do so. So that’s three actions required to sow a crop, although later in the game a card does get revealed which lets you plow a field and sow in a single action. Once a crop is placed on the field, you then take another two grain and place it on top, or another vegetable depending on the crop type. Then during the Harvest you’ll take the top grain/vegetable off of each field and add it to your supply, ready to be cooked or eaten raw. If it sounds a bit convoluted then don’t worry, because it basically just comes down to common sense; you can’t plant crops without seeds, nor can you plant them without a plowed field. Harvest time you gather the produce up Simples.

As for livestock common sense again prevails. Firstly you need fencing, so a trip to the wood space will let you gather up the needed logs. To completely fence off a single field  and turn it into a pasture requires four fences and thus four wood, but the wood space only accumulates three wood per turn. Hmm. You can save a bit of wood, though, by opting to build a bigger pasture, although in final scoring you only get a point per pasture, thus for maximum scoring you want to fence off each square on your board. To acquire livestock you need to visit one of the market locations, but keep in mind that you can only fit two animals per square in your pastures, thus if you have a pasture that spans two squares you can whack four moo-cows in it. Stables, however, let you expand that amount. If you stick it in a single square pasture it’ll bump the total capacity up to four sheep/pigs/cows. Here’s where making larger pastures pays off, because each stable doubles the capacity again. In other words if you build a pasture that contains two squares then by default it can hold four livestock. If you put a stable in it then that doubles to eight. If you build another stable, because you can build one per square, then that capacity doubles yet again to sixteen. That’s a lot of walking mutton/bacon/steak in one place. Not that you’ll probably want sixteen livestock of the same type, because there’s a limit when scoring everything in the game.  You’ll get four points for having eight sheep, but if you have nine or ten or even twenty you won’t get any extra. Mostly a huge pasture like that would be purely so you could hold extra animals for food.

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Therein perhaps lies one of few complaints with the game.  You’re actively penalised for NOT having something. If you don’t have at least 1 cattle, you lose a point. That means you’ve got to fence off a whole patch of land for one damn cow if you don’t want to lose a point. No veggies? Minus one point. There’s also a limit on the amount of points that you can get for each thing. You can’t really become the king of the sheep, then, although you can sort of become king of the livestock. Eventually you’ll need grains and vegetables, too, because you want to score the most points and not get any taken away in the process. You can’t specialise as such, and that means by the end every player’s farm feels kind of the same. Sure, one player might have lots of animals while the other has oodles of plowed farms and a mountain of grain that threatens to crush their home, but the differences are quantity and nothing else. I do understand the process behind this, but it does also serve to make the game less varied.

But let’s get back to that nitty-gritty thing by finally tackling the Harvest. Despite slowly building up to talking about it the Harvest phase is actually very simple and the only terrifying part of it is that it heralds the moment when you must feed your family. The first Harvest will occur after four rounds, so with your small family you’ve got plenty of time to get sorted out, especially since you begin the game with two or three food anyway. The next Harvest hits after three rounds, and then you get three Harvests seperated by two rounds each, thus you have to more frequently feed your family during a time in the game when you’re probably expanding the household because more people means more actions and lots of love points.  Other than that during the Harvest you’ll gather up grain and vegetables from your fields, and your animals will breed. Provided you’ve got a pair of sheep, cattle or pigs they’ll creep away to a romantic location, do the deed and produce a single offspring.

Although Agricola has gained a reputation for being a complex I don’t think it’s actually a difficult game to learn. Rather it’s a game that’s difficult to master, offering players plenty of choices to consider and multiple ways of earning points. I love how as the game goes on the options deepen without ever becoming overwhelming, presenting you with a multitude of choices while the 14 rounds ensures that every decision feels important. A single wrong move can mean the difference between victory, and defeat. Should you consider expanding your family for big points and extra actions? Is it time to snatch up wood and begin constructing pastures for cattle? Maybe crops are the better way to go at the moment. Should an action be used to build a Minor Improvement or even a major one? Perhaps a stable should be built to bump up field capacity for even more piggies? Or maybe you should consider hoarding resources to make the most of those special improvements that earn bonus points for reed, wood and clay? Hell, there’s even the option to upgrade your house to clay and then stone, a potentially strong move if you have a relatively large house! And of course just lying below all of this planning is the ever-present threat of starvation. Throughout everything the family has to be kept fed or else risk taking a big point penalty. You’re always riding the line between having enough food and not wasting actions trying to get more. But that’s not all because an unexpected move by an opponent can throw your plans off course. Maybe they know you need food and snag the pile sitting on the Fishing Hole? Or they might just grab the wood for their own plans, derailing your own in the process. With more players this naturally becomes even more common, and while you may never interact directly (you can’t just leap across and set fire to their cows. Although that would be awesome) with another player it brings a welcome competitive edge to the game. For the most part you’ll be concentrating on your own board and plans, but every now and then you can look up and decide to ruin someone’s day. Now that, my friends, is true happiness.

With that bit of praise said, though, I did find that the emphasis on feeding your family became a little tiresome after a while. Regardless of how I played I found that maintaining two family members throughout the game wasn’t a viable strategy, so adding more workers becomes a major focus throughout the game, which of course means you need to feed them all as well. Indeed, there are strategies that do feel vastly more effective than others, so honestly I feel as though playing Agricola with experienced people would almost be less enjoyable. I could be entirely wrong, though.

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The game also scales well up to four players. Interestingly the original game included five player support, but this was ditched with the Revised Edition to help bring the RRP down a little. There’s a planned expansion that will add the extra player support for those looking to get a lot of friends round for some serious farming action. But back on topic. Once you get to four players a new piece of board is slotted onto the primary board using a jigsaw system. It adds some new actions to account for the fact that with some many people jostling for position it’s easy to get completely locked out of options for food and other things that you need.

Speaking of the jigsaw system, let’s chat about components for a moment. At the side of the main board you’ll find some cutouts that let you slot either the points board on or the expanded actions. While there would be nothing wrong with simply laying either of those extensions beside the main board, the jigsaw system is appreciated. There’s also some bonus tiles for variants of the main game, which is great. As for the boards themselves they’re sturdy, if rather plain-looking. None of the art in Agricola really grabs me, to be honest, but it does have a nice, bright, friendly vibe. However, the meeples and resources make up for that.  There’s no boring cubes here, rather each resource is shaped and colored, and that means by the end of the game you’ve got something that actually sort of resembles a real farm.  There’s even plenty of baggies included for tidying all of these pieces away. All in all the components are lovely, although you’ll probably want to pick up some plastic pots or something just to store all the tokens.

I can see why Agricola has become such a well-respected and liked game, and why the original retains a rank of 7 on BoardGameGeek.com amidst thousands of competitors. It’s theme comes across well and feels connected to the engaging and thoughtful mechanics. It never overwhelms with overly byzantine rules, yet still has plenty of depth. It can be punishingly difficult at times since a single bad decision can leave you unable to recover, but that just means every round feels important and encourages you to mull over all the available options, while considering actions that are yet to be revealed. Sure, there is a sense of age about the game where the mechanics feel a little stiff compared to other worker placement style titles I’ve played, but considering it’s nearly ten years old that’s hardly surprising. It’s a fantastic title, and a great choice for anyone looking to begin moving into more complex games. You’ll pick up the rules quickly, and then become completely enamored with building your own little farm.

Who knew farming was so enjoyable?

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