LouisianaSuddenly a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.
I've said before that Agricola is one of the truly "economic" games out there, and never [fully] explained what I meant... so here I go.
[WARNING: This is a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG one; I mean it]
Maybe you've been living under a rock for the past 4 years and "Agricola" sounds like a new organic soft drink offering flavored like menthol.
Or maybe you think Agricola is just another Euro number-cruncher with yet another pasted-on theme, like Puerto Rico's many tropical island clones.
Maybe you've even been led to believe that Agricola is a code-word that washed-out liberal-arts students use to conceal their miniatures gaming hobby.
Or maybe you've come to the conclusion that Agricola is a complicated cube-pusher requiring a lot of foresight that will probably make grown men cry.
Well... the bad news is you're wrong regardless of which answer you picked.
The good news is that Agricola is a board game, after all, and one like few others, a game that takes one central concept and milks it [that's a pun] for all it's worth.
These cows have figured it out... have you? Put simply, Agricola is about the concepts of "enough" and "not enough", some of the most basic elements of economics.
Economics is the study of human decision-making in the face of scarcity. The name of the discipline comes from a Greek word that refers to the management of a household.
If you've ever run your own household, you might have some idea why this term was chosen as the title for the study of choice within the context of scarcity: There's never enough time, money, toilet paper, food in the fridge, or "things" in general to make you feel at ease, even in your own home. Sure, there are moments of peace and quiet, but the central truth of household "economy" is that there are always more things that you want done than you have time to do, more things that you want bought than you have money to spend, and more stuff that you want now than what you actually have available to use.
This isn't a trite observation, but an inescapable fact of [human?] existence. If it isn't obvious from the war over oil, the wide spread of poverty and disease, the world-wide economic disarray, and the wonderfully enduring human drive to create a better world, people don't have all of the things that they want. This is the definition of scarcity: More [felt] wants than [felt] haves. In a world of finite proportions and in a life limited by death, scarcity is assured for all but ascetics. If this is not unquestionably true to you upon observation, I question whether you are human [perhaps this is one way to enact a Turing test?].
If, however, you are human and you've ever felt the sting of scarcity, we can move on. This is what economics does. From this one central assumption [our wants and needs outweigh our haves and means], a bevy of other assumptions and subsequent analysis follows. If you don't internalize what scarcity means, you can't understand economics. [This is why I'm making such a big deal and such a long account out of it here.] Wants are a powerful thing; unsatisfied wants more powerful still; unsatisfiable wants the most powerful of all. Economics says that because of scarcity we all have such wants.
Before moving on, it is important to note quickly some of the secondary assumptions / conditions that the discipline of economics builds out of the concept of scarcity:
- People act to satisfy [felt] wants. In some ways, this is prior to the assumption of scarcity, but it is so intertwined in the concept that it's contemporaneous; if you think about it, a world without scarcity is in essence a world without want. This assumption simply clarifies what we mean by "want": That thing which drives an "agent" [or "actor"] to induce change in a system in which they are involved in an attempt to bring about some condition which will make them feel more at ease. Perfect ease is an unreachable state [for reasons discussed earlier], but relative ease ["I am happier now and in this regard than I was before"] is very real.
- Given a mutually exclusive choice [use for one unit of a scarce resource], people will make the choice that [they feel] maximizes the satisfaction of their [felt] wants. If there were no scarcity, we might start off [for whatever reason] with some initial wants, and perhaps encounter others later, but the felt dis-ease would be easily and quickly remedied--we'd just go out and scoop up as much of the want-filling "stuff" we needed from the universe's inexhaustible supply and be "happy", in fact "stuffed" as it were. But, because "stuff" is scarce, we can't meet all our wants, so we pick the most important ones [the ones we think are most important, at least].
- People allocate scarce resources based on marginal valuations. The classic example is the water-diamond paradox: If I offer to sell you a diamond or a glass of water for $1, you will select the diamond; surely it can satisfy more of your wants [directly or by sale] than a glass of water. How if I were to ask you daily over the course of a week and I were your only source of water, or if you were stranded in the desert? How thirsty would you have to be to choose the water over the diamond? The choice is typically phrased as being between "one more" diamond and "one more" glass of water; when you are not thirsty "one more" glass of water has very little value, but when you are dying of thirst "one more" is inestimably valuable.
These are obviously intermingled, and more subtle analysis is obviously warranted, but this is an essay on Agriconomics, not Economics. This is just some basic context.
In what way is Agricola an "economic" game, then? The answer is that the game uses scarcity, exclusive choice, and marginal valuation as design elements.
Scarcity is introduced into the game through the resource-growth / resource-collection mechanism. Many games allow player(s) to grab [effectively] as much of any resource as they like providing they're willing to spend the time / money / actions to do so; this is a type of scarcity to be sure [unless you have unlimited money or actions], but it's often "soft". There isn't an obvious limit [since usually money or action points / efficiency can grow during a game] to the number of resources you can get. In Agricola, the scarcity is "hard". There are 14 rounds in the game, and thus [with most goods growing at a rate of 1 per round] a maximum of at most 14 of a good available for use. [Note that I'm going to use the 2-player non-expanded game for all of my examples, as it displays Agricola's microeconomy most clearly.]
It breaks down in a bit more complicated manner than that, but that's the gist of it. There's a "3 wood" space available from the start of the game, so there are really 42 wood available between the players. The "1 stone" space exists twice and shows up in Stage 2 [Rounds 5-7] and Stage 4 [Rounds 10-11], so there could be as many as 15 or as few as 12 stone available. Cows show up in Stage 4, so there will either be 5 or 4 available to be taken. These counts are dramatically low for all that the game asks you to do with your resources. If both players decide to build 1 new wood hut room [5 wood cost] and all 15 of their fences [1 wood each], for instance[not uncommon at all], that's 40 wood taken between them, leaving only 2 wood for the rest of their combined actions [yes, I know... I'm getting to the cards and such later].
This is, truth be told, not terribly different from something like Le Havre, which is also a time-limited game with very restricted goods growth. It is different from something like Catan or Stone Age where a) the game's length is indeterminate [so players could communally decide to just keep collecting resources forever, making scarcity a relatively moot point] and b) resource quantities available are indeterminate [the amount available will depend on chance / the dice; whereas the maximum possible is easily calculable based on an assumed number of turns, it's nowhere near the amount you actually will expect to see in the game]. It is also different, and importantly so, from something like Through The Ages or Antike where my choice to take resources does not directly affect the quantity available to you. Agricola revels instead in scarcity of and limited availability of resources.
I mentioned availability of resources in Agricola, so that probably could use an explanation. In economics, the availability of scarce goods or resources is defined in two ways: "rivalry" and "excludability". The property of "rivalry" means that my use of the good or resource affects your ability to use or enjoy the same good or resource [a rock concert is an example of a good that is not rivalrous, if you don't believe such things can exist]. The property of "excludability" means that I [as the owner or seller or maker of the good or resource] can prevent you from even having access to the good in the first place [a rock concert, for instance, is excludable--you need to buy a ticket--despite being non-rivalrous--once you have a ticket, you can enjoy it as much as the bloke sitting next to you]. An example of a good that is rivalrous but is not excludable [since I've used the opposite example] is a lake full of fish, a public forest, etc. If I fish there, you won't be able to catch as many fish, but I can't prevent you [since I don't own the lake] from fishing.
Most scarce raw resources [the things that economic producers use to make "consumer goods" to satisfy wants] are of this category: rivalrous but non-excludable. And thus are the resources in Agricola. If I take the accumulated wood, you are prevented from taking it until next round, but I can't say at the start of the round "Hey, you can't take that wood". The goods are available until used [non-excludability], but in being used become unavailable [rivalry]. One of the central problems of economics is solving how non-excludable goods or resources can be transformed into excludable goods [which are easily profited from] or can be profited from without such a transformation, or whether they should just be left alone as non-excludable and trusted to our common use. When we get into political debates about capitalism, socialism, or communism as competing economic structures, this is essentially what we are talking about. This is also one of the chief reasons we pay taxes.
The most truly and purely economic answer [maximizing satisfied wants; the goal of economics] to the question of what to do with non-excludable resources can be shown [or at least argued; I'd argue it, at least] in general to be "leave them as non-excludable" [phrased in political language, "let the market decide"]. An "economic" game in which every resource is essentially excludable [most auction games, for instance; things like Goa and Genoa are close examples built mostly on excludability-based models of resource distribution] misses one of the central distinctions in economics and misses the chance to model one of its central problems. Games that toy with excludability [Keythedral, Le Havre] are more interesting than this last group, but I do not find them to present as compelling of an economic problem as games like Agricola. Agricola's wide-open non-excludability is why the title "multi-player solitaire" often levied against it is particularly stupid. The game is about one of the central interactions in human existence.
The concepts of scarcity and rivalry / excludability lead into the concepts of choice and cost. In economics, choice is analyzed in a very particular way. Because we are faced with infinite wants we cannot satisfy all of them simultaneously. Because our wants are disparate [food, shelter, love, happiness, pride, acceptance, fun, refrigerators, etc], they are not easily comparable. If all you want is a banana, you can easily walk to the grocery store, look at the selection, and choose one based on the relative / comparable qualities of the bananas available for sale. How if you want a banana and a blender and didn't have the resources to purchase each? You would not take the best looking bunch of bananas, the most feature-laden blender, hold them side-by-side and say "Yep, that bunch of bananas looks better than this blender", after all. Neither would you say "Well, that's five bananas to one blender, so I guess the bananas are better." These wants are incomparable [even moreso than "apples and oranges"], it seems.
On the other hand, if your resources were infinitely available to satisfy your wants, you wouldn't make the choice at all. If you're dying of starvation, walk into an all-you-can-eat buffet, and see chicken and fish on the line, you're not going to ask yourself "Hmmmm... would I rather have the chicken or the fish?" No, you will take one piece of chicken and one piece of fish [well, ok... two pieces of fish, you really like fish] and be done with it. Unfortunately, life is not an all-you-can-eat buffet. Most of the choices we're forced to make look a lot more like the banana-v-blender billing above, where our resources are not only limited but the want-satisfying power of the possible uses of those resources are quite different [let's say, sustenance vs convenience in our bananas vs blender example]. How do we make these choices? Better still, since we're taking the role of a third-party observer / academician, how do we understand and analyze these choices when they are eventually made? The answer is a concept called "opportunity cost".
"Opportunity cost" is, put simply, the value of the option you didn't take, or perhaps the opportunities that you might have met with had you taken the road more traveled. It is the value of what you give up [explicitly and implicitly] in making a choice between two or more exclusive options. Note that I said "value of" not just "it is what you give up". The economic cost of the bananas in the above example is a) their price [the explicit value given up in terms of personal resources; ""], but also b) the want-satisfaction you would have derived from picking up the blender instead [the implicit value of the alternative use of your resources; ""]. The cost of the bananas is not "the blender" per se, although that's a good proxy for ease of discussion. To put it in simpler terms and ignoring the monetary cost, you are choosing "sustenance" over "convenience" [the two different want-satisfactions in question] in choosing the bananas. The "cost" of the bananas is the added convenience the blender would have given you. In making the choice, you've declared that sustenance is "worth more" to you than is convenience [if you're questioning this summary distinction, just wait... we haven't got to marginal analysis yet].
This concept is best applied to situations where the choices represent widely disparate types of want-satisfaction. If, for instance, you were instead choosing between an investment that provided 10% return for a $100 principal and one that provided 11% return for the same investment, you could say [stupidly] that the "opportunity cost" of the second investment [which you'd obviously choose] included the $10 you would have gained by choosing the first investment instead and that, by implication, $11 is "worth more" to you than that $10 you "would have" had... but this is pretty irrelevant and meaningless. That you prefer more to less of a single want-satisfying thing is obvious, even if we imagine a world without scarcity. That you prefer one type of want-satisfaction over another and would choose it rather than the other is not obvious, not easily explained, and is a condition that only exists in a world of scarcity. Deciding how best to get "more" of a single type of want-satisfying thing [wealth, for instance] is not, in essence, an economic decision, it seems to me. Deciding how best to get the most overall want-satisfaction when the two choices are not denominated using the same type of want-satisfaction is an economic decision.
Agricola asks you [at least directly; we'll see the indirect effect when we move on to marginal analysis] to make decisions between disparate things. So called "economic" games like Age of Steam or Brass: Lancashire or Container [I include this last one because I do consider it "economic" in nature, though of a different sort than Agricola, whereas the others I do not] ask you to maximize a single variable and make choices based on expected valuations along one dimension only. Agricola, on the other hand, asks you to choose between "4 wood" which are used for moving toward greater action availability [rooms], action efficiency [improvements], and animal capacity [fences] and "2 sheep" which are used for moving toward greater food efficiency [cooking] and victory points [as sheep]. [Yes, I realize rooms, improvements, and fences also grant points; again, more on that later, as we're talking about direct effects only for now.] How do you value the capacity to hold 2 sheep [a possible use of 4 wood] over and against the 2 sheep themselves? This is an economic question, and I guess to answer it we'll move on to marginal analysis at last.
So I've been kind of pulling the wool over your eyes. Obviously you can't model an individual's competing wants for sustenance and convenience very well in a game without giving them some kind of overlap / common denominator. That is, eventually all of the various "wants" you're role-playing as having in the game must be denominated in either points or "wins" in order to have meaning. Otherwise, you're not playing a game and are instead just "playing house" or otherwise just role-playing. Agricola is a VP-driven game [that is, it's not a win-condition game like Risk or Chess], and so everything in Agricola [wood and sheep alike] are eventually denominated in victory points. One of the more clever things, however, that Agricola does is give nearly everything VP values. Many resource games [let's say Roads & Boats, for instance] only give you VPs for a few uses of resources, all the rest [buildings, workers, infrastructure, etc] being merely "means to an end". In Agricola, almost everything you do gives you points; everything is its own end.
Many people complain about this feature of the game, saying it makes every game "feel the same" since your finished farm basically always "looks the same". They have a point, but their point misses the point. That Agricola awards you for literally everything you do is what gives its opportunity-cost decisions meaning. To meaningfully make an economic-style choice [between widely disparate resource uses], you have to be able to make a reasonable estimation of the expected satisfaction you'll derive from either choice. If, for instance, someone asked you whether you'd rather have bananas or a GarbleGargleator 5000, you'd be hard-pressed to make a reasonable choice not knowing what the GG5000 offers you. In many games with only limited scoring outlets, the very early items in the VP-production chain are quite difficult to value economically because their eventual contribution to your score is unknown or practically unknowable. This makes for some interesting games, to be sure, but it doesn't make for interesting economics.
In Agricola, on the other hand, you know that 4 wood can give you one pasture which is worth a certain amount of points and can hold a certain number of sheep which are themselves worth a certain number of points, and that 2 sheep [your next best choice, let's say] are worth a different amount of points. It's all summarized quite neatly on the player aid. So, you can see what you're going to use the wood for, what you're going to use the sheep for, and make a decision based on the immediate [and potential, if you're planning to use the wood to house more sheep or count on using some of the sheep to feed yourself to avoid begging cards] VPs you will get from them. You can compare the two incomparable "satisfactions" in terms of their expected point value, and the conversion is done easily enough to be meaningful. In economics, the conversion to a common denominator is commonly done in terms of fictitious / imagined "units of happiness" [often colloquially dubbed "utils"--for "utility", a fancy economic term meaning "happiness"--or even "happies"] and/or money. You'll choose based on which option will give you the most VPs, utils, or money, whatever the denominator best suited to your situation turns out to be.
But wait... the choice of denominator isn't the only situational concern. No, the valuation itself is situational. Look back at the player aid card [or just recall how Agricola works]. If you have no pastures at all, 1 pasture isn't worth 1 point, but 2 [since you avoid the -1 loss and switch out instead to a 1 point gain, a net of 2 points]. Contrarily, if you have 4 pastures already, 1 pasture isn't worth 1 point, but 0 [since you can't gain any more points in that category]. If you have no sheep at all, 2 sheep are worth 2 points, If you have 1 sheep or 8 sheep already, they're worth 0 points. If you have anything in between, they're worth 1 point. 2 sheep aren't always 2 sheep, in other words, but their value changes based on the situation. This changing of the value of potential resource uses based on your current situation is called "marginal" gain / benefit. It's opposed to the "absolute" or "total" gain / benefit. When we talk in these terms, the typical phrasing isn't absolute terms like "2 sheep" but relative / marginal terms like "2 more sheep". Economic decisions aren't based on whether we'd like "2 bananas" or "2 blenders", but whether we'd like "2 more bananas" or "2 more blenders". This is the diamond/water paradox from before: "1 diamond" is nearly always worth more than "1 glass of water", but "1 more diamond" when you have 10 million of them already or are dying of thirst might be worth considerably less than "1 more glass of water".
And so economic analysis is done "at the margin", comparing the relative value of adding something or other to our current situation rather than the absolute value of things divorced from our need of them. In Agricola, this is felt starkly due to the shifting VP conversion of resources / resource uses. If you don't have anything in a scoring category, "1 more" is worth quite a bit. If you've already maxed out the category, "1 more" is worthless except for the potential indirect use in avoiding loss in some other category [filling up an empty space on your farm board--for "1 more" pasture past your 4th--or providing additional food needs--for "1 more" sheep past your 8th]. When faced with a decision between "4 wood" and "2 sheep", what you're really doing is judging between "4 more wood" and "2 more sheep" and what those added quantities mean to your current situation, and as your situation continues to improve the value of more of the same thing declines to you. This is known as the "law of diminishing marginal returns" in economics and it is only eclipsed in importance by the concept of scarcity itself. Contrast Agricola's smoothly-declining-value model to something like 18xx where "1 more" share is always worth exactly the same in terms of eventual sale price and expected dividends [risk of a company dump and value toward majority control are the only shifting values]; players would nearly always buy as many shares as possible in 18xx and so the game forces them to choose carefully by limiting the number they can hold.
Marginal returns are the reason economies [buyers and sellers; more generally, traders and barterers] exist. If "1 blender" was always worth the same amount and, let's say, always worth the same as "5 bananas" [and so on for every other good pairing in the world, each with an absolute trade price], then "the economy" would boil down to nothing more than who could go out and claim as many raw materials as possible as fast as possible and then make them as efficiently as possible into as many goods as possible. The planet would quickly go into a tailspin as there would be nothing but butting heads and a vague sense of responsibility to posterity keeping people back from cutting down every single tree on the planet to make into whatever wood-based commodity offered the best tree-to-good conversion rate. This doesn't happen, however, and it's not because of government interference or the goodwill of humanity, but because of [diminishing] marginal return.
At a certain point, the trees-to-goods conversion stops looking so good for tree-cutters. At first, the cost of cutting down trees and converting them to, let's say, animeeples is less than the price the market will offer in return for said animeeples. If this was absolute, tree-cutters would cut down every tree they could find and sell them as animeeples and rake in massive profits. But, it isn't the case that the conversion is absolute. Eventually, there are so many animeeples [it doesn't matter how many that is] that there is no money to be had by converting trees to animeeples [the marginal return--profit earned in the market--from "1 more" batch of animeeples is lower than the marginal cost--expense of cutting down and milling--of making that batch]. Trees stop getting cut down for animeeples and either stop getting cut down altogether or get cut down for some other use until that too becomes unprofitable. In this way, in a world of infinite needs / wants we still choose to make less than the maximum possible use of our resources [what we might expect]. Rather, we choose to make the optimal use of our resources given our marginal rates of return and marginal cost structures.
And, this is how an economy is born, because we're not really talking about "wood-cutters" and "animeeple buyers" as massive conglomerates [they don't all cooperate and act / decide together], but as individual producers and buyers. And, there's no reason to expect that these individuals, with their individual situations, face the same marginal return / cost structures. "1 more" batch of animeeples might not sell to game-producer X for higher than its production cost, but it might sell to game-producer Y at a high enough price to make it worth tree-cutter Z's production of that batch. But why would game-producers X and Y choose to associate with tree-cutter Z at all? Why not just cut down their own trees and make their own animeeples? The reason, again, is marginal return / cost. Just as the first sheep is worth more than any of the others in a game of Agricola, the first sheeple made probably costs more than any of the others in an animeeple-producing situation. You have to buy all the equipment, hire all the people, figure out the logistics, etc before you can cut even one lousy sheeple.
That is to say, the marginal cost to game-producer X of making "1 more" [than the zero they are currently making] batch of animeeples is staggeringly high compared to the marginal cost of wood-cutter Z's marginal cost of making it, and probably both X and Z's costs are higher still than meeple-maker M's marginal cost of an added batch. For this reason, game-producer X, who doesn't have the overhead / infrastructure in place to make animeeples [even though, and this is important, they could go out and get said infrastructure], will not make any animeeples and will instead focus on making things they do have infrastructure in place for, namely games. They will consider how much they can sell the games for, make estimates of how cheaply they need to get animeeples for them, suggest a fair price to tree-cutter Z or meeple-maker M for a batch of animeeples, and hope that Z or M are able to make that "1 more" batch of animeeples at a marginal cost to Z or M that is lower than the price that X offered. All of this sounds ridiculously complicated, but it happens every second of every day and is the central reason people engage in economic activity rather than live out their lives as "rugged individualists".
Let's imagine some rugged individualists anyway. Say we have Farmer Able and Farmer Bob. Let's say each of them have 10 fields available for use. Let's imagine Farmer Able is true to her name and has exceptional farming ability, such that she can grow 50 bushels of wheat or 40 barrels' worth of wine grapes in any of her 10 fields. Let's say that Farmer Bob is a country bumpkin with no especial farming proclivities at all and can only grow 10 bushels of wheat or 20 barrels' worth of wine grapes in any of his 10 fields. These two farmers have never met, and in fact don't even know that anyone else in the world exists. They grow wheat to feed their family and wine to keep them happy. They "live off the land", do the best they can, and hope not to have to take too many begging cards. What will their life situation look like? How well, exactly, can their families live? Will they starve? Will they enjoy any wine? Let's find out.
Below is a table of the possible field usage for Farmer Able, and the mixtures of goods she can provide for her family to enjoy:
10 wheat, 0 wine = 500 bushels, 0 barrels
9 wheat, 1 wine = 450 bushels, 40 barrels
8 wheat, 2 wine = 400 bushels, 80 barrels
7 wheat, 3 wine = 350 bushels, 120 barrels
6 wheat, 4 wine = 300 bushels, 160 barrels
5 wheat, 5 wine = 250 bushels, 200 barrels
4 wheat, 6 wine = 200 bushels, 240 barrels
3 wheat, 7 wine = 150 bushels, 280 barrels
2 wheat, 8 wine = 100 bushels, 320 barrels
1 wheat, 9 wine = 50 bushels, 360 barrels
0 wheat, 10 wine = 0 bushels, 400 barrels
And here's what Farmer Bob can provide his household:
10 wheat, 0 wine = 100 bushels, 0 barrels
9 wheat, 1 wine = 90 bushels, 20 barrels
8 wheat, 2 wine = 80 bushels, 40 barrels
7 wheat, 3 wine = 70 bushels, 60 barrels
6 wheat, 4 wine = 60 bushels, 80 barrels
5 wheat, 5 wine = 50 bushels, 100 barrels
4 wheat, 6 wine = 40 bushels, 120 barrels
3 wheat, 7 wine = 30 bushels, 140 barrels
2 wheat, 8 wine = 20 bushels, 160 barrels
1 wheat, 9 wine = 10 bushels, 180 barrels
0 wheat, 10 wine = 0 bushels, 200 barrels
Wow. Sucks to be Farmer Bob, doesn't it? Able can make those 200 barrels of wine and still be able to make 250 bushels of wheat on the side!
Let's imagine these two suddenly meet for the first time [remember, they don't even know anyone else exists in the entire world]. What will Able say to Bob and vice-versa? Will she point and laugh and make fun of his inferior farming technique? Well, possibly, but there's an alternative. Let's say that Able and Bob's families both ascribe to the "man shall not live by bread alone" doctrine [so they're not going to produce all wine and no bread if left to their own devices], and that they obviously can't survive on just wine [so they're not going to produce all bread either], but that they don't make too much of a big deal over whether they have a lot of bread and a little wine or a lot of wine and a little bread. That is, let's imagine Able is pretty much equally happy if her family has 450 bushels of wheat and 40 barrels of wine, 50 bushels of wheat and 360 barrels of wine, or really anything in between. As long as her family has a bite to eat and a tipper or two to relax with in the evenings, she's pretty happy; in fact, she's indifferent [the technical and colloquial term align nicely here] to any of the exact combinations in between the extremes [this is a simplification of preferences, but it represents most of our experience fairly well; regardless, it's just a nicety and not integral to the analysis].
So whether Able has exactly 250 bushels of wheat to 200 barrels of wine or 200 bushels of wheat to 240 barrels of wine isn't of great concern. Let's imagine a similar situation for Farmer Bob. Now let's imagine that Able is currently making 250 bushels of wheat and 200 barrels of wine [5 of each type of field] and Bob is making only 50 bushels of wheat and a meager 100 barrels of wine [also 5 of each field, but he's just plain inefficient]. Now, let's imagine that Able's family wants to throw a party to introduce the family to their newfound friend Farmer Bob and wants a bit of extra wine for the celebration. She arranges to have Farmer Bob bring over some of his wine, and [being the friendly sort she is] offers to give him wheat in return. Let's say she asks for 40 barrels of wine [ok, so maybe she's a bit pushy] and agrees to give up as many bushels of wheat [an even exchange! what could be more fair!]. What happens? Able now has 250 - 40 = 210 bushels of wheat and 200 + 40 = 240 barrels of wine and Bob has 50 + 40 = 90 bushels of wheat and 100 - 40 = 60 barrels of wine. Look very carefully at these numbers and then back at the tables above. Able has as much wine as she would have had if she had split her fields up 4/6 instead of 5/5, but she has an extra 10 bushels of wheat that she wouldn't have had in the 4/6 scenario; Bob has as much wine left over as he would have had had he split his fields up 7/3 instead of 5/5, but he also has an extra 20 bushels of wheat that he wouldn't have had in the 7/3 scenario.
Between the two of them, there are 30 extra bushels of wheat! Where did the extra bushels come from? The fact of the matter is that this isn't magic, a misjudgment, or statistical malfeasance, but the inescapable result of trade when marginal costs differ between traders. Looking back on the data, what is the marginal cost to Able of the 40 extra barrels of wine she wants [that is, what would she have to give up to get them on her own]? She'd move from 250 bushels of wheat to 200 bushels of wheat to get from 200 barrels of wine to 240 barrels of wine, so the marginal cost of 40 more barrels of wine is the 50 bushels of wheat she has to give up producing [in the field that will now be producing wine instead]. In fact, the tradeoff is 50 bushels of wheat per 40 barrels of wine regardless of where her initial production mix. Let's look at Bob's situation from the same perspective: What is he giving up to satisfy the 40 barrel request from Able? Think of it this way: If he really didn't need those 40 barrels of wine, and he adjusted his production accordingly, how much extra wheat could he get on his own by not producing the 40 barrels of wine he's going to trade away anyway? In moving his production from 100 barrels of wine to 60 barrels of wine, he goes from 50 bushels of wheat to 70 bushels of wheat. That is, his marginal cost of continuing to produce the 40 barrels of wine instead of wheat on those fields is 20 bushels of wheat per 40 barrels of wine.
To summarize: Without trading [that is, only changing the production mix in their fields] Able would have to give up 50 bushels of wheat to get the 40 barrels of wine she wants, and Bob could get 20 bushels of wheat on his own by giving up the 40 barrels of wine he's considering trading. Let's go back and look at the trade terms which had seemed so demanding. Able offered Bob 40 bushels of wheat for the wine, which is 10 less than what she'd have to give up to get the wine herself, so she's happy with the deal. Bob in fact is quite happy, too, because the 40 bushels of wheat he'll be receiving from Able is twice what he'd be able to get for the wine on his own. Both parties are better off trading than they would have been trying to reach this new mix of wheat / wine on their own. In fact, Able can offer anything from 49 to 21 bushels of wheat for those 40 barrels and both parties will still be happy. This is called "gains from trade", is one of the central truths of economics, and only and inevitably occurs because the marginal cost structures differ between economic actors [our farmers].
A very important thing to note is that both parties can benefit from trade even though Bob is absolutely [and demonstrably] a "worse" farmer than Able. He is simply unable to produce as much wine or as much wheat as Able. If he goes whole hog into wine and makes 200 barrels, Able is looking on and can match his wine production with 250 bushels of wheat to spare. But Able doesn't point and laugh as we had anticipated, but instead says "Hey Farmer Bob, how about I give you some of my wheat for your wine?" She does this not [exclusively] out of the kindness of her heart or a desire to see Farmer Bob better off, but simply because it makes her better off than she ever could have been otherwise. This is because Able's marginal cost of wine with respect to wheat given up is much higher than Bob's. Bob is not "better" at making wine, in the absolute sense, but he is better at making wine than he is at making wheat if we consider the ratio of Able's two production efficiencies as the standard. Compared to her ability to make wine, he has the advantage. [In fact, economists call this "comparative advantage".]
Now we get to the meat of this essay [!] at last. Agricola throws a woefully misunderstood monkey wrench into the works when it comes to marginal costs, the much maligned occupations and minor improvements. Most of the complaints against the game come of the form "The cards are too random", "The cards are unbalanced", "Some cards are just better than others", "Some cards are overpowered", and so on. If we were to phrase this in the language we've been using, these complaints are analogous to saying "Farming ability is so unfairly distributed", "Farming doesn't provide equal opportunity", "Some farmers are just better than others", "Some farmers have all the luck", and so on. While all of these criticisms are more or less true [the "less" is that I don't think "unfair" is itself a fair criticism of unequal opportunities], they miss the point dramatically. The point of the cards in Agricola isn't to provide players with absolute advantages, but to change their comparative advantages. The proper scope of analysis, like in our farming example, is at the margin rather than in absolute quantities.
Now, one might argue "but absolute ability is all that matters; after all, we're being judged on our overall output [score]." The latter is true enough, but I don't think the system is set up to favor absolute advantage as much as one might be led to think. Here's why: The game's scarcity provides an implied / pseudo gains from trade effect when the cards are added to the mix. There are, as we noted, only 42 wood to go around in an entire 2-player game. Without the cards, each player will face the same marginal cost of taking some of this wood, namely whatever the "next best" thing available is at each turn. Because each player faces the same game state throughout, whenever the marginal cost of wood is less than its marginal gain the first player who can take it will take it. Each player "needs" the wood as much as the other. There will be occasions where, because the marginal cost of wood is too high, the "first player who can" will take something else that just so happens to tweak the marginal cost of the wood to Player 2 such that it's now to their benefit [and would also be, if it came around to them, to Player 1] to take the wood. That's fine. Let's just guess the wood splits up 50-50, or 21 each. Each player "needs" [at least] 21 wood, let's say.
Now, what happens when we introduce some cards into the mix? Say we have some simple buff cards like the ones above, that just give you more of the same when you take something. Let's pick a stupid example [it may not exist, probably doesn't] of a card that gives you "+3 wood" whenever you take wood. All of a sudden, what was equal footing becomes unequal and the taking of wood will depend on something other than "first come first served" [which is all it depends on if each player faces the same marginal cost / return of wood]. If Player 1 has the "+3 wood" card, suddenly their marginal return for taking wood has increased; put another way, the marginal cost of taking something else has increased [if they take "2 sheep" instead of "3 wood", they're now giving up "6 wood" instead, making it a more costly choice]. Player 1 now has a greater incentive to take wood than player 2 has, because they gain a greater return and face a greater cost if they choose something else. Does this mean Player 1 will now take wood disproportionately more often, leaving Player 2 in the dust in the race for wood because they're facing an uphill battle against the superior wood-gathering ability of Player 1? I'm going to argue the answer is "no, not necessarily".
Now, you must remember that Agricola is a game about choices at the margin and about diminishing margins. Put simply, there's only so much you can do in the game with wood. While it's true you'd probably like more than "your fair share" of 21 wood, that's limited... once you have a new wood room, all your fences, a couple stables, and an improvement or two, wood stops looking so good [its marginal return--the value of "1 more" wood--decreases]. That is, you're not just going to act exactly as before [taking your "21 wood" however you can get and then stacking all the rest on top, for some insane 40+ wood-collected total]; eventually, it's just not worth it to keep up that action scheme. Let's say you wanted 1 room, all your fences, 2 stables, and 2 improvements that cost 1 and 2 wood; this is a total of 27 wood. If you're Player 1 with the "+3 wood" card, how might you get to this amount when "your fair share" is only 21 wood? The mechanics of it don't really matter much, but let's assume [for the sake of argument] that you take 3 wood the first turn [always a good choice], play out the power card on the next [let's say for the sake of argument it's a free minor improvement and you played it on "Starting Player" after Player 2 played an occupation; again, the specifics don't matter], and then take 3 wood in every second round until round 9 [say you had better things to do and let Player 2 sneak in and take some "3 wood" spots in the meantime].
Now what do you have? You've taken "3 wood" in Round 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9, and earned an additional "+3 wood" in rounds 3, 5, 7, and 9, for a total of (5 + 4) * 3 = 27 wood. Bingo. You've collected all the wood you planned on getting [let's say you planned correctly, too]. You've sure been hogging the wood, though; how does this leave Player 2? They've gotten "3 wood" in rounds 2, 4, 6, and 8, for a total of 12 wood to this point... but they still need to get to at least 21 to be as well off as they would have been in the game before you got the added incentive to start hogging wood early. Oh look, there are still 5 more rounds to play, meaning they could potentially pick up 5 * 3 = 15 more wood in the game, giving them a grand total of 27 as well [their 12 from < Round 9 and their 15 from > Round 9]. Because your card allowed you to reach your wood-gathering goals sooner / easier / better than you otherwise would have, it left more of the scarce wood on the table for them! This is not an exact instantiation of the "gains from trade" effect we examined with Farmers Able and Bob, but it is a very very close analogue. The same thing has happened: A comparative difference in marginal costs / returns has led to mutual gains. What happens in the Farmer example is that an absolute scarcity [defined wheat / wine yields per field] is handled by the pair with greater efficiency when they trade; what happens in the Agricola example is that a shift has occurred to the previously-assumed-to-be-absolute level of scarcity.
A few parting words remain to be said, probably because you realize a few more places where I'm pulling a bit more of the wool over your eyes [yes, more farming puns]. For one thing, you might argue that Player 1 above still has a great advantage in that it takes them only 5 actions to get to 27 wood while it takes Player 2 potentially 9 actions [if, say, they need some in the mid-range rounds between 9-14 after spending 4 actions picking up wood piece-meal in rounds 1-9]. This is true enough. If Player 2 defers taking all the newfound "extra" wood that Player 1's card has "introduced" into the game for too long to save actions, it will build up due to the goods growth mechanism and suddenly start to look appealing to Player 1 again [for God only knows what reason] even though they've already used 27 in the game. Not only that, but they might need the wood earlier than Round 14 [which would put them at the same action and resource efficiency as Player 1: 27 wood for 5 actions], but the key distinction is time preference.
This is another economic assumption that Agricola toys with: Given the choice, people prefer to have "x" now rather than later. "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today" might be the common knowledge phrasing of the effect. If I want a hamburger, I want it now, and I'd rather have it now than Tuesday. If I know I'm going to want 27 wood in the game, I want them as soon as possible, and I'd rather have them sooner than later. In economics, we find that people will pay more for the privilege of having something now rather than later [convenience store soft drinks, a house or car, etc]; whether it's "more" paid all at once [convenience store] or paid over time [house or car], it's way more than it would cost if you were willing to wait "awhile". Same in Agricola; if you have immediate need for some of that wood you were otherwise going to take in Round 14, it will cost you: namely, it will cost you an extra action. This is a much more typical type of scarcity in games, so it didn't seem worth going into much, but it's here in spades [ah! another pun?!], as it were.
So, yes... Player 1 is still "at an advantage". Is it "unfair" or "unbalanced", though? I don't think so. In fact, I think it's among the more clever systems for balancing widely disparate advantages in all of gaming. There is an immediate and explicit benefit to the holder of the advantage [Farmer Able can simply produce more and enjoy more on her own than can Bob], but there is also an implicit [though subtle and often overlooked] benefit to others that interact [even "indirectly" through the worker placement mechanism] with them. Few games affect the scarcity of my resource availability when you get a bonus giving you more of them. But, this is exactly what happens in real economics, and exactly why I think Agricola is the front-runner in the world of economic-themed boardgames. There is a functional "microeconomy" [both "micro" literally--the game's small world!--and "micro" in the technical economic sense of an economy of individual economic agents--farmers!] inside of Agricola's multitude of clever mechanisms.
Hey... so that's it! I've been promising this post since I started this blog, so I hope it lived up to expectations.
Go off into the sunset and enjoy this great game, maybe with a fresh new take on what it has to offer the economic gamer.
And remember that economics isn't essentially about money but about margins, and isn't about stocks but about scarcity.