The Agricola Advent Calendar
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Agricola designer Uwe Rosenberg has been compiling what he calls an "advent calendar" at this website: http://www.cliquenabend.de/index.php?page=artikel&artikel=ag.... Each day, he provides a short entry concerning the design and development of one of the hottest games of 2007. Unfortunately for English speakers, the website is all in German. The good news is that several people (including Michael Wissner, Andreas Buhlmann, Matthew Watson, Michael Miler, Eugene van der Pijll, and Melissa Rogerson) have translated these entries. I find them to be a fascinating glimpse into the creation of this great game. Fellow Geek Doc_Adam suggested that it might be nice to organize these into a Geeklist, to be updated as the translations come in, and I agreed that this was indeed a good idea. So here are the words of Uwe Rosenberg on his master creation.
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1. Board Game Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
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A single-handed game

"Agricola" is called the first "grand Rosenberg", "grand" not in the meaning of "important", but "grand" as in "for once, it's not a card game". It's an economic game, that doesn't deal with "grand" affairs as well, but lets players care for their family's wellbeing. Instead of struggling for great profits, they struggle against hunger.

To publish the game with all that material I wanted in it after almost two years of development, I offered it to only one publisher but soon decided to publish it single-handedly at Lookout Games. The editor whom I had shown the game encouraged me in making this decision: "We would probably do it, but I don't think that we'd do the author a favor by doing so."

As thanks for that friendly advice I immortalized him on one of the occupation cards. He owns the game. I'm afraid I don't know whether he has found himself yet.
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2. Board Game: Heavy Weight Boxing [Average Rating:5.50 Unranked]
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A weighty game

Many gamers probably know Lookout Games, the publishing company owned by Hanno Girke and me, because of a huge number of Bohnanza expansions. "Bohnanza" is a trading game published at Amigo in 1997. We have some subscribers that come by and pick up their "personal number" every year. In 2007, the "Year of Agricola", we deliberately didn't publish a new Bohnanza expansion but instead hosted a Bohnanza illustration contest that yielded a game with 116 different and unique illustrations of beans.

We focused on our largest and most expensive project to date. We put so much material in the box that we overlooked the fact that the game weighed more than 2000 grams [about 5 pounds] in the end. It contains 360 cards and more wooden pieces than any game before (the former holder of this record is said to be "Caylus", a wonderful game I will talk more of later).

We should try and get sponsored by companies that charge packet size and not weight!
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3. Board Game: Caylus [Average Rating:7.85 Overall Rank:40]
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The inspiration

Agricola's month of birth is December 2005, while November 2005 is the "month of pregnancy". "Caylus", by William Attia, was the most popular new release of that autumn. I was so drawn into that game that I played it every evening for two weeks. During these days, however, I mused over the design of my own game. In "Caylus", players take turns in placing exactly one worker each on ready-made action spaces, such as "Take 1 Wood" or "Erect a building". Each round, new action spaces and thus new possibilities become available, but sadly the number of workers never changes.

This bothered me. I tried to think of a theme which would justify the restricted and controlled increase in the number of people that I wanted. Hiring workers rather falls within the scope of unlimited possibilities of growth. Fathering offspring as a couple, however, has a temporal limitation to it. Definitely.
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4. Board Game: Antiquity [Average Rating:7.84 Overall Rank:229]
 
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The theme of Farming

In 2005 the theme of Farming was on my mind in more than one respect. For years I've had good memories of "Dicke Kartoffeln" (Abacus, 1989, Doris Matthäus and Frank Nestel), in which every player cultivates potatoes (sometimes ecologically, sometimes for profit) on up to five fields by placing field tiles on their respective farmyard.

And I had just incorporated the harvest mechanism from "Antiquity" (Splotter Spellen, 2004, Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga) into another economic game. Called "Vor den Toren von Loyang" (At the gates of Loyang), I continue to offer it to publishers, but if necessary I'll publish it on my own (as I did with "Agricola"). The harvest mechanism in "Antiquity" intends for the player to either consume or cultivate (and thus multiply) the wares in his supply. As in "Agricola", a cultivated ware is complemented with wares from the common supply. At the end of a round, each player may take one ware back from each field and put it in their personal supply.

The theme of raising livestock had another origin. I had Klaus Teuber's "Löwenherz" (Goldsieber, 1997, Kosmos today) in mind. I had wanted to use boundary markers to stake off something else than kingdoms for a long time.
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5. Board Game: Puerto Rico [Average Rating:8.08 Overall Rank:12]
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First Design Approaches

I added these established ingredients to my idea of having players father offspring. I started with the house building. In order to increase family size, players should be required to extend their houses. I quickly arrived at the idea of allowing for different building strategies. The players should be able to renovate their houses and if they wanted to extend them afterwards it had to be on the new level. I committed myself to the building materials: wood for the wooden hut, clay for a clay hut, and stone for a stone house. That wood would also be used for the boundary markers, the fences, mentioned above was obvious.

I pondered over further uses of clay and stone. Following the tradition of Puerto Rico (Alea, 2002, Andreas Seyfarth), I wanted stone to be used towards the end of the game for erecting buildings that were worth points.

I found another use for clay. To have the players plan the point of time at which to have their offspring in the game, they should have to pay a fee for each of their family members. Was there anything more obvious than to have them gather food? I liked the fact that "Nährwert" (food value) sounded a bit as if it were a currency. Thus clay was to be the material the players are supposed to use to build things that help them feed their family, clay ovens and fireplaces among others.

So each of the three materials now had two usages. I threw in reeds as an admixture material. Reeds were supposed to be used for the various buildings' roofs.
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6. Board Game: Funkenschlag [Average Rating:7.57 Overall Rank:1085]
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Modern Economic Games

For me, part of a modern economic game is the fact that money takes a backseat. It's either not present at all, like in "Die Siedler von Catan" (Kosmos, 1995, Klaus Teuber) or it has the sole purpose of earning the more important "currency" of victory points.

Friedemann Friese, the author of "Funkenschlag" (2F-Spiele, 2001/2004), shaped the idea that an early decision of the outcome of the game can be prevented in economic games by letting players convert money (that will inevitably generate more money) into victory points that, as opposed to money, do not generate additional value.

Thus every player behind in points could be able to catch up by taking a risk and postponing the continuous converting of money into victory points.

In earlier economic games such as "McMulti" (Hexagames, James J. St. Laurent, originally "Crude" in 1974), "Schoko & Co." (Schmidt, 1987, Yves Hirschfeld and Gilles Monnet) and also "Dicke Kartoffeln" the player with the most money won.

Introduced by "Börsenspiel" (Ravensburger, S. Spencer and F. Murray, originally 1961), stock-market mechanisms were predominant such as in "Acquire" (3M, 1962, Sid Sackson) and later "Shark" (Flying Turtle, 1987, Jean Vanaise).
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7. Board Game Designer: William Attia
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The basic mechanisms of Agricola

Both "Agricola" and I have a lot for which to thank William Attia for, not only the game's basic mechanism, which is based on ideas by Richard Breese ("Keydom", R&D Games, 1998 and "Morgenland", Hans im Glück, 2000) and which was also further developed (at the same time as by William) by Stefan Stadler and Michael Rieneck ("Die Säulen der Erde", Kosmos, 2006). William also was the one to translate "Agricola" into French at a point of time at which there were no license negotiations with France whatsoever.

This basic mechanism was also recently further developed in both the games "Tribun" (Heidelberger, 2007, Karl-Heinz Schmiel) and "Kingsburg" (Truant, 2007, Andrea Chiarvesio and Luca Iennaco) that, like "Agricola", were published in October 2007 and are distributed by Heidelberger.

"Agricola" differs from the aforementioned games in that there's a rule which states that the chosen actions are executed immediately and not in a seperate execution phase. Executing the actions separately only makes sense if choosing the actions is based on speculation so that the player always has two choices: A safe way by first fulfilling the prerequisite and then choosing the action itself, or a risky way by claiming the action first and then trying to meet the necessary condition(s). This mechanism becomes appealing if it's possible to fulfill the prerequisite one round in advance. Sadly, not all the aforementioned games use this mechanism to its fullest degree.
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8. Board Game: Bali [Average Rating:6.10 Overall Rank:5608]
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The including of action markers as a game mechanism

An interesting question is: Can the specific subtleties of a game actually be called a mechanism? Karl-Heinz Schmiel coined the term "engine" for this purpose, but you could also speak about "handling".

It's very charming to use the game figures on the action fields and snatch the same opportunity away from the other players. The games "Bali" (Kosmos, 2001) and "Puerto Rico" (Alea, 2002) work completely oppositely. The start player chooses an action which is then also taken by all the other players. In both cases, it is very important that a player's choice restrict the other players' opportunites.

This mechanism also includes the minimum interaction which every game must have. Interaction has been an important game quality feature since the end of the nineties. Most people understand by the term "interaction" that you can steal something from the other player. In my opinion, you can destroy every plan another player has if the game demands detailed future planning. The more you need to plan, the more you can annoy the others (a ploy commonly used in war games).

For Agricola, I attached importance to the rule that you can't steal food during the early part of the game. The reason for that is you shouldn't be forced into three negative points early on in a game where the winner will have 35 Points, on average, after hours of tight play.
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9. Board Game: Dream Team [Average Rating:4.92 Overall Rank:13259]
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The Agricola team

The agricola team consists of a lot people at the moment. Before William began his french translation, Melissa Rogerson from Melbourne contacted me and asked if she could translate the rules into English. She had been living in Austria for a while and therefore her German is quite good.

Our illustrator, Klemens Franz is also from Austria. Hanno met him at the gamesfair 2006. He looked for an illustrator for his Game "Die Drachenbändiger von Zavandor" (Lookout Games) with a contest, like in 2007 for "Bohnanza". Klemens was one of the attendees. Since Autumn 2006, it was determined that we wanted to have 300 illustrated playing cards for Agricola. Hanno talked with everybody on the contest and they all painted a dragon on a blank card. Klemens wasn't the only one who drew a gorgeous dragon. Hanno told him about "Agricola" and he agreed very quickly.
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10. Board Game: Pictionary [Average Rating:5.82 Overall Rank:3703]
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Klemens' preprocessing and Susanne's postprocessing

We started off in the summer of the next year. Klemens writes about our teamwork in his design notes ("Werkstattbericht", a more literal translation would be "workshop report") on www.lookout-games.de that is very worth reading. Up until the finalisation of the cards, he prepared the illustrations. 300 pictures, and in the end Hanno and I suggested corrections for at most ten of them.

Klemens had borrowed countless books and even treated his family to a visit in a medieval open air museum.

A further important person in the development process of this game is my wife Susanne. The two of us played countless two-player sessions (between 50 and 100), furthermore she proofread every text in the game. In particular, the game rules got their finishing touches by her.
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11. Board Game: Magic: The Gathering [Average Rating:7.44 Overall Rank:150] [Average Rating:7.44 Unranked]
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Some interesting disagreement with Hanno was due to the meeting of two game worlds. We wanted to publish "Agricola" in CCG language, and Hanno had quite a bit to teach me. For years, he has been the German translator of everything to do with the "Magic: the Gathering" (Wizards of the Coast, 1993, Richard Garfield); in contrast, I have nothing to do with CCGs.

In CCGs, the texts always relate precisely to what happens when and under what circumstances. They do not use the word "may", for example, because they do not require any difference between the words "may" and "can". In contrast, boardgames use "may" for everything the game rules allow and "can" for management of game materials. You can even consider CCG-speak to be a type of artificial language. In English, they've even taken it to the extent that you always use "it" to refer to the card, regardless of whether the subject of the card is masculine or feminine.

A further problem are Active and Passive formulations. Instead of the passive "you receive", you could just as well say "take". Active is easier to read than Passive, but the disadvantage is that it's not always obvious whether the active statement counts as an action. In many games, including Agricola, a player only has a limited number of actions to use. [Translator's note: So here, the point is that "When you bake bread, you also take one vegetable" might be interpreted as meaning that the player uses another action to take the food - whereas "When you bake bread, you also receive one vegetable" makes it clear that it is all part of the one action.] In the passive sentence construction, you have to watch out that you use "or, at their choice" instead of "either or", if the player can make the choice himself. [Translator's note: My example here would be: "You receive a cattle or a sheep" which might be open to a random choice; Uwe is saying that you need to say "You receive your choice of a cattle or a sheep".]
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12. Board Game: Home Alone [Average Rating:4.01 Unranked]
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Going it alone

My report now jumps back to 2005.

Starting in December, I sat at my table day after day and prepared the first rounds in Agricola. In the first week I only played until round 4, in the second week until round 7.

I had to fathom which action spaces should be there from the beginning, which should be added in the first rounds, and which become necessary later on. For example, increasing the family is not needed in the beginning as players have to add to their houses first to provide space for the offspring. Spaces with wares, however, were needed from the beginning on.

I pondered which actions I'd like to have in the first rounds and which I could vary. Occupations and Improvements were supposed to be available early.

The first improvements that I conceived were a tad weaker than the first occupations. Because of this coincidence I decided to strengthen the improvements with the bonus of becoming the first player. I decided that first player privilege should not (unlike in other games) wander around the table. Having the players struggle for turn order (as in "Caylus") didn't particularly appeal to me as well. For me, turn order has to follow seating because it's too strenuous otherwise.

I also realized pretty soon that I had to make space for the important improvements (those which generate food and give the clay its significance) so that they could be chosen in every game. I named them "Major Improvements" and gave them their own action space.
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13. Board Game: Variance [Average Rating:5.80 Unranked]
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Which actions should be variable?

I liked the idea that games could have good or bad food availability that the players would have to adjust to. Because I made planting fields a slow and lengthy development that only speeds up later in the game, I wanted to make this option available right from the start. The "Sheep" space was left as a varying action space. If it appears in round 1, food is easy to come by. If it doesn't appear until round 4, feeding your family is more difficult.

Fences, Sowing, Sheep and a Major Improvement had nice effects if they come up in different - but early - rounds. Renovation, it seemed to me, was like Family Growth - only important later. I compensated for the late appearance of the first stone with a second stone space; I didn't want to have stone available from the start of the game.

Building rooms was left, an action space that really should have come out first during the course of the game, but it was left over in my round planning - and so it became available from the start.

I only added the day laborer to the starting actions after quite a number of playtests. Frank Grieger wanted an action space that wasn't too valuable, from which you could get food if you were desperate. He wanted a space with a single food, I later made it two food. I myself quite like to play the Day Laborer space in the first rounds, when there aren't so many good actions available yet.
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14. Board Game: The Christmas Game [Average Rating:5.00 Unranked]
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First playtests

During my solo playtests, I only played up to at most the 8th or 9th round. After that, the game situation would become too difficult to handle it all by myself. In the first playtest, I sat out. Until then, I had only tested Agricola as a 3-player game, and there were 4 or us. The food didn't seem well-balanced to me. It was too hard to come by. The second playtest I also remember well. After it was played, I changed the rule that every 2 animals can have one baby animal. The animal strategy was just too strong.

Christmas drew nearer. I continued to find plenty of time to playtest the game by myself. I remember I kept testing the "Wet nurse" card, because I thought it might be too powerful when combined with the Axe. At this point, I still had no idea of the multiplicity of cards that I would create as time went on, otherwise I would not have made so much work for myself at this point.
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15. Board Game: Numbers Game [Average Rating:3.55 Unranked]
 
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Different numbers of players

I'd already started to think about the 2-player and 4-player versions. What actions could I leave out in the 2-player game? What extra actions were needed in a 4-player game? That's how the action cards that are dependent on the number of players (green backs) were developed. In the 2-player game, you play without additional action cards; in the 4-player game you have 6 cards. I decided on the number 6 early, because I wanted to lay out the entire playing area with 3 smaller game boards. The reason for this is cost: producing one game board that can be folded is twice as expensive as producing a game board that comprises four smaller boards. There was no room for more than 6 additional actions.

This plan only became a problem several months later, when I wanted to extend the game for 5 players. Because of the long wait between turns, I didn't really expect a successful test. In the end, I got the actions for 5 players onto 6 cards by using the trick of combining actions onto "either-or" Action spaces.

The more experienced you become, the more you build ways to reduce costs into your game design from the start. For publishing, I planned early to have two print sheets with identical backs. This saves costs, even if it leads to having two blank cards in the final game (in case anyone was wondering).
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16. Board Game: Three Little Pigs [Average Rating:3.00 Unranked]
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The last 3 round spaces

There wasn't much in the rules that changed during the playtesting phase. In the first games, I always varied the last 3 round spaces. I wanted to structure these spaces so that when the game went well, players would feel at the end that they had structured their farmyard exactly as they had imagined.

Renovations give points in the final scoring, but barely anything during the game. The players will prefer to renovate towards the end of the game - hence the action space for round 14. In contrast, they want Family Growth as soon as possible. Because players want to work towards getting the maximum of 5 Family members towards the end, they get a new Family Growth space where they don't even need to have space for the new Family members. The third of the final action spaces went towards planting fields. On this new action space, you can plow and then sow straight away.

Overall, the playtesting was focused on ensuring that the planting fields strategy had a comparable value to animal breeding. I have to thank Christian Becker for an important, much later change: When you buy an oven, you can use it immediately in that turn.
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17. Board Game: Always Play Fair! [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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The Fairplay ratings

Altogether, I had more than 130 test players. It is a question of honor to mention all those who helped by name and that should be a matter of course for other publishers as well. Reasons of space should not be an excuse; you can print names very small if necessary.

To pay the production costs, small publishers depend on good sales at Essen. A good game - and every game should be a good game - has to become known as such during the fair. The Fairplay ratings of the fair's visitors serve as an excellent Beanometer for determining the best games. These ratings have a larger influence on the direct sales at the fair than is generally acknowledged. If a game is one of the highest ranked, a customer only has to decide whether he likes that type of game; he can then trust that the game works well and buy it immediately. If it's placed lower down, the customer will probably want to try it first, even if it interests him, and only buy if he's certain he likes it. Those who notice this behavior are particularly interested to see that the ratings are protected against manipulations. The fact that Fairplay has made their first attempts to implement some safeguards is very praiseworthy.
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18. Board Game: Agricola [Average Rating:8.04 Overall Rank:15]
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The name of the game

Hanno and I were not sure for a long time about the game's title. Many test players pronounced the game as "Agri Cola", as if it were a refreshment drink. Miriam Bode referred us to a beautiful theme. In Australia, emigrants founded the Swan River Colony in the 19th century. They brought their technology with them, but had to develop their existence first. The colony was named after the black swans which lived there. These would have served as a very beautiful box image. I started a small survey, from which nevertheless "Agricola" emerged as the winner. Andrea Boekhoff, the illustrator of "The Scepter of Zavandor" (Jens Drögemüller, 2004) and "The End of the Triumvirate" (Max Gabrian and Johannes Ackva, 2005), ensured us that if we would write the first and last A in the name "AgricolA" in big letters, nobody would use the intonation "Agri Cola". [ed. note: Clearly Ms. Boekhoff hasn't met many Americans! ) Instead, I was actually asked on the fair once: "Who thought of that?" - with allusion to the Ricola cough drops, which one can sing so beautifully. Riiiicolaaa!
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19. Board Game: Bankruptcy: The Card Game [Average Rating:4.92 Overall Rank:13144]
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Agricola at the Essen Game Fair

Only 1050 copies of the game could be delivered to us at the Essen Messe. The bankruptcy of a wood producer messed up all the publishers. We had the games delivered to the Messe and planned a makeshift removal of the unsold copies after the Messe. We only took 2 cars, and hoped that we could sell our leftover stock to distributors and online shops on the Sunday - leftover stock that we didn't have after the 4 days of the Messe: I left 100 games for my playtesters at my home before the Messe. We sold an unbelievable 700 copies to individual customers and the rest to dealers that visit us each year at our stand.

I'm saddened by the news that in 2008 there will be no more Hall 9. We've always put value on having our Messe stand in the same place each year, and therefore being easy to find each year.

Up until the Messe, Hanno and I had no distribution partners, but we were confident enough in our game that we printed 5000 copies. After the Messe, we were anxious to make our distribution arrangements. We decided on the Heidelberger Verlag, which has done well at selling our games in the past.
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20. Board Game: Computer Rage [Average Rating:4.00 Unranked]
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The comparison to a computer game.

In the future, we want to bring out more games that are component heavy and that turn the game table into a storytelling space, using it as an overlay as in a computer game. With "Agricola", I wanted to approach the level of story depth that can be found in a computer game. "The first two expansions are already in the game" was the mantra. I really enjoyed thinking up more and more new cards and then trying them out. Most of the ideas worked wonderfully. With "Agricola", a little universe of game and invention possibilities opens up. There's not much that doesn't work. As I said above, cards should not make players lose food, because they can so easily be pushed into taking begging cards. In addition, no one should get privileges as the starting player, because such an advantage affects different players in different degrees, depending on the seating order.
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21. Board Game: Lightning Strike [Average Rating:6.89 Unranked]
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Lightning start to Agricola:

Even after the Messe, I seemed to teach the game every day. Computer games inspired me to a new way of explaining the family version of the game: "Imagine, this was a computer game and you know nothing about the game except what you see. This is wood, this is clay, etc. Try the game out and I will tell you what you're doing as you play the game. In order, you each place one person marker and carry out an action. There's building, fields, and animals. You get points at the end of the game for fields, pastures, grain, veggies and animals as well as for our house, people markers, and played cards. You lose points for unused farmyard spaces." After only a few minutes, it can start. The players discover the game while they play. This is particularly worth recommending if one game explainer is teaching 2 newbies the game. After only 90 minutes, it's all over. Including setup and packup time.
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22. Board Game: No-Joke [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked]
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BoardGame Geek

Games are being rated everywhere. Many websites are famous for this. The greatest in the world is www.boardgamegeek.com, with the best games of all time. First place of the 4000 or so ranked games is Puerto
Rico, which has been rated by over 10,000 gamers.

In mid-November, the third BGG.con took place in the USA. At the same time, a group of gamers decided to play an unfortunate prank and rate Agricola as badly as possible, to see how much they could make its overall ranking dip. Afterwards, this action was dismissed as a joke. Everyone left a "humorous" comment with their low rating, such as: Agricola was played too much at the con, the theme was boring, or they had the temerity to ask a price of $70 for the planned English version--which of course was just the result of the weakness of the dollar.

What I would like people to think about is that there are individuals behind these games who have invested a lot of time and effort in their design and development. As a designer, I want my games to bring joy to people who share my taste in games. What am I supposed to do to avoid drawing the bile of other gamers?
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23. Board Game: Deluxe Pass the Pigs [Average Rating:5.46 Overall Rank:12724]
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Agricola deluxe and international releases

What's next with Agricola? First of all, Hanno and I are very surprised by the numerous feedback concerning how to possibly improve the game. As a replacement for the starting player piece, I recommend the "farmer's wife" from Schleich (www.schleich-s.de). The field tiles might be replaced with tesserae from Rico Design (www.rico-design.de). Also, we're searching for a possibility to make wooden animals. You can marvel at some wonderful Fimo animals at the Agricola entry on Boardgame Geek. Someone has even found suitable pewter figures in England. In DIY stores you can find shadowboxes for the wooden pieces. Here, we are still looking for the most suitable one.

We're planning to release English and French versions of the game. Also, we're negotiating with the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

We hope to get a lot of feedback for the game, so that we can soon correct all the mistakes on the cards. It's almost impossible to produce over 350 cards without any mistakes. I'm toying with the idea of releasing an "Agricola - The Corrections" card deck including all the corrected cards, so that people who purchased the first edition may replace their corrupted cards. In case we're sold out quickly, there will be a second edition of the game.
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24. Board Game: Iron Horse [Average Rating:3.88 Unranked]
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Plans for an expansion

The first expansion that I now have in mind is played with an additional round 0, in which a new Round card comes into play: Iron. In a 1-3 player game, one iron should enter the game each round; in a 4-5 player game, two iron should be placed on the action card each round. I'm also thinking about having an intermediate scoring after round 14, adding an extension to each player's farm, and then extending play for another few rounds. The yard extension could, for example, be a forest area, which must be cleared so that it can be built upon or used for agriculture. The additional wood that the player receives by clearing the forest could be used for building poles to be built on a sea space. The players could build ships and trade by a sea route. If I should really make the iron field real, I would also want to think about including trade by railroads.
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