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Subject: Agricola Review by Psyched for Games rss

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Psyched for Games
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For the full review including high-quality pictures please visit https://psychedforgames.com/home/2017/9/24/agricola

Theme

In Agricola you take on the role of a husband and wife pair of subsistence farmers someplace in Central Europe during the 17th Century. You begin the game with nothing more than a two-room wooden shack, a few pieces of food, and a plot of land on which to build your farm. Over the course of the game, you will plow and plant fields, raise and care for various farmyard animals, hunt and gather raw materials, build and construct various improvements, and, probably most importantly, grow the size of your family.

Like any good subsistence farmer, you are responsible for providing for all the basic needs of your family including food and shelter. At the end of a game of Agricola you will need to make sure that you have diversified your farmstead with a nice collection of fields, pastures, stables, grain, vegetables, sheep, wild boar, and cattle, because if you are lacking in any one of these areas you have not provided for all the needs of your family (i.e. you lose points). And while you are trying to figure out how to build the best subsistence farm around, there is the constant specter of famine hanging right outside the door to your wooden shack. If you don’t have enough food to feed your family come harvest time, people are going to suffer.

I can think of very few games in which the theme more closely integrates with the mechanics than Agricola. Each round you get a certain number of actions based off the number of family members you have (thus why growing your family is so important), but in many cases you can only grow your family if you have added the rooms to your house in which that family member will live. And the end of each stage the animals on your farm reproduce and you harvest from any fields that you have planted. You can even keep one animal in your house as a family pet, although I’m not sure in reality European farmers actually kept Bessie the pet cow in the family living room.

As I watch my little farm grow and develop across my board, I can actually picture myself going around carrying out the daily routines of my farm, just without the manure (though there is a manure card that improves the efficiency of your fields). Now, this is coming from someone who has never worked a day of his life on a farm, so my perception is probably far removed from reality. Either way, Agricola’s theme is tightly interwoven into the fabric of the game and I can think of only a few minor instances in which the theme and the mechanics don’t line up in perfect harmony.

Components

If you don’t already own a copy of Agricola you are sort of in luck, because if you were to go out and purchase a copy today, not only would you get all the great wooden and cardboard components that came with the game when it was first released back in 2007, but you would also get “animeeples” in the shape of sheep, wild boar, and cattle. Back in my day (insert old man voice here), a copy of Agricola just came with little white, black, and brown wooden cubes representing the different animals that could reside on your farm and if you wanted your pieces to resemble their actual animal analogues then you had to “pimp” your copy of Agricola by buying the “animeeples” from a third-party vendor. (Thanks again for the animeeples, Josh.) In all seriousness, because part of Agricola is how you physically lay out your farm on your board, you will actually be placing these “animeeples” in little pastures and stables around your board, which adds a beautiful visual aesthetic to the game far preferable to stacks and piles of cubes.

The remainder of the components in the game are of good quality. All boards and cardboard pieces are of a nice, thick quality and have not warped even after eight years of consistent play. The game comes with 360 cards representing everything from occupations you can adopt to minor improvements you can build. These cards have stood up well to the test of time. It probably helps that in general, the cards are only shuffled once at the beginning of the game, unlike the cards in Dominion, which are shuffled over and over again throughout the course of the game.

I also really enjoy the artwork by Klemens Franz. Franz is one of the more prolific artists in the board game universe, particularly eurogames, and I find myself immediately drawn to any game for which he has done the artwork. In Agricola, specifically, there are so many unique cards, I am actually quite amazed that Franz was able to develop different illustrations for each one. I also, really appreciate the little details that he added to many of the game pieces. For example, in one of the rooms you can build to expand your house, if you look carefully you can actually see a game of Agricola laid out on the family table (so meta)! And not to bring up manure again, but on the “Liquid Manure” card, Franz actually drew a picture of a fly that looks like it has landed on the actual card as opposed to being part of the illustration. Little touches like this, as well as overall bright, engaging art can be found throughout the game’s components.

Gameplay

For many gamers, yours truly included, Agricola is the quintessential worker placement game.

The game is played in a series of 14 rounds, which are grouped into 6 stages. During each round you will alternate between players taking one action by placing one of your family members each turn until all players have run out of possible actions. Once a particular action has been taken, it will be unavailable to all other players until the next round begins. At the end of a stage, you will enter the harvest phase where any animals you have gathered will breed, any crops you have planted will be harvested, and any family members will need to be fed. The harvest phase is one of the tensest moments of the game. During the harvest phase you will need to pay 2 food for each family member you have or otherwise take a beggar card, which carries a -3 point penalty, for each food you were unable to provide. In a game where the point differential between 1st and 2nd is often less than five points, this is a huge setback, and very easy to do if you are not paying attention. There are only a few action spaces that provide food for your family, particularly in the earlier stages, and if one of your opponents just happens to take the space you were depending on, it can really mess up your whole game.

I find this incredibly compelling, because it means that I need to carefully consider every move to ensure that my family doesn’t starve. One very simple and common example of this conundrum is the “Fishing” action space, which accumulates 1 food per round until someone eventually takes that action. If it is my turn and I know that Harvest is coming up next round, I have to make a decision on whether to take the “Fishing” space now with its accumulated food or if I should wait until next round where there will be even more food, making my action much more efficient. But, if I wait, I run the risk of not getting any food from the “Fishing” space and have to desperately scramble to find other ways to feed my family.

I recognize that not everyone will enjoy the weight that is put on each and every turn. Many individuals have criticized Agricola for being far too harsh and unforgiving when you fail to anticipate your opponent’s moves, but I strongly disagree for two reasons: 1) the theme of the game is subsistence farming, it is supposed to be harsh and unforgiving, and 2) this prevents the game from becoming multiplayer solitaire. Yes, you are playing on your own board and there can be a tendency to only focus on what you need to do on your turn, but I have found that successful play in Agricola demands that you pay attention to what your opponent is doing so that you can, with some accuracy, predict what his/her next move is going to be. For example, in the last game I played against William, there were a few occasions where I needed to bake grain into bread to ensure enough food come harvest time, but I also wanted to grab a nice stockpile of clay to add rooms to my home. By carefully watching William’s board and his actions I was able to see that he did not have any good reasons to claim the “Bake Bread” action space and I was safe to grab the stockpile of resources and “Bake Bread” on a later turn. I ended up winning that game pretty handily (Sorry William, maybe next time!)

I think this is why Agricola remains one of my favorite games of all time even after I have played countless other worker placement games; the need to attend closely to all players keeps me engaged throughout the entire process. If this tension does seem a little too much for you then I would recommend you check out Le Havre or Caverna, both games designed by Uwe Rosenberg, but which are substantially more forgiving when it comes to making mistakes, particularly early in the game.

Like most eurogames, luck plays very little into the outcome of a game of Agricola, but there are two randomized elements that I believe add significantly to the success of the game. The first of these is the randomized order of the action space cards. At the start of a 2-player game there are 10 different action spaces that are available to claim (more action spaces are available with more players). Over the course of the game more action spaces will become available as you proceed through the rounds and these action spaces are randomized within a particular stage. For example, the ability to gather sheep, sow seeds and bake bread, build improvements, and build fences will always show up during Stage 1, but you do not know the order in which they appear. This can have a dramatic impact on how the game plays out, because an early “Sow and/or Bake Bread” action space may encourage me to pursue a strategy of growing crops rather than raising animals.

The other randomized element, and probably my favorite, are the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards. At the start of the game you will receive 7 Occupation cards and 7 Minor Improvement cards. There are variety of ways to distribute these cards, but according to the official rules, each player should just be dealt 7 of each type of card at random. Over the course of the game, you will play these Occupation and Minor Improvement cards using various different action spaces, but you will never have enough actions or resources to play all of them. So, you must take the time to carefully analyze the cards that you have been dealt to figure out the best way to use these cards and the bonuses they provide to further your game. In particular, you will want to look for synergies between the cards such as that between the Woodcutter and the Brushwood Roof. The Woodcutter allows you to gather extra wood whenever you take wood and the Brushwood Roof allows you to replace out reed (a hard to come by resource) with wood which should be in much greater abundance for you due to the Woodcutter. With 169 different Occupation cards and 139 Minor Improvement cards, it is almost impossible that you will receive the same set of cards no matter how many times you play the game, and there are a near infinite number of possible synergies. I love the possibilities Agricola presents at the beginning of the game.

In addition to the randomized Occupation and Minor Improvement cards there are the Major Improvement cards which are present in every game of Agricola. These cards generally allow you to build things like a fireplace or an oven that allows you to convert animals, grain and vegetable into food. Which method of feeding your family you will choose for any particular game will most likely vary based on the set of Occupation and Minor Improvement cards you received. You should, however, keep in mind not to specialize too much, because final scoring not only gives you points for things you were able to accomplish during the game, but it also penalizes you for things you were unable to accomplish. It will matter very little if you have a whole herd of sheep, but you never bothered to plant any grain or veggies, or improve your home. Diversification is the key to success in Agricola.

One final reason why Agricola remains near the top of my favorite games list is that it taught me two of the most important lessons of modern board gaming:

1) The More Actions, The Better

Sometime during Stage 2 of Agricola the “Family Growth” action space will be revealed. By taking this space you will be able to add a new family member who will be able to take actions on subsequent rounds. After only a couple play-throughs I quickly realized that one of the goals of the game was to be able to get a 3rd, and eventually a 4th and 5th member of your family as soon as possible. These additional family members are not only worth points at the end of the game, but they allow you to take more actions each round. When you get to take 3 actions per round compared to your opponents’ 2 actions, that is a clear advantage. This understanding has carried over into almost all other board games I play and I will look for those choices that allow me to conduct bonus actions in almost all game situations.

2) Action Efficiency

Agricola also taught me to never use two actions to accomplish a task when you can wait and use one action. Since most of the resource actions spaces accumulate resources over time, you want to wait as long as possible to take those action spaces so that you gather as many resources as possible and do not have to waste actions going back to that same space again. Of course, this carries the risk that someone may claim the space before you get the chance, and to me this is what makes for a great worker placement game; the risk reward calculation you have to make each turn regarding your various actions options.

Psyched?

If you haven’t figured it out by now, let me tell you that I absolutely adore Agricola. It was the first worker placement game that I ever played and I believe it may hold that position even until today. It has the perfect balance of competition with other players without a take-that mentality; it gives you a real sense of accomplishment when you survey the farmstead you have constructed over the course of the game (Agricola was the first game I took a picture of so that I could show off to other players), and it has a theme that just fits right in line with the mechanics.

So, who would be psyched to play Agricola? I think gamers of all stripes would enjoy Agricola, even individuals who generally prefer lighter games. You could even play Agricola with the family variant which removes the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards, but considering how much I believe they add to the game, that is not something I would prefer to do. While your hardcore wargame grognards may not enjoy Agricola, I feel very confident everybody else seated around the table will be having a good time, even if you are struggling to feed your family.

If you enjoyed this review, check out more like it, including high-quality pictures at www.psychedforgames.com
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Alexandre Santos
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Great review!

Quote:
You can even keep one animal in your house as a family pet, although I’m not sure in reality European farmers actually kept Bessie the pet cow in the family living room.


Actually it was common to have livestock in the same building where people lived, but often on different floors.
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Dan The Man
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AlexFS wrote:
Great review!

Quote:
You can even keep one animal in your house as a family pet, although I’m not sure in reality European farmers actually kept Bessie the pet cow in the family living room.


Actually it was common to have livestock in the same building where people lived, but often on different floors.


Read "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond.

A modest analysis shows some holes in the conceptual details, but there are some interesting insights if not extrapolated to the author's paperback-selling extreme.
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Psyched for Games
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First of all, thanks for taking the time to read the review.

You are both correct regarding cohabitation of animals and humans on medieval farms. I have actually read portions of Guns, Germs and Steel, but I guess I always imagined that they would keep smaller animals such as sheep or pigs inside the house, but I guess there is no reason you couldn't have brought a cow inside, assuming you had the space.
 
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Peter Strait
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You wouldn't if you could avoid doing so, but if you had a family cow and nowhere else to put it (as in, had to bring it inside during a storm), you'd make do.
 
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Geoff Burkman
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Good overview; you might have made mention of the typical battling for Start Player as a signature characteristic of gameplay.
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Psyched for Games
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That is a very good point. Although I have played the game with everything from 2 to 5 people, most of my recent plays have been with only 2 players where I think being start player is slightly less important than with 4 or 5.
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