[This review was originally posted on my blog Ludo Lodge]
A full list of my game reviews can be found HERE.
My Number of Plays at Time of Review: 75
Agricola is a worker placement game about running a farm in the 17th century, designed by Uwe Rosenberg. Players will strategically take actions with each of their family members to acquire the resources necessary to upgrade their home, sow and harvest in fields, store livestock in pastures, and fill the empty spaces of their farmyard, all while keeping their family fed. After 14 rounds, every farm will be graded according to a variety of scoring categories, and the player with the highest-scoring farm will be the winner!
Agricola is a game with a lot of rules. So while this won’t be a comprehensive explanation, it should give a basic feel for the gameplay. At the beginning of the game, each player’s three-by-five square farmyard will be mostly empty, except for two wooden rooms that form their house. One player is randomly selected to go first, and receives the first player marker. During each round, players will take turns placing one of their workers onto a space on the main board, executing the specified action while also blocking subsequent players from playing in that spot. Play will rotate around the table until all workers have been placed, at which point they are returned to the player boards and a new round will begin.
Each round, a new action card is added to the main board, providing an additional space for players to place their family members. These are randomized from game to game, though the same group of cards will always appear between the same harvests. Examples of actions that are available from the beginning of the game include taking wood, taking clay, taking reed, taking fish (food), adding a room to your house and building stables, plowing a field, etc. Some of these actions (specifically the building resources and fish) accumulate from round to round if they are not taken, so sometimes a large pile of tokens becomes too attractive to pass up on. Players keep all of these resources at the top of their board, available to be used for a variety of different effects that require specific resources.
Staggered throughout the game, between certain rounds, there is a harvest phase. During this phase, three important things happen:
Take the Top Off of Each of Your Fields – Fields can be sown with grain and vegetables throughout the game, and it is during the harvest that you get to “reap what you sow.” The top crop from the stack on each field is moved to the player’s general supply, where it can be freely used for food, replanting fields, or other purposes.
Feed Your People – For each member of a player’s family, they must pay two food (unless they are an infant who was added in the previous round, who only requires one food). It is critical that players focus on having enough food for each harvest, as there are steep penalties for coming up short.
Animals Reproduce – For each type of animal (sheep, wild boar, or cattle) of which a player has two or more, they receive one additional animal of that type, as long as they have somewhere on their farm to hold it. For example, getting two sheep at the beginning of the game could potentially add another sheep every remaining harvest.
Once the harvest is complete, play proceeds to the next round. As the game progresses, fewer rounds are allocated between harvests, requiring players to try to build up an infrastructure and engine that allows them to keep up with the feeding demands while still making progress in other areas of their farm. This “progress” takes several different forms, including:
Extending and Renovating Your Home – You can build additional rooms onto your house, and also renovate it from wood to clay, and then clay to stone. At the end of the game, each stone room is worth 2 points, each clay room is worth 1 point, and wooden rooms are worth nothing. Extending your home is also useful because it allows you to grow your family and have more workers.
Plowing Fields and Sowing – At the end of the game, you will score for how many total fields you have, as well as how many grain and vegetable tokens you have accumulated. When you take a sow action, you can plant a grain or vegetable from your supply into each of your empty fields. Doing this allows you to stack an additional two grain or one vegetable on top, where they will wait to be moved to your general supply during each harvest. There is a lot of room for multiplying your crops if you are patient as well as efficient with when and where you sow.
Storing Animals in Pastures – A pasture is considered an area that is completely fenced in, and you will score based on your number of pastures at the end of the game. Additionally, each pasture can hold one type of animal, totaling two in each square (or four in each square if the pasture contains a stable). You will also score for how many sheep, wild boar, and cattle you have at the end of the game. Each stable that is within a pasture will also give you a point.
Growing Your Family – Each player starts the game with two family members, but has the potential to grow to a total of five by the end of the game. Not only does acquiring more family members give you more workers for taking actions each round, but they are also worth 3 points each which is a very substantial portion of the final score. Growing your family isn’t easy however, as each new member is “another mouth to feed” and requires you to have a food strategy that can support a larger family.
Filling Empty Spaces – At the end of the game, every empty space will incur a 1 point penalty. So not only should players look to excel in all of the areas specified above, but they should try to complete their goals in a way that simultaneously fills as many spaces in their farmyard as possible.
Score Points By Playing Cards – Agricola has an abundance of cards that come in the form of Major Improvements, Minor Improvements, and Occupations. I will touch on these more later, but many of these cards will provide additional scoring opportunities that players can try to take advantage of.
Clearly there are a lot of ways to score points in Agricola, but the big kicker is that the scoring rubric strongly encourages you to be as well-rounded as possible. For any scoring category in which you do not have anything, you not only miss out on potential points, but you actually lose a point. In addition, most scoring categories cap out at 4 points, meaning that there is no incentive to go above and beyond in one area.
Everything described here has the makings of an interesting worker placement game about building your own farm, but what really makes Agricola come alive is the cards. At the beginning of each game, every player will receive 7 Occupations and 7 Minor Improvements from a large deck (assuming you just shuffle everything together like I do, there are options to play exclusively from specific card sets). Occupations typically provide a strong special ability that you can utilize throughout the game, while Minor Improvements tend to be more subtle bonuses and scoring opportunities. Once these cards are dealt, each player is going to analyze their options and try to formulate a strategy that best capitalizes on the synergies that they found in their hand. Throughout the game, they will have opportunities to play these cards by meeting their prerequisites and paying the appropriate resources. Players will need to be flexible with their strategy as the game progresses and certain cards become impractical to play, and others maybe become more feasible. Besides each player’s hand of cards, there are Major Improvements that are available to all players that are identical from game to game, ensuring that common improvements (fireplaces, ovens, etc.) that are critical to many of the basic strategies are always an option.
After all 14 rounds have been completed and the final harvest has been resolved, final scores will be calculated going through each scoring category one by one and totaling them up for each player. No surprise here, the player with the most points will be the winner.
What Is It Like to Play?
Agricola is not a game for the faint of heart. It does not give you participation points for playing, and if you play poorly, it will take every opportunity to reflect your shortcomings in the final scoring. A core problem is presented by Agricola: how can you build up an engine that requires less and less actions spent on collecting food, and more actions focused on expanding and upgrading your farm? I am quick to remind new players repeatedly that the number one thing they should be thinking about from the beginning of the game is their food strategy. It is easy to look at your cards and have grand visions of combos that will upgrade your house, grow your family, or let you build tons of fences; but lose sight of the fact that it is your food strategy that is going to make any of those options possible.
This emphasis on food means that most rounds have you pondering, “how can I get enough food for this harvest, but still expand my house by a room? Or grow my family for an extra worker? Or build a pasture to take some sheep that can start breeding?” All of these things not only will score you more points, but will allow your strategy to snowball and be even more effective in future rounds. It is a balancing act, and it keeps a steady tension throughout the game that is amplified slightly by the fact that there are other players that are unpredictably competing for the action spaces on the board. It isn’t enough to avoid resources that other players are focused on either, because the game penalizes you for any category you ignore. It is up to you to find ways to efficiently cover the necessities while leaving margin for the actions that can push your farm forward.
Here is just a sampling of the kinds of inner dialogue that a player may have:
I really want to grow my family as soon as possible, which is going to require me to build another room. That said, I was planning on using my wood to build a pasture so I could pick up sheep and let them reproduce and combo with the fireplace as a basic food strategy. Without that food strategy, I am going to have a hard time supporting the third family member even if I can get them. I think I’ll focus on getting the sheep for now, but try and pick up enough wood for a room with just one action, perhaps by taking the first player to get first selection in the new round. Plus, that would give me an opportunity to play this Minor Improvement that will supplement my food strategy.
I have enough food to feed my people, but only if I eat my grain, which means I won’t have it available to plant in my field. I really want to get it planted, but was hoping to get a vegetable first so I could plant both with a single sow action. I could just take the Fishing space to cover my food, but I was also hoping to take the Family Growth action right before the harvest so that the infant wouldn’t require as much food. I think I am going to have to push the Family Growth out until next round… hopefully getting my fields sown will give enough of a boost to my food strategy that paying the extra food for the worker won’t matter.
I really want to base my strategy around this powerful Minor Improvement, but it requires three Occupations to play. This is going to be difficult since every Occupation after the first requires food, so I really need to focus on extra food out of the gate. I think I’ll play the Occupation that helps me most with food first, to hopefully accelerate how quickly I can get all three played. It may also be worth scooping up a Fireplace for cheap early on so I at least have the option of grabbing a pile of animals later and cooking them if I get in a pinch.
All of this discussion of how Agricola offers no charity and challenges players to scrape by and find a way to slowly progress their farm may have you wondering, why play something so punishing when there are plenty of highly-rated strategy games where playing poorly is still enjoyable? The answer really boils down to there being an innate level of satisfaction in overcoming obstacles. This is true in life in general, and the reality is that when you play well in Agricola, you feel a sense of accomplishment in how you pulled everything together against the odds. Not only will you be able to see your final farm which will tell a story of how you built up from your modest wooden house to your final layout, but you will also remember how you made tough decisions along the way, constantly adapting your strategy to reach your goals.
How is the game's replay value?
Outstanding. The unique hand of cards that players receive during setup always presents a new puzzle in how to approach the game. The abundance of cards ensures that you are always running across new combos or creative plays that you haven’t seen before. There are some other subtle factors that keep each game fresh (the round action cards slightly varying in the order they appear, for example), but it is really the initial hand of cards that gives Agricola practically infinite replay value.
How does it play at different player counts?
Agricola plays well from 2-5 players, though my favorite count is probably 4. Different action spaces are available from the start based on the number of players, but it also changes what Occupations are available from the large deck of cards. At 4 players, all Occupations are available, but the game plays more quickly than with 5, making it a bit of a sweet spot. Player order and the start player token begin to play a more crucial role in larger games as well. If the player to your left takes the start player token in a 5 player game, you feel the pain as 4 players get first pick on actions before you each round. I find the added weight on start player adds more interesting decisions, but all things considered, I would not turn down a game of Agricola at any player count. It is worth mentioning that there are rules for solitaire play, but I haven’t tried them myself.
What games are similar?
Most of Uwe Rosenberg’s other big box games. I say that a bit tongue-in-cheek, but there is no denying that Rosenberg has established his style with a large number of games that employ similar resource collection and worker placement mechanisms in different ways. This list includes Caverna: The Cave Farmers (spiritual successor to Agricola that increases the game space to explore at the expense of the setup variability that comes from Agricola’s cards), A Feast for Odin, Le Havre, Fields of Arle, Ora et Labora, Glass Road, At the Gates of Loyang, and Nusfjord. Other games on the brain-burning side of the spectrum that give a sense of building progression are Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization, Gaia Project/Terra Mystica, and Keyflower.
How long is the setup time?
Agricola is a big game, and it takes a little bit of time to get all the boards set up, resources organized, and decks appropriately shuffled and placed. I would estimate that experienced players could go from opening the box to playing within 10 minutes. That said, the first 10 minutes of gameplay is often all of the players sitting and evaluating their hands of cards before the first round even begins. This is really part of the game though, and one of my favorite parts of the game at that.
How difficult is it to teach new players?
Agricola is fairly challenging to teach. For one, it has quite a few different areas to explain, each with their own mechanisms and rules for how you interact with them. But beyond simply teaching rules, I believe that teaching Agricola well requires an extra level of strategic explanation to prevent new players from drowning on their first play. I have already mentioned how Agricola is an unforgiving game that penalizes you for not being well-rounded, and it is not out of the question that a new player could end up with a score around zero, where all the positives they achieved are just cancelled out by negatives. However, an enjoyable experience is certainly possible for a first time player, given that the instructor really emphasizes the kind of strategic thinking that it takes to be successful in Agricola. Lacing into the explanation comments like, “your number one priority is a food strategy, and the most typical routes for feeding your family more efficiently are cooking animals and baking grain, with some other secondary options that may become more feasible from your hand of cards” will help to frame the actions in the context of not making mistakes that are common to inexperienced players. This style of teaching is generally effective for any board game, but the dangers of only teaching rules without general advice is really magnified in a game like Agricola.
Things to Like
Cards Make Every Game a New Puzzle to Solve
When I pick up my fourteen cards at the beginning of the game and look through them, my mind just starts racing to consider all the possibilities that emerge from the unique combination of abilities that I have access to that game. I end up picking a few cards that I want to try and base my strategy around, as well as several possibilities that I want to keep in mind as I watch the game progress. There are always new combinations that you have never utilized before, and you may even find yourself wanting to try a unique approach that may be suboptimal, just to experience something new. The core system of Agricola is very tight and engaging, but for me, the initial hands of cards are the game’s biggest strength.
Limited Workers Provides Constant Flow of Meaningful Decisions
This is not a game where you casually throw down your workers on spaces because you “feel like it” (at least not if you are playing well). Because you have so few actions each round, every decision is crucial to you being able to execute on your plan. Some will see this kind of pressure as a negative, but I find that it provides an extremely satisfying mental puzzle to chew on. The process of figuring out how many actions it will take to cover your family’s food for the harvest, and then weighing the different options to determine how to best use the remaining actions, is always engaging. There are some worker placement games where I choose certain actions because “oh, I might as well do this.” In Agricola, I never feel that way. Every action I take feels like a critical component of pulling my vision together, and that causes me to become even more immersed in the gameplay and execution of my strategy.
Balance of Multiplayer Solitaire and Player Interaction
Modern board gaming has birthed a genre known as “Multiplayer Solitaire” where players are each working on their own thing, and don’t really interact. Agricola has some of this flavor as each player is working to build up a farm on the board in front of them. However, the competition over the communal actions spaces on the main board keeps the game from lacking interaction. As you are trying to pick out the most effective actions to take, you must also consider how likely they are to be taken before you, and how crucial they are to your strategy. Perhaps growing your family is the most important action this round, but you know you can wait on it because no other player has expanded their home to allow them to take that action. How much would it hurt you if someone took those sheep before you do? This continues the trend of every decision feeling meaningful and interesting, because not only do you need to decide which action helps you the most, but you must also be aware of which actions won’t be available for very long. Additionally, more aggressive and high-level players will take this interaction further and intentionally block players while still supporting their strategy. All of this comes together in a great balance between working on your own isolated puzzle, while still retaining player choices that affect each other in meaningful ways.
Creativity in Both Strategy and Tactics
At the beginning of a game of Agricola, each player is going to form an ideal vision in their mind of how they intend to bring together the cards from their hand into a winning strategy. The process of forming this vision leaves a lot of room for creativity. The cards, which are the building blocks for the strategy, come in a combination that you have never seen before, and you need to start visualizing the different ways that you could use them together. Two different players could look at the same hand, and come away with completely different approaches which is a testament to the role that creativity plays in the beginning of the game. But as the game progresses, that “ideal vision” is inevitably going to become less feasible, or changes in circumstances may make options more or less desirable. As a result, the player needs to continue to apply their creativity throughout the whole game, constantly recalibrating what initiatives are most important, and considering alternatives that were never part of the original plan. The way creative choices are laced throughout both the long-term strategy and action-to-action tactics produces a sandbox of options to play around with, while maintaining a tight and focused set of goals.
Completed Farm Gives Sense of Accomplishment
At the end of a game of Agricola, you don’t just have a score marker on a track that represents actions that have come and passed over the duration of the game. Rather, you have a farm in front of you that is a literal manifestation of your point total. Each farm tells a story as you remember the order that you managed to bring it all together, often times scrambling to make some big strides in the final rounds of the game. This satisfaction in seeing what you have built also helps to leave a good taste in players’ mouths, even if they lose. Your farm may not have scored as highly as another player, but you can still look down and appreciate what you were able to accomplish.
Things to Dislike
Unforgiving Nature Can Be Demoralizing, Especially for New Players
I mentioned earlier that it is a real possibility that a new player could finish with a score close to zero points, whether because of a lack of guidance from the instructor, or simply due to not grasping the concepts well enough to achieve a good score. Nobody likes to spend a couple of hours trying to build and have almost nothing to show for it. The reality is that for Agricola’s strengths to be as prominent as they are, it comes at the cost of punishing suboptimal play with little mercy (there is a reason some gamers that don’t enjoy Agricola call it “misery farm”).
Well-Rounded Scoring Rubric Can Limit More Creative Paths to Victory
For some, it may be a huge complaint that Agricola forces you to get a little bit of everything to avoid penalty, and also caps most scoring categories at 4 points. Players may wish that it was a viable strategy to ignore grain and vegetables for a game, and just go crazy with a sheep strategy. But that simply is not the game that Agricola is designed to be. For me, I find the scoring criteria to be both thematic (a good farm should have all of these elements), as well as strategically pleasing. When I am forming that vision at the beginning of the game, I enjoy the tension in having to balance my grandiose aspirations with the reality that I can’t ignore other components of my farm. And when you do manage to get 4 points in one or more categories (or more than 4 points through card effects), you really do feel like you dominated that area. Rarely have I felt like I had a lot of extra bandwidth to score further in a category, even if it would have been rewarded with points. But the complaint still remains valid: while each farm in every game of Agricola will be a little different, there is still a lot about the farms that is going to be the same.
Agricola has a variety of expansions, many of which simply add new cards to the game. I happen to have the Agricola: Gamers' Deck (which unfortunately isn’t available anymore), which was a great way to beef up my available card pool with some new and interesting effects. If looking into buying a card expansion, I would recommend doing your research, as some of them are a little more “out there” and may be a disappointment if you were expecting cards in the style of the base game.
However, the main topic I want to touch on briefly in this section is Agricola: Farmers of the Moor expansion, as it is the only “full box” expansion, and changes significant elements of the game. Here is a quick rundown of what the expansion adds with some brief thoughts.
In base game Agricola, every farm started with the identical setup of just two wooden rooms, and an empty farmyard. Now, each player draws a random starting card at the beginning of the game, which will then show them how to place forest and moor tiles onto their board. I will touch more on the purpose of these tiles shortly, but the advantage here is that every player now has a slightly different starting position. This not only adds some interest to how you approach your strategy and decide to use your cards, but it also naturally causes your farm to look different each game. One of the negatives I touched on with the base game was how the scoring rubric stifles more exotic and creative paths to victory, resulting in farms that look fairly similar. With this addition, farms are more likely to diverge in their layout, which adds both strategic and aesthetic interest.
Heating Your Home
Thought feeding your people was stressful enough? Well now you also have to heat your home every harvest as well! Players learning the expansion cringe when they hear that there is another demand added to the already stressful harvest phase, and it’s true: you now need to provide at least one wood or fuel token for each room in your home each harvest. However, this added difficulty is relieved in a couple of ways. First, you can lower your heating demand by one or two tokens by renovating your home to clay or stone, respectively. Besides making thematic sense (better insulation), this now makes it a more valid strategy to renovate earlier in the game. Now you actually gain an immediate advantage when renovating , whereas before, it only made it more difficult to extend your house with new rooms. But the primary reason this heating doesn’t bump up the stress-o-meter is because of the addition of special actions.
When playing without the expansion, every action you take requires a worker. Farmers of the Moor shakes that up with the addition of special action cards. These are available for players to take in the action round instead of playing a worker, provided they have at least one worker remaining. The special cards provide a choice between effects like gaining a food or playing a card from your hand, as well as some new actions such as Cutting Peat and Felling Trees. This is where the forest and moor tiles come into play. Cutting Peat allows you to remove a moor tile from your board, and gain three fuel tokens. Felling Trees allows you to remove a forest tile, and gain two wood. The fact that you start with these tiles on your board, and the special action doesn’t require a worker, means that the heating requirement discussed earlier can practically be covered without even using your precious family members. But this is useful for more than just heating. Short just one food for the harvest? If you manage to get the food from the special action, you now have a worker freed up to invest in another area of your farm. This is a huge change, and I actually find that it can reduce the stress of Agricola in a lot of cases, because you have a little more flexibility outside of your exact number of workers. The special actions also include “Slash and Burn,” which allows you to turn a forest into a field, and gain a horse, because now there are horses as well!
Horses are a fourth animal type, which is one more thing to get a negative for if you ignore it! That said, horses are gained through the special action which will already spare you a worker, but the bigger detail is that there is no cap on scoring horses. This is unlike anything in base game Agricola. If you have 9 horses, you score 9 points. For players that didn’t like that they couldn’t dominate an area and get rewarded for it, horses provide one isolated category where they can live that dream.
New Major Improvements
All of the original Major Improvements are still available, but now there is a new Major Improvement under each one of them (as well as four cards that form two completely new stacks). I won’t go into much detail with these, but they provide some more interesting options that are available in each game, at the expense of more information overload for what players can do. This addition, along with the rest in this expansion, highlight the fact that the expansion is meant to be enjoyed by somewhat experienced players of Agricola.
118 Minor Improvements (!)
While the expansion doesn’t add any Occupation cards, it does add a ridiculous amount of new Minor Improvements, many of which interact with the new elements the expansion introduces. I have probably sung the praises of Agricola’s cards enough at this point, so it is safe to say that I love adding more variety. It should be mentioned that the cards have different backs, so it is fairly easy to filter them out if you are teaching new players and playing without the expansion.
Overall, I love The Farmers of the Moor. Given the choice (and assuming I am not teaching new players), I would use all of its additions in every game of Agricola I play. It expands the game’s play space to provide even more interesting situations and strategies, improving on what were already Agricola’s strengths. I do only recommend it for players that have really sunk their teeth into the base game though; the expansion will be most rewarding if you have a really strong command of what the game already has to offer, and it does add a bit to the overall game length. Additionally, I have no problem leaving out the expansion if playing with new players. Not only is it easy to remove the extra components, but it still provides an amazing experience and I quickly forget that things like the forest/moor tiles and horses/special actions are even missing.
Game Design Perspective
As I have played more board games and observed my own personal tastes, it has become apparent that one of my favorite styles of board games are ones where there is a strong core gameplay experience that allows for near-infinite expansion in the form of abilities that change from game to game. Not only does it appeal to me as a player, but it excites me as a designer because I love generating content that lets you bend the rules of the game in new ways. Agricola is pretty much the poster child for this category of games. Without changing any of the core elements in play (though I do really enjoy the new elements introduced in The Farmers of the Moor), you could continue to create endless amounts of cards that provide new interesting opportunities within the game. Additionally, the opportunity afforded by expanding the game with cards scales exponentially rather than linearly. That is to say, adding a new card ability not only creates options in and of itself, but also has the potential to combo with every other card that already exists in the game. This leads to a very emergent development of strategy where the designer himself is not aware of the strategies that exist, but rather has provided the building blocks that leave the players to discover how they can be assembled. Another good example of this kind of game design is Cosmic Encounter. Not only are there tons of alien powers that give each player drastic abilities, but the dynamic of the game will change completely depending on the combination of aliens that are in a given game. In my mind, Agricola without the cards is an extremely well designed, strategic eurogame. But what makes the design more impressive to me, is that it is designed in such a way that opens up a large design space to explore tweaking subtle parts of the core system to add content with no rules overhead. I imagine Uwe Rosenberg had a lot of fun designing cards for Agricola once the core game was finalized, and that is the kind of design that I aspire to create as a game designer myself.
Agricola has been my favorite board game for 5 years in a row now. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you find that the tension of difficult decisions is something you enjoy in a game, and the thought of starting every game with a unique array of rule-bending options and combos excites you, I have yet to find a game that consistently delivers as rewarding of an experience as Agricola.