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Subject: Agricola - not quite all it's cracked up to be. rss

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Steve Duff
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Overview

You are a farmer in the 1600's with a wife, a small wooden house, and a tract of land to build on. You need to get food to feed your family, have children, collect raw materials (wood, stone, vegetables, etc), use these materials to expand and upgrade your house, plough or sow your fields, fence pastures and raise livestock. And you have a limited time to do so.

Setup

Each player has a farmyard of 15 squares to build in. Your starting house takes 2 of these squares, the other 13 can be filled with ploughed fields, fenced pastures or stables, or additions to your house. The proportions are up to you, you can have all fields and no pastures, or have some of each. Theoretically, that is. In reality, the game scoring system favours a balanced approach.

Farmyard at beginning Farmyard near game end


The main game board consists of action spaces that provide a certain benefit to you when you place one of your family members on it. Some spaces provide resources such as food or wood, some allow you to perform a specific task such as expanding your house, ploughing a field, etc.

Ten of these spaces are printed onto the board, and are thus always available in every single game. Then up to 6 action cards tailored to the number of players are placed on blank spaces on the board. For example in the five player game, one card accumulates 3 Clay each game round, while in the three player game it only accumulates 1 Clay. Ultimately, the effect is that for a two player game, the same 10 starting actions are available. For a five player game, every game starts with the same 16 actions available.

2 starting Game boards Some variable action cards

Each player is then dealt a hand of 7 Minor Improvements and 7 Occupation cards. Each deck is massive, with 166 Occupations, and 136 Minor Improvements. Occupations are things like a Mason, who gives you an extra room in your house once you have a stone house, or a Berry Picker, who gives you 1 food each time you choose an action space that gives you wood. Many of these are specific to the number of players in the game, for example the Berry Picker is only used in games with 3 or more players, so you will never use him in a two player game. These cards do not take effect until you choose the action space that allows you to play one, most players will only be able to get a few of them into play. So, choose wisely, and look for cards that work well together.

Game Play

The game takes place over 14 Rounds. Each round consists of the following identical phases:

(1) Turn over a new Round card, which gives you a new action space to choose from. These cards are random, but ordered. For example, there are 4 cards that are always the first to be used. So you know which 4 actions will be available in rounds 1 to 4, but not the order. Similarly, for rounds 12 and 13 the same two cards are available, you just don't which one will be first. It is impossible for a given action to be available early during one game such as in round 2, but late in another game, say round 10.

(2) Replenish all action spaces which accumulate resources, such as wood, clay, reeds, etc.

(3) Players alternate placing family members on the action spaces, and immediately do what the space says, such as taking the resources on it, or performing the action it allows. Actions may have costs involved, for example building a new room for your wooden house costs 5 wood and 2 reeds, so you must have already collected those resources previously. There may also be pre-requisites, choosing the Family Growth action space requires that you have already built a new room in your house for your child.

(4) Return home. Pick your family members up off the action spaces they used, and place them back in your farmyard so that you may begin the next round.

After certain rounds, Harvest occurs, and it's time to gather the crops and feed your family. At the beginning of the game this needs to be done rarely, after 4 rounds then after 3 more rounds, but it speeds up and for the second half of the game you have to feed your family every second round.

Final Scoring

After round 14, scoring is done, with the highest score winning. There are varying victory points awarded depending on how well each player did in accumulating the various resources in the game, and for expanding their farm. For example, each player with five or more ploughed fields gets 4 points. Three fields are worth only 2 points. If you have one or zero fields, you lose 1 point.

A similar point structure applies to fenced pastures, grain, vegetables, sheep, wild boar, and cattle. If you don't have at least one of them, you'll lose a point, and the more of them you have the more points you'll gain. But each has a ceiling beyond which you don't get any extra points.

Similarly, you also get points for having more family members, and larger houses. Finally, you lose points based on how many unused squares of your farmyard there are.

Personal Thoughts

Agricola is a very good game. It's fun to build up your little empty farm, and watch it grow. There's so much to do, but so little time, and of course others are competing for the same action spaces so you just can't do everything you want or need to do. Invariably, I always seem to be just one piece short, needing one more clay to expand my house, one more wood to build the pasture I need, etc.

However, I certainly don't feel it's a near perfect game, a 10 on the BGG scale that it's rapid rise to the #1 spot on the BGG charts that appears imminent would indicate.

My issues are twofold: one, the scoring system funnels players into a jack of all trades mode every game. Once you've got 5 ploughed fields, you don't get any more points for having 6, 7, 8 or more. Once I've got 6 cattle, again I'm maxed out. So you can't really attempt a strategy of "I'm going to go completely ploughed fields and wheat/vegetables this time", because you'll get hammered on the points with a -1 on anything you don't have, no pastures, no sheep, no boar, no cattle, etc. If I go all animals and pastures, I'll get docked for not having ploughed fields and wheat/veggies. So, every game you always have some of everything.

Two, the board and action spaces are just too set. Every single game played with the same number of players will always have the exact same setup. So the first few turns start to feel very scripted. "The wood is gone, so I'll plough" or "They ploughed, I'll grab the wood", etc. In the middle of the game, at the beginning of Rounds 5, 8, 10, 12, again every single game played in Agricola history has the exact same action spaces available for choosing.

Why is this a problem? A great many games have a completely fixed board, with everything printed on at manufacture. But somehow, because Agricola has them on cards instead of printed on the board, and the cards are shuffled beforehand, it feels like the board is supposed to be changing, and I can't rely on having a space available. But it doesn't, because they're grouped into stages, and each stage is only 2 cards long once the game gets going. So, if Free Family Growth didn't show up in Round 12, I know it's next, and it didn't really affect me much. The rounds with the most variation are early, but it's too soon to affect me then, because at that point you're just starting out and have so much to do that if the Build Fences action doesn't appear right when you need it, there's lots of other things that need doing.

Compare with Caylus. The tile allowing building Residences might get into the game early, middle, late or not at all. A number of the action squares never get into the game at all, if the players never build them. You're not just fighting with the other players over which actions to put your guys on, you're also fighting over which ones to get into the game and when, and who does so can have major repercussions (if you build a building other players need, you benefit when they choose it).

I think Agricola would really benefit from having more variability in the board. Like having more actions possible for a given Stage, but 1 gets randomly removed in setup. Or, make less Stages, so that certain actions would be more variable in when they appear, Round 8 through 11 instead of just Round 8 through 9, etc.

But you say what about the Occupation and Improvement cards? There's like 400 of them, that's where the variability is! That's true, but it doesn't really change the issues above. The cards make it so that certain spots on the board are better for you, or not needed at all that particular game. So they can change which spots you need. But it doesn't change which spots are available.

Wrap-up

I've rated Agricola a 7.6 out of 10. A good score, but not quite the slam dunk that's been so discussed here (don't want to use the "H" word). I don't think it's anywhere near Caylus, but I expect that a great many will disagree with me there. Even Pandemic, a game I recently acquired has made a much larger impression. Given the choice of playing Pandemic or Agricola recently, we choose Pandemic seven straight times. Probably would have been eight, but I wanted to play Agricola one more time last night before submitting this review to see if anything had changed in my thoughts. Nothing did.
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Branko K.
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UnknownParkerBrother wrote:

So you can't really attempt a strategy of "I'm going to go completely ploughed fields and wheat/vegetables this time", because you'll get hammered on the points with a -1 on anything you don't have, no pastures, no sheep, no boar, no cattle, etc. If I go all animals and pastures, I'll get docked for not having ploughed fields and wheat/veggies. So, every game you always have some of everything.

I consider this a good thing. Otherwise a "perfect" strategy would soon crystallize and all players would just go for "all sheep" or "all vegetables" strategy, getting frustrated when it gets taken away. Forcing you to have a bit of everything makes the game more complex, but more satisfying - you can always find something else to do instead of fume because you just got blocked and now you cannot win, game over.

Quote:
Two, the board and action spaces are just too set. Every single game played with the same number of players will always have the exact same setup. So the first few turns start to feel very scripted.

I agree with this. A cool thing would be if there were plenty of different actions of which only a subset hits each game, so you are always on your toes what to do next. However, I don't think this can actually ever be implemented in a satisfying way - people already complain about the "randomness" of occupation and minor improvement cards; further randomization of actions would probably destroy the appeal of Agricola for many people.


Quote:
But somehow, because Agricola has them on cards instead of printed on the board, and the cards are shuffled beforehand, it feels like the board is supposed to be changing, and I can't rely on having a space available.

Nope, sorry, the cards are a good thing. I like that the order of actions changes slightly (as opposed to the EXACTLY SAME board each game), because it forces slight tweakages of my strategy. Also, the action cards actually enable the game to perfectly scale between different numbers of players.

Quote:

But you say what about the Occupation and Improvement cards? There's like 400 of them, that's where the variability is! That's true, but it doesn't really change the issues above. The cards make it so that certain spots on the board are better for you, or not needed at all that particular game. So they can change which spots you need. But it doesn't change which spots are available.

Nope they help immensely with the issues above, they can shake up the gameplay completely. Seriously, the cards rule. And they don't just change "the spots you need", it's a serious oversimplification. Especially when it comes to using the I and K deck.

Overall, I like your review. It's refreshing to read complaints instead of praises, even though I personally don't agree with most of them. I agree with your overall score, though - I don't think Agricola deserves a 10, and even the 9 I gave it has more to do with my enjoyment of game's theme and the fact I get to make custom components which are so in sync with the actual game, then my opinon that the game is near-perfect. An average score between 7 and 8 is perfectly ok in my opinion.

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Steve Duff
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baba44713 wrote:
I consider this a good thing. Otherwise a "perfect" strategy would soon crystallize and all players would just go for "all sheep" or "all vegetables" strategy, getting frustrated when it gets taken away.

Yeah, but sometimes you just wanna be a cattle baron, you know? That's where playtesting and elegant game design come in. You make it so that there isn't one perfect strategy. An extremely difficult thing to do, of course.

I'd just like to be a little more one sided in my strategies sometimes. If the others keep taking all the wood, I'd like to say "fine, you build pastures and go for animals, I'm going big on ploughing and vegetables".

Quote:
Nope, sorry, the cards are a good thing. I like that the order of actions changes slightly (as opposed to the EXACTLY SAME board each game), because it forces slight tweakages of my strategy. Also, the action cards actually enable the game to perfectly scale between different numbers of players.

Don't get me wrong, I like the card system. I wish they had gone a bit further with more cards, and not all of them made it into every game. Or, loosened it up a bit in the later rounds with fewer Stages, so there was a bit more variation past round 7.

Quote:
Nope they help immensely with the issues above, they can shake up the gameplay completely. Seriously, the cards rule. And they don't just change "the spots you need", it's a serious oversimplification. Especially when it comes to using the I and K deck.

I'll admit I've only looked over the I and K deck, but I didn't see much different there. Just to pick a couple at random, does Storehouse Keeper "when you take reeds or stones, also take 1 clay or grain or Slaughterman "take 1 food when someone else slaughters animals" really change the game that much? Beehive gives me extra food, and so on. It really does seem like almost every single card is some sort of freebie. Sometimes it's immediate, sometimes it's when I choose a space, sometimes it's when someone else does something.

Do you have any specific card in mind as the best example of really shaking up the game? Maybe I could force it into the next game.
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Joe Geerkin
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Great review.

I agree 100%. It's a very good game but it's not the greatest thing since sliced bread. I enjoy it enough that I might buy it. The hype is out of control, however.
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Stephen Tudor
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Thanks for a really well thought-out and fair review. Always good to read a more critical perspective of a highly praised game.
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Robert Rossney
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It can actually make quite a lot of sense to plow all of the fields you can, not just the ones you need to earn points for plowed fields. Especially if the occupation that gives a bonus for no negative points is in play. That can make plowing what open space remains in your fields essential.
 
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Jeroen Harkes
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josgeerkin wrote:
It's a very good game but it's not the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Sliced bread isn't that special either. It's just the same old bread cut up in smaller chunks. Way over-hyped!
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dave klokner
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minordemon wrote:
josgeerkin wrote:
It's a very good game but it's not the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Sliced bread isn't that special either. It's just the same old bread cut up in smaller chunks. Way over-hyped!


Sliced Bread? gulp
 
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Michael Pavelich
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Why oh why does every reviewer who gives Agricola less than a 10 feel obligated to mention that it doesn't deserve the higher ratings that others have given it?

You give it a seven or eight; great! Let's just leave it at that. Those who gave it higher scores are just giving their opinions, as are you.

The word "hype" is often used,(although the OP didn't mention it, to his credit). It's not hype when people rate a game highly. Hype would be if the publisher were giving us a false idea of the quality of a product by lavishing it with undeserved praise. That's not what's happening here.

If you give a game a 7 or 8 then you actually like it, don't you? Why do you have to add: "Not quite what it's cracked up to be."

What is it cracked up to BE exactly? It's a great game that a lot of the people who've reviewed it really, really like.

And if you don't happen to agree with them then just rate it lower. We already know you don't think it's a perfect game or you would've given it a 10 yourself. Anything more is a slap at those who rated it higher.
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Joe Geerkin
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Wapahala wrote:

You give it a seven or eight; great! Let's just leave it at that. Those who gave it higher scores are just giving their opinions, as are you.

The word "hype" is often used,(although the OP didn't mention it, to his credit). It's not hype when people rate a game highly. Hype would be if the publisher were giving us a false idea of the quality of a product by lavishing it with undeserved praise. That's not what's happening here.

I have no idea if that is happening or not. I am kind of suspicious of any spontaneous push for a game these days. If it were my job to sell board games, I'd certainly try to manipulate opinions on this site.

Besides, hype doesn't have to come from a publisher. I've been through this with a number of games now. Agricola is the flavor of the month. (So was Pillars, Battlelore, TTR, Caylus etc.)

People are desirous to play good games. This is a good one that isn't widely availiable yet, so the anticipation builds for it. That's when the hype begins; I can't play it but I want to, so I'll talk about how great it is while waiting.

There is nothing wrong with that, in fact it's probably human nature. The problem is the people who haven't played it now expect not a game but a religious experience. They are bound to be disappointed.

It happened to me with Pillars. I love the game. I bought into the hype, however and I didn't enjoy my first game because I expected too much.

It's a good game that I want people to enjoy. That's the main reason I'm happy to express my opinion that I think it's good but not the best game ever. The key to happiness in life is low expectations.
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Marc Morley
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A very nice and insightful review of a much anticipated game. Even though I have not played it, I plan to as soon as it is available. Yes, I feel that Agricola is being hyped, but I've seen this what seems like countless times and have learned that there is often a bit of truth to the hype. Your review did a nice job of helping me manage my expectations in proportion to said hype. Good job!
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Mike P
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josgeerkin wrote:
The key to happiness in life is low expectations.

Coming from a Buffalo Bills fan.

Sorry. That was a low blow. I just couldn't help myself.


Stephen King recently had an article in Entertainment Weekly about hype vs. buzz. He seemed to make some interesting points that could be relevant here...

Quote:
Buzz is not hype and hype is not buzz. Hype is paid for: full-page print ads, luxe websites, logos on the sides of buses, billboards on Sunset Boulevard, carpet-bomb TV campaigns. Buzz is free. Hype is often unreliable (Ang Lee's well-advertised but ultimately atrocious rendering of The Incredible Hulk, for instance). Buzz, on the other hand, is almost always reliable. No one knows why, any more than anyone knows how dogs can sense company's coming even when none is expected.

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Joe Geerkin
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fanaka66 wrote:
josgeerkin wrote:
The key to happiness in life is low expectations.

Coming from a Buffalo Bills fan.

Sorry. That was a low blow. I just couldn't help myself.

I had to give you a thumbs up. It's funny because it's true.

I'm looking you up in the Fall when we make the playoffs for the first time this century, however.
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Michael Pavelich
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josgeerkin wrote:

It's a good game that I want people to enjoy. That's the main reason I'm happy to express my opinion that I think it's good but not the best game ever. The key to happiness in life is low expectations.

You are assuming that your review will carry more weight with the poor unsuspecting hype-victim, when, in fact, it is not any more a true indication of his game experience than anyone else's.

Your "noble" desire to save someone else the pain of not getting a religious experience from playing a board game says more about your disrespect of the opinions of others (who are just trying to express what the game means to THEM and ONLY them.), than any real altruistic intentions you profess to have.

If you expected a religious experience from Pillars then you have the right to feel disappointed but you can't blame anyone who actually believes that they had one while playing it.

I read as many differing opinions of a new game as possible before making a purchase; both positive AND negative. I think most people do. We need the variety of opinions to make an informed decision.

What we don't need as much are people "hyping" their own abilty to rate games honestly and thereby implying that the generous reviewers are somehow mistaken in expressing their enthusiasm.

Sorry for the long rant, but I prefer just sharing our experiences in good fellowship without the added tension of judging someone else's experience as less valid. Peace.
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Steve Duff
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Wapahala wrote:
Why oh why does every reviewer who gives Agricola less than a 10 feel obligated to mention that it doesn't deserve the higher ratings that others have given it?

I mentioned it because it was part of my experience in playing the game. After reading such high praise for many many months, my expectations were high, and I felt the game came up slightly short of those expectations.

If a friend had brought over a game I'd never heard of, then that would affect the experience, and so on.
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Ryan Newell
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Wapahala: Can we assume you'll also jump down the throat of anyone who makes a review of Agricola in the future titled, "Agricola: Believe the hype!!" for discounting the opinion of this reviewer?

Seriously, you're making a mountain out of a molehill. The OP is just pointing out that he disagrees with the commonly voiced early reactions that are saying the game is essentially flawless. He thinks there are some design choices that make the game less interesting than it could be. That's it.

There's nothing wrong with reviews that offer dissenting opinions and admit that they're dissenting opinions. Especially if it's done politely. This one was.
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Edit: This post was in answer to Wapahala's, but of course I got ninja'd. Twice. Damn ninjas.

Come on, give the guy a break, you are really reading between the lines here.

All he said that the hype (there, I said it) around Agricola just perhaps may be a bit overblown, and that the game, while good, is not really THAT great to merit such a big bubble of excitement that surrounds it. I don't see anything wrong with that. In fact, I like it - one must always be careful when such hy.. ahem, buzz arises because excitement is infectious. When so many people say something is good, it's bound to be good, not just good, PERFECT. And then you walk in the cinema, watch Matrix 3 and realize you have just seen the biggest turd in recent cinematic history. Ugh. Not that I'm comparing Agricola to Matrix 3, if I would, then the game in question would be Hi Ho-Cherry O, Collectible Card Game. But I digress.

Anyways, is this game review more informative then yet another "Rules summation, perfection proclamation" one? Yep. Did it make some valid, yet arguable points? Yes. Should it be read by the people wanting to find out more about the game? Probably yes. And that's all there is to it.

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Michael Pavelich
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Don't misunderstand what I am saying here. I am making a general point about what elements of a review are most useful, not making a specific attack. Here it is in a nutshell:

1. Your opinion of the game you are reviewing matters to me. It is useful to me in making a decision about whether to purchase it or not.

2. Your opinion of what other people think about the game you are reviewing doesn't matter to me and is not useful. It is just a waste of time and doesn't give your opinion any more weight.

This second point includes telling me that you were led to believe that the game was better. This may be a true statement, and I am not for censorship of any kind, but I don't believe that such statements can be made without implying that those enthusiastic folks who disagree with you are somehow misleading the public at large. That would mean that your review is somehow more "serious" and reflects the true game state.

This BTW does indeed cut the other way as well, as Barefoot Killer pointed out.

If you review a game favorably that has a majority of dismal ratings, then informing me that the negative folks had made you expect a bad experience may be true, but is it that hard to see that it doesn't give me any more useful information than just telling me what you thought of it?








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Ryan Newell
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Quote:
Your opinion of what other people think about the game you are reviewing doesn't matter to me and is not useful. It is just a waste of time and doesn't give your opinion any more weight.

This second point includes telling me that you were led to believe that the game was better. This may be a true statement, and I am not for censorship of any kind, but I don't believe that such statements can be made without implying that those enthusiastic folks who disagree with you are somehow misleading the public at large. That would mean that your review is somehow more "serious" and reflects the true game state.

That's not what I got from that aspect of his review. My take was that interested customers should be aware that, despite the (almost) unwaveringly enthusiastic internet buzz, it's not a consensus that this is a must-buy that's among the best games ever made. I think not recognizing that buzz would be ignoring the real-life context we consumers/BGGers are experiencing as we are constantly reminded that Agricola is the game to buy.

It's not that Agricola's biggest fans are "misleading" people, it's that the eager early adopters might not be representative of the average Joe Gamer who isn't chomping at the bit for it.
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Branko K.
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By rereading the review, I fail to find ANY sentence even remotely resembling personal or any kind of attacks on geeks who highly value this game, or bashing other people's views. The OP indirectly says Agricola is perhaps overhyped, which even though I love the game I must admit it perhaps is, and that he personally thinks the game maybe doesn't merit that much excitement. That's it. Stop nitpicking, the OP doesn't deserve this flank attack. In fact, he's a good reviewer, and if this sudden unexpected swoop of negativity stops him from reviewing more in the future, it would be sad.
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Alan Kwan
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UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
sometimes you just wanna be a cattle baron, you know? That's where playtesting and elegant game design come in. You make it so that there isn't one perfect strategy. An extremely difficult thing to do, of course.

On the contrary, it's after playtesting and careful game balance that the designer has settled on the current VP scheme. If you look carefully at the game mechanism, you'll see that there is a startup cost for spreading out into each additional category. And it easily becomes very economical to mass produce. For example, when you do a sow action, you can sow all your fields at once and bake all the bread you need (if you're baking with a kitchen). You are also easily more efficient just keeping sowing and harvesting wheat than having to get that first vegetable seed. The first fenced pasture costs more wood than subsequent ones, and you can build as many fences as you have wood at once. Each animal type requires a different pasture, while if you build a 2-space pasture, you can easily hold 8 or 16 animals by adding one or two stables. Also, they'll breed automatically once you have a couple. With the resources for getting a category from -1VP to 1VP, you can often get another category from 2VP to 4VP instead. Thus, if the game doesn't encourage you to cover everything with the VP scheme, everyone will just focus on one or two types, and that makes a boring game. The VP scheme is set so that you have to choose the best balance of specialization vs. spreading out.
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Enrique Morales Moreno
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Hi:

Thanks for this review, I like it a lot

Very usefull.
 
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Bren Mayhugh
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I played two games so my experience is less than perfect. I even can't say that I've played a full real game since I played the family version with 3 players and a solo game with set E cards. After reading your review, I feel some of your pain, but this could be an issue with my experiences.

The number of actions and rounds in the game are quite limited and just when you get moving, it's harvest, harvest, harvest and then game over! With the later stages being 1 or 2 actions in a round, it does feel like there should be more randomness to it, but like others have said, it might just be us wanting it to be more random.

Of the 14 cards dealt to me, I used 6 of them in the entire game (3 of each actually). They did change the game a lot and I'm hopeful that the interaction with more players will make the game better.

It's wierd to have make sure that you have everything or you get punished for it, but in a way it makes sense (I guess in 1600s, you didn't really have very specialized people yet, but my history lesson could be off).

Still, it's a fun game, but I'll hold my pick for the rank after a couple more plays.

-Bren
 
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Jon W
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Aurora
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UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
Two, the board and action spaces are just too set. Every single game played with the same number of players will always have the exact same setup.
I'm especially sympathetic to this criticism. It's a fine line to walk when the designer is obviously trying to create a low-luck strategy game that also has the potential for a lot of variability. I mean, you couldn't have it so variable that Stone might never come up (or come up as the 13th card), but at the same time I'm not sure the action cards add much, except in terms of flexibility for scaling additional actions (which is a nice feature).

What I think would have been nice is if the "core" actions had been pared down a bit further (say, to 10), and then the remaining four would have wildly varying effects (say, draw those four out of a deck of 40, so you'd just never know). I can see a lot of people disliking tampering with the current tight engine, but for me personally, I can already see after a couple of run-throughs that the game doesn't have quite the variability I was hoping for.

EDIT: Interesting that a small expansion is in the works that adds more actions, and some variability to the existing ones. Very cool! Guess the designer saw the desirability of this, too, and it's perfect as an optional add-on so it won't screw up those who want a tighter engine.
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Clyde W
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Steve, still more interested in Pandemic over Agricola?
 
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