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Subject: [Games that Don't Suck] - Agricola rss

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Jeff Hannes
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Quick background: In another life I was the Games Editor for InQuest magazine. Among my myriad responsibilities, I wrote game reviews... alot of them. It's been years since I've done so, and I miss it. So I decided to dig out the old IQ format and put it to use.

The title isn't meant to imply that games I *don't* review suck, just that this one doesn't. Of course, if you think this game sucks you should say so. It won't change my opinion, but you may feel better for having gotten it off your chest.


======================================
GAME: Agricola
DESIGNER: Uwe Rosenberg
PUBLISHERS: Lookout Games, Z-Man Games and a host of others
RELEASE: 2008
RATING: 5 pips (out of 6)

After watching on the sidelines for over a year, I finally picked up a copy of one of the most acclaimed games of 2008 -- Uwe Rosenberg's Agricola. The "build-your-own-farm" theme may not be the most inviting, but there is no denying this is an outstanding game.

Strictly from a game design standpoint, Agricola is a technical masterpiece. You start with a nearly empty game board and at first it doesn't seem possible to address all your needs. You need to build new rooms in your house, grow your family, build pastures to hold your animals, acquire resources, food and animals, plant fields, sow crops... The list goes on. With only two actions per round to start, it all seems a daunting task. Yet somehow, by game's end, you'll have managed to do most of it -- some areas well and others not so well -- but still, more often than not you'll feel satisfied with what you were able to accomplish.

Agricola is one of those games where you just KNOW it's deep while you're playing it. And while everyone is focusing on their own farm, the competetive nature of the action spaces (if someone takes the action you want that round, you can't take it) forces you to pay attention to what other players are doing and, at times, gamble on what actions you think they will or won't take. It's like a fantasy football draft... I know which players (actions in this case) I want, but can I afford to wait a turn or two to take them? For me that mental challenge is the most interesting part of the game.

I also love the tremendous variety the game offers by way of the cards. Hundreds of improvements and occupations supplement the way you play the game by giving you different options each game, but they don't overwhelm the game or its rules. In the end you still need to focus on the core mechanics to do well. This allows the cards to create nearly limitless expansion without breaking the game in the process.

On the downside, the mental strain of optimizing your choices can be tiring, and I found the restocking of the supply between turns to be a tedious exercise. Obstensibly it's a good mechanic -- the longer you wait on a resource the more valuable it becomes -- but the implementation is awkward and stunts the flow of the game. Our first 4-player game took just under 3 hours, but it felt twice as long.

The theme is also an issue. Personally I have no problems with the farming concept, and I think it's fantastically executed. The problem is, I play with people who can't (won't?) get into the farming theme, and therefore Agricola won't hit the table with that group very often. It's a shame, but in a game so heavily reliant on theme, the subject matters.

Overall I think Agricola is deserving of the hype it's received. The game design is brilliant and engaging, although the hefty interaction of all the moving parts can make it a brain-burner. Some will be turned off by the farming theme, but the gameplay and theme are so well integrated that I'd encourage people to just embrace it and enjoy being a farmer for a few hours.

Failing that you can always make jokes about collecting wood and breeding sheep.

- Jeff Hannes has a green thumb, but only when helping his daughter finger-paint.

======================================
THE GOOD: Fantastic game design with tight, interwoven mechanics and incredible replayability.

THE BAD: The maintenance between each of the game's 14 rounds can be tedious; some decisions are overly brain-burning.

THE UGLY: It's a game about farming. Sure, the theme is excellently realized, but it's still a game about farming.
======================================

Note: The thread title was formerly "Game Reviews That Don't Suck", but bowing to public pressure I changed it so something slightly less... I dunno, whatever you thought the old one was.
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Jennifer Schlickbernd
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Re: GAME REVIEWS THAT DON'T SUCK: Agricola
Your review would suck less if you didn't use all caps in the title. Sheesh.
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Kevin Lloyd
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Re: GAME REVIEWS THAT DON'T SUCK: Agricola
... and surely the use of the word 'suck', in this context, implies that you are a pre-pubescent teenie.
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William Swengel
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Re: GAME REVIEWS THAT DON'T SUCK: Agricola
I found it ironic that there was an add for an online virtual farm on my screen while I was reading this.

My wife and daughters love the farm building aspect of this game; it is their favorite. We will be implementing the expansion tonight.

Good review of an excellent game.
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Jeff Hannes
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
I'm all for sucking less. Admittedly, I too thought the all-caps looked pretty bad once the review was actually approved. Looked better in the preview. Oh well, I'll fix that for next time. [Correction: Looks like I was able to fix it for this time.]

And kevwill's odd comment... I'll just assume he didn't like my approach and be content to leave it at that.
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Geoff Burkman
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
xanalor wrote:
...
The title doesn't mean to imply that anyone else's reviews suck -- just that mine don't. Of course, if they do suck you should tell me, because then I'll need a new title.[/COLOR]


Suckage is, of course, in the mind of the beholder.

Quote:
On the downside, the mental strain of optimizing your choices can be tiring, and I found the restocking of the supply between turns to be a tedious exercise. Obstensibly it's a good mechanic -- the longer you wait on a resource the more valuable it becomes -- but the implementation is awkward and stunts the flow of the game. Our first 4-player game took just under 3 hours, but it felt twice as long.


This will improve as all of you get familiar with the game. You'll figure out efficient restocking mechanisms (pre-stacking, pre-sorting, delegation of restocking duties, etc.) to cut time as well. Beyond that, well, it's a spreadsheet game, what can you do?

Quote:
The theme is also an issue. Personally I have no problems with the farming concept, and I think it's fantastically executed. The problem is, I play with people who can't (won't?) get into the farming theme, and therefore Agricola won't hit the table with that group very often. It's a shame, but in a game so heavily reliant on theme, the subject matters.


If your crew is so...how can I say this politely?...single-minded that they can't accept a farming theme, then perhaps you should save your Agricola sessions for different opponents. You might also explain to them that the theme is a carefully constructed veneer that has very little to do with actual gameplay. Agricola is not a simulation, nor is it a game that requires any special knowledge related to its theme.

Quote:
Overall I think Agricola is deserving of the hype it's received.


Call me particular, but I've never really noticed any real "hype" concerning Agricola. To me, hype implies some measure of deception, typically through hyperbolic claims. I don't think I've seen anyone claim that Agricola is anything more than what it is: a nice, challenging, occasionally brain-burning "tactile competitive spreadsheet game with a core mechanic of sequential, exclusive action selection." (I'm quoting myself there)

Quote:
The game design is brilliant and engaging, although the hefty interaction of all the moving parts can make it a brain-burner.


Which is what makes it challenging and entertaining, true?

Quote:
Some will be turned off by the farming theme, but the gameplay and theme are so well integrated that I'd encourage people to just embrace it and enjoy being a farmer for a few hours.


Absolutely. You might want to advise them that, if a farming theme is that much an anathema to them, they should think of things in terms of building spaceships, colonies, and a galactic empire. It may take a little imagination on their part, but then we gamers are supposed to be an imaginative sort, aren't we?

Quote:
Failing that you can always make jokes about collecting wood and breeding sheep.


Acquiring wood can rarely be a bad thing. whistle
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Kirkwb
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
Thanks for the review, I was a fan of magazines like the Duelest and InQuest and if I remember right, InQuest was from the same guys who do Wizard for Comics. So in that context your format and humor make total sense and warm my nostalgic little heart.

I hope you continue to do reviews, as a non-traditional Geek point of view is a great contrast.

Our first game of Agricola took a lot of time as well, but after that play the following games are coming in at the 1.5 hour mark and sometimes we feel there isn't enough time to do all we want to do. If you can talk them into it, I think they'd find a second run-through as appealing as the potential you see in it.

With that, I think your viewpoints are honest when exposing the game to non-gamers.

You get a pass on the initial all caps title in my book. At InQuest at least you had real graphic artists to layout your words and make them look good for you...

 
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Paul
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
In spite of your disclaimer, the title is really off-putting. I recommend abandoning it if you write other reviews in the future.

Do what you will, of course, but I'd bet I'm not the only one to roll eyes at that title.
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Barak Tutterrow
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
Not only doesn't your review suck, it is one of the best reviews I have read on BGG. It is concise, easy to read, and it doesn't require an extensive knowledge of gaming lingo to understand. Of course, that also means it probably doesn't fit in with the average BGG reader

I do think "Game reviews that don't suck" isn't the best way to attract open-minded readers.
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David Whitehouse
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
Well played Jeff, I hope we hear more from you in the future.

I admit there are times when I want a long wall to wall pictures and text documentary review, but other times a more concise review such as yours fits the bill.

I can tell you wrote reviews in a past life, you write well.

Best of luck,

David
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
xanalor wrote:
The title doesn't mean to imply that anyone else's reviews suck -- just that mine don't.


nonsense. if you don't think other reviews suck, why pointing out yours doesn't?
 
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Chris
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
kirkwb wrote:
So in that context your format and humor make total sense and warm my nostalgic little heart.


Do you mean humour in the review or humour in the mags? If the former, where is it? The only thing I noted was a comment about wood for sheep--which is hardly a joke in Oz--that has been around for this sort of game for so long it's shine has worn off.
 
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Robin Reeve
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
As a hardcore wargamer (playing wargames for about 30 years and playing mostly ASL), I would say that the Farm building theme is not exactly the first one I would jump upon.

However, having read positive opinions about Agricola, expressed by other wargaming grognards, I bought it.

And I got hooked by the game.
The system is excellent, and it is about as challenging as a nice wargame.

So, unless one is (slightly) narrow-minded, the theme should not prevent one from (at least) trying Agricola.

Afterwards... well, I believe that the game generates its "power of conviction" by itself.

The only caveat I would express is that the rules are not very easy to understand by simply reading them.
One needs to pull out the boards and look at them (on the right side) to begin to figure out how the thing works.
But if that psychological obstacle is overcome, things go on smoothly.
 
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Jeff Hannes
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
First off, thanks all for the comments, even the negative ones. (Though in the spirit of full disclosure, I like this positive ones better.)

Just a note about the title which, unsurprisingly, has probably garnered at least as much attention as the review itself. I really don't think other people's reviews suck -- I laud anyone who takes the time to write a thoughtful post -- and just about any review (short of "It stinks" or "It's great") is worth reading.

Mostly I chose the title because it was the first thing that came to mind (must have been thinking about the popular old InQuest feature "Games That Suck") and I knew it would attract attention. In the magazine we never titled our reviews because -- well, you already bought/borrowed/stole the magazine, so if you wanted to read a review you were stuck with ours. On BGG, there's a gazillion reviews and posts. It's easy to skip posts that don't stand out. If you're even reading this then the title at least caught your attention on some level.

That said, I'll probably cave to public pressure and change the title of my reviews, as soon as I think of something else attention-grabbing. Ultimately my goal is just to write stuff people want to read, not stir up controversy. (Though one has to admit, BGG'ers love a good controversy.)

Anyhoo, I'll take some solace in the fact that no one has yet told me the review itself sucks, and start working on a more family-friendly title (as well as, you know, another review).
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Jeff Hannes
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Re: [Game Reviews that Don't Suck] - Agricola
Back on the topic of the review itself... many valid points made, most of which I agree with.

When I say "hype" I don't mean it as a bad thing... I refer to the fact that it's the #1 ranked game on BGG and has many, many glowing reviews.

On the topic of theme... personally I really like it. Being primarily a Euro-gamer, theme often takes a back seat to mechanics for me, but I still prefer it when the theme meshes with the game. But the reason I addressed it in my review is because it *can* be a concern for others. Whether you agree with my gaming crew's opinions or not, for some there are more considerations to buying a game than whether or not YOU'LL like it.

Agricola isn't cheap... if it retailed for less, I probably would have bought it a year ago. But the main reason I held off was the (accurate) supposition that the theme would cause a lukewarm reception with my gaming crew. To their credit, they did try it, and everyone thought it was a quality game, but some didn't like the theme at all. We'll probably play it again at some point, but it will never be as big a hit with them as the more fantastical-themed Shadows Over Camelot and Small World. I've been playing games with the same group for five years now, and for better or for worse we're all fairly set in our ways.

So even at a discounted price, $45-$50 is alot to pay for a game that (for now) will see limited play, although I very much enjoy the solitaire variant. Fortunately, I've been getting my 5-year old into gaming (shameless geeklist plug here), and she'll likely dig the farming theme, but it'll be some time before she's ready for all the choices even just the family game throws at you.

Ultimately I'm sure Agricola will be worth the money I spent on it (especially considering I upgraded all my components), but it will take some time for my investment to see a return.

In any event, my point is that the opinions of the people you play games with can be a determining factor in whether or not you spend $$$ on a game, which is why I brought it up. It won't be an issue for everyone, but it was for me.
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Jeff Hannes
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Alright, after deciding I won't likely be writing reviews for games I don't like, I retitled my review "Games That Don't Suck". Some may still find the title offensive or "misleading", but hey, there were a lot of people who found InQuest offensive too. C'est la vie.
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Barak Tutterrow
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xanalor wrote:
Alright, after deciding I won't likely be writing reviews for games I don't like, I retitled my review "Games That Don't Suck". Some may still find the title offensive or "misleading", but hey, there were a lot of people who found InQuest offensive too. C'est la vie.


Good change.
Good review.
Keep writing!
 
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Zubbus O'Really
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I quite like it. It tells me what I think I want to know. If anyone cares to mail me a link of an agricola review they prefer. I'll read it.
 
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Laura Meyer
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Nice review, Thanks for taking the time to contribute useful content.
 
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Nice review.

I got this for my family at Christmas. My family play a whole variety of games but this is the first that they all loved straight away. My 9 year old daughter even got up early in the morning the other day and called her friend to come over to play it.

The restocking is not an issue if you assign players to do parts of it. Games are fast too compared to some of our games and its a lot more interactive once you get the hang of it.
 
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Jeff Hannes
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I played a solo game the other day and while setting up, used the six empty spaces on the first action board to pre-sort resources for turns 2-7. (1 brick, 1 reed, 1 food, 2 wood). Whenever a new resource came up (sheep and stone for example), I added one to each pile. After the seventh round, I set up six more piles for rounds 8-13. This did help quite a bit, as I no longer had to expend any brain power updating the board between rounds (and trying to remember which resources I had or hadn't restocked)... just had to move piles around. I'll likely do something similar next time I play with multiple players.

I still think it's a lot of in-between turn maintenance, but I agree that there are ways to mitigate it, and it's definitely worth taking a little extra setup time to do so.
 
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