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Subject: Vitruvian Review: Agricola rss

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(Note: Vitruvian Reviews are not a review in the traditional sense. Instead I pull apart and discuss one or more interesting mechanics in a game.).

Designing a game with multiple ways to score points runs the risk of having players focus on one or two scoring tracks at the expense of the others. In multiplayer games each player may focus on different tracks, effectively rewarding the player who is most efficient on their track and leading to little player interaction. Reiner Knizia gets around this in games like Tigris & Euphrates and Ingenious by scoring players based on their lowest track, forcing them to build up evenly and not ignore any aspect of the game. While an elegant solution, this design limits players in that they cannot choose to overcome the deficit of their weak scoring tracks by gaining sufficiently high scores in others.

Uwe Rosenberg handles this problem differently in Agricola. The game has multiple scoring tracks - plowed fields, produce, animals, etc. - with your total score being a sum of all. However, two design elements prevent players from simply focusing on one track and ignoring the others.

First, there is a maximum score limit for each track. No matter how many sheep a player manages to accumulate the max they can earn is 4 points for 8 or more sheep. Building a flock of sheep large enough to produce mutton and sweaters for the entire Eastern seaboard will not win you the game; you have to diversify.

Second, and even more ingeniously, there is a scoring penalty for not scoring at least a little in each category. Manage to have just one sheep at the end of the game and you earn a point, but wind up with none and you lose a point. Note that the net difference between zero sheep and one is actually two points, making it very much worth your while to get that one sheep, one cattle, one vegetable, etc.

While it is easy to acquire that first resource in each category, it still costs you a turn. Turns being the biggest nonrenewable resource in the game, and it can be a tough decision whether to use your farmers to gather the resources you’ve missed or to increase the efficiency of your production lines for other resources. What may seem a no brainer - net 2 points for gathering the resource you don’t have - is a more difficult choice when the overall effect of using that turn to, say, gather wood, might be to later build a pasture that could prevent a -4 scoring penalty and give you room for higher animal scores.

Can you win without gathering each and every type of resource? Yes, and in many games the winner does just that, selectively choosing which resources she isn’t going to be able to efficiently gather and maintain. That’s what makes the different scoring tracks in Agricola work well: you want to have them all and the penalty for missing one or two is severe, but not so much so that you can’t make up for it in other ways. Unlike in other games where you are forced to score on every track, Agricola gives the player a legitimate choice and the freedom to play it their way.
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