Agricola

(image courtesy cuazzel @ BGG)
There’s a new king in town and it goes by the name Agricola. For quite a long time Puerto Rico claimed the number one spot in the rankings over at BoardGameGeek. When Agricola released at Essen in 2007 it quickly climbed and at some point last year it finally knocked Puerto Rico off its throne. Agricola had a lot of buzz about it and the speed which it rose was really quite impressive; is the game equally as amazing?

Agricola is a worker placement game about farming. The game takes place over 16 rounds with harvests happening after every few. Over the course of the game you will place your family members (initially two but you may get more later) to raise animals, plow fields, sow crops, expand and renovate your house, bake bread, collect food and much more. There are a lot of aspects to the game and essentially you earn points for everything you’ve managed to do and lose points for the things you haven’t.

As a worker placement game I think Agricola succeeds. There are a lot of different areas to place your family members and even with five players there’s almost always something useful you can do each turn. One aspect I really like is that there is a base set of actions (determined by the number of players) and then each round another action is made available. Family members determine how many actions you’ll be performing each round so as you grow your family and as more actions come up you do get a sense of growth and accomplishment as you manage to do more each turn.

(image courtesy richardsgamepack @ BGG)

One of the more interesting parts of the game are the occupation and improvement cards. Each player is dealt seven of each at the start of the game and will be able to bring these cards into play over the course of the game. What’s most impressive is that every single card is unique and there are even three different decks that come with the game but only one is used at a time. This means there is a ton of replay value as you’ll probably never be dealt the exact same set of cards twice. There’s also a good chance these cards will help you formulate your strategy and set your course for the game.

Unfortunately this also leads to one of my main complaints with Agricola. The occupations and improvements do a lot of cool and varied things but I feel there is a significant luck-of-the-draw aspect to the game. Sometimes you just get dealt really awesome cards that work well together. If you don’t have that same level of synergy you are already at a significant disadvantage.

I’ve discovered that Agricola really stresses me out but not in a good way. There is something like a dozen different areas where you can gain or lose points. Generally you need to make sure you are doing a little bit of everything; focusing too much on one aspect means you are forgoing something else and losing points. You’ll feel real despair when the end of the game is rolling in and you see how much more stuff everyone else has managed to accomplish compared to you. Case in point: I think my highest scoring game was my first when I had no idea what I was doing. I played turn-to-turn and did whatever looked best at the time. Every game since then I’ve tended to focus on whatever I was lacking in last time, meaning something else was ignored and my scores suffered greatly. I’ve found the trick is to really play more tactically and try to maximize each turn rather than try and plan some great strategy. Take what you can when you can get it and you’ll do well.

(image courtesy timsteen @ BGG)
I also feel like the game is dull for the first half to two thirds of the game and then really quickly escalates towards the end. There’s a good chance you won’t be getting your third family member until nearly halfway through the game and harvests come more quickly towards the end. Usually it seems like things really don’t start clicking until round 10 or later at which point you are well over halfway through the game and often things won’t really come together for you until the last couple of rounds when you fill in those last few missing pieces that you need. It’d be nice if the game had a more gradual curve than the somewhat sudden crecendo I often feel.

For all my complaining, though, I do think that Agricola is a good game. Does it deserve the number one spot on BoardGameGeek? Probably not. The mechanics are solid and the game has really high replay value which is fantastic. Unfortunately I think the cards can put you at a disadvantage from the start and I find having to do a little bit of everything not as satisfying as other games where you can really focus on a strategy and see it unfold. I’m not going to turn down a game of Agricola and I might even recommend it from time to time, but generally there are other games I’d rather play.