Over Thanksgiving weekend my brother introduced my boys to the game “Agricola.” I caught a brief, confusing glimpse of it when asked to step in for a moment, but what little I saw looked like a complicated version of “The Farming Game.” But my sons insisted it was a really fun game, so when a relative known for giving our kids games and puzzles came looking for hints for Christmas we suggested Agricola.
As with most games, you have to play it a time or two to really understand it. The rules are not as difficult as the Rules make it appear. To their credit, however, the game designers encourage you to try a simplified form of the game first, and then add in the more complex components later.
The idea of the game is that you are a medieval peasant farmer starting out with you and your wife on a piece of land. Over a five year period you need to develop that land, feed your family, upgrade your lodgings, and stockpile resources. Each person in your family represents one action you can engage in per round. The number of available actions is fixed, so if other players get to an important action before you, too bad. You plow fields, build animal pens, gather building materials, have kids, upgrade your ability to process food, and upgrade an expand your hut while the years get shorter and shorter (feels a little too realistic in that regard!).
Typically the game takes about an hour to an hour and a half to play, but the time goes quickly. Each round is a bustle of activity (unless you encounter an indecisive player like me who likes to think too much), and the game moves along at a decent clip. Scoring consists of evaluating each player’s farm and assigning points for the number of each improvement achieved (number of fields plowed, pastures fenced, food collected, animals pastured, house upgrades, etc), and taking away points for the lack of any particular category. Clearly specialization is not the key, as you must develop broadly, and there are point ceilings on each category (after a certain number of sheep, for example, you still only get 3 points).
There are some clear strategies that help win, but there is sufficient complexity to the rules that it’s difficult to do everything perfect and guarantee a win, even though there is very little random factor to the game (ie. no die rolls). One key element is the “Plays First” token, which can be obtained by selecting an action that gives you a little food and the right to go first in the next round. With everyone vying for the same key action spaces, going first or even second can make a significant difference in the game. And yet the food benefit from that space loses value as the game progresses. Early on it’s worth taking it just for the food, later on it’s almost a poor choice. Yet timing can be critical, so grabbing the Plays First token is a very strategic choice.
The major improvements available in the game also make a big difference, as feeding your family is the main obstacle to improving your farm. Early on it’s hard to do both. Major improvements, like ovens and joineries, etc., help increase food production, allowing you to focus on other options. The main issue, however, is competing with your fellow players for limited resources. You’re not directly competing, really, as you don’t every do anything directly to help or hinder one another, but the fight for resources is still intense.
We enjoy Agricola, and after the initial few games to get the feel of the rules, my kids are able to play it without adult guidance. We have yet to add in the advanced rules, however. The game is enough fun without them, and the rules don’t really give you much of an idea why it would be more fun with them. Add to that the fact that the advanced rules, represented by two sets of cards that can be added to play, offer three separate sets of new cards: basic, complex, and interactive. No explanation is giving as to the difference between them, really. Basic and complex are obvious enough, I suppose, but what the devil does “interactive” mean? Isn’t the game already interactive?
One day we’ll find out, and if it’s a tangible difference, I’ll try to return and fill you in.
Extra kudos: There are a lot of little pieces needed to play this game. The game designers include a bundle of ziplock baggies to help you keep them organized, and actually provide more than we needed (many of them are now in use helping keep Descent organized a well).
Ratings: (This is a new feature with this review, but I may back-fill as I get the chance/urge)
Over-all Rating: 7 – A good, fun, solid game that doesn’t require you to be nasty to win.
Lotsa-Pieces: 8 – Walter’s favorite factor–the more the better!
Randomness: 2 – Some cards can come up in a slightly unpredictable order, but very little is truly randomized.
Competition: 5 – You do compete for resources, but there are often alternative sources, and there is little time to waste taking resources simply to spite someone else.
Strategy: 7 – Hard to say until we add in all the rules, but there is a lot to keep track of, and a variety of ways to victory.
Variety: 4 – Also hard to say until we add in all the rules, but at this point there is not a lot of difference from game to game beyond individual results. Each game seems a fair bit like the others.
Will my wife play it: Yes
Will my youngest play it: No
Questionable Elements: Raising animals important to winning, killing animals for food often needed.
Time: 1-2 Hours dependant mostly on number and speed of players, fixed end point.
Players: 1-5 – Playable as solitaire! Scalable to the number of players, but more players increases intensity.
Age Range: 12-16 – My kids are younger than that (10 – 12) and do just fine. It’s fun for adults, too. Seems a rather arbitrary range.