Dicks in ears rating: 3/10
Pairs well with: An English cider
I play board games pretty frequently, but I’ve so far managed to avoid Agricola. I haven’t actively avoided it, but at the same time I haven’t actively sought it out either as I’ve heard some pretty polarised reviews. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that board gamers have strong opinions. For those of you who don’t know, Agricola is a worker placement board game. The description on boardgamegeek states ‘you’re a farmer in a wooden shack with your spouse and little else. On a turn, you get to take only two actions, one for you and one for the spouse, from all the possibilities you’ll find on a farm: collecting clay, wood, or stone; building fences; and so on.’
So tonight is the night, and I have my first beer. This post will be a running commentary of my thoughts, feelings and reflections whilst playing it for the first time. Side note – don’t read this if you’re interested in an actual synopsis of the rules of the game.
- Setting the things up. As usual this involved making pretty piles of meeples that will almost immediately be destroyed. The game has 6 stages, with a harvest at the end of each.
- Stage 1 – There are an awful lot of pieces, and unfortunately they all seem to be pretty important to any overall strategy. Beginning with a set amount of jobs was a good way to ease into the mechanics, in much the same way as Caylus. I got the immediate suspicion that being relaxed into the game would screw you over simply for feeling relaxed at some point, especially as one new job is added per round.
- As I’m playing with three people who are all veterans, I’ve decided it’s a good idea to get a gauge on their individual strategies. So far Pat’s is mainly starving his family. Pete’s is actively farming his family instead of animals, with an initial single vegetable from his one field. Simon’s was to build one giant pasture and then knock over his entire board by accident.
- The first harvest has come! When these occur you need to have two food for every one member of your family (starting with two) or risk a lot of minus points. In addition, some other fiddly stuff happens with resources that I won’t go into. Fortunately, my family survived thanks to some measly and hastily ploughed corn. I immediately invested in some more fields for grain, and some clay for a badass oven that converted 1 grain to 5 food. Pat’s family is still starving. Pete is building more houses, which might end up being a sky-rise complex at the rate he’s enhancing them. Simon is farming sheep.
- Stage 2 – I’d so far avoided the many cards I was given. Probably not wise. They required too much reading at the beginning to bother with until I needed them. I took a chance and played one that seemed the most beneficial, seen as everyone seemed to be stocking up on wood, because it gave me the ability to build fences without any wood. I put a little sheep in there, he looks pretty happy.
- I got another sheep. It’s been a good day. Added bonus of extra sheep next harvest, and I’ve got a lot of food for the family. Now to expand some pastures and get in on some other livestock. I’m aware hard times are coming that I’m probably not equipped to deal with, having never played the game before, but so far it’s pleasant and I remain optimistic. I’m wondering whether I should have used my cards more in conjunction with the game, I’ve
resolved to play another next round.
- The harvest has come again. Panicked conversations occur:
‘Right. Fuck. I’d forgotten I didn’t have any food. Can my family eat wood?’
‘It’s ok we can eat the house cow. Kids, go kill the house cow.’
- ‘I could get some food… but I could also get some fences.’
‘But you don’t have any food…’
‘Yeah you’re right, fences it is.’
- Stage 3 – My sheep are at capacity, so it’s time to build a pasture for wild boar (since I just played an occupation card of ‘Boar master: master of boars’. This is my own made up title, I preferred it to the original). Expanding more occurred to me earlier in the game, but being in the situation where I knew absolutely nothing, wasn’t able to form a sensible strategy using previous knowledge, or know whether doing a little bit of each strategy would work. So I decided to be slow and sensible, and simply do one thing at a time to a decent level while selecting only a handful of things to develop. Consequently my family are still basically living in a swamp with a couple of stones thrown in. But hey, now I have a lot of pasture and grain.
- Harvest. For fuck’s sake, I have too many sheep and not enough everything else. The free pen is too small for any more sheep, even with a barn, so I have acquired a house sheep. I’m fairly certain it’s going to smell. Luckily I’m pretty comfortable with having to plan out actions in advance even if I now have a sheep all up in my shit. I’m not losing faith though; planning for misery in advance is something board games teach well, Caylus, Puerto Rico and Year of the Dragon are three of my favourite merciless epics. The other players are continuing to reap misery.
- Stage 4 – We’re all now doing something which we’ve convinced ourselves is a strategy. It’s mainly poor decisions, hope and miscalculations. But nonetheless we’re going strong. Pete and I have more pastures, Simon has more livestock. Pat has realised he doesn’t have any food again, so the remaining sheep will have to be sacrificed.
- Harvest. I say harvest in the loosest sense of the word: in the sense where actively burning your livestock in a resource pile constitutes a meagre amount of food and there is no joy for your family. Fortunately my oven and grain strategy is working excellently for food. My family is living off of bread, and bread alone. It’s a shame about the whole collecting victory points thing. I’ve decided to go for that next stage.
- Stage 5 – Victory points are hard. The effect of having few points for what seems like an awful lot of effort you’re investing in your farm is disconcerting. I can’t help but feel it was designed to do exactly that. Not only are we now silently adding up our current points in preparation for the final stage, we’re also cursing at our inanimate objects because we ourselves didn’t have the foresight to improve them. Pat has now gone heavily into farming, mainly as a result of being annoyed at the everything in his empty farm. Pete remains the group troll, taking all the resources we want but having no livestock to invest in. Simon has merged all of the livestock into one giant dystopian pen (an ability granted by one of his cards), in which the animals have developed some sort of rudimentary government.
- Stage 6 – Honestly stage 6 is letting me down. With only one round to scrape together as many points as possible, my fellow players have neglected to tell me vital scoring rules that are definitely going to fuck me over at the end. I really wish someone had told me I’d get minus points if I didn’t have any of one resource type. I have neglected farming vegetables the whole time, because I had shit tonnes of grain. I also wish I’d known that space efficiency on your board/farm doesn’t get you anywhere, unlike in other worker placement games such as Puerto Rico or Terra Mystica. I’d intentionally used the least amount of board for the things I was doing – but it turns out leaving blank squares will give me minus points.
- End of the game – Obviously as my first run through I hadn’t been able to win as most of my time was spent trying to get to grip with the rules and to understand the game a little better. Being able to plan your next moves ahead with the ability to adapt to other players ruining your strategy is a great skill to have, and certainly probably stopped my family from dying.
I actually quite enjoy the task of resource collecting to be able to play cards or perform tasks in games, and I think Agricola did that very well. The jobs built up well throughout, and the resources restocking supported that. I really like the very simple mechanic of having two livestock in one pasture, and them reproducing as part of the harvest. Not only is it interesting to factor in to any strategies, it makes you feel like your farm is actually functioning. You’re being the farmer, channelling that farmer knowledge, successfully doing agriculture (or not, as we’ve proved). I feel like the point scoring is pretty harsh, especially with negative scoring. I also felt a bit stranded as there was no real way to do damage limitation. The resolution to that is simply to play the game better next time. I felt that having a pen with a barn and fences and 8 wild boar deserved more than 4 points, especially in comparison to earning 2 points for the house you begin the game with.
“The only time I enjoyed this game we were playing it wrong. This is misery farming.” – Pat, 2014.
One thing I wasn’t totally convinced about was the effectiveness of the cards. Sure, it’s handy to be able to play something good you’ve got and tailor your strategy to maybe a few key abilities. However, I think it may have been better to have a mechanic to pick up a card at random, and to only introduce them at certain stages of the game. In fact much like the purple ‘victory’ cards in the last age of 7 Wonders. (Of course that can backfire horribly, forcing players into strategies completely at odds with their original aims a la Twilight Imperium -Bob)
Overall I enjoyed the game, and I’m convinced that a second round playing will seal that opinion. Having my friends in just as much misery and sticky predicaments as myself was perversely amusing, and the game definitely didn’t allow one or two players to be riding free of worry. You’re all in this farming malarkey together.