Agricola – Review of the Very Popular Intense Farming Sim

agricola-box-cover

Agricola is not simply “Very Popular” it is in fact the number one game over at BGG. While for some this might not mean much, it certainly influenced my decision to purchase it (or rather have it purchased when one of my friends said “what should I buy?” while we were at the local game shop).

So, reviewing this game is a tad bit intimidating. I sort of feel as though I should take a stand and either say “wow this game is awesome OMG, OMG!” or take a contrary position and bash it and talk about how “freaking overrated this ‘been there, done that’ eurogame is” but really I can’t honestly take either of those positions. There are things I like about Agricola and things that I don’t like and I will try to express them without bias.

Intense Farming Sim

Upon first playing Agricola Nick Yu (co creator of Minimum Wage) commented that it was pretty cool for being an “intense farming sim” and went on to say that he wanted to created “Accounterola” which would be a similarly intense accounting sim. This comment has stuck with me as I have been thinking a lot about the importance (or lack of importance) of theme in games. That, and I find the statement to be rather funny.

Agricola is quite literally a game about farming. It’s about farming in the 17th century but still, it’s farming. Before you consider purchasing it you have to come to terms with this fact. Some people will have no problem with it but I know some that will. If you don’t get a lot out of theme this game might not be for you.

Overview of Agricola

Agricola is a resource management game in the standard euro sense. Players begin the game with two actions (one for the farmer and one for his wife) and a two-room wood house. During the game players can expand their houses and then in turn (because of having more room) expand their family and thus have more actions. However, each family member needs to eat.

The game is played over a series of 14 turns. There are several actions that are available to be taken by the players at the beginning of the game (mostly involving gathering resources or using resources in some manner). Each round a new action becomes available to the players.

Players receive victory points at the end of the game for having managed to acquire different items (animals, vegetables, grain, rooms in your home, pastures etc) and lose points for not covering their board and for not having certain things (not having any sheep for example is -1 point).

In the non-family version of the game, played by most gamers, each player also receives 14 cards at the beginning of the game. These cards fall into two categories: Occupation or Minor Improvement. Both of these can help you along your way but take actions with your people to play. One of the skills of the game is knowing when one of these cards is worth worrying about and when it is not, as most of the time you will only play a couple of each kind of card.

After rounds 4, 7, 9, 11, 13 and 14 play stops and the harvest occurs. During the harvest players can get grain and vegetables from fields they have sown and animals can reproduce but players must feed their family or beg for food. Begging results in negative points at the end of the game and can really hurt a player who is otherwise doing well.

Actions can only be taken once (with some exceptions due to cards) so players need to keep a careful eye on the other players’ boards to see what they might be doing. The game moves fairly quickly and there never seems to be enough time to everything that you want to do.

Generally, it seems the winner is the player that can have the most of everything. Focusing on animals might do well to feed your family during the game but the negatives you will accumulate for not having plowed fields, grain, and vegetables at the end of the game (along with not gaining points for having them) will generally result in loss.

How the Game Plays

I have decided not to get too much into the nitty gritty of the play of Agricola. Honestly, in a lot of ways it plays rather like a lot of resource-based eurogames. Certain aspects of it could be compared to Puerto Rico or other economic games. The worker placement mechanic is different however, and falls more in line with other eurogames like Caylus (from what I understand, as I have not played it).

Still, the game is fairly simple in that sense. When your turn comes up one of your people does something. That person could go fishing (taking all the food currently built up on the Fishing space) or go cut down some trees (taking all the wood on one of the Gather Wood spaces). Once all of the people of all players have done something players recollect their family members and the next round begins. A new action is added and more resources are added to the board. Whomever is the current starting player then begins by taking their first action and play continues.

What I Like About Agricola

In a recent game of Agricola I had an opportunity to hurt another player and I did it. I knew that at some point I would need to take some food either from the Day Labor space or from the Fishing space. Either would give me two food but another player had an improvement that would have given him the food on the Fishing space at the end of the round if any were left. I sort of felt bad, but all other things being equal there was no reason not to do it. Thankfully this kind of situation doesn’t come up all that often.

Agricola is a low-aggression game where players need to pay attention to each other’s positions but can only occasionally take the time to do something to hurt another player. In some games (again Puerto Rico comes to mind) choices are made with the intention of hurting another player. While occasionally this does happen in Agricola it is more of a side product of your action as taking an action just to hurt another player is not usually in your best interest. I like this.

I also like that Agricola is fairly fast moving game with a finite number of choices that can be made at any given time. While it is not entirely uncommon for a player to sit and stare at the board for a bit (I am guilty of this in Agricola more than in most games but… I also think I do better at Agricola than I do at a lot of games… so…) generally players have an idea of what they want to do and thus things move relatively quickly.

What I Don’t Like About Agricola

The first thing I would like to say is that I enjoy the game but I never really love it. Agricola will last as a game on the main game shelf for a long time simply because it does not pop enough to get played constantly. It is always enjoyable and interesting but for me never really amazing.

Currently in my house I have three game locations. There is the main shelf in the dining room that holds the current games being played or that I would like to see played. Then we have the basement shelves which hold games that might get played under certain circumstances but that we really don’t need in easy reach. Then there’s the attic which is more of a storage place than a shelf and is also kind of where bad games go to die.

There are two complaints I have about Agricola. The first is the way first player switches. One of the action spaces allows a player to take the first player block (and thus be first player in the next round and until someone else takes it) and play a minor improvement. This seems like a rather archaic game mechanic.

These days some games have all but eliminated player order or created some very interesting ways in which they are changed but Agricola simply uses this. It works but it seems as if the designer could have done a bit better. The main reason it is a problem, I think, is that sometimes a player will not get a minor improvement that is easy to play when they want to take first player and will have to decide if they want to waste a move on simply getting to go first in the next round while other players may have plenty of options.

This leads to my next problem with the game. While the cards certainly make the game more interesting, many allow other players to take certain actions and thus really do mix the game up and make it a bit different every time, they are not entirely balanced. Some players have become rather frustrated with the game when they see another player drop a very powerful minor improvement or occupation when they feel nothing in their hand can measure up. While these cards are not the whole of the game they certainly can help, especially early on, and their lack of balance seems a bit disconcerting.

Conclusion

I like Agricola but I don’t really see it as the number one game. I do understand that BGG tends to be fairly euro-centric so it does not surprise me much that this game is number one. I also think that the reason it has beat out Puerto Rico is that it is far more diverse. For me, the reason it beats Puerto Rico is a bit different but related, in Agricola I feel I have a lot more options when my turn comes around and I enjoy this quite a bit.

This game is a solid Play It but surges ahead to become a Buy It if you are a fan of resource management eurogames as this is certainly one of the better games in that category.

As always feel free to comment, agreeing or disagreeing!

  1.  
    avatar
    Matt Says:

    The cards are extremely variable in this game in how effective they are as a whole to someones game. We’ve seen people win with dropping a ton of cards, and we’ve seen hardly any cards played and someone won. And those cards have varied in power as well. It’s that fact that makes it very hard to buy into that game being number 1 on that list because thats a pretty random element where games are ranked better by how little or well concealed that element is. What bothers me is that in Argicola this random element is in no way concealed. It’s something that I really just don’t understand even trying to come from the biased that list is based on.

    As far as the game is concerned I do enjoy it quite a bit and lately I’ve enjoyed it more so then Race (even though I think Race is a superior game for various reasons) but less then Shogun which seems to be my favorite right now. In any case cards in the right combination can just make you be able to do things better and faster then anyone else at the table, however it does need to line up. First you have to be dealt such a combination, and then you have to get access to the actions that allow you to play the cards (which if you go last or close to last in our group in the beginning of the game, which again is random, you tend not to get access to those actions or in the case of ocupations you have to pay too heavy a price). Also you have to recognize that you have such a combo, and if you over value your cards and do try to power it out you can actually get further behind instead of being ahead. It seems like a complete random element wrapped in a necessary skill (recognizing and efficently using of cards) which is interesting but nothing to mind blowing.

    In our group the best strategy (thanks to multiple successful games by Josh) is to work one getting a little bit of everything at least. Meaning some fields, grain, veggies, pastures, each animal, etc. If you can get more points by doing better in some of those areas do so, but without sacrificing the essentials. Also Josh seems to have a nack of seeing the best move at the time, which seems more important then seeing the whole end state of where you are going (a skill that I have that has proven stronger in Race rather then this game). Mastering those two aspects and not getting to caught up in everything else seems to be working the best.

    However the last game I played I discovered that we are definitely underusing some actions. The first being Major Improvements. I gained 11 points off of having 3 (Clay Oven, The Well, and the one that gives bonus and food for clay) not to mention a ton of food that made that a non-issue in my last game. Also the last action that shows up on Round 14 (Renovate and build fences) can be huge if you set up for it. If you are behind on pastures or need spots filled you can get a massive boost from the fences portion of the card, not to mention the ability to impove your home which is usually an additional 3-5 points at that point in the game. It’s a space that has come up over the last couple of games, that before that, I’m not sure if anybody took that space.

    I’m rambling now, but suffice it to say it is a really solid game and it has a lot of angles and skills to learn to play the game well. Also it’s really hard to get too mad a losing because you are playing a game about farming. How can you not laugh at that aspect as you are playing? The number 1 game that I’ve played, not really. Does it deserve to be rated highly? I certainly think so, but that’s just my opinion.

  2.  

    I wonder if actual farmers would prefer playing an Intense Programming Sim.

  3.  

    Josh,

    Liked your review of Agricola. Would like to put some of it on our site. Happy to give link back to this Article. Let us know.

    David.