Boardgame Review: Agricola

OK, so I like boardgames. Not your traditional family boardgames like Cluedo, Monopoly, etc, and come to think of it I am not even that big a fan of Risk — but I do enjoy a well designed modern board game, and most of the best I have seen seem to come from Germany for some reason, or at least Continental Europe. I’m willing to be proved wrong, and any British or American board game manufacturer who wants me to review their games is welcome to email me to discuss it, and send me a free copy! 🙂 Well here is my review of my little obsession of 2010, and possibly the only boardgame to have it’s own xkcd cartoon.

I had wanted a copy of Agricola for a long time, but never been able to justify the price – I really don’t have a lot of money, and fifty pounds is WAY outside what I can afford to spend on games. In the end it was my birthday back in August which allowed me the opportunity to buy it, as my mum gave me the money, and Becky was willing to drive me to Oxford and The Gameskeeper who had it in stock. I had been put off a bit by the reviews I had read which made it sound rather baffling and to be honest extremely dull; however I have now played this game 75 times in 5 months, which is extremely heavy play, and still play 3-5 times a week! The fact that I never have a problem finding people to play with tells you something as well – Becky and I of course play a lot of boardgames, as do Richard Lay and Tom Nowell, but for Lorna  Keen and Hugh Wake to find the time to come over for games suggests it really has a wide appeal, as they are very busy folks.

The real clue as to how much we like this game is the fact that I know own both the Agricola:Farmers of the Moor expansion and even the ridiculously frivolous and expensive Agricola: The Goodies, a definite uber-fan only purchase, which was a Christmas present from Becky. Anyway before we go any further, if you like games, like strategy games, and are interested in non-computer or console games, then you should pick up Agricola. It’s around £40 on Amazon at the moment. And before I talk about the game play, here is the wikipedia article on the game.

Hugh playing Agricola. The components include Farmers of the Moor Expansion and Agricola The Goodies pieces.

Hugh playing Agricola. The components include Farmers of the Moor Expansion and Agricola The Goodies pieces. The other players are off camera, hiding!

So what’s it about?

Farming. OK, farming in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, I forget which, and it makes very little difference. Lisa has in the past very unfairly and jokingly categorised it as “Farmville: the board game“.  It’s way more interesting and addictive than that – as fr as I know none of my regular opponents actually play Farmville, the Facebook game 🙂  But in essence there is a similarity: you have a far, expand it over a square grid, plant crops, harvest, and slowly build up your house and your family, as children are born and hungry mouths need to be fed.

The basic idea is immensely simple, and unfortunately sounds immensely dull – you start with two people in a wooden hut of two rooms, and they can each take an action, which lets you collect commodities (clay, stone, wood, reed) and do things like build fences to hold animals (sheep, cows, wild boars), renovate or extend your house, or buy various improvements from ovens to wells.  Every few turns there is a harvest phase, and you have to pay two food for each family member,  or take begging cards which have a catastrophic effect on your score at the end of the game, if you can not feed your family.

So you have to get the family to do actions that will result in you developing a sustainable source of food, whether slaughtering animals or growing grain and baking it in to food, or eating vegetables, or turning vegetables in to schnapps , or using cards that let you turn clay in (goods that are sold for)  food, or, or…  well suffice to say there are a number of different strategies you can try.

The Family Game

The first challenge with Agricola is understanding the rules. They are actually pretty clear, and the boards of which there are many come with examples of play and summaries on the back of some, but this is not an easy game to just pick up and play.  When we went to Andrew’s on my birthday I did take it, but I had not had a chance to really look at it so we played the excellent Pandemic instead. Like Race for The Galaxy, the rules took a bit of reading, and are daunting. Once you actually start its all very simple and intuitive though — Tom and I only made one mistake on our first game, failing to realise that “action spaces” – the areas you can send a family member to on your turn to let you do stuff – that action spaces with arrows built up the commodities if they are not taken, so a space with 3 wood has 6 wood on next turn if no one sends a family member to pick it up. We realised that by about turn 3, checked the rules which are pretty clear, and were able to rectify our mistake.

The family game uses a different side of the some of the boards, and does not use the rather large Occupations and Minor Improvement Decks of cards which add a great deal of complexity to the game. A great deal of complexity? Actually no, because you can always choose to ignore a card you don’t understand or that you don’t feel any urge to play, and indeed long after we stopped playing the family game Richard wisely concentrated on the placing of family members for actions that would have been just as effective in the Family Game, and did pretty well.

The family game is said to be suitable for age 12+, and I think a pretty intelligent twelve year old could get in to this yes. Whether the themes or game play would interest them I don’t know, but I’d like to try introducing some young folks to it, but I don’t know any — but certainly while having very complex strategies, and fairly complex game play, once you grasp the basic idea its fairly easy to play.

The Set Up Time

The playing time is estimated on the box as about thirty minutes per player, and the game supports 1 to 5 players – yes you can play it solo, more on that in a moment – and that is a pretty fair estimate, though it may take a little longer as you get used to it. I have played once solo, and it was OK, I’m not really a fan of solo board games seeing them as essentially a social exercise. Since I have found Agricola Online, a site I will discuss later on, I think I would play solo on that if the mood took me – one of the biggest issues with Agricola is how long it takes to set up the boards. In fact for our first game we spent quite a while trying to work out what boards you need –  the box is full of them. I would suggest one farm per player (the ones with the squares for development), the one with action spaces which includes “Build Room and/or Stables”, the other one with action spaces (includes “Take Wood” and turns 1 to 7), the Major Improvements board (has fireplace, clay oven, well etc, etc) with the cards on it, and the other turn board for rounds (I think without looking) 8 to 14. That does not sound very useful, but trust me it might be when you first set up.

Hansine admires Hugh's patent Agricola carry case - a  cheap hardware shop screw tray!

Hansine admires Hugh's patent Agricola carry case - a cheap hardware shop screw tray! The pieces are the Agricola the Goodies versions. The rug is Lisa's old one and is unusually grubby in this shot! 🙂

However on top of the playing time you have the set up time; sorting out the little piles of grain, clay, wood, vegetables, stone , reed, etc. etc, laying out the boards and the cards, and so on. This can easily take twenty minutes! We ended up with the habit of always playing at east two games when we put Agricola out on the table, to justify the time we spent setting up the components.  We tried various solutions – the game does come with lots of little zip-lock bags for the pieces, and with elastic bands for cards we started to presort them, but the problem only really resolved when Hugh went out and bought one of those cheap plastic trays designed for builders to keep screws in from a local hardware shop, and this became our portable playing piece carrier, and acts as a “bank” for the pieces on the table during the game.  It really has sped things up! Now we just have to play the items to the board as they are needed. Of course if you are not planning to dedicate a couple of hours a week to playing Agricola you may not want to  bother 🙂 Sadly Agricola is that addictive you might…

How do you win?

There are fourteen turns, and each turn a card is turned over providing a new action space, where you can play family members to do new things, like have children, bake bread, sow your fields etc.  At the end of the game your progress is scored in a number of categories, with -1 for complete failure or 1 to 4 points for your performance in that category.  So if you have 3 sheep on your farm at the end, that’s worth 2 points, and a single cow will get you a point, and four vegetables 4 points, and so forth. The size of your house also counts, if you have upgraded to clay, or poshest of all a stone house.  We have played a lot and I would say any score over 30 is pretty good, 40 excellent, and 50+ very good indeed, but other player may be much better than me!

So the Family Game is simple, what’s the other version?

First things first – I have been playing board games and rpg’s since 1978 or 9. The tendency when given a new game is to go straight to the “advanced”, or normal game, and skip the “family” version or “Beginner’s game”.  Tom is also a very experienced gamer, and good at reading rules, and I had read the rules thoroughly. We still chose to not skip the Family Game, and I’m glad of that, because the game is designed to be learned in stages, and I think I may have been overwhelmed and put off if I had gone straight for the full version.  Last week I taught Lorna how to play, and we played two or three games of the Family Game, and it was just as much fun I think, and I enjoyed it a lot, despite wondering if I would be put off by the simplicity after the full game.

Exactly the same, with slightly different Action Spaces that make the game a little more challenging. However, the advantage is that you now have access to more Improvements, not just the Major Improvements of the Family Game but a great big deck of Minor Improvements, which may require certain prerequisites to play (like having say  a “clay house” or “three grain fields”, and like Major Improvements usually cost resources (perhaps two stone and two wood, for example).  There are also Occupations, and you start with seven each drawn from a  deck that varies in the number of cards depending on the number of players, with the result I have still only seen a fraction of them in play. Occupations can significantly alter your play, and grant quite major bonuses that dictate your available strategies, and in theory a really good hand of Occupations and Minor Improvements could let you achieve an amazing score – but in reality it does not seem to make much difference, with all players getting higher scores the more they play and learn the game (it’s a VERY skill heavy game, with the only random factors the Minor Improvement and Occupation cards) and Becky consistently scoring higher than me these days regardless of the cards we each draw.

Agricola Strategy Hints

I have played the game a lot, but not enough to feel I have come anywhere near mastering it. Still these are my hints —

Obviously try to make sure you have at least one of pastures, cows, sheep, grain and vegetables, as not having one will result in -1 point, given your opponent who managed to grab a single vegetable they never planted or whatever a two point advantage.

As you lose a point for each unused space on your farm at the end, you need wood to fence, or build unfenced stables to use up spaces, unless you have buckets of stone or clay and access to reed to build a big house.  Try to make sure you use space wisely.

Remember that pastures, fields, rooms etc must be orthogonally contiguous – in other words next to each other not diagonally, so be careful where you place them, to prevent messing up your future development opportunities.

This one from Becky – don’t do what I do, and try to play 9 Minor and Major Improvements and four or five Occupations. I’m often very proud of the impressive combinations of cards I bring in to play: but this is not Magic The Gathering, and I have achieves such noteworthy and disastrous scores as 12 by doing this, by failing to address the basis things like growing crops, building fences and growing my family.

As my friend Graham Budd says, when you first play, the game feels “claustrophobic” as you struggle to find the two food you need to feed your family. I always try and grab two clay early to build a fireplace so I can slaughter livestock to feed, and to plough and take a grain ready for “the sow and or bake bread” action space coming up. My favoured tactic is to sow often, get a clay or stone oven, or both, and convert surplus grain to loads of food (you only need 8 grain for the full four points after turn 14, so you can use it if you are careful). As there is only one “Sow and or Bake Bread” action space however, unless you have The Baker minor improvement card, this grain based method may not work very well in the three or especially the four player game ( I ended up taking begging cards last time i tried it!) Still the more you play the easier feeding the family seems, somehow. (it’s even easier for some reason with the Farmers of the Moor expansion)

On your first turn, if you don’t have an occupation you are desperate to play, Take a Grain. if that has gone, Plough Field!

A three player game of agricola

A three player game

Criticisms

Now I don’t know if I will still like Agricola in twenty years time, but it is certainly up there with Diplomacy, Pandemic, and Ticket to Ride in my all time favourites, and at the moment it is my favourite boardgame of all.  Still a review is worthless without some down points?

* It’s expensive.  However I don’t blame Z-Man Games, or Lookout Games for this.  If you pick up the box you can see why – it’s full of heavy weight components. It’s a good solid game with a massive replay value, and you can buy it if you look round the web for £40-odd pounds, but with postage may as well go to your local game store I guess.  Amazon sell it, and you can find it on Ebay I guess, or if you are based in Gloucestershire  Proud Lion had a copy last time I was in (or if you are in Oxfordshire, The Gameskeeper).

* It really needs a counter tray, or boxes, or something. Tipping the bags out and separating the resources takes a while. Actually you could chuck them all in a bowl and just grab what you need as the game progresses – I never thought of that option, oddly for someone as messy as me, but it would work. Our cheap screw box thing works well.

* as noted in the photo above, the pieces you see in the toolbox are from the expensive and by no means necessary but lovely if you can afford it Agricola: The Goodies supplement (apart from the forest and Moor tiles from the Farmers of the Moor expansion, and the fuel counters and horses also from that expansion.) In the basic game you get little coloured discs of wood for the goods, and cubes for the animals: these are absolutely fine, but even Becky’s mum a non-gamer asked should you not get little wooden pigs and sheep etc? These things, animeeples and vegimeeples are available on Ebay and from various websites, designed specifically for use with Agricola, but you should really get them with the game. 😦 I finally got mine with Agricola the Goodies; very much a collectors and fanatics only expansion? (And now of course I want the new G Deck, as I have everything else! :))

* Ben at Proud Lion warned me that is it not very interactive, and it is not. I did not like that about Race for the Galaxy (not a game I enjoy much) and Ben’s words put me off a long time. Yet I really love Agricola: it is each player against the  game world, rather than each other, and really we all compete to score the highest points, but even the cards are not designed for “do each other in” kind of play, and the only way you get in each others way is by taking action spaces and resources other players really want – but this is as self sabotaging a strategy as blocking in Ticket to Ride. So while it is not a co-operative team win game like the superb Pandemic, it is not really an oppositional game – and if it all goes wrong, you only have yourself to blame for your low score!

Overall

With solid components, masses of cards that allow for slight variation in strategy, a brilliant core mechanic, and addictive and fun game play, Agricola is my favourite game. Highly recommended, 10/10. At some point in the future I will review the supplement Farmers of the Moors on this blog, but that actually improves the game slightly!

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About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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8 Responses to Boardgame Review: Agricola

  1. Becky says:

    Er, the bit under strategy hints where it says ‘this one from Becky – don’t do what I do’ the don’t do what I do bit is Chris speaking not me!

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Yes it should really say “don’t so what CJ does”! It’s me who gets so wrapped up in playing Minor Improvement and Occupation cards I end up with a dismal score usually if I am not careful!

  2. Axel says:

    I am disappointed that The Goodies expansion doesn’t allow the recreating of Farm Fresh Food.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farm_Fresh_Food_%28Goodies_episode%29

  3. Belisarius says:

    Nice review and pics! I wish I could order the different seasons boards, as I’m not really interested in the decks and I already have animeeples and farmer meeples.

  4. Alex says:

    I love this game, it’s fun and complete with a lot of options and no time for doing all the actions you would!

    With a precious ambientation and hundreds of tokens.

    I’ve made a custom version of resources, animals and farmers:

    good review!

  5. Cheryl says:

    I’m obsessed with this game, and I can’t find enough people to play with me! Totally agree with you, you definitely need a “bank” box. The plastic bags were worthless. I have one, too. 🙂

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