Agricola Makes Farmville Weep

Agricola is a board game, but calling it that is like calling the Burj al Dubai (or whatever they call it now) a tall building. The Spiel des Jahres, the German board-game equivalent of the Academy Awards, had to implement a special category for complex games just to give Agricola some laurels. So it is impressive looking with all its little fiddly wooden pieces and rulebook with the six-point font. But it has been in the Top 2 games on BoardGameGeek since I started being interested in board games again, so I figured there must be something to the complexity.

Since I’m alone in my apartment for the next month and had the day off, I figured I would try to learn the game and see what all the fuss was about.

First, a disclaimer. The game is about 17th century farming. So a complex game about farming should just set your loins ablaze, right? Moving on.

If you are planning on learning Agricola, it is probably best to have someone who already knows how to play the game teach you. Why? The rule book is not entirely helpful for learning the game. It runs fast and loose with terminology and takes important mechanics and puts them in an aside. I had the board all set up and ready to go when I realized I had no idea what it meant to “go”. Since a game is a series of meaningful decisions, I needed to put some meaning behind the bevy of options available.

Luckily, I found this video which cheerfully explains the game, if you can get through the cringingly embarrassing stuff in the intro. In fact, i found his presentation so helpful that I just may watch his other videos just to check out some heretofore unnoticed games. Super-major kudos to this Scott fellow as I may have never shifted out of first gear without his presentation.

I chose to play a three-player game by myself, because I like to test games as they were designed to be played and also it’s lonely here so having a split personality helps. You will need a very large table to contain everything you need to play. Here’s my coffee table as I was setting up. I have an additional game mat on my couch just to fit everything.

Once you get into the game, it is surprisingly fun and I believe that fun comes from the wide array (and increasing as the game unfolds) number of actions you can take. There’s a sensation of trying to keep spinning plates balanced in that there are a number of categories in which you are scored, but only so many actions in which to build in those categories. I want to be able to expand my farm’s family but I can’t because I’ll need to feed them and I need to be in a better position with my resources to do so. Well, shit, that fits the theme of starving farmers pretty well.

I have the feeling that unlike Dominion, there won’t be a particularly dominant strategy given any particular setup. This isn’t a big problem in Dominion, yet there are certain setups that scream out for a particular strategy (Chapel decks, for instance). Here, it seems like there are so many things to manage, that each game will provide unique ways to expand and settle. Time will tell, I’ve only played one game and I am certain I have made at least one rules mistake. The rules sheet, as mentioned, is simply not very good unless you already understand what is going on – which makes the whole sheet a Catch 22.

Here’s what my table looked like at endgame. Red won by a bunch, despite being behind purple for most of the game, which gives me hope that early mistakes don’t have to be your undoing. I was trying for a home-expansion strategy with my green player but he could just barely muster up enough food each harvest so he never really got anywhere. Purple did alright, but didn’t have the explosion of resources at the end like Red did.

For my first play, I am really impressed. I thought the game would be dry and methodical, but it seems to be more friendly than I had imagined. It will certainly need more plays to flesh out strategies and tactics, but I get the jist now already, which is something that was lacking in another popular game Race for the Galaxy that still vexes me. As a game designer, I have experience analyzing systems of mechanics, but with this game I just can’t take a bite off and make a lasting judgment. It needs more chewing.

If anyone reads in the New York City area and knows of any game stores that do board game nights, let me know as I would love to get beat up on by more experienced farmers. I think the game will be a lot more fun with other people (though it supposedly has a very robust true solitaire variant) simply because you can be super melodramatic “FAAAARRRRRMING! Gonna raise some vegetables up in your face, wooooo!”

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