Uwe Rosenberg is a particularly prolific German game designer that likes to make games that have to do with agriculture. You may have heard of his most popular one, Agricola. Some take to Agricola‘s harsh world of eking out survival, scraping together enough for a thatched roof extension to your pitiful cottage. Others think it to be overly dry and boring. To each their own: games are for everyone.
However, I’ve always been been a fan of Rosenberg’s ability to give a player a large possibility space and yet always somehow make the player feel that each of those potential options in the possibility space are simultaneously viable and sub-optimal. It makes for tense dynamics if you allow yourself in that magic circle.
One issue some have with Rosenberg’s farming games is that they are gigantic. Caverna is roughly the size and weight of a microwave oven and costs more yet suffers from a criticism that the game plays roughly the same every time.
It is with recent Caverna plays in mind that I started to eye Rosenberg’s newest Fields of Arle. Fields is 1-2 players only, which works out great for me as I generally can only get these games to the table with my wife. Like Caverna and other similar games, Fields has very little randomness of consequence. Yet somehow, I find the play to be much more varied than that of Caverna and more fair and open to experimentation than Agricola.
The criticism that these games are entirely deterministic and solvable is both true and useless. There are a sequence of moves that can produce the maximum possible score. For a solitaire game, one could label all of the moves, post them on BoardGameGeek, and essentially render any of the decision-making meaningless. While this appears to have happened for Caverna, the decision space is so vast and well-balanced in Fields that this does not seem to happen.
I believe that the mechanism in which Fields shines is the ability to upgrade tools. For a number of action spaces, a corresponding tool exists where the benefit for the space depends on the tool. For example, at the Woodcutter you will get 1 Wood per Axe tool that you have trained. By going to the Master action space (and with other game effects), that tool can be upgraded from 2 to 5. Thus, players can specialize in different actions. Wherein Agricola, the Family Growth space is equally good and desirable for everyone, that may not be the case depending on the strategy here. Instead of drafting best spaces (as is the mechanic in most worker placements), the strategy seems to be to determine the best combination of improvements and exploiting those improvements, knowing you have a limited combination of each. Additionally, Fields improves on the aesthetic of progress hinted upon by the adventuring mechanic in Caverna. Improving your tools feels like progress and by the end of the game you feel like your improved actions are great deals. Where Rosenberg’s best game (Le Havre) shines in comparison to all his others is the feeling of possibility and abundance. These elements are present to a significant degree in Fields.
In most instances, this plays out as a puzzle with a variable solution. If you are looking for a malleable and interesting optimization challenge, Fields delivers in a way different than all other Rosenberg games. I found my initial plays deeply satisfying. There are some thematic oddities present within the delivery mechanism, but besides that, I have little to criticize about this charming game.