Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Agricola: The One Euro To Rule Them All!

If you've been reading any of these posts of the last several months, you've probably recognized by now that I love board games.  And it probably wasn't a leap to imagine that I own more than a few of them as well.  Here's the thing though, our if the nearly 200 games that I own, if I could only keep one of them, that game would be Agricola.  Why you ask?  Because there is no game I own that provides a more satisfying gaming experience, more fun, more tense decision making and more bang-for-your-buck value than Agricola.  It is, quite simply, the best board game I have ever played.  And, you don't need to take my word for it.  Head on over to BoardGameGeek.com and check out their ratings list -- Agricola is currently ranked #2 out of the over 66,000 games in their database.  To be honest, it's a travesty that it's not number one (a title currently held by Twilight Struggle) but there are a few vagaries of the BGG rating system that are responsible for this injustice!  So do you want to know more about this amazing title?  Well read on dear friend and all shall be revealed!



Before we go any further, however, we need to pause for a moment and say a few words about how to correctly pronounce the title.  Unfortunately, many people pronounce it as such: AGRI-cola.  Not only is this incorrect, but it makes the title sound like some form of carbonated beverage!  The correct pronunciation is: a-gri-ko-la.  In actual fact, Agricola is the Latin word for farmer -- hence the theme about which we shall say more in a moment.  This is a landmark game in the history of board gaming -- it deserves to have it's title pronounced correctly.  Learn it and love my friends.

So what is this game all about?  The theme of the game puts you in control of a seventeeth century peasant family that is trying to grow and develop both their family and their land.  At the beginning of the game, each player will receive their own player board representing their farm, along with two tiles representing the two rooms of their first home -- it's a pretty pedestrian wood hut but, no worries, if you play well you'll be expanding and upgrading said hut.  You'll also receive two token representing the first two members of your family -- with smart play this family will also be expanding as the game progresses.  These family tokens are critical because Agricola is very much a worker placement game.  Along with the player boards there is also a main board on which different action spaces are located.  On your turn you'll be able to place one of your family tokens on to that board and to execute the action associated with that space-- say, plowing a field, raising animals, building new rooms on your home, or collecting resources like wood, stone and reed.  The key here, is that each round players will take turns placing workers one at a time until each player has placed all of their family members.  And once a player has placed their worker in a particular location, no other player can take that action during that round.  As the game progresses, you'll find that the families of each player will grow in size and, even though more actions spaces will be placed on the board each round, competition for resources is going to be fierce!



At this point you might be saying: 'Well, this sounds just like any other worker placement game -- what makes this one special?'  There are three factors that raise Agricola above the ranks of more pedestrian worker placement/euro games.  The first factor is the need to feed your family at the end of every round.  The game progresses over six rounds, each of which is comprised of a number of phases.  The number of phases per round steadily decreases over the course of the game, however, and the intervals between feeds decreases as well.  And at the end of each round you need to ensure that you can provide two units of food for each of your family members; fail to do so and you'll face the very stiff penalty of losing 3VP per unit of food that you can't provide.  The need to feed your family creates a dramatic tension in the game as each player strives to create some form of food engine that allows them to meets these demands while simultaneously growing and expanding their family and holdings.  If you've ever seen a group of people playing Agricola, especially towards the end of the game, then you know how real this tension is!  Those people will be so focused on the game, as they watch each move made by their opponents and run calcuations in their heads about how much food they have, that they often lose track of what's going on in the world around them.

The second factor that elevates Agricola above the rest of the field are the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards.  Over the course of the game the number of action spaces on the board will increase (and it occurs in a somewhat random fashion), but every player has a chance of accessing all of the same spaces.  Additionally, however, each player has a unique hand of cards given to them at the beginning of the game which represent skills and improvements that can be achieved by their family.  These cards will powerfully influence the course of the game, because, despite the fact that each player has the same overarching goals and access to the same action spaces on the board, the path they follow to achieve those goals will be largely determined by the cards they receive at the beginning of the game.  Knowing when and which cards to play to most efficiently and fully maximize the placement of your workers lies at the heart of Agricola and is huge factor in making the game what it is.  As an aside, the base game comes with three decks of cards (the E, K and I decks) and since you will always have a different hand of cards and you have three deck to choose from when setting up the game, the replayability provided by Agricola is unparalled by any other euro game.  Now that's getting value for your gaming dollar.



The final factor that I would mention is how well Agricola scales depending on the number of players you have.  The game plays brilliantly with any number between one and five and it feels and plays out quite differently depending on that number.  Again the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards play a role here.  That's because a card that might be downright unplayable in a two-player game could turn out to be extremely powerful in a four player match -- and only experience and repeated play will tell you how to make that valuation.  Further, the game just plays differently with different numbers.  Want a poker like challenge where you need to "play the man" as much as the game -- try building a two-player rivalry with a friend.  Want a cutthroat battle from start to finish -- try playing with three (reed denial is all I'm going to say!).  Want a more relaxed (if longer) experience -- try playing with five.  Astonishingly, the game is even brilliant in solo mode where you'll compete in kind of a campaign mode to better your personal score from game to game.  The ebb and flow of the game really changes with the number and learning how to cope in different circumstances is part of the fun.

When you combine these three factors with clean design and top notch components what you've got is game that simply stands head and should above the rest of the euro gaming world.  I have played this game nearly a hundred times and I can confindently say to you that I feel that I am just beginning to mature as a player.  I continue to see new value (from both a tactical and strategic perspective) in familiar cards and my valuation of those cards changes depending on the number of players I'm play with.  I find continued enjoyment in trying to find ways to eek out just one more point from a particular strategy.  Sometimes I try new and bizarre strategies just to see what will happen (small families and huge fields, massive families in big houses, animal husbandry, or cash cropping -- whatever!).  I can confidently say that if you are prepared to invest a little time and effort in learning what is a bit of daunting game from the start -- you will be richly rewarded for years to come!  So, come on down to the store, grab a copy and get farming!

Thanks for reading and have a great day!

2 comments:

VinceL said...

Although he claims to present only three, Mr. Temple argues that Agricola provides a superior gaming experience along five dimensions:
1) Tension, which arises from players wanting to take more actions than their capacity allows.
2) Customization, which results from the unique sets of capabilities (Minor Improvements and Occupations) each player receives that will steer their development in slightly differing directions.
3) Scalability, which becomes apparent through the different strategies the game rewards when played with each recommended number (1-5) of players.
4) Quality, which is described in relation to the artistic merit and durability of the components.
5) Replayability, which results as players experience the above elements across successive plays without growing bored from lack of challenge or variety.

Mr. Temple also cites Agricola's #2 rating on BGG. While it may seem counter-intuitive to call attention to the game's failure to sieze the #1 spot, Mr. Temple cleverly attempts to dismiss the victor's rank as the result of a flawed game-rating mechanism.

It is a pity Mr. Temple is so misinformed. His error does not arise from his naming incorrect criteria for a superior gaming experience; most gamers would probably mostly agree with his rubric, if not entirely. Nor does his mistaken conclusion result from inaccuracy or misrepresentation of the game; Agricola looks, feels, and plays as he describes.

No, in short, Mr. Temple's error arises from his having failed to recognize the self-evident superiority of Battlestar Galactica. Yes, BSG is the best game evar.

See if you don't agree that BSG beats Agricola hands-down when assessing it against the rubric Mr. Temple has devised:
1) Tension. I know of no atmosphere more tense than the moment after the remainder of the loyalty cards have been distributed (in the Kobol phase). That there are evil robotic murdering scum at the table is now no longer deniable. But which of your innocent-seeming table-mates wishes for nothing more than to destroy the future of humanity? I say, throw everyone in the brig and then we'll see who blows themselves up!
2) Customization. While the Minor Improvements and Occupations in Agricola are but a constant source of distraction and irritation for me, the differing character powers in BSG drive characters into truly different sets of actions throughout the game. Like, non-pilots can't fly, eh!
3) Scalability. BSG fulfills the requirement to play differently, feel different, and reward different strategies when played across the range of supported players. However, who cares. Throw in one more Cylon than required and see if those pansy humans can take a real challenge!!!
4) Quality. Thick cardbord, beautiful art, standies...what else could you ask? (Quiet you rabble rousers who want a plastic Basestar - you finally got one in the Pegasus expansion, though that was a pretty penny to pay for the only usable piece in that box!)
5) Replayability. Every game, the Cylons can be a different subset of your friends (or former friends) sitting at the table. Which is good, because it's far to easy to tell when some of your friends are lying about not being a Cyclon when you're pushing them down in their chair, spittle driping from your foaming rage as you demand they own up to sabatoging the last jump!!!

Finally, consider BSG's ranking on BGG = 21. It's not my fault the lousy voting algorithm ranks all those other loser-games higher!!!

In conclusion, when Mr. Temple rearranges his facts to support the self-evident conclusion that BSG rules, he will achieve rectitude. And what more could we ask...of a Cyclon? (Hmmm????)

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