Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Agricola

On Sat 9 Feb 2008 I visited Carcasean, and this time I took the opportunity to try Agricola, a new and highly acclaimed game that came out in the Essen game fair in Oct 2007. Only the German version has been published. The English version will only be published this year. We played a four-player Beginner game, Michelle and I, and two other customers, one of whom has played before, and was our teacher.

The first thing I can say about Agricola is I don't know yet whether I like it or not. From just one game, I can only say there isn't anything particularly innovative or surprising, well, at least in the Beginner's game (it has Intermediate and Advanced rules too). Two things that stand out are how well the gameplay fits the theme, and replayability.

Your actions in the game feel very real and relevant to the farming theme. You plow, you sow. You build stables, you breed animals. You upgrade your home, you have children. It is like a game of life and you try to improve your livelihood and increase your assets, and all through the game you try to make sure you and your family can feed yourselves. Feeding yourselves is a constant consideration throughout the game, and to me this makes the game feel quite realistic and down-to-earth, it's just like in real life. Feeding your family is your basic need, everything else is secondary, and are nice-to-have's.

Replayability comes from the tons of cards. There are very many cards that add little twists to the game and give you small special powers. Each time you play you will likely get different combinations.

And how does the game play? You start with a plot of land, a small house with two rooms, and two people (yourself and your wife). (I have no explanation for why husband and wife need to sleep in different rooms) You also have 7 Minor Improvement cards and 7 Occupation cards, which you can play during the game to gain special abilities. At the centre of the table, there are a lot of actions that you can choose to take. Every round there will be one more new action added to this pool. The new actions are determined semi-randomly, giving a story line, e.g. you can have babies only around 1/3 into the game (yes, the government says so), and you will only be able to rear pigs and cattle quite late in the game. Some of the actions have a cumulative effect, e.g. there is one "take wood" action which if not used in a round, the amount of wood that can be taken will increase. So sometimes you just can't resist taking wood (or food, or reeds, or any other resources) because there is so much of it sitting there tempting you, even though you have no particular use for it now. You'll just tell yourself, "I will need it later". This is what Valerie Putman calls the "shopping for shoes" mentality, which I find very appropriate.

Taking actions is the main source of player interaction and competition in the game. Sometimes fighting to be start player is important because being start player means you have first choice. You can deny your opponents actions which they want to take by taking them before they can. You take actions by placing your people on the card or the spot on the board, like in Caylus and Age of Empires III. This is also similar to Puerto Rico because choosing an action denies others from taking it. Other than this action selection (or "worker placement"), the other significant player interaction is the Major Improvements (that you can do to your home/farm). There is a pool of 10 cards representing these, and once a Major Improvement is taken, it is no longer available to the other players. Other than these two areas, players mostly focus on improving their own farm. No you can't go around burning other people's houses or stealing their sheep or kidnapping their children.

Once all players have placed all their people to take actions, a round ends, and all the people go home to sleep. The next round starts with adding one more action card. Every few rounds (it gets more frequent as the game progresses) you harvest, your animals breed, and most importantly, you need to feed your family. If you are short of food, you need to beg. This is a nice game and noone starves to death, but each food that you beg for gives you -3 victory points, which is a big penalty.

My farm. Black disk = stone, white disc = reed, dark brown disc = wood, yellow disc = grain, white cube = sheep, brown cube = cattle, bars = fence, big flat discs = people. My house has two rooms, made of stone, and I have two ploughed fields with nothing sowed yet. The cards on the right are the Occupation cards I have played, and the cards at the bottom are Minor and Major Improvement cards I have played. The board in the background is for displaying the 10 Major Improvement.

The lower half are the three central boards for displaying all available actions and at the same time also acting as a round marker, since one additional action card is displayed at the start of every round. Some actions are fixed actions printed directly on the board. Some are on cards, i.e. will vary from game to game, and also depends on number of players. Some resources are placed on some of the action cards / spaces, to show what you gain if you choose that action. The big flat discs are the people already sent out by the players to choose and execute actions.

My farm at game end. I have a pig (black cube) as a pet. You can put one animal in your house if you don't have any place else to put it, but you'll have to declare to the world that it's your pet. Also note the warning sign on the table. The full message is "No food or drinks on the table!".

So, you get to do all these actions, then how do you win? In a nutshell, you win by having the "best" farm. The actual scoring is quite tedious. Many factors are taken into account - how many people in your family, how many stables, how many of each resource (grain, vegetables, sheep, pigs, cows etc), what kind of house (clay is good, stone even better), VPs on some of the Minor and Major Improvement cards you have played etc. You also get penalised for various things, like unused space on your farm, having none of a particular resource, having begged for food etc.

One aspect of Agricola which I find similar to The Settlers of Catan is you collect resources to buy or build things. You collect wood to build fences, you collect reed and clay/stones to upgrade your home, you need all sorts of resources for the Minor and Major Improvements, etc. There are a lot of wooden pieces in this game.

Some people call Agricola an "engine" game, which is true to a certain extent. It feels more like a "home improvement" game to me, because it is not so much about improving your efficiency in a specific area (e.g. corn producer in Puerto Rico), but rather you are trying to be well-rounded. You should try to make use of the Minor Improvements and Occupations that you are dealt, but I feel the overall objective is more on general improvement and not specialisation (based on my one and only play).

During the game I did not manage to pay much attention to what other players were doing. Managing my own farm and my cards was already overwhelming. However observing what others are doing will be important to play well, because you need to know how and where to compete for actions. I came in second place in my first game, but later found that I probably should have come 3rd or last. I made a big mistake of upgrading my home directly from a wooden house to a stone house, and skipped the clay house stage, which is not allowed. Throughout my game I just fumbled from one round to the next, not having much idea how to make good use of my cards. I never managed to extend my home, and only managed to have one child near the end, and only because there was an action allowing me to have a child even though I didn't have a room for the kid. I managed to understand the game structure, but I was still quite clueless about strategy even at game end. Even now I still don't have much idea how I could have utilised well the cards I was dealt.

One feeling that I have when playing Agricola is a comfortable feeling of having many things to choose from. Indeed, at the start of the game, there are 17 actions to choose from, when only 8 will be chosen (4 players x 2 people each). So, even if the action which you have planned to take is taken by an opponent, you can probably find another action which will be somewhat useful to you too. That is my gut feel. Because of the wide range of things that you can do to improve your farm, I have a leisurely feeling when playing the game. Maybe I wasn't playing competitively enough. Somehow I already felt happy and satisfied that I had improved my farm and built something I was proud of, even if I didn't do as well as others.

I didn't pre-order the English version of Agricola. It comes at a hefty USD70, plus shipping to Malaysia. That's very expensive. I have been thinking of waiting for it to come out, before deciding whether I want to buy it. I want to wait for more reviews and different viewpoints. Most early reviews only sing praise. Also it will probably be cheaper to buy from online retailers. After one game, the status for Agricola is still wait-and-see, and hopefully I can try it again before deciding. Replayability, one of the much praised aspect, is not too important to me. Not unimportant, but it is secondary to me, compared to how well the game plays and how much I like the game. If I'm lukewarm to a game, then replayability doesn't really matter to me.

But I must say the "home improvement" aspect in Agricola is done well. This is definitely a thematic game, and farming is a rare theme, even for Eurogames.

2 comments:

Aik Yong said...

I am of the opinion that the first game should not use the 'minor improvement' and 'occupation' cards. Yes, it gives more depth and more 'combo' aspect to the game but it's really too much for a first game.

I also felt a bit disoriented from the many options from the cards as well as the myriad end victory conditions. However upon reflection, I realise that the game is supposed to be played 'thematically'. Just do whatever a farmer does and watch your farm grow. That's where the satisfaction from the game comes.

It comes down to this, it's a contest of who's the most well-to-do farmer of all rather than who has the most victory points. If taken this way, the game is FUN! (which is something I found missing from your impression of the game ;P)

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Indeed I have not started finding the game fun yet. Maybe I was struggling too much with thinking through the Minor Improvement and the Occupation cards. As you said, it is probably a good idea to skip those for the first game.

Thus, Agricola is still wait-and-see for me. Hopefully I can try someone else's copy again (maybe at Carcasean again next time I'm back in KK) before I decide.