Monday, 17 November 2008

Agricola again

I played Agricola for the first time almost a year ago, at Carcasean back in Sabah. It was Chong Sean's pasted up German version. At the time the English version was not released yet, and Agricola was not yet the top ranked game on I thought it was just OK, or maybe more like undecided what I thought of it. Nothing in particular that I found very outstanding. Later when Imagine Games (Malaysian online boardgame retailer) offered a special pre-order promotion for the English version (and that was still before Agricola hit #1), I hesitated but eventually signed up. Malaysians simply find discounts irresistable. After much waiting (originally scheduled to reach Malaysia in Jul 2008), I finally went to ToyBox to pick up the game on Sat 8 Nov 2008, less than 4 hours after I received the email from Mr Ong of ToyBox telling me that it had arrived.

When Michelle and I started playing it, we couldn't stop playing. We played 4 games on Sunday, 2 on Monday, 1 on Tuesday. That's quite rare, for a game that takes about 1.5 hours in the first few plays, and still 1 hour 15 mins later. (we can probably finish a game within about 1 hour now) Michelle likes the game. I do too, more so than after my first play of it.

This was my first impression of Agricola (with an overview of how it plays).

Having played a few more games, I tried to analyse Agricola. I break it down to three main areas: (a) growing a family and upgrading your home, (b) rearing animals, and (c) growing crop. I think these are the three general directions or focus that you can decide on when you play. Maybe you will try to do all and spend equal effort on each area. Maybe you want to be king of a specific area. Aside from these 3 development directions, there are 2 other important aspects of the game: (d) feeding your family, and (e) tools and unique advantages to help you execute your strategy. Feeding your family is a very important theme. Having enough food is a constant worry, like a tightening feeling in the chest. The game design doesn't let your family die of starvation. If you are short of food you go begging for food. But begging means a very severe victory point penalty. Begging is humiliating. If you're a farmer and cannot even feed your own family, then indeed you are a disgrace. So I find this very fitting for the theme. And the tools / unique advantages are the Major and Minor Improvements (which usually cost you some resource to obtain) and the Occupations (which still cost you an action, and also food if you have more than one Occupation). Some Improvement cards give victory points, but their main purpose (and that of the Occupations too) is to help you in the 3 areas of development above. When I play the game, I look at my Minor Improvement cards and Occupation cards, and decide up front the general direction I want to follow.

Michelle's favourite part of the game is probably the Occupation cards and the Minor Improvement cards. There are so many of them in the game, that we always get different combinations. Since we are still relatively new to the game, we still often get new ones that we haven't seen before. There are just so many cards in the game. Every time we take a look at the 7 Occupation cards and 7 Minor Improvement cards dealt to us at the start of each game, we are like children opening Christmas presents.

Unfortunately, for our first six games since receiving the game, we played a rule regarding the Occupations wrong, very wrong. We played that you can do more than one Occupation card when you choose the Occupation action, and you only pay food if you play more than one Occupation card with one action. The correct rule is you can only play one Occupation when you take the action, and if this is your second time playing an Occupation card, you pay food. In hindsight, this is quite an obvious mistake. The action space on the board does clearly say, "1 Occupation". Needless to say, in our first few games, we always choose the 1 Occupation space early, and we played many Occupation cards, sometimes all 7 of them. This helped us a lot. It was too good to be true, and I had a nagging feeling that something didn't seem right. And indeed it wasn't. Now that we played the rule right, our scores went down to a more sobering 30+, as opposed to 40+, even 50+ in our earlier games. The game feels even tighter and tougher, which it already was. And I like it! Even more difficult and painful decisions to be made.

Our first game after buying Agricola, which, obviously we played wrong (so many occupation cards). I had both the Obelix cards. Agricola has many such inside jokes. Famous people drawn into the cards.

Close-up of the Obelix cards.

My little no-space-wasted farm, with a nice big stone house, thanks to Obelix.

Michelle's farm in that first game.

Minor Improvement card on the upper left, Major Improvement cards on the lower left, and the rest are Occupation cards.

More cards...

There are 4 central boards. The leftmost one is for always-available actions. The middle one partly for always-available actions and partly for more-available-every-round actions. The upper right board is only for more-available-every-round actions. The lower right board is for the 10 Major Improvements which are available every game.

Close-up of some of the central boards. We place our farmers onto the actions that we choose.


Another no-space-wasted farm. This time Michelle's.

My big family. 5 is the max.

I had all Occupation cards in play, which, I thought was a bit too easy, and later found out that we had played incorrectly.

Michelle played a Minor Improvement on the first round, which gave her 2 food from the next round onwards until the end of the game.

This is the card. Of course, we still played the Occupation rule wrong at the time. It should be impossible to play this card in round 1, because you can only do 1 Occupation at a time.

Agricola is an exercise in frustration. And I mean this in a positive way. You feel so strongly that there is so much you want to do, but you can only do so little, more so than many other games which also give this feeling. Tough choices, painful compromises, opportunities abandoned. You always feel that you are doing very badly, but sometimes when you add up the score at the end, it actually isn't that bad, or sometimes it turns out to be much better than expected. The game makes you feel so inadequate. Probably not very suitable for people with low self-esteem. But in the end, when you look at your well developed farm (assuming you played a well-enough game), maybe with some minor flaws, you feel a sense of pride, a sense of achievement.

Agricola is also a game if planning. I tend to plan ahead what I want to do, and I plot the road map to get myself there, which resources to collect, or which Occupations to play first, etc. I plan to maximise efficiency, minimise waste. Maybe it's because I have been playing mostly 2-player games. There is less competition for actions to choose from, so it is easier to plan. Agricola is a game of chicken (though technically there is no chicken in the game, just sheep, boars and cattle). When the resources accumulate on the board, you are tempted to take them, but maybe you hope noone will take them this round, so that even more will be added next round, and you can take them then, and have the exact amount that you intend to use. But sometimes you opponent may take them just before you, and all that waiting will have been for naught. It'll take a few more turns for the resources to accumulate. So, to take them now or to gamble that they'll still be there for you later. Agricola is a game of prioritising. Too many things that you want to do. You need to decide between what to do now and what to do later. Often you need to decide what to give up and not do at all.

Agricola is a game of taking what your opponent most desperately needs. Oh yes, it can be evil. Sometimes you do this just to spite your opponent. Agricola is a game of conservation. You need to save your actions. You need to make every action count. You need to try to do more with less. Some actions allow you to do two things, and you should try to do both, rather than selecting the action twice to do one thing earlier and another thing later. So there is some coordination and planning you need to do to be able to pull this off. Agricola is a game of synergy. It is usually a good idea to pick Occupations and Improvements that have synergy. This allows you to do more with less.

Comparing Agricola to other games, I actually find some similarity with Race for the Galaxy (maybe I've just been playing too much of Race for the Galaxy, and am just seeing what I want to see). You look at your initial cards, and you usually decide on a strategy based on what what you see, before even the first turn. But of course in Race for the Galaxy, you keep drawing cards, and may decide to switch strategy depending on what cards you get later. In Agricola you don't get new cards. Agricola was inspired by Caylus. I find it more thematic than Caylus. I always felt that Caylus is collecting cubes, converting cubes, and using up cubes to gain victory points. In Agricola the cubes feel more like sheep / boars / cattle, because they can breed. That's my logic. There are aspects of Agricola which do not jive with real life, but generally it feels more thematic. One thing I like about Agricola is you need not worry about the order of activation of the buildings like in Caylus. In Agricola the moment you choose an action, you execute it, unlike in Caylus, where building effects are resolved in a strict order after everyone has placed all workers. Not everyone will agree with me. Some may like the additional challenge. I can live without it, and be challenged by other aspects of the game, and there is no shortage of that.

So, in summary, I like Agricola very much.


Aik Yong said...

Ha Ha, luckily you ordered it, else you would have missed out on the biggest thing this year!

Hiew Chok Sien said...

yes. this time i'm happy i couldn't resist the urge to buy.

and it's the biggest thing last year. ;-)