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Game That You Should Play #5

It's been a while that I've done one of these, so why not kick off with a biggie. Welcome to the farming world of...

Agricola


Complete with terrible box art.
If you do a spot of research, you'll find that this game can regularly be found in the top ten of just about any best board game list. That means it must be pretty good right? Well, yes it is. I'd go so far as to say it's the Shawshank Redemption of board games - something so good that it makes you regret not going for it before because you didn't like the premise.

Which is building a farm.

At least, that's the way I thought. I wasn't particularly interested in a game about building a farm. It just doesn't sound nearly as exciting as taking over the world or battling mythological beasts.

How wrong I was.

Structure


When you look at a fresh Agricola board for the first time, it's a very daunting experience. There are so many cards and game spaces that it's very easy to be overwhelmed. Minute to minute, it's actually very simple though as the number of options you have for each turn is strictly controlled.

That's a lot of stuff to take in at the start.
Each player starts out with an empty farm board and two family members. Their rather modest Wooden House occupies two spaces of farm and a family member goes in each of those spaces.

As well as those individual boards there are 4 community boards that everyone will get to use over the course of the game. One of these houses 10 Major Improvements that players will be able to build for their farms. Things like Fireplaces, Cooking Hearths or Ovens. As becomes quite a theme for the game, these Major Improvements are available strictly on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning that, if you want one of the Ovens, you'd better get a swivel on.

The remaining 3 boards house the various Action spaces used to play the game. Each one of these spaces describes a particular Action that each Family Member will be able to use each Round. Most of these Action Spaces are present through the entire game and contain things like being able to Plough A Field or gather common resources.

In addition to these are various Stages - actions that may only be performed from a particular time in the game onwards. These actions are randomly determined within each Stage, meaning that, for example, you might be able to build Fences in Round 1 in one game yet be unable to do so until Round 4 in another. This random factor keeps everyone on their toes - especially when you consider that players aren't allowed to perform an Action if someone else has already chosen it that Round. Games will often turn on the tactical selection of the First Player space - ensuring that you get first pick of the board from the next turn onwards.

There are a grand total of 14 Rounds that constitute a game of Agricola. These are distributed amongst 6 Stages. Once the final Stage has been played, the game is over and scores are totted up to determine the winner. Interestingly, the early Stages have more Rounds in them than the later ones. This is crucial because, at the end of each Stage is the Harvest.

Don't Starve


The Harvest can be a daunting experience. Sure, you get to do cool stuff like harvest the fields for resources and get your farm animals to breed, but you also have to ensure that you have enough food to feed your family.

This is easily one of the most important elements of the game - ensuring that your family doesn't starve. Whilst it doesn't affect the playing of each Round, for every unit of food you are shy of the amount you need, a whopping -3 points is scored. This can and will cripple you come the end of the game.

Expanding The Farm


Building more Rooms expands your house. This allows you to expand your family.

Larger families require more food. This is somewhat offset by the fact that each Family Member gets to perform one Action per Round, meaning that the larger families will get to do more things on the board - something that usually enables them to gather up the required resources to keep everything ticking along nicely. Larger families also score lots of points at the end of the game.

You can also build Fences to enclose areas of pasture and allow you to keep and breed one of the three animal types in the game - Sheep, Wild Boar and Cattle. Each of these is beautifully represented by small wooden "animeeples".

Building up your farm is critical as leaving empty board spaces at the end of the game results in negative points. In fact, being short of things at the end of the game also results in negative points. It's therefore a good idea to have a good spread of things in your farm to at least outweigh the negatives.

Renovating your house so that it's made out of either Clay or Stone is also a good idea as these buildings score higher. Of course it means that you'll have to chase after different resources if you still need to increase the number of rooms it has.

Growing Food


Ploughing fields allows more Grain or, later on, Vegetables to be planted. Whilst growing resources in this fashion takes a little to get set up, it can prove vital in the long run. Each Grain sowed, for example, will return threefold. But this only occurs during each Harvest and it will take a full three Harvests to deplete a field and make it ready for sowing again.

Grain can also be turned in to Bread, which is easily one of the most efficient methods of feeding your family. Sadly, many things have to fall into place to enable you to do this. Firstly. you need an Oven*. Then you need some Grain. Then you need to get to the Sow And Bake Bread Action space on the board before someone else does. Then and only then will you have some delicious Bread.

You can also cook animals for food - provided you have something to cook them on of course. Larger animals and more effective cooking Improvements increase the amount of food you get. This method is also useful as it can be done at any time.

There are also dedicated Action spaces on the board which provide you with food - either by something like Fishing or performing with the Travelling Players. If you're having to rely on these spaces for your food, I put it to you that your farm just isn't doing very well.

Improvements And Occupations


Acting as rule tweaks and modifiers, we have the Improvements and Occupation cards. Each player gets dealt a handful of these at the start and, through the relevant Action, they can be brought into play over the course of the game.

A nice touch is the fact that they are arranged into 3 different deck types. To start with we have the Basic Deck which, as the name implies, is perfect for beginners and holds the simpler cards. Note 'simpler' not 'weaker' - they're just easier to understand and exploit.

Next we have the Interactive Deck which focusses on cards that only do things when other people do certain things. For example, cards which enable you to call dibs on certain resources when other players gain them.**

Finally we have the Complex Deck which is... er... a bit more Complex. Nothing to worry about though. You can, of course, just mix all of them up together and have at it should you so choose.

Why You Should Play


There are a host of really neat mechanics at work here. Each Round you will be asked to make weighty decisions. 

Normally this centres around gaining particular Resources which build up over time. Not picking them up this Round could result in you being able to pick up even more with the same, single Action next Round. Of course that means that someone else may well swoop in and take the bounty before you, but hey - classic Risk vs Reward. Sometimes a stack will reach such a high value that people will go out of their way to take it - even at the expense of forgoing whatever strategy they were originally intending.

Then there's the fact that someone else might nab that vital Action space that you need to complete your grand plan. Is it worth using a family member to grab that First Player Action to ensure you get first dibs at the board next time? Possibly.

Many Action spaces also contain more than one thing on them. For example, the first space that allows you to Sow a field also enables you to Bake Bread immediately afterwards. Quite a few Action spaces allow you to play a Minor Improvement as well. Efficiently using your family members in this way feels like it's key to getting the most out of your turns.

Whilst there's normally no explicit conflict between players, there is certainly an element of this as denying them the use of Actions you know they want is most entertaining. Of course, care must be taken not to take this too far as this tends to just mess up your strategy as well.

Mobile Version


It's practically the backdrop to Leanne's phone.
I feel I must also point you in the direction of the tablet version of the game. It is an excellent conversion with everything you need for a game as well as a really neat addition in Solo Series.

Solo Series lets you play a solo game and challenges you to make a points total by the end. Then you can restart the game but retain one of your played Occupations who automatically appears from the start of the next game, making things considerably easier. Well, easier except for the fact that the points total you need to reach increases too.

It's an interesting take on the game and one that requires a completely different strategy to the regular game. Resources can be safely left well alone until they've built up to the required level, for example.

Perfect Game


When you start really getting into the game, you can even strive for the Perfect Game. This utilises the tabletop version in a Solo Series game where you set the board and decks up how you want. You can start with the seven Occupations you want as if you'd already played the previous Solo Series games. You can engineer your Minor Improvements hand how you want as well as lay out the Stage cards in your preferred order.

Then you run through the game in an effort to maximise your score.

Leanne's current high score is 184 using this method***. To put that in perspective, a regular game with friends will probably see scores in the 30-45 range.

Conclusion


It's an excellent game. Daunting at first, certainly. In fact, in my experience, people tend to be able to work out what's going on by about Stage 4... which is pretty close to the end of the game.

It's playable in so many different ways too. You can try to get a bit of everything or min-max particular elements. My step-mother plays it in such a way that means she never kills any animals on her farm. All of these different tactics mean I often find myself flip-flopping between them and never really getting anywhere.

Which is only one of the reasons why Leanne resolutely kicks my arse at this game every time.

* It's worth noting that there are only 2 Ovens in the game. If you're playing with 3 or more players, one of you is out of luck...
** We refer to these as the [resourceName] Bastard cards. They do not make you popular.
*** She has also memorised every card in the deck. She may have a problem.

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