Gaming Unplugged: Agricola

September 27, 2009

For many board game enthusiasts, Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola (published in the US by Z-Man Games) was the top game released in 2008, if not of all time; currently it is the Number One rated game on Agricola offers several levels of play that accommodate from one to five players, including a basic Family Game that doesn’t use any additional cards, but the central mechanics remain consistent across all variations.

At its core, Agricola is a worker-placement game that offers an increasing number of options during each of its fourteen rounds of play; those fourteen rounds are divided into six “stages”, with specific subsets of options appearing consistently at some point in a specific stage. Each player begins with a mostly-empty farm board containing a two-room wooden house and a pair of farmers, plus some food in their supply. Everything else must be acquired by using one of your farmers on one of the available actions.

The board contains several base actions that are available from the outset; there are more options for more players. Each round, an additional option is placed on the board. Players place one of their farmers on an unclaimed action, performing it as they do so. These actions include acquiring materials and goods for their supply, using those materials for various improvements (including planting crops), or even adding a new member to a player’s family for additional actions in future rounds. However, additional bodies also have additional mouths. At the end of each stage there is a Harvest, at which point crops are harvested, livestock potentially reproduce, and each member of your family must be fed two food or else you lose three points for each food you are short. This is an incredibly stiff penalty, so the first priority of most skilled players is to establish some sort of “food engine”.

After the final harvest, scores are tallied. Most categories score from one to four points based on how much of that category you possess, and most carry a one-point penalty for not having any. With a set cap on points in each category (not to mention the penalty for neglecting one), it pays to diversify. Additional points are earned for upgrading your house from wood to clay or stone, family members, and other miscellaneous sources; finally, be aware that you are also penalized a point per empty space on your farm board.

Beyond the Family Game, Agricola offers three different decks of cards that include both Minor Improvements and Occupations (some occupations aren’t used with fewer players). The decks are labeled “E”asy, “I”nteractive, and “K”omplex (from the original German) and can be combined for additional play if desired. Each player is dealt seven cards of each type at the start of the game and there is no way to receive more. Minor improvements are typically played as bonuses to other actions; Occupations must be played as their own action and will cost you food to play (except for your first, depending on the action space used) but are often quite powerful.

Agricola offers deep strategy (including a fun but brutal solitaire variant) for those who are able to overcome its two main obstacles. The first is an overwhelming sense of complexity; your first few sessions will consume several hours as you come to grips with the wealth of options at your disposal, especially if you forego the stripped-down Family Game and jump right into one of the decks. Even without the cards there is still a ton of wooden bits moving all over the place. Secondly, the game itself usually retails for $70, which is much more than most European-style board games; all of the various cards and bits don’t come cheap, and the surprising heft of the box on the shelf should reassure you that you are definitely getting your $70’s worth, but the “sticker shock” is still there. Fortunately, you don’t need to actually own the game in order to play it, so try it out first if you can.