Agricola: So. Much. Fun.

Agricola:  Latin noun (masculine, first declension). Farmer, gardener, countryman, peasant.

Agricola

Agricola, from Z-Man Games

Agricola is a turn-based, resource management game in which players vie to see who can best develop his or her medieval farm.  In Agricola, players start out with a two-room wooden shack (represented by two tiles on their farm board), a two-member household (represented by two wooden disks), and two or three food disks.  By the end of the game, players hope to have acquired animals, built bigger and better houses, and increased the size of their family, all of which contribute to victory points.

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” ― Samuel Johnson, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. Vol 3

Like 7 Wonders (reviewed here), Agricola allows only a fixed number of turns (called “rounds” in the game), so that the feeling of looming deadlines is always in the back of one’s mind.  The fun lies in the tremendous amount of latitude that players have in choosing how best to accomplish their goals, laid up against the fact that they have only 14 turns in which to do so.  The game allows players to deploy each of their family members to exactly one task per round, so it seems logical that increasing the size of one’s family (more workers!) would be a good thing.

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A Four-Room Wooden House

But before you can introduce a new member to the household, you’ve got to build a new room onto the old homestead … and that takes resources (5 of whatever building material your house is currently made of — wood, in the above example — plus 2 reed disks for the thatch roof.  And that’s for each room you want to add.)  So maybe we should concentrate on getting supplies of wood and reeds … so that we can produce those extra pairs of hands in the fields.

Two-player Agricola

The End of the Game

But wait! The game’s clever mechanic stipulates that, every so many turns, there must be a Harvest.  These occur after rounds 4, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 14 (the final round).  As you can see, the Harvests occur more frequently as the game goes on and, as you might expect, Harvests are opportunities to take in food that you have grown during the preceding rounds.  Fields that you might have ploughed and sown (each of which requires one farmer-turn) yield one wheat or vegetable each, while pairs of animals you’ve acquired each “produce” a lamb, piglet, or calf.  So far, so good.  (Sidebar: earlier versions of Agricola represented sheep, boars, and cattle by white, black, and brown wooden cubes. This new edition contains the “animeeples” from Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small — and very cute they are, too!)

Food!

Food Enough for My Four Peeps

The Harvest also requires, however, that you feed your family (this is the only time that they eat, apparently).  You must surrender two food disks for each adult family member at each Harvest, or face the shame of acquiring a Begging card, worth -3 Victory points apiece, for each ration that you are short.  Remember those new Family members you built the extra rooms for?  Now they are eating you out of house and home!

Begging card Agricola

Oh, The Shame of It!

The Begging cards are part of the other aspect of this very clever game.  In addition to the straightforward resource acquisition part of the play, Agricola also provides Major Improvement, Minor Improvement, and Occupation cards.  The set of 10 Major Improvement cards is static, placed in exactly the same way at the start of each game, and each card is available to be purchased at a particular cost by players.  Each Major Improvement — rather like the ports in Settlers of Catan — allows its owner to “trade” commodities at an advantageous rate:  the Fireplace, for example, make Vegetables worth more than one Food, and can also turn animals into Food (very handy when you have all those mouths to feed at Harvest).  There are also Cooking Hearths and Ovens available in the Major Improvements, which allow Grain disks (grown in the fields and Harvested in previous turns) to be turned into multiple Food disks.  Many of these Improvements also grant Victory Points at the game’s end.

Box Contents

There’s a Lot of Stuff in Here: Agricola Box Contents

A hand of seven Minor Improvements and seven Occupations cards is dealt to each player at the beginning of the game.  There are three complete sets of Minor Improvements and Occupations cards: the so-called Easy set; the Interactive set; and the Complex set (the different sets are marked with an E, an I, and a K — “complex” translates to “Komplex” in German, the original language in which the game was published).  There are a total of 139 Minor Improvement cards and 169 Occupation cards spread over the Easy, Interactive, and Complex levels, so it’s easy to see that no two games need ever be the same.  Given my mathematical ineptness, just for fun I used an online permutation calculator to answer just how many different hands of 7 Occupation cards could be achieved for one player, if all the cards were shuffled together.  Ready?  3,471,650,060,598,720 different hands of 7 cards, that’s how many.  Yikes.  (I don’t even know how to say that number.)  Running the same calculation for the Minor Improvement cards yielded 859,891,329,773,280 different hands of 7 cards.  I don’t think that I’ll be bored for a while!

Given the potential complexity of the game, Agricola very wisely gives players the option to use the simpler Family Game ruleset.  This dispenses with the Minor Improvement and Occupation cards and uses the modified Family game board and Action cards.  This speeds up the game and makes it suitable for players as young as 10.  Our first two games took about an hour per player (two hours total per game), but I believe that our next game will be much closer to the rulebook’s estimate of one half-hour per player.

Scoring the Farm

It’s Not Much, But I Call It Home.

At the end of Round 14, after the final Harvest, the players score their farms.  The game provides a scorepad, a helpful scoring “cheat-sheet” card for each player, and a larger guide to scoring on the reverse side of the Major Improvements board (you don’t need it anymore at that point anyway).  Achievements are scored positively according to the summary: fields, fenced pastures, grains and vegetables, animals, stables, the better sort of houses, family members, and Major and Minor Improvements and Occupations cards played during the game give various numbers of Victory Points.  The cards remaining in the player’s hand don’t do anything.  Each unimproved field (unfenced and unploughed) costs the player one minus point, as does having no Grain and/or no Vegetables.  Each Begging card (the horror!) adds 3 minus points (or subtracts 3 points from the player’s total.  You know what I mean.)

Agricola can by played by 1 to 5 players.  I do think that the recommended age range is probably pretty accurate: if your family includes children aged 10 and up who like European-type board games and can sit for an hour or so, then Agricola is definitely worth a try.  As an adult gamer, I had no issues with the length of time required for a session; and, as I said, I’m sure that the rate of play will increase as we become more familiar with the game.  Agricola is rated very highly on boardgamegeek.com; it currently ranks #3 in both board game and strategy game categories — no mean feat — and is rated at an average 8.23 out of 10, based upon over 28,000 ratings.  In 2008, the game won the special Spiel des Jahres prize for Complex Game of the Year, as well as a slew of other prestigious awards such as 2008 Golden Geek Best Gamer’s Board Game, 2008 Golden Geek Board Game of the Year, 2008 Tric Trac d’Or, 2008 JUG Game of the Year, and many more.

Agricola was designed by the very talented Uwe Rosenberg, who is also known as the creator of Bohnanza.

I should mention that there are several expansions available for Agricola. The Belgian Deck, Gamers’ Deck, and NL Deck all provide new Minor Improvements and Occupations cards.  The Farmers of the Moor expansion is more elaborate:  Not only do you have to feed your family, now you have to heat your home. The Farmers of the Moor includes wooden horses, 150 new cards, forest/moor tiles, fuel tokens, and a new scoring pad.  Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small is a 2-player simplified stand-alone version that concentrates on animal breeding, thus providing a speedier game play at about 30 to 40 minutes per game.  We carry the base game and all expansions.

Agricola is one of those games that can be played over and over again, never getting stale.  Highly recommended.  In stock now.

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