Friday, January 2, 2015

Agricola : Into the Belly of the Beast

For the new year, I should probably start with something special. But instead you get this.

My 2015 prediction: this will NOT be my last post about the demon-game Agricola.

The end state to one of my first games of Agricola. And I busted my brain doing it.

Regrets of the Past

Until I played my 6th or 7th game of Agricola, I hate, hate, hated it. 

There was a lot of looking back to examine the actions I did not take. If there is one thing I have historically been bad at, in games and in my own life, its been long term planning. Caught up in the quick thrill of resource gathering, I get lots of resources only to discover I can't really eat them.

At the start of Agricola, there is no resource (except food) you can actually do anything with. Baking bread evokes the famous Carl Sagan pie recipe…to make it, you first have to invent the universe.

Our universe in this case is a ploughed field, sown with grain. And its also constructing an oven to bake the bread. Which usually takes clay, stone or wood in various ratios. And then you have to put the grain in the oven and bake it. Quite a few actions, when there are only 2 workers and hunger stands waiting.

Animals are no better. You need a fireplace or something to cook them with. And if you are planning on keeping extra animals around for points, you need to build fences to keep them in.

So a beginner's game of Agricola feels a lot like running in place, or worse…working really hard to starve to death. I've heard the game referred to as "Misery Farm" and I don't know why this isn't printed right on the box. It's one of the most essential bits of info to convey to first-time players.

A latter attempt at doing well

Place Your Workers!

Agricola outlines the "standard" method by which workers are placed in a worker placement game. All other games I've looked at so far I have unthinkingly used Agricola as the base, while calling out any differences I then labeled as "innovations."

Everyone takes turns plopping down wooden family members onto spaces marked with things you want to do. Take 3 wood? Plop down a worker. Take 1 reed? Plop down a worker. Sow some grain? You guessed it, plop down a worker.

Anyone who has more experience than you is always going to be plopping down workers one turn before you realize you needed to put YOUR worker there.

After several games of pure worker placement hell, what I finally did was break out the scratch paper and make a to-do list to accomplish before each harvest period. This might be a faux-pas for a regular game played around the dining table, but at the time I was playing online and these guys are complete animals to play against.

recipe for making some serious bread

The List Didn't Work

And here is what happens when you force yourself to do the exact things you need to do to be successful. Your opponents take advantage of it.

While I was forcing myself to collect clay, my opponent was filling up on wood. Going into the next round of turns before harvest, he had 16 wood and easily built all the fences he needed. And there is even a house pig to help get the animal population started once those pastures go up.

And the real teeth-gnashing heart of my failure…I didn't even do the list right. See where I wrote "sow" 2 fields. Well, what this actually should have said was "plough" 2 fields. Sowing is an entirely different action, one I never made room for.

What ended up happening, I never picked up the Baker occupation and sowed my grain instead. Then I couldn't bake bread because I sowed both of my grains. So then I harvested my grain, fed my family extremely inefficiently on unprocessed wheat, and continued on to the next turn.

Whoops, completely forgot to get animals in this one.

The Game Behind the Game

Finally, when you start figuring out how to consistently feed your family, you still aren't winning. 

Behind the feeding portion of the game lurks the actual scoring you are probably sucking at while your family consumes all your available resources. A game within a game.

A Score Board of Cows, Fields and Family Members

My instinctive reaction to a new game is to find some small bit of insight and repeat it. If you can find a way to get some extra animals, it makes sense to corner the market on animals, right? 


Each "thing" on your score board only goes up to 4 or so. To get the maximum number of points, you ALWAYS need to have 5 Fields, 4 Pastures, 8 grain, 4 vegetables, 8 sheep, 7 hogs, 6 cattle and 5 family members. 

And there's not really enough time to do all of that stuff, so you are never going to have a perfect farm.

Likewise, the game will punish you severely if you gravitate to one thing, like cows or wheat. You have to maximize everything.

The best I've done so far

A Final Note About the Theme

Since my La Havre post, I've thought more about board game themes. So often in these Euro-style strategy games, the avatar for the player is usually either pretty abstracted or else someone with a level of power.

Go through your game collection and see just how many games you are sacrificing people to win wars, or manipulating pawns in industrial situations. Ticket to Ride might be a fun game about building train routes between cities, but the workers who build those routes mostly died of exposure, hunger or disease out on the frontier and received a shallow grave as their only reward.

But Agricola studies the thrill of entreprenuership. The land is yours, fairly (as fairly as anything else) won away from your neighbors by the size of your club. You and your wife are the only two workers in the game, so anytime you place a worker you have a 50% chance to place your personal avatar.

Of course your wife gets no say in where she gets placed. And as your family grows, they also get ordered around with the same ruthless efficency. No toys or fancy schooling. In Agricola, you move straight from the cradle into the field. Start clearing lumber, Little Jon!

Keeping on Keeping On

Agricola has the rare distinction of being a game I started hating, and eventually liked. Liked so much that after 20 games of being destroyed online I got a real copy. 

Trying to figure this out

I truly admire the easy way Agricola lays out an extremely complicated game. Almost all the information you need is right on the board, written in plain English. Sometimes you have to squint a little but its usually there, in very small print.

Maintenance at the beginning of each turn is as simple as flipping over a card, and then replenishing each pile of stuff. And you know what goes on each square because it tells you! A few simple words really go a long way and bring Agricola setup light years ahead of other games I thought I would like more. (Ultimately, I do like the SCORING on Dungeon Petz a little better, mind you)

So much like the workers within, Agricola finds a way to thrive despite the horrible first impressions. I will let you know how it goes.

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