There’s a reason that Agricola has sat high in the BGG rankings since its release back in 2007 – the reason being that it is pretty bloody awesome. I initially avoided Uwe Rosenberg’s game of farming in the Middle Ages like the plague (ho ho) – what would I, a modern gamer with a love of plastic and dice, want to do with this… this… Euro?
Man, what I fool I was. Because, like I mentioned above, Agricola is pretty bloody awesome.
Essentially a point scoring affair, players start off with a limited amount of actions available to them and only a couple of discs (representing the farmer and his wife) to use in each round. As the game progresses, more and more options are opened up in a kind of random order – you’ll know roughly when certain things will happen, but can never guarantee exactly when in the game they’ll occur.
By collecting up plenty of resources (wood, clay, reed and stone), you’ll be able to increase your little farm in size and status. Building extra rooms on your house will allow you to increase the size of your family. Fields can be either ploughed and sown or fenced off to hold livestock. Everything you do in Agricola will require actions, and only by pulling off that magical balance of doing the right stuff at the right time will you manage a win.
While that simple paragraph essentially sums up what’s in the heart of Agricola, it only takes a couple of rounds of your first play to realise two things. Number one is that you will never have enough time or resources to do exactly what you want to do. Even with only two players (and it handles up to five) there’s a constant scrabble for resources, an endless tirade of “Dammit, I wanted that space” – and it’s marvellous. Sure, you can try and nab the First Player token and hopefully get on with your plans for a short while, but sooner or later you’ll have to give that spot up and rethink everything all over again.
Number two is that the game actively hates you. Initial plays will see you confused by the sheer wealth of options that there are, and then you’ll spot the bit on the board that says ‘Harvest’. “What’s that?” you’ll ask. “Oh,” will come the reply, “that’s when you have to feed your family.”
Yes, every once in a while you’ll have to ensure that you’ve got enough food stashed away to keep your little family discs nourished. Food can be collected straight from the board or you could even buy an oven to bake bread and cook your animals. Either way, you need to stock up – no food means you have to take begging cards which lose you points, and in a game where every single point counts, that’s not something you want to do…
Oh yes. Cards. Agricola comes with a LOT of cards. The most basic game uses only a few of them, listed as Major Improvements. These include the aforementioned ovens, but there’s also stuff like a Well and the ability to indulge in Basket Making (thrilling, I know, but come on, it’s the Middle Ages). These will generally give you little boosts to your points and can actually be pretty hard to come by while you’re focusing on building up those resources to expand your holding. However, they’re well worth going for if you can afford to do so.
The base game also includes special decks, each consisting of Minor Improvements and Occupations. These are little tweaks that could potentially swing the game in your favour while also hopefully scoring you a few more precious points, split into three separate piles that can be mixed and matched however you please. For newbies, it’s suggested you play without them for a while to get a feel for the mechanisms of the game, then move on to the (Basic) E-Deck as an introduction to the slightly trickier elements of how Agricola works. There’s also the Interactive I-Deck and Complex K-Deck in the box which add further complexity, as well as loads of other ones available either separately or in expansions – Agricola is the perfect game for those who like to set things up just so…
Despite the fact that there’s a lot to keep track of throughout the game, once you’ve got a couple of plays under your belt you’ll never feel out of your depth. Focus only on what’s available to you at that moment in time and you shouldn’t go too far wrong – you’ll start building strategies before you know it. Of course, then you’ll start throwing in the extra decks, drafting cards and all, and it’ll feel like you’re learning from scratch again. And it will feel brilliant.
The depth of play in Agricola will see you return again and again, always trying out new plans to see if they’ll come off. When everything falls into place and you manage to pull off a perfect couple of rounds, it’s one of the best feelings you can get in gaming. Of course this is balanced by the desperation you feel when everything tumbles around your head, leaving your family starved in a crappy house with only a pig for company that you’ll probably have to eat at the end of the next round. Yet you’ll never feel that you’ve been cheated out of victory by the game – any mistakes are entirely down to the decisions you yourself have made, and you’ll have learned for next time. Because there will always be a next time.
The production throughout is excellent – boards and tokens are thick, the cardstock is easy to shuffle, and the resource cubes and discs are satisfyingly chunky. Things get even nicer when you decide to splash out on upgrading your animals and resources with the veggiemeeple and animeeple kits that are currently available that really add to the charm of the game. It just looks so damn pretty when you’ve got pastures filled with wee wooden cattle and sheep and stacks of stone and wood to play with…
Agricola is a game that just keeps giving. You can even play it solo in a score attack mode (which is a great way of learning how to play as well as hone your skills). Sure, what with all the bits and bobs involved, setup and breakdown can take a little while, but you’ll soon see that it’s worth the effort. For a game based on farming, there’s a lot of humour in there – check out some of the house tiles and you’ll see a game of Bohnanza in progress, for example – and it’s this, combined with some of the most solid gameplay I have ever experienced that makes Agricola a worthy contender for one of The Best Games I’ve Ever Played.
Agricola is published by many companies around the world, but English language copies are produced by Z-Man. If you’re after a copy, you can get one for £42.99 from the fine folks at Gameslore. Between 1 and 5 players can get involved, games take around 60-90 minutes and if you don’t own a copy you don’t know what you’re missing. GO AND BUY IT NOW.