Monday, July 18, 2011

Agricola, by Z-Man Games – Farming as a boardgame is way more fun than it sounds.

This past weekend, I spent quite a bit of time in the company of friends at multiple gatherings. Usually, once things get going and people have had the chance to chat, catch up and get a bit to eat and drink, we're looking for some sort of activity. Invariably, since many of my friends are nearly as geeky as I am, board games come up. Two of the more popular choices these last few months have already been reviewed/discussed by me previously: Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot. The only other game I've played more than once in the past few months is a relatively new one without knights, spaceships, or fighting of any sort whatsoever. We've been playing Agricola, a game about farming.

A game besides Settlers of Catan where the less mature gamer can
make jokes about wood and sheep. Yeah, I've gone there.

Personally, I actually like farming games period. Harvest Moon is a video game series I return to regularly, and the combination of resource management and simulation aspects of these sorts of games I think appeals to the deep-buried part of me that desperately wants to be an accountant despite the fact that I'm terrible at math. Agricola has one of the things I really adore about the best games. You have many options for what you can choose to do with your turn, and there are many different and equally viable strategies to win. There are a lot of things on a successful farm, and having each gets you points based on quantity and a farm missing one of these key things loses a few points. Victory points are awarded for efficient use of land, having stables and fences built, having grain, produce and livestock, and the size and quality of the farmhouse and number of people in the family. Bonus points are available for improvements made to the homestead such as a cooking hearth to bake bread, a well, or a pottery or basketweaving business to sell goods to augment the family income.

The components of the game are high quality, which is nice, as Z-Man Games is evolving as a company to be taken seriously in the boardgame world. Some of their early games had solid mechanics, but the components just weren't as well made as something from, say, Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight or Rio Grande Games. I'm glad that the nice painted bits of wood to represent resources, building materials, animals, etc. as well as the cards, boards and counters are all very well put together. The game itself has a main board which displays the options players may choose on each round (which start simple, and evolve as the game develops,) and each player has their own board to store their harvested resources and to build the farm on their own plot of land. Cards are used to scale the game based on the number of players and how complex you wish the rules to be, different cards representing options players may select on their turns.

A nice overview of the bits and pieces.

Each player has a number of actions equal to the current number of family members they have (families start with 2,) to work in each phase. Work might mean a number of things, but in order, each player selects an option on the board, and only that player is allowed to perform that action for that phase. Each new phase starts with one new possible action that may be taken, and spaces on the board that produce resources refill if they were selected on previous turns, or additional resources are placed if they were not. This makes spaces neglected for multiple turns more attractive options as time goes on. Players can collect wood, clay, reeds and stone, get animals, build fences to give livestock a place to live, plow fields, sow grain or vegetables or improve their homes. Balanced against the “gather and build” mechanics is the need to feed your family. Every harvest, crops give farmers more veggies or grain, animals breed (if you have room for more and two or more to handle reproduction) and the family members have to eat.

Getting to do everything you want in a turn with the looming threat of needing to feed the family makes the game a balancing act of managing your actions on each round, and hoping that you aren't blocked off by another player who gets to act first. You can't eat raw grain or just grab a fork and eat a cow, so improvements to bake bread or slaughter and cook livestock are key. If you find yourself constantly out of position due to going late in the round, selecting the “take 1 free food and the 1st player token” is attractive. It is also very possible that you may spend several actions gathering wood only to find that someone else has blocked you out of the ability to build fences or stables, so the timing of your actions is nearly as important as managing your resources. The most successful players will be efficient on every turn, balancing the need to survive the next harvest against the desire to make sure that there is a little bit of everything in the farmstead for endgame, when victory points are counted up.

An example of an endgame farm with a little something in every bit of land.

I've played a few times now, and as a board gamer I usually turn my nose up at the least complex version of the rules when there are multiple options presented. The “family game rules” are the version I've been describing up to this point, and the play experience is suitably rich and I'd say rather more complex than a typical game of Monopoly or Risk. The advanced game adds in profession cards for family members and minor improvements that may be built around the farmstead for more bonus points and additional options on any given turn. I look forward to playing a few times with the advanced rules, but this is a complete and fun game even without them. The game takes about 2 hours assuming you aren't teaching the rules for the first time, and supports up to 5 players, with solo play as an available option. Ages of 12 and up are suggested for the game, and younger players will need to be fairly patient and bright, as this isn't a traditional “kids game.”
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level85nerd said...

This looks like fun! I should try it out, thanks for sharing with us.

Jay said...

who knew farming could be so ....strategic? :D

Alpha said...

Fun farming? How quaint

Zombie Ad said...

It ios probably one of the most challenging resource management and 'blocking' games invented. Very good. I'm rubbish at it.

The Angry Lurker said...

Didn't sound my type of game until I read blocked by another player, could be fun with the right group of geeks.

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