When I was younger I loved to draw in coloring books. There was something so satisfying about slowly bringing a picture to life and filling a space with color. Early on there was just one thing that gave me trouble in this venture; staying in the lines. I would spend so much time trying to be perfect and color a picture with no messups. For the longest time it was impossible, I couldn’t do it. As I practiced however I slowly began to get it. I would draw a cleaner line, I would become more patient and careful about each stroke. What I found was staying in the lines and drawing a careful picture produced a wonderfully colorful and satisfying picture. I found myself thinking of this as I played the game I want to discuss today: Agricola.
Last year Mayfair released a revised edition of the classic that everyone held in such high regard and after a few months I decided I needed to give it a try. I will say that I was a bit hesitant going in because I had heard the nickname “misery farm” thrown around. I had also listened to horror stories of gamers saying “FEED YOUR PEOPLE!” with the same despair and foreboding as the elderly man warning Pacha to “Beware the groove” in Disney’s much under appreciated comedic offering, The Emperor’s New Groove (Seriously…this movie is gold watch it at your earliest convenience. Photo provided below for reference.)
Needless to say, I did not experience misery or despair, in fact quite the opposite was true. I found that while the game provides limitations that make you “stay in the lines”, the true joy of Agricola is optimizing a strategy within the game’s tight framework that is the most efficient and productive as possible. I love a good efficiency puzzle and Agricola is one of the best that I have played so far. So yes while the game does place some restrictions on you (you do indeed have to feed your people) they don’t feel as overbearing or stressful as I’ve heard. This is obviously my personal opinion (which I know is very important to you). This game may not be for you but I want to unpack the game a bit and try to illustrate what I find so appealing about Agricola.
What is Agricola? Agricola is a worker placement, resource management, engine building game set in a 17th century farming theme. I know what you’re thinking, “isn’t 17th century farming the setting for Michael Bay’s next blockbuster action thriller?!” While that can’t be confirmed it’s more than likely true. I digress…your goal is to grow a presence on your home board. This can be accomplished by building rooms in your home, growing your family, planting crops, breeding animals, building improvements such as a Joinery or a cooking hearth, playing occupations, and avoiding empty spaces on your board at the end of the game.
As far as the basic mechanics of the game it is very similar to many other worker placement games on the market. What do I mean by worker placement? Worker placement simply means you place one of your worker pieces on a space on the board and take an action or gain resources based on what that space says. So for instance you could go to a wood accumulation spot and gather wood. You could then use that wood when you go to a spot that allows you to build fences on your player board. You could then go to a spot that allows you to collect sheep and place them in the fenced pasture that you just created and so forth. This part of Agricola is fairly straightforward and simple in my opinion. If you have played games like Lords of Waterdeep or Stone Age the worker placement will make sense.
What sets Agricola apart from other worker placements for me is four aspects that are different from some other games in this genre; the occupation, major and minor improvement cards, and the harvest.
Occupation Cards – These cards add so much to the game. The basic idea is that you may have a card in your hand from the start that says “when you build fences the first three cost no wood” or “when you gather food you also get one grain” etc. Occupation cards can be played by visiting a certain spot on the board. These occupation cards can drastically change your strategies and how you pursue gameplay options. When you look at the cards initially it can seem like they might not provide a great advantage. One wood here and there or a food extra doesn’t seem like much at the time. If you think of the impact that this advantage will provide over the course of fourteen rounds however, it can be substantial. If you for instance replace two to three wood accumulation actions with a card that discounts fence building, those extra actions might give you the time you need to fill the fences with more animals, or grow your house. Now I know it’s this kind of gripping, hard hitting statistical analysis that has kept you captivated so far in this article but get ready…because things are really about to heat up! That’s right….we’re about to discuss…DRAFTING! (roars of cheering crowds and general approval fill the skies)
Over the years many people have fine tuned variants that make the acquisition of these cards at the start of the game more interesting. The most popular variants all include a form of drafting. These variants have become so popular in fact that in the rulebook for my Mayfair Revised Edition many of the popular variants are discussed in print. Now drafting really does for this game is allows you to craft a strategy that is perfectly suited to your play style or at least pursue a strategy that synergizes well. This really creates a much more interesting play experience in my opinion. For example you might be able to draft the card that discounts your fence building, and then snag a card that allows you to get extra wood or trade wood for food when you visit the wood spot. You can draft cards that work together so well and really experience the joy of planning a strategy and following it to great results.
In the revised edition that I purchased there are only 48 occupation cards whereas in the original there were 166. This smaller selection of cards will still provide you a good amount of replayability as you will more than likely see different combinations each and every game. I’ve played the game eight times so far this year and haven’t seen a combination of occupation cards that plays exactly the same. There has been some overlap but finding new ways to utilize the occupation cards with each other has kept Agricola very interesting for me and I don’t see that becoming too stale any time soon. There are also expansion decks in the works from what I’ve seen on the BGG forums so there should be some new (actually old re-released) options soon.
Major and Minor Improvement Cards – Major and minor improvement cards are similar to occupations in that they provide you some type of benefit or discount. You also have to go to a certain space on the board to play these cards from your hand or buy them from the board if they are major improvements.
Minor Improvements – Minor improvements will often be a one time benefit that will give you food, or let you plow fields, or give you more clay etc. These cards can be essential if played well to provide just the boost you need to avoid a certain action or get the last needed resource to complete an improvement. These cards can also be drafted at the start of the game to create a more interesting starting position.
Major Improvements – Major improvements are very different from the occupations and minor improvements. Major improvements will be things like a cooking hearth, or a joinery, or a well that provides food and points over a number of rounds. The reason that the major improvements are so different is that they don’t change from game to game, they are the same every time and players must seek out these cards by visiting certain action spaces. You need them to really be able to feed your family and they provide you with tons of flexibility by allowing you to do things like turn animals into food or bake bread from grain to feed your people. There are also major improvements that will allow you to turn building resources into food and give you a bonus at the end of the game for building resources left over. These cards are critically important.
The Harvest – Ah yes…the dreaded Agricola harvest. Stories of the Agricola harvest have made children run in terror and parents weep for over ten years! Veteran gamers weave yarns about the Agricola harvest that would make an old sea captain’s tale seem like a Pixar short film. Here’s a plot for a horror film for you: you need five food to feed your family and the player before you took the last accumulation spot leaving you holding the bag (figuratively of course in actuality you’re holding NOTHING!). Ok, ok I’m joking.
The harvest will happen periodically throughout the game and essentially what the harvest does is allows you to gather crops, requires that you feed your family (which isn’t hard with a bit of planning) and let’s you breed your animals. At the end of every round showing a harvest marker on the board you will be required to complete three phases.
- Field Phase
- Feeding Phase
- Breeding Phase
Field Phase – in the field phase you are required to take one crop from each of your planted fields. I love the farming strategy in this game. During the game you can take grain or vegetables that are in your supply, and sow a field. This allows you to stack up two vegetables or three grain on your field tiles and then slowly take them off each harvest phase. This does a number of things for you. First and foremost, your grain and vegetables at the end of the game are points, the more crops the better. Secondly, you can use your grain throughout the game to bake bread (if you have some of those major improvements we discussed earlier) which can be a very powerful way to easily feed your family. I also just love the look of your planted fields on the board ready to harvest, it’s so satisfying to me to slowly take your crops off the fields and build your supply.
Feeding Phase – Alright dear reader…go ahead and tell your kiddies to go to bed. Our next topic is too scary for younger readers. We’re going to discuss………THE AGRICOLA FEEDING PHASE!
Ok, ok settle down it’s really not that bad! In this phase you have to feed your workers by spending two food per worker. You can discount that a bit if one of your workers was gained this round (aka is a baby) you just have to use one food for them. (Quick sidebar, I don’t know what kind of babies they had in the 17th century, but my infant could not consume any of the things in these plates, mainly due to having no teeth…but I digress) The harvests amp up towards the end of the game and you are required to feed your workers more often.
The nice thing about the harvest is that while you do have to feed workers more often, you will also be harvesting crops and breeding animals more often as well. This balance can make up for the frequency if you’ve planned accordingly. The reason that feeding your workers is so important is that you will gain a begging token for each food that you lack in a harvest. Each token is worth minus three points. These tokens can never be discarded or removed once received. So if you’re short three food during a harvest, you will be down nine points at the end of the game. That is quite a substantial amount when your average score may range from 40 to 70.
Breeding Phase – The breeding phase allows you to take one new animal for each animal type you have on your farm. You have to have two or more of an animal type for that animal to breed, and even if you have six animals of a certain type they still only produce one offspring. This can be a very satisfying strategy as well. Once again there is something very satisfying about watching your herds of sheep, boar, and cattle grow slowly from harvest to harvest. Animals can also be a significant source of food. With a cooking hearth you can turn cows into four food each, and boar into three, so animals can be a very rewarding resource. So now that we have established the severity of feeding and the potential penalty a missed harvest can produce, let’s discuss ways to avoid begging markers.
What you will learn after playing the game a few times is that getting some sort of fireplace or cooking hearth early in the game will allow you to feed your family easily. These upgrades will allow you to exchange livestock, or vegetables for food at any time. These upgrades will also allow you to take a bake bread action that gives you two to five food per action depending on which upgrade you have. These upgrades give you flexibility. Did someone take the food accumulation spot? No problem, gather some sheep and convert them. Someone took the sheep? No problem, gather grain and bake bread! These upgrades will save you from begging and allow you to grow your family, which will allow you to take more actions and focus less on the food.
When you play Agricola you definitely have to be cognisant of the fact that people have to be fed. The problem is that when many discuss Agricola they tend to only focus on the feeding and while playing think of nothing else. I find that the more I play I realize going in that I need to take the correct preparations to feed my workers, but what I tend to focus more on is the ways that I can optimize my engine and generate points and goods in spite of the necessary feeding. This is where the beauty of the game is for me. Yes you have to feed your people, yes you have to stay in the lines, but that’s not the focus of the game. The focus of this game is how can you best optimize a strategy and be most efficient within the limiting framework of the game system. Now it may just be that I’m a glass half full type of person and I see the fun in the challenge of Agricola, but I tend to lean more towards this game just being exceedingly well designed.
Each decision you make in Agricola matters and each action you take can have a domino effect on the success of your strategy. You may not realize at first that a card that gives you three vegetables before the game’s end will almost allow you to have a max score in vegetables. Or a card that replaces the reed requirement in building and renovation may save you four to five actions in the game. These decisions and abilities stack up and can be substantial. With the possible combinations of cards even in the base revised edition mastering a strategy within this game would take many, many plays. What that creates is an astounding amount of replayability and value. Please know that I am a fan of crunchy, sandboxy, optimization Euro games. That’s why on my shelf the games that I look to first are games like Agricola, Imperial Settlers, The Colonists, A Feast For Odin etc. So take this review with that caveat. What I will say though as a fan of these styles of game, is that Agricola still feels like one of the better games in this category. Agricola to me holds up very well and still creates a fun, challenging experience that will satisfy your craving for a puzzly, challenging experience.
So if you enjoy worker placement, if you enjoy the freedom to try and make a unique and interesting strategy every time, and if you enjoy a tight game framework that pushes back, I think Agricola might be a good fit. The good news is that with the new revised edition you can get upgraded meeples and pieces, and still only pay $60 retail which means it is more accessible. Now there is less content in this box than the original but there is plenty to start with and still get plenty of plays. If you end up really enjoying the game there will be expansions sold later to increase your card pool which drastically increases replayability. I’ve made a how to play video so that you can see how the game works and looks on the table. With any questions please email firstname.lastname@example.org or post a question in our Dicey Review guild on BGG. I hope that you have enjoyed the content and until next time, I’ll see you at the table!
If your local game store doesn’t have the game you can get it by clicking the image below!