Evan Moses

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Agricola: You're always losing

Last week A.C., Sus and I got together for a game of Agricola.  In Agricola, you play a peasant couple starting out in a small hut on an empty farmyard, and your goal is to grow into a prosperous family with crops, animals, and a big house.  It’s a worker-placement game, where players take turns choosing which actions they’ll play on each round, and more actions become available as the game progresses.  However, once an action is chosen on a round, no one else can choose that action, so players are always competing for which thing they get to do.  As your family grows, each child is another worker who’s able to perform actions, but also another mouth to feed, meaning you have to spend more time gathering or preparing food.

In order to do anything that will contribute toward your final score, you’ll need lots of raw materials, and you’ll need to choose certain actions at the time when you have enough of those materials to take advantage of them.  For instance, adding a family member is worth 3 points (a significant amount when final scores are usually in the 30-60 range), and also increases the number of actions you can do per round. However, in order to grow your family, you first need to make a room for them in your hut, which needs 2 different types of raw materials, a “Build a Room” action, and a “Family Growth” action.  Of course, all your competitors are also looking to grow their family, and you still have to gather enough food to feed your family in the meantime.  The end result is that competition is fierce, and you always feel like you’ll never have enough time to do all the things you want to do.

The variation in the game comes from the two large stacks of cards called Minor Improvements and Occupations.  Each player is dealt seven of each, and each card provides different bonuses and advantages.  As a house rule, instead of distributing them randomly, we do a card draft:  we all start with hands of 8, pick one from the hand, and pass them to the next player (the 8th card is discarded).  That means that you have some chance to put a strategy together at the beginning, and it also lowers the changes that one player will end up with an amazing combo and the other players won’t.

In this game, I managed to draft a number of cards that would help me out in the later part of the game, but wouldn’t do much for me in the beginning.  I knew that.  It didn’t help, however, when A.C. and Sus came out with early-game killers.  A.C. had an occupation that let him add a family member every time he built a room, and Sus had one that just gave her a family member, even without the room, very early in the game.  That meant that for much of the early game, I had my two starting family members, Sus had 3, and A.C. had 3 and then 4.

I have to admit that at this point I started getting a bit sulky, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that turns can take a bit of time to plan.  That meant that I was done with all my actions while Sus and A.C. had 3 more actions to do, and took their time choosing them while I watched, poor and impotent.  I knew my hand would get better in a few rounds, but watching your opponents build large paddocks or huge houses while you’ve got a big empty yard (unused spaces are worth negative points at the end) is frustrating.  It’s pretty much a guarantee that no matter how well you’re doing, your opposition will be doing better than you in some aspect.  If you’ve got plentiful fields, they’ll have a stone house (upgraded building materials are worth more), or if you’ve got a barnyard full of animals, they’ll have Hearths and other improvements that are giving them surplus food.

In the end, I was able to play my cards that gave me the late-game advantage, using one that gave me food each time another player slaughtered animals for food, and another combo that gave me extra grain each time I got vegetables and a super-upgraded Hearth that gave me more food for those vegetables.  I also had a discount on building clay rooms (the middle-value building material) and a card that let me add a free room.  At the final score, I still lost, but it was me, 40, Sus 41, and A.C. 45, a very close game.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Agricola, and it’s a great game.  Choosing your actions is difficult; specialization can bring gains, but the scoring rewards diversity, so concentrating too much on any one area isn’t fruitful.  The game is quite different each time because of the variation in the Improvements and Occupations, but not so different that you can’t get a feel for the pacing and strategies.  It’s very well balanced, especially with the card-drafting house rule.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who doesn’t minds spending a bit of time with the rules at the beginning, as it’s not the easiest game in the world to pick up the first time.  Just be prepared for at least one person, and possibly all of you, to feel like there’s no possible way you’ll be able to win.