James Wallis levels with you

Agricola (other brands of cola are available)

I host a semi-regular games evening, in which we catch up on modern classics that we should have played years ago. Afterwards I usually send an email round to the group with a summary of what we’ve learned—the overview of Tales of the Arabian Nights 3e a few weeks back was one of them. Here’s another, and there may be more.

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So: Agricola. The #2-rated game on BoardGameGeek, the catalogue of all tabletop games ever. An eurogamic simulation of competitive farming in seventeenth-century Germany. Hundreds of cards, hundreds of little wooden bits, what feels like hundreds of rules. Intimidating.

Thankfully the rulebook is well structured, everything fell into place quickly and within a the first few minutes we made a key realization: this is the game that Lords of Waterdeep nicked its core mechanic from. On your turn you get a choice of actions, but once you’ve chosen one you put a counter on its space on the board and nobody else can choose it for the rest of that round. It makes more logical sense in Lords of Waterdeep, where each action is represented by a building that your faction takes control of, but even though it doesn’t really fit with farming (“what do you mean, nobody else can sow any crops this round?”) it works a lot better in Agricola.

The game quickly switches from a jolly romp of building pastures for sheep and bolting extensions onto your house to make room for your children into a bitter and increasingly tough fight to save your family from starvation, and trying to generate enough extra resources to maybe expand your farm just a little AUGH NO NOW WE MUST EAT MY DAUGHTER’S PET COW OR PERISH or at least pick up a ‘begging’ card with its whopping –3 score for each person you can’t feed.

And then suddenly it’s over and you have to add up your points, and that’s all a bit dissatisfying because it is completely not obvious while you were playing who was actually winning. A bit like Carcassonne, the gameplay is lovely involving clever fun and you can see exactly why people rate it so highly, and then there’s the abrupt shift of gears into working out numbers and adding them up. There’s a scoring pad in the box. It’s that kind of game.

Ben won, I think I’m right in saying. I scraped in second despite having basically starved my entire family to death at the end of round 2. Kevan misinterpreted one of the scoring rules and although he played a blinder and was set up to outbreed and outfarm us all, ended up third because he’d not built enough fields. That kind of game.

It is brilliant, though. The game is beautifully balanced, and it quickly becomes apparent that where it’s balanced is on a knife-edge. The complexity is perfectly structured, the metaphors hold together so you feel you’re building a farm instead of juggling numbers and bits of wood, and although the only direct competition is for the unique resource spaces, it’s enough to stop the game ever feeling like everyone’s playing solo on the same board.

We were playing the introductory ‘family’ version, and we all came away with a suspicion that the more complex versions (its cards are included in the basic box) might actually be easier to play without everyone starving to death each turn, and there might be more variety in playing it with four or five people. It’s one of those games that will improve enormously when you’re au fait with the structure and the way it unfolds, or at least when you’re playing with people who are.

Ben had to shoot off after that, so Kevan and I played some two-handed Love Letter. I have played a lot of LL in the last week, and I think we can conclusively say it’s a 3-4-player game. It works for two but it’s not enormously satisfying, and the card-mix pretty much guarantees that you never get to the end of 16-card deck. Still clever, still fun, still massively in the lead for the game I play the most this year, but nowhere near as compelling—or as tactical. But that’s not going to break my habit of carrying it with me in my laptop bag, next to my hip-flask. That sort of game.

Categorised as: board games | game design | play


  1. ukslim says:

    I’ve played Agricola twice. It never clicked. I was always struggling so hard to feed my family there was nowhere else I could direct my attention. Both times it was without the cards, and I’ve been assured since that the cards improve matters by focusing your efforts in a certain direction. It’s possible reading the rulebook rather than getting the second-hand explanation would have helped. But I can’t be arsed to try again, when there’s almost always something to play I’ll enjoy more.

    • Darrell Ottery says:

      The intro game, while OK, I feel is a hell of a lot harder than the full game, simply because you don’t have access to a lot of the improvements which the game engine is really designed around. If I come away from an intro game with a positive score I feel I’ve done well…

      It’s a great game, but very much is one that rewards extra replays – there’s a huge amount of depth there that a couple of games just don’t scratch the surface of.

      As for whether the BGG top 10, or 100, or whatever is definitive is a matter of much debate. Is the IMDB top ten the best 10 movies of all time, or merely the most popular at present? Something to bear in mind when shopping for games (or, indeed movies) – if it’s not your sort of thing, no matter how well others rate it, you’re not going to enjoy it.

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