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Our Favourites : Agricola

The theme of Agricola - the need to feed our families and grow the homestead is compelling. In my first few games I found the attraction of developing my farm and feeding my family so strong I did not take much notice of the victory points awarded at the end of the game.

So how does it work? Each player starts with a board on which sits a two wooden rooms and thirteen additional empty plots. Each room of the hut contain contains a member of your family who you will use to take actions on the main boards and turn your small holding into a functioning farm. The main play boards are divided between fixed actions available from the start and spaces for additional actions cards that are turned over as the game progresses. The actions allow you to collect resources, use the resources to improve your farm or home, play occupations and improvements, change turn order and grow your family. Your aim is to gather, build and grow as efficiently as possible so that by the end of the game you have (hopefully) filled the empty plots with fields, pastures, stables, extra rooms for your expanded family and a store of grain, vegetables and live stock.

The game is divided into 14 rounds with 6 harvests (harvest grain, feed family, and breed animals), the first coming after round four and coming progressively faster as the game moves towards its finish. Victory points are awarded at the end of the game. However, feeding your family at each of the six harvests is essential to avoid heavy penalties. A starvation strategy does not work in Agricola – there are almost no actions which will compensate for the minus three points awarded to anyone who has to beg for food. And that is one of the beauties of the game. The victory point conditions steers you towards doing a little of everything. You want to be a pig farmer? Fine but you gain no victory points after your 7th porker. Vegetables your thing? No points after the fourth. Hate vegetables? Minus one point for none. Specialising in one type of food production helps feed your growing family and an efficient farm is a prerequisite to winning but of itself will not win you the game.

The hundreds of Occupation and Minor Improvements cards give the game its breadth and depth. Divided into four decks of varying complexity each deck can be played on its own or mixed with others. The cards really scratch a CCG itch, the combinations available in the fourteen hand cards are, for all practical purposes, limitless. The very thorough play testing is obvious. None of the cards seem broken, powerful cards are difficult to get into play before the end game , and rigid adherence to an opening hand based strategy will require tactical changes as the game progresses.

In my opinion the game scales perfectly from one to five. The solo game is a great way of learning the interactions and intricacies of the cards and reminds me of solving chess problems. I wonder how long it will be before we see a daily Agricola puzzle (“What is the highest possible score you can achieve with an opening hand of….?”). With two or three players it is possible to follow a strategic approach, with four or five Agricola becomes much more tactical.

Upon opening the box for the first time the number of components, cards and the set up of the board can appear overwhelming. Geek users have voted Agricola a Heavy-Medium game, which is true for the game play but not for the rules which are well written. The text on the cards is crystal clear – I have heard very few “how does this work?” questions when playing which is a credit to the designer, and Melissa’s translation. Most of the actions in the game are intuitive and because of the theme are quickly understood by new players. The ‘family’ game (played without Occupations or Minor improvements) is a great introduction to new players and enjoyable in its own right (My wife likes the family game but finds the cards daunting)

The box says half an hour per player and in my experience that has been the case – even with a table of new players who quickly grasp the concept of harvesting fields, feeding the family, building fences and breeding animals The game is less prone to analysis paralysis than most other games of this complexity despite the agonising choices and scarcity of resources available.
As you play more you become aware of other players strategies and play becomes a fine balance between progressing your farmyard, thwarting other players and opportunistic resource grabbing.

Given the random opening card draw the game is well balanced, and this again is a credit to the lengthy play testing process. Some cards are a little stronger than others, some become stronger or weaker depending on the state of the game and some combinations of cards can be very powerful. The luck of the draw tends to even out with very few games solely decided by the strength of the opening hand.

In conclusion I believe Agricola is a masterpiece. It is not perfectly balanced and none of the mechanics are revolutionary, however they just seem to come together to create a perfect gaming experience. I hope that I have managed to convey my passion for the game and that if you are yet to play it you will enjoy it as much as I have

EDIT: I have just soldout of this game - it is being re-printed and is expected back in the shop in April 2009. If you wouldlike to reserve a copy please e-mail me at paul@boardgameguru.co.uk

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