Dale Yu: Re-review of Agricola (2007, Lookout Games)

So… Agricola has been hailed as one of the more influential releases of the past 10 years… the other being Dominion. (“infallible” Source here).  I have been lucky enough to be involved in some way with both of those games.  My review of Agricola back in 2007 ended up spawning two “careers”.  First, it helped me latch on as a regular reviewer/commentator for Boardgamenews.  Second, my review got me in touch with the folks at Lookout Games, which then led to a volunteer job revising the solo game, which in turn started me on the path to being a game developer…

This review was originally posted to Boardgamenews.com in my weekly column back in 2007.  That site has now gone to the electronic dumpster in the sky (the Wayback Machine).  It was later revisited on BGG:  https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/255808/agricola-long-review-family-game-full-game-solo-ga/page/1

Some edits have been made from that original review.

Agricola Review: the Family Game, the Full Game, and the Solo Game (Agrisolo) – the entire 18.5 page massacree

Publisher: Lookout Games (with foreign licensing to follow)
Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
Players: 1-5
Ages: 12+
Time: box states approx. 30 minutes per player but with experience, I’d say it’s quicker than this
Rules/Component Language: German (but English pasteups available)

You can play any way you want at Agricola’s Restaurant…

This article is called Agricola Review, and it’s about Agricola, and the game, but Agricola Review is not the name of the game, that’s just the name of the article, and that’s why I’ve called this article Agricola Review…

Agricola is the 2007 Essen release from Lookout Games by Uwe Rosenberg. Of note, an English version has been announced by Z-Man Games, with new cards – including one named after the Wizard of Oz character with no brain. Rosenberg is most famous for his Bohnanza series of games though his resume is filled with other inventive ideas (Bali, Klunker, Schnappen Jagd, and Nottingham to name a few). I will admit that I was a bit skeptical that Rosenberg would be able to develop a good meaty and complex game given his previous track record of lighter card games. Happily, I was quite wrong to have any fears as the full version of Agricola has enough depth to please the most diehard gamer, yet the basic game can still be approached by a novice.

There has been a great deal of buzz about the game since its Essen release. However, due to the German-only nature of the game and the small number of games available at Essen (only 900 copies), this is not a game commonly found (yet). Agricola is a hard game to get a good feel for without playing it yourself. Thus, I will try to delve enough into the details of gameplay during this review so that the reader can get a good feel for what goes on in the game even without having played it. For those of you who have already been lucky enough to play the game, you may find that much of the first part of the review will be a rehash of your rules explanation; however, please remember that for every English speaking gamer that has been able to play the game, there are likely four or five gamers who have yet to have that chance.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a full review on a non-children’s game, but it’s also been a very long time since a game has pulled me in so strongly in such a short period of time. Since the day before the Essen Spiel 07 when I was first taught the rules, I have played almost 45 games of Agricola, and I continue to look forward to the next game. It has been a labor of love as the entire game is in German, and a few (well really 7-8) hours of work had to be put into the game to make it playable. With some assistance from Lookout Games as well as some exceptional work done by the Internet community, most notably David Fair, my game is fully pasted up in English. In fact, David Fair’s full color paste-ups of all 360 cards into English are available for download on the Geek! When I started doing the work, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be worth the time investment, but I can definitely say that I’d do it again in an instant!

There are a number of reasons why I like the game so much. First, the game scales well from one player up to the full complement of five. In my opinion, it’s almost like there are six different games in the box as the game plays quite differently depending on the number of players involved. Second, I love having the option of both the simplified or “Family” version of the game as well as the more advanced version in the Full Game. Third, when playing the advanced version, the fact that there are a seemingly infinite number of strategies to be played keeps you coming back for another game so that you can try out another idea. Fourth, Agricola is the kind of game that keeps you on the edge throughout the whole game. You never have enough actions to do everything that you want, and to make matters worse, you are competing with the other players for the right to take those actions. But the biggest reason I am so enamored with it are the many varied ways you can play the game and how they each feel a bit different. To date, I have played Agrisolo, 2P Family, 2P full (E deck, K deck), 3P family, 3P full (E deck, I deck, K deck), 4P family, 4P full (E deck, K deck), 5P family and 5P full (E deck, I deck, K deck). So, you can just about play this game any way you want… (and I still have a few variations to go to play them all!)

But before I get into more detail on that, let me introduce the different games that come in the box. The game itself has three main variations: 1) the Family Game (for 2-5 players), 2) the Full Game (for 2-5 players), and 3) the Solo Game (obviously for one player) – which I have dubbed “Agrisolo”. The Family Game is meant as either an introductory version of the game or one for younger/less sophisticated gamers. The Family Game is made more simple by omitting the use of Occupation and Minor Improvement cards which are used in the full game. The Solo Game uses all the same components as the Full Game with a slightly modified set of rules to give the single player a bit more challenge. The Full Game and the Solo Game have the additional choices of what cards to use while playing them which further increases the number of different ways to play the game! In fact, my initial calculations of possible game setups for a 5-player Full Game show that there are more than 10^104 different ways to play the game! Though I will cover all of the different versions of the game by the end of the review, it’s probably best if I start explaining the Family Game as it serves as the building block for the other forms.

Agricola Family Game Review

Agricola is “a game of agriculture and development” set in the 17th Century. Each player controls a family and their family farm. Over the course of the 14 rounds in the game, the players choose actions in order to improve and grow their farm by: increasing the size of their house and family, sowing fields, planting crops and reaping the fruits of their labor, building stables and fencing in pastures in order to breed animals, and developing improvements (such as fireplaces and ovens). It is a game with a lot of components and rules, and I’m still working on how best to introduce these ideas to new players. I’ll structure this review around my current teaching script for the game – first introducing the components, then going over the set actions, and then moving to the variable actions. Only at the end will I go over scoring. Until that time comes, suffice it to say that you will score positive points for just about everything in the game except for basic commodities, and you’ll get more points for higher quantities. If you don’t have any of a particular thing, expect to score negative points for that thing.

The Bits

First, you’ll need to find a fairly large table to play the game as there are three boards which are needed to display the possible actions as well as a fourth board to display the major improvement cards. Each of these boards is A4 size (essentially 8.5×11” each). Two of the action boards can be seen at:http://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/250656 and http://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/250657) In addition to these action boards, each player in the game has his own farm board which is also A4 sized. It would also help to have a bit of room left on the table to use as a storage area for the many different pieces in the game. If less than the full complement of five people are playing, the reverse sides of some of the farm boards include pre-printed diagrams for component storage (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/266218). In any event, a full five player game fits comfortably on our 3’ x 6’ kitchen table.

As mentioned above, each player’s farm is represented by a board containing 15 spaces. (For a picture of a farm board: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/image/249642) Two of these spaces are reserved at the beginning of the game for the first two rooms in your hut, but the other spaces are left free for you to later develop by building more rooms onto your hut/house, plowing fields for agriculture or fencing in pastures to keep animals. You are able to develop the board as you wish with the restriction that all of your spaces of one type (houses, plowed fields or fenced-in pastures) have to be adjacent and contiguous. The houses and fields are represented on cardboard tiles which are placed on the farm board during the game. Your family members are 1” round discs, fences are larger rectangular pieces and stables are “Settlers of Catan houses”.

The main materials of your farm are represented by small wooden disks – wood (light brown), clay (maroon-brown), stone (black), reeds (white), grain (yellow) and vegetables (orange). Animals are represented with small wooden cubes: sheep (white), wild boars (black) and cattle (dark brown). Strangely enough, German farmers don’t like to raise chickens. [Personally, I think the main reason for this is that chicken sausage is generally dry and unpalatable!] The final component is the cardboard food chits. Food is perhaps the most important component gameplay-wise (as you’ll soon discover when I start explaining the Harvest)!

If I had one frustration with the game, it’s that there aren’t quite enough pieces in the game; it is not uncommon for there to not be enough wood discs and food chits in the later stages of a four or five player game. To combat this problem, Lookout has included “multiplication markers” which allow you to place a component on them to be multiplied by either 4 or 5. Though this does seem to be a decent workaround to the problem, players need to exercise a fair amount of caution that they are doing the right math when cashing in the multiplied goods and to make sure that they don’t inadvertently move goods off or on the multiplication marker. In fact, the 5x side of the multiplication marker has a food chit pre-printed on it as the rules even note that the food chits often run out in the course of the game. In the defense of Lookout, they have already been quite generous with the components in the game – there are almost 5 pounds of bits in the box, and at some point cost considerations had to limit the amount of bits included in the game. As it is, there are 138 small commodity discs, 54 wooden animal cubes, and 36 food chits – which is a larger supply of bits than you get in a lot of games these days… And this is not to mention the 360(!) full sized cards that you don’t even need yet as most aren’t used in the Family Game and the 24 wooden bits each player has for his individual farm components.

Basic Gameplay Overview

Once you’ve spent a few minutes getting all the components out of the box and getting the board set up, you’re almost ready to go – but before I finish the set up, let me quickly describe the general flow of the game. Each of the 14 rounds in the game is played following the identical pattern. First is the upkeep phase. A new round card is turned up and placed on the appropriate space on the action boards. This card provides the players with a new action available to be taken in that round AND every round thereafter (more on this later). There are 14 round cards in the game so that a new card is turned over each round. Furthermore, the round cards are split up into six separate groups to ensure that appropriate actions show up at the right time in each game. The second phase, the Replenishing Phase, is when each of the action spaces on the board are filled with goods if necessary. Third is the action phase (or Work Phase) where, starting with the “Start Player” and moving clockwise, family members are taken from the individual farm boards and placed on an empty action space. When the family member is placed, the action on that space is taken immediately. As the family member must be placed on an empty space, it follows that no action can be taken more than once each turn. Therefore, there is a fairly large advantage in going first or early in turn order as you will have a better selection of possible actions to take when it is your turn. This round continues until all family members of all players have been placed on an action. It should be noted that you have to be able to take whatever Action you place your piece on; for example, you cannot occupy the Renovate space (to prevent someone else from taking it) unless you were able to spend the appropriate goods and convert your own house. Finally, the fourth phase of the round is “Returning Home” when the family members are removed from the action boards and placed back in the farm. If a game phase has just ended, then there is a Harvest where family members must be fed and farm goods (plant and animal) are made.

The Actions

The action boards (which in true German fashion are found in the center of the game table) are split into three distinct areas. The center area (which spans two boards) are filled with pre-printed action spaces. The area on the left has six empty spaces which can be filled with action cards – though the specific action cards (and number of action cards) change depending on the number of players involved in the game. Finally, the right portion of the action area has 14 spaces for the round cards which will be turned up one at a time in each successive round. These spaces are split up into six separate phases, and I’ll go into more detail about this in just a bit.

But first, let me describe the pre-printed actions found in the center of the action area. These actions are available in each and every round in the game. Many of these spaces have pictures of bins on them where resources can be collected. These spaces are filled with new goods each turn in the Replenishment Phase. If those actions were not chosen in the previous rounds, the new goods are added to those already present in the space. These goods spaces include: 3 Wood, 1 Clay, 1 Reed, and 1 Food. There are also a few spaces which allow players to collect goods but they do NOT accumulate extra goods if they are not chosen. They include a space to collect one grain as well as the Day Laborer which provides 2 food tokens. The other spaces grant the players actions as opposed to commodities. First, there is the Build Houses/Stables action which grants the ability to build as many house rooms or stables as you have commodities for. When you build a room to your house, you place the appropriate room tile on your farm board making sure that it is adjacent to at least one other room. Stables can be used to house a single animal if in an empty space or, if enclosed within fences, it can double the capacity of the pasture. Second, there is an action space which allows you to plow a field – when you do this, you take a plowed field tile and place it on your farm board. Finally, there is a start player space. This is the only way that the start player marker ever moves in the game. In the family game, this space also accumulates food chits so that you can collect these as well when you choose this action space. As I have already mentioned, your position in turn order can often be crucial in determining what actions you can choose from, so even though there is little direct help from this action space, it is taken in most rounds (and sometimes quite early on!) in order to set up the next round’s actions.

So the nine actions above are available in each game regardless of the number of players. Additionally, there are extra action spaces available via the action cards. If there are only two players, no further action cards are added to the mix. For three players, three cards are added: Add 2 Wood/turn; Add 1 Clay/turn; and Take 1 Stone (does not accumulate). Four players get the following five actions added: Add 2 Clay/Turn; Add 2 Wood/Turn; Add 1 Wood/Turn; Take 1 Reed, 1 Stone and 1 Food (does not accumulate); and Traveling Players which adds 1 Food/Turn. Five players get these six new actions: Add 1 Reed/Turn AND get 1 Stone and 1 Wood; Building or Add 1 Food/Turn; Add 4 Wood/Turn; Add 3 Clay/Turn; an “Animal Factory” which allows you to get one animal cube with varying costs; and Family Growth (starting with Round 5). I will explain Family Growth later, so stop worrying about why you’ve never heard of it before. These action cards are placed on the board at the start of the game (again depending on how many players are involved), and the actions on these cards are also available to all players in each round of the game. The numbers of additionally actions, as well as the actual actions offered, give a different flavor to the game based on the number of players in the game.

So, the only actions left to explain are those found on the Round Cards. As I’ve already mentioned earlier, the Round Cards are split up into six different Game Phases (consisting of 4, 3, 2, 2, 2, and 1 cards). Within each Game Phase, the cards are shuffled and played in random order. This structure accomplishes two important things. First, it makes sure that appropriate actions come up at the right moments in the game so that players can grow their farms appropriately. All of the Phase 1 actions need to be available before any of the Phase 2 actions, etc. Secondly, the fact that the Round Cards are shuffled within each Phase ensures that the game will always be somewhat unpredictable as you’ll never know in what exact order the action cards of a particular phase will arrive!

The Phase 1 cards are more basic actions which are needed to build your farm – (1) Sow and/or Bake, (2) Build Fences, (3) Play a Major or Minor Improvement, (4) Add 1 Sheep/turn card. Let me quickly go over these actions. The Sow/Bake action is vital to the agricultural growth of your farm. In the pre-printed actions, you’ll remember that you could take actions that gave you a grain token as well as plowing a field. The Sow action allows you to then take your grain token and sow it into your plowed field. When you do this, you place the first grain token on the field tile (as the seed) and then place two more grain discs on the tile to represent the new crops that will grow from that seed. Timing is important with the Sowing action as you are allowed to sow as many fields as you are able. When you take this action, you also have the option to bake bread where you convert a grain token into food counters. Of course, in order to do this, you must have a way to bake the bread… which conveniently enough leads to the next possible action: Play a Major or Minor Improvement.

In the Family Game, this really just means Play a Major Improvement as there are no Minor Improvement cards available in the Family Version. The Major Improvements are ten cards which can be purchased using your resources that represent Fireplaces, Cooking Hearths, Stone Ovens, and many other things. In general, the Major Improvements allow you to convert the varied game components into food. They also provide varying amounts of victory points. Though it is not necessary to purchase one of these cards in a game, it is usually quite helpful to have some way to generate food for your farming family and these cards often provide the easiest method to do so.

The last two actions available in Phase 1 mostly involve animal husbandry. The Build Fences action allows you to convert wood into fences. Fences can be placed around the empty spaces on your farm board to enclose in pastures. Pastures can then be used to keep any one type of animal (at the rate of two animals per enclosed space in a pasture). Each player is limited to 15 fence pieces, so you have to plan carefully as you build to make sure you can enclose the areas that you want. Additionally, while building Fences, you must always build in a manner that all of your pastures are fully enclosed at the end of the action. The remaining action in Phase 1 is the Sheep production card. One sheep cube is placed on this card at the start of each round. Sheep are usually the first animals to be introduced to the game (though in a 5-player game all of the animals are available from the start!). When you choose the Sheep action, you take all of the accumulated sheep cubes and place them in your farm. Let me take a break from the actions and give a quick once over of the animal rules. First, you can always keep one animal in your house as a “pet”. Second, if you have built a stable in an empty space, that stable can also hold one animal cube. Finally, if you have Fenced-in pastures, you can hold two animal cubes per fenced in space on your board, and if there is a Stable in that pasture, the overall capacity of the pasture is doubled. When you choose an Animal action, you must be able to house the animals immediately or the extra animals will run away. One last option with the excess animals is to immediately convert them to food (yum, lamb chops) if you have an Improvement which allows you to cook animals.

I’ll mention again that these four actions in Phase 1 will come up in random order. These Phase 1 actions are vital to starting your farm. At the end of Phase 1, as well at the end of every Phase, there is a Harvest Phase where you take care of your farm, AND more importantly, you feed your family members. I’ll take a break from the Round Actions to go over the Harvest.

Each Harvest Phase follows the same pattern. The harvests take place at the end of each Game Phase, so there will be a Harvest after Rounds 4, 7, 9, 11, 13 and 14. There are three major parts to each Harvest. First, if you have any planted fields, you remove one counter from each planted field at this time. Second, you feed your family members. Each family member requires 2 food chits in each Harvest. Though I haven’t told you how to make babies yet, if you have a baby in the Harvest Phase, the baby only needs 1 food chit. Obtaining enough food is a relatively minor issue for the first Harvest. The initial Start Player receives two food chits and all other players get three. Additionally, you have four full rounds (or eight actions) to make sure that you have the four food chits you will need to feed your two family members in the first Harvest. Finally, after everyone has eaten, you can make Animals. If you have two or more animals of a type, your farm will make one animal cube of that type in the Harvest. If you do not have room to place this animal, you will not get a baby (as you are not allowed to immediately cook that baby animal!).

The first Harvest takes place after Round 4, so you have a bit of time to plan for the first Harvest. But as you will quickly realize, the successive Harvests come faster and faster, forcing you to develop more efficient ways to generate food for your family members. The reason why ensuring an adequate food supply is paramount is that for each food chit that you are short, you have to take a Begging card which is worth NEGATIVE 3 points. Though I’ll go over the scoring in more detail later, the winning scores in a family game are often around 30, so you can imagine how damaging even a single Begging card can be to your overall score. But enough about the Harvests – I still have 10 more actions to describe!

Phase 2 has three important actions. First, it provides the first of two spaces that receive 1 Stone/turn. Second is the Renovate action (and you can also make an Improvement). The Renovate action is how you upgrade your house from the original wood hut to a clay house. Later in the game, when you choose the action again, you can upgrade your rooms from clay to stone. The major benefit you get from upgrading your house is that each clay room scores one point at the end of the game and each stone room scores two points at the end of the game. However, the ability to buy a Major Improvement should not be overlooked. If you can time the action right, you can get two actions for the price of one here as there is a Phase 1 action which only allows you to buy a Major Improvement. You are not obligated to buy the Major Improvement when you Renovate, but it is important to note that you cannot take the action space if you cannot perform the Renovation. In fact, in the entire game, you can not occupy an action space if you cannot or do not perform the action. Also, when you renovate, all of the rooms in your house are changed to the new type. Additionally, if you were to build extra rooms on to your house (using the Build Action), those rooms would also have to match the new type.

The third available action in Phase 2 is perhaps the most important action in the game – Family Growth. This action allows you to generate new family members. In order to take this action, you must already have room in your house for the addition; each family member must have their own room in the house. If you meet these criteria, when you place your family member on the space to take the action, you can add another family member piece on the same space which will come back to your house at the end of the round. Of course, in every round of the game that follows, you will now be able to take more actions as each family member gets to be placed each round on its own action space. You can have a maximum of five family members in the game (and don’t forget that you have to feed them all each Harvest!)

Phase 3 has two actions which give the players their first shot at two commodities – The Wild Boar and the Vegetable. The first action receives one Wild Boar cube per round. The other action gives 1 Vegetable token (and does not accumulate). Vegetables are somewhat easier to turn into food, and can be planted similar to the Grain tokens. However, when you sow the Vegetable in your fields, you receive only one extra Vegetable token for that action (as opposed to the two extra Grains you receive when you sow Grain). Phase 4 introduces Cattle to the game and provides another action space that accumulates 1 Stone per round.

The final two phases of the game offers three “super” actions. I refer to these actions as “super” actions because they take previously available actions and make them better. The first option in Phase 5 is the Plow Fields/Sow action. This action combines the two more basic actions and allows you to both place a newly plowed field tile on your farm board as well as allowing you to sow as many empty fields as you can using only one family member. The other Phase 5 action is Family Growth WITHOUT needing the rooms in your house available. Though there will not be many turns left in the game to take advantage of the extra actions that those family members would provide (in fact there would be two extra rounds at most) – the family members are worth 3 Victory Points each; thus, if you are able to feed them, the new family members are certainly worth acquiring. The sixth and final phase has only one action – Renovate and Fences. This action also combines two previously available actions and allows you to do them while only using one family member. This action can prove to be a valuable and efficient way to garner Victory Points in the final round as you finish up your plans on your farm board.

Scoring Overview

So, I’ve told you how a round is played and gone over the actions that you would be able to choose from during the turn, but what I still haven’t done is tell you how you might actually win the game. The short answer is, of course: have the most points at the end of the game. However, Agricola has one of the most complicated scoring systems of a “Euro-game” that I can remember. The game, in fact, has a packet of scoring sheets included in the box to help you tabulate your scores. There are 13 different things to consider when calculating your final score! Again, let me repeat that the good rule of thumb for newbies is: you will score positive points for just about everything in the game, and you’ll get more points for higher quantities. If you don’t have any of a particular thing, expect to score negative points for that thing.

The majority of the scoring categories score anywhere between -1 points (generally if you have none of the object being scored) and 4 points (which is the maximum score). First you score points for the number of plowed field tiles in your farm, and then you score points for the number of discrete pasture areas that you have fenced in (it does not matter how many field spaces are in each pasture area). The next things considered are the fruits of your farming labor. Points are awarded for both the number of vegetable tokens you have after the final Harvest as well as the number of grain tokens you have. For this final scoring, even the unharvested tokens you have still in the fields count towards the final scoring. Next, each type of animal is considered in turn and points are awarded based on how many of each type you have. Those items which appear later in the game (Vegetables and Cattle) are worth relatively more than those which are available from the beginning of the game.

After the animals are scored, you look at the unoccupied spaces on your board (containing no rooms, no stables, not fenced in, not with plowed fields) and you score -1 points per empty space. Next, you score 1 point for each stable that is within an enclosed pasture. To finish the scoring on your farm board, you score points for your house. You score one point per clay room or two points per stone room. Unfortunately, you score nothing for your house if you have not renovated during the game. Finally, you score THREE points for each of your family members.

The final portion of the scoring looks at the cards that you’ve played during the game. You score any Victory Points that are printed on the Improvement cards that you’ve been able to play during the game. Don’t forget to subtract three points for each Begging Card that you had to take if you couldn’t feed your family during the Harvests! The final step is to calculate any bonus points that your cards give you. For example, the Cabinetmaker (which is a Major Improvement) scores you points at the end of the game based on how many wood tokens you have after the final Harvest. Once you’ve looked at all of these different criteria, you plug the numbers into the scoring sheet and tally up your score. In a Family game, I would say that a score of 33 or better is quite good, and the winning score is usually around 28.

Is the scoring too complicated? Not really – there is certainly a boatload of things to try to consider during the game, but I think it’s easy to remember that “you’ll score negative for nothing, and you’ll score some points for something”. I would also stress that it is nearly impossible to do well at everything. I think that players will have to choose a strategy no later than the end of the second Phase and then go forward with that plan through the end of the game. Sometimes, you will be able to choose what scoring option seems best for you; though sometimes the Actions chosen by the other players will help guide you towards a particular path.

Gameflow

OK, so you’ve read a full description on how to play the game, but let me give you a glimpse on how the game plays out as well. In my mind, the game plays out in 4 distinct sections – and these sections are somewhat different from the 6 Game Phases that the game is broken into by the rules.

Rounds 1-4 – The first four rounds, which exactly corresponds to the 1st Game Phase, plays out very quickly, especially with non-beginner players. I think there are three reasons for the relative quickness: 1) there are only 2 actions per player, 2) there aren’t as many options to consider as in later rounds, and 3) food is not as large an issue for the first Harvest as each player begins the game with at least half of the food needed for the first Harvest. In general, these early actions can be taken fairly quickly as each player is trying to start setting up his farming engine. Wood seems to be the commodity most in demand at this early stage as it is necessary for building more rooms to your house, for building stables, as well as for building fences. Most players will also need to take at least one action to collect food in order to get up to four chits, or they will need to spend other actions to start their food generation engine. Early on, the path to food generation stems from making a Major Improvement. The Clay Oven or Stone Oven will allow you to bake your Grain into bread (i.e. turn a yellow Grain counter into the cardboard Food chits) while the Fireplace and Cooking Hearth will allow you to slaughter animals to make food in addition to baking – though the Ovens are much more efficient ways to turn Grain into Food. Of course, it will take a few more actions to be able to slaughter animals or bake bread as compared to simply picking up Food chits, but this investment of actions now will make it much easier for you to make food for later Harvests. It should be noted that both Grain and Vegetable counters can be converted (without needing an Improvement) to 1 Food Chit at the Harvest time, but this is an extremely inefficient way of feeding your family as these two commodities can generally be turned into much more food than just one chit.

Usually, these initial turns go quite rapidly as your farm could use almost everything that is available. The Start Player Action can be quite useful in these early rounds to provide some Food as well as to set you up to take the first action in the next Round (which is often, but not always, for a large quantity of Wood). Generally, the longest delay in the first four rounds is getting through the Replenishment Phase of each turn. I would wholeheartedly recommend that only one player does the Replenishment each turn as it can become quite confusing as to which Action spaces have been refilled or not when multiple players do it. Additionally, I would recommend simply starting at the Action space of the current round and working your way backwards through the string of actions to make sure that you don’t miss a space when refilling.

Rounds 5-8 – This second section of the game plays at a middle pace. There are a few more actions to consider which can lengthen the decision making process for the players. Additionally, the Family Growth action will allow players to add additional family members (and thus more actions will be taken). Of course, in order to use the Family Growth Action, you need to have already built an extra room to your house – so players will still be looking for Wood, Reeds and the Building Action. During these rounds, the players will also be deciding upon the way they will want their farm to develop. If the farm will concentrate on animals, then fences and stables need to be built and animals need to be collected. If an agricultural approach is taken, then fields need to be plowed, and grain and vegetables need to be acquired and then sown. A balanced approach between these two choices is also possible.

Additionally, the second Harvest is at the end of Round 7, and the pressure to feed the family grows a little bit as there are only three rounds now in which to generate the needed chits and there is the possibility of having more than the two family members that you start the game with. The players will need to either spend some actions collecting food chits or developing a way to make food. The other Major Improvements will likely start coming into play at this point. The Cabinetmaker, Basket Weaver, and Pottery will allow you to convert Wood, Reeds or Clay respectively into food at each Harvest as well as providing a nice chance to score bonus points at the end of the game.

Rounds 9-12 – These three rounds seem to take the longest of the four sections which I have broken the game up into. The reason for this is that there are more actions taken per turn as players continue to make babies via the Family Growth action. Additionally, the farms have to become yet more efficient at making Food as the Harvests now come only two Rounds apart (at the end of Round 9 and Round 11). Additionally, this is the area of the game where you really have to take time to plan out the rest of your strategy as you start to know just how many actions you have left in the game. Thus, the most time is spent in these rounds as players will often be studying their farm board (and those of their opponents) trying to figure out which actions they need to take as well as which actions their opponents are most likely to want as well.

The first two to three actions each Round in this area of the game are critical for determining the final outcome. Where you stand in turn order is paramount at this stage because of the diminishing number of turns left in the game – there is often fierce competition for the actions such as Family Growth, Building, and Renovating as these help further along the growth of the farm. Furthermore, losing the opportunity to take any needed Action in an earlier Round can upset your plans for the endgame. For instance, getting to Sow in Round 9 may be critical to your plans as the goods that you plant in Round 9 will be harvested at the end of Rounds 9, and having those extra grains or vegetables may be the key to feeding your family for the rest of the game. Another example might be Building Houses. If you miss out on Building in a particular turn, it means that you won’t be able to use Family Growth until the next turn as well.

Rounds 13-14 tend to go by fairly quickly despite the fact that there are more actions per Round amongst all the players. By this time in the game, your plan should be mentally complete, and all that is left is to implement that plan by taking the necessary actions. Of course, the game still only provides a limited number of opportunities to take each action, and there is still plenty of competition for those actions. However, as the final three Round cards give the players multiple opportunities to Plow/Sow, Renovate and Family Growth, you have a better chance to get to most of the major actions that you want. Once your plan is complete, you simply take the best VP producing option available each turn.

Making The Most Of Your Actions

OK, so we’ve finally gone over all the possible actions that you will have in the game – but admittedly it’s a lot to absorb all at once – you’ve got a lot of things to consider each turn! You start the game with only two family members. If you never choose the Family Growth Action, then you will take the minimum 28 Actions in the course of the game. At the other end of the spectrum, if you were able to take the Family Growth Action as early as possible (Rounds 5, 5, 6) – you would take the maximum 54 actions possible with your family. However, as your opponents will sometimes take the Family Growth action and there may be times that you choose not to grow your family due to feeding issues, I would say that most players end up with 36-40 Actions on average during the game. Generally speaking, most players do not get their fifth family member until Round 12 or 13 (if they grow their family that large at all!) in the Family Game.

For me, the beauty of Agricola is that it’s an engine building game that rewards efficiency. Each player has a limited number of turns to use to build up his farm. Careful planning can allow a player to have a few more actions than other players (by taking Family Growth earlier) which can be a huge difference maker. However, skillful play that combines actions (such as having enough goods available to buy the Major Improvement you really want when you take the Renovation Action) can also help you get a leg up on the competition. Another example is being able to plow enough fields and collect enough Grain/Vegetables that you are able to sow multiple fields with a single Sow action (and possibly even bake some Grain into bread at the same time!) Agricola also rewards smart tactical play. Though there is generally not much reward to playing defensively, sometimes taking an action (between equal choices for your own farm) that disrupts the planning of a player later in turn order can be huge. Timing is the critical factor in determining your efficiency as well as the strength of your tactical play.

The choices that you can make in Agricola are often dictated by where you stand in the player order. If you spend more time towards the beginning of the order, it follows that you will have a better chance to take the actions that you want. However, sometimes the only way to get to the front of the line is to take the Start Player Action. While taking this space does also get you some Food, it is otherwise an empty action where you plan for the future. Usually, taking the Start Player Action is needed to guarantee that you get an Action that is vital to your farm’s development (usually Family Growth, Building or Renovation). Thus, the decision making process can be complicated as you have to weigh the benefits of better action choices in the next round as compared to the benefit you would get from taking a meaningful action in the current round and the fewer choices you will see in the next round by not going first. Oftentimes, the decision to take Start Player may be easy. If you’re going last in a five-player game, there may often not be a good action left for you by the time you play your last family member, and the ability to go first next round will easily overpower the single commodity you would be able to collect otherwise. However, it’s a much more difficult decision when you are considering using an earlier action in the Round to take Start Player (I really need Start Player next round to make sure I get Family Growth… But can I pass on it with my first action and take those 6 Clay this turn and get it with my second family member? Or will someone else have the same plan as me and beat me to Start Player?) So as you can see, there is a fair amount of jockeying going on to determine who is the start player. Oftentimes, the best scenario is when the player to your right takes Start Player as this gives you second choice in the next round while allowing you to take all of your actions in the round prior.

Another important factor in determining your efficiency in Agricola is being able to double up on actions when possible. The “super” actions near the end of the game are the most obvious examples of how to do this. It is clearly more efficient to be able to Plow a field and Sow using one family member than it is to use two actions to do the same thing. It should be noted that there still are slight disadvantages to the “super” actions as you do not get to Bake when you Plow and Sow nor do you get to take a Improvement when your Renovate and Fence. But in general, it’s easier to be more efficient when you are able to take one of these “super” actions. Another way to double up is to make sure that you are able to purchase an Improvement card when you Renovate. This ability will be magnified in the Full Game when you also have Minor Improvements to consider (as well as many other opportunities to play Minor Improvements), but it’s a good skill to pick up in the Family Game. Other examples would be trying to build multiple rooms with a single Build Houses Action or building all 15 Fences at once with a single Fences Action.

Almost as important as doubling up on actions is making sure that you don’t waste actions either. Taking commodities that you don’t need or use by the end of the game is essentially a wasted action. As you get closer to the end of the game, you need to pay special attention to the actions you plan to do to finish your farm. I have already seen a number of games where someone (oftentimes myself) has spent a number of actions acquiring stones and reeds to build a room onto his house only to be aced out of the Build Houses action in the last turn as someone earlier in order needed that spot to build stables. Of course, you can’t always be sure what actions you’ll be able to take, but ending the game with too many empty actions almost ensures that you won’t score as well.

Of course, it isn’t always great to build up your family as quickly as possible either. You need to be able to balance your family growth with your ability to feed it. If you end up with too many family members too early, you may end up getting pulled from your overall strategy as you have to spend too many actions trying to generate food to feed those people. While having extra actions is great, if you are using them only to generate food, you may have been better off developing your engine a bit better first and taking the Family Growth action later to get more benefit from it.

Another important thing about playing efficiently is making sure that you don’t get distracted from your goal. There are plenty of times where you will be tempted to take an action that isn’t necessarily in your plans (oftentimes 6 or 8 Wood or Clay tokens stacked up on a single Action space). While it would certainly be a good use of an action to take such a large quantity of tokens with a single Action, if doing that prevents you from taking an action you need for long-term growth (such as taking Family Growth in a particular Round or being able to buy the Major Improvement that you really want), the opportunity cost may be much greater than the benefit of lots of Wood or Clay.

Finally, I think there are a few times in each game where you really have to maximize the effectiveness of your actions. Oftentimes, these decisions come when you are the last player to go in turn order in a round. If you have already developed your plan, and you know what areas that you’re not going to try to excel in, you can sometimes convert one of these marginal actions into 2 points – because that is the point swing between have nothing of a scoring item (scoring -1 points) and having one thing (scoring 1 point)! Sometimes, the seemingly innocuous decision of taking a single sheep at the end of Round 8 may cause a 2 point swing in the final score and be the difference between winning and losing!

Scalability

The Family Game plays quite well for all numbers of players. However, I will be quick to note that the game feels quite different based on the number of players; so much so that I would almost consider each version a different game. The main reason for the different feel comes from the varied Action Cards that are made available based on the number of players (as I mentioned much much earlier in this review).

The two-player game is a nice balance. There are no extra action cards available for use, so you are restricted to the nine basic pre-printed Actions as well as the 14 Round Cards. Admittedly, with only two players, you would expect that there isn’t much competition for Actions – and this is true from the aspect that fewer total Actions are taken per Round. One result of this is that many of the basic good Action spaces can accumulate a larger number of tokens before they are collected. I have once seen the 3 Wood space get up to 15 Wood before it was taken! However, scores don’t seem to be as high as you’d think even though there’s a good chance to get more goods per Action on average. The reason for this is that the Start Player Action is generally taken more often (which only has a small added benefit of some food when you take it). Even though it seems like a pretty good deal to stay out of first in turn order where you’re guaranteed to get the second choice in each round, it’s devastating when you consider that your opponent is then getting his first choice in each round. As a result, the Start Player Action seems to be taken more often per player than in other versions. Agricola works very well for two players and there is a nice back and forth flow to the game.

The three player game is, in my opinion, the most wide open of all the combinations. You get three additional Actions: Add 2 Wood/turn, Add 1 Clay/turn, and Take 1 Stone (does not accumulate). There seems to be a surfeit of commodities here with extra Wood and Clay available from the get-go. Additionally, with only three players in the game, the level of competition for actions is a bit less. Admittedly, there is still only one place to Build, to Family Growth, etc; but with only three players, there’s a much better chance that you’ll get the action you want. The addition of Stone being available from Turn 1 allows players to consider some of the Major Improvements (such as the Ovens) much earlier than in the two-player version. (The only tight spot in this setup is that there is still only one place to pick up Reeds.) As a result of the increased commodity supply, the three-player game is more about coming up with the best plan and executing it. It is much less likely that you will be shut out of your intended plan for more than one Round, and thus you are playing the system (i.e. the rules constraints of Agricola itself) as much as the other players. Additionally, in the final stages of the game, with the last three Round cards being the “super” Actions that improve or duplicate upon previously available actions, it’s hard to not be able to get the actions you need in the last few rounds when there are two available spots for many of those Actions.

The four player game has a much different feel. It is much tighter and more cut-throat. There are five additional Actions added to the game: Add 2 Clay/Turn, Add 2 Wood/Turn, Add 1 Wood/Turn, Take 1 Reed, 1 Stone and 1 Food (does not accumulate) and Traveling Players which adds 1 Food/Turn. As you can already see, there is only one extra Action available per Round as compared to the three-player game with at least 2 more Actions being taken each Round (to account for that fourth player’s family members). There are only slightly more commodities available as all of the extra actions are still just Action spaces to get more goods. Where the game gets really tight is the fact that there are still the same number of places to Build, Family Growth, Renovate, etc. with the extra player thrown in the mix. The competition for these more important actions can get quite fierce. Unlike the three-player game where you can form just about any plan that you want, you will be forced into more tactical decisions due to the relative scarcity of the actions. In fact, the major development plan of your farm may be determined by which Actions are left to you when it’s your turn to pick! The four player game is much more a game played against the other players in the game, and efficiency is greatly rewarded in this version as there are a number of Actions that you will be forced to take with only suboptimal Actions left to choose from. How you make the most of these suboptimal Actions (or how you manage to avoid having to take them) will go a long way in determining how you fare in the final scoring.

Finally, the five-player game fits between the three-player and four-player versions. There are more players involved, which turns into more Actions chosen per Round than in the four-player game. There is one more Action available per Round as the Action Cards give the players six choices: Add 1 Reed/Turn AND get 1 Stone and 1 Wood, Building or Add 1 Food/Turn, Add 4 Wood/Turn, Add 3 Clay/Turn, an “Animal Factory” which allows you to get one animal cube with varying costs, and Family Growth (starting with Round 5). As you can see, there are two Actions with commodity production which exceeds even the pre-printed Actions and there are more chances to Build, Family Growth or obtain Animals. In fact, you can have access to all three types of animals from Round 1 in the five-player game which is definitely not available in any other form. So, though there is higher ratio of Actions taken each round amongst those available, the added Actions in the five-player game really give the players more options to develop their farm as they wish. In fact, with the appearance of the “animal factory” Action, the relative strength of an animal husbandry strategy (either for victory points or for feeding your family) becomes much more viable as animals are more easily obtained. I would argue that as a result of the Action choices, there are actually fewer sub-optimal Action choices that have to be made in the five-player game than in the four-player game.

I have found that I enjoy the different feel of Agricola when played with varying numbers of people. I like having that extra bit of variety to a familiar game system (which is a trait shared by one of my other Top 5 games – Age of Steam – which feels different with each expansion yet remains within the familiar constraints of the Age of Steam system). At this point, I much prefer teaching the game with any number of players other than four. I think that the added constraint of limited Action availability could make learning the game much harder and much more frustrating than with any other number of players. As an aside, I have also found it very helpful to have at least one experienced player play in a teaching game. There is a fairly steep learning curve in Agricola, and I really do believe that it’s the kind of game that a gamer would have to play through at least once before getting a good feel for how the different mechanics mesh in the game and how they affect the final score. I think it helps the other players to be able to see how an experienced player forms long term plans while managing to consistently feed their family.

Overall Impressions of the Family Game

As I mentioned near the top of the review, if the family game were the only version of Agricola to come in the box, I’d be more than happy to fork out money and own a copy of it. It would still make my Top 10 or Top 15 list with just this version alone. The Family Game is still a fairly complex game which needs a blend of long-term planning as well as sharp tactical play. A learning game will clock in around 20 minutes per player plus 20 minutes to go over the rules, and I have seen experienced players get this in around 15 minutes per player.

I would definitely recommend that all Agricola newbies be introduced to the Family Game first if possible. The reasons for this can’t really be explained until I get into the differences that are present in the Full Game, but I really think that there is enough going on in the Family Game alone to merit a play. If nothing else, the inexperienced Agricola player can get a game in where he only has to concentrate on the Actions on the board and learn how the different game mechanics work and interact with each other. I’ll revisit this idea after the Full Game Review.

I have already seen a number of different strategies be successful at the Family Game, so I believe that there is depth to gameplay which will allow it to be replayed without feeling overly scripted or formulaic. In many ways, I would compare the Family Game to Caylus (or maybe Puerto Rico). You have a similar mechanism of choosing a role for your worker, and you must choose those actions from those available on the board. Additionally, the specific order and availability of those Actions is somewhat unclear so you have to be ready to tactically react as the different Actions come available. Moreover, there appear to be multiple valid paths to victory which is another strong point (for me, at least) of games like Caylus or PR. However, to me, the theme seems more pervasive and pulls me in more than Caylus or PR. Additionally, the way that the mechanics intertwine in Agricola seems much tighter than in the other games.

I have played the family game 7 or 8 times by now, and I have not yet grown tired of it. I will freely admit that I would really only choose this option to teach new players the game or to give those players a second chance to wrap their heads around the game. The reason for this is that as good as the Family Game is: it is clearly the ugly stepsister compared to the Full Game. And really, I can’t think of a better segue to start talking about the Full Game than that.

Agricola Full Game Review

Well, if you’re vision has gotten blurry or you’ve developed a huge migraine from staring at the screen so long reading the first portion of this review, you’ll be relieved to know that this section won’t be nearly as long. The reason for this is that the Full Game simply builds upon the foundation of the Family Game, and I will only need to go over the differences!

The Occupation and Minor Improvement Cards

The Full Game pretty much uses all of the material used in the Family Game. The big additions to the Full Game are the Minor Improvement and Occupation cards. There are 166 Occupation cards included in the game. They are split up amongst three different decks: E (for Entry), I (for Interactive) and K (for Komplex). Additionally, they are segregated into three groups – those meant for one or more players, those for three or more players and those for four or more players. Additionally, there are 136 Minor Improvement cards included which are also split amongst the E, I and K decks. However, there are no restrictions placed on which Minor Improvement cards can be added to the game.

The Occupation cards are cards which can be played during the game that generally allow for slight modifications to the basic rules (generally only for the player who has played the particular card). An example Occupation is the Chief – which gives the player 3 points per Stone House Room at the end of the game (instead of the basic value of 2 points per Stone House Room). Another example is the Bread Seller which gives the player 1 Food chit from the supply for each Grain that is baked into bread (by any player in the game). A third example would be the Head of the Family which allows that player to use the Building and Family Growth Action spaces even if another player has already placed their family member on that spot. One final example is the Master Brewer which allows you to convert one Grain during the Feeding part of the Harvest into 3 food. Each Occupation card offers similar slight rules changes such as the examples above.

Minor Improvements can sometimes provide Victory Points as well as either provide goods, Actions, or small rules modifications. There are a few different types of Minor Improvements. An example of a passing card is the Mini Pasture. It is free to play and allows you to fence in a single space Pasture immediately upon playing the card. After you play it, you pass that card onto the player to the left who adds it to his hand. Another type of Minor Improvement are quite similar to the Occupations – such as the Corn Scoop which allows that player to take an extra Grain counter each time that he chooses the Take 1 Grain Action. Additionally, this card requires you to spend one wood in order to play it. Another type of Minor Improvement gives bonus points. One example would be Clogs which gives a 1 bonus point at the end of the game if you have a clay hut and 2 extra points for a stone house. As you can see, Clogs would work well together with the Chief Occupation card as their bonuses for having a Stone House would be additive. Moreover, the Corn Scoop could be quite advantageous if you also had the Master Brewer occupation as you could generate extra grain which could in turn be converted easily into food for your family.

It is important to note that the effects of both types of cards only apply to the game once they have been played; they have no value or effect while they remain in a player’s hand. So how do you play these cards? Simple – there are some new Actions that I need to introduce. One of the Action Boards from the Family Game is turned to its reverse side to add one pre-printed Action choice – Take an Occupation. This space allows you to play your first Occupation (in the game) for free. All later occupations cost 1 food to play when using this Action. You can only play one Occupation each time you take this space (unless, of course, you have already played a card which modifies this rule!)

Additionally, the Start Player Action is modified; no longer does this space accumulate food but instead it allows the player that chooses it to take a Minor Improvement as well as claim the Start Player Marker. Minor Improvements have both possible prerequisites that must be met as well as possible “casting costs” that must be paid in order to play the card. Minor Improvements are often played in conjunction with other Actions – you have the option of playing a Minor Improvement when you choose the Start Player Action or when you choose the Phase 2 Family Growth Action. It can also be done after the Phase 2 Renovation Action or via the Phase 1 Take a Major or Minor Improvement Action.

There are also a few changes in the Action cards. When playing with four players, there is an additional action card which allows you to play an occupation. However, the action on this card is not quite as good as the pre-printed Action. This version of the Action forces the player to spend 1 Food for the first and second Occupation and 2 Food for each Occupation afterwards. This same more-costly Occupation Action is found on the five-player Action Card that also has the Family Growth option. Only one of these two actions can be chosen when a family member is placed on that card though!

So now that you understand a bit more about the different cards and how you play them, how do they fit into the grand scheme of the Full Game? At the beginning of each game, the players should choose which Card Deck they wish to play with (or perhaps consider mixing them all together!). Any Occupation cards should be removed if they are only for more players than are playing. Then, seven Occupations and seven Minor Improvements are dealt out to each player. These 14 cards are generally the only cards that each player will have to play with throughout the game. Thus, the other cards can be put away as they won’t be needed. I would recommend that the players take 4 or 5 minutes to look over the cards and try to get a feel for how they might work together before the game begins. Setup is otherwise unchanged from the Family Game.

I know what you’re thinking – the game comes with 302 Occupation/Minor Improvement cards, and I only get to see 14 each game?! To me, that’s the beauty of the full game. Every game is virtually guaranteed to be different as there will always be a different set of cards in play. Each time that you are dealt you cards, you will be challenged to try to find a way to best use those cards – whether separately or in conjunction with other cards.

Gameplay

The flow of the full game is very similar to that seen in the Family Game. The Full Game still seems as if it can be split into the same 4 sections that I parceled the Family Game into. The obvious difference is that you now have a few more options to consider with the cards. Not only do you have an entirely new Action option in taking Occupations, but you also have further considerations about taking Minor Improvements as you use Family Growth or take Start Player. It should be noted that you cannot take an action, such as Family Growth, and only use the Minor Improvement “extra” action – if the Minor Improvement is attached to an action, you must be able to perform the main action and then you get the option of playing an Improvement card. This restriction does make it a bit tougher to get a Minor Improvement card played, especially in the endgame when many people are trying to play cards to maximize their score!

In Rounds 1-4, you are still most concerned with setting up the framework of your farm. Wood still seems to be the most sought after action as it is needed for building just about everything at that early stage in the game. The Start Player Action now also gives the opportunity to play a Minor Improvement, and sometimes it can be quite advantageous to take Start Player mainly to get a Minor Improvement on the board as early as possible. Examples of such cards might be the Axe which allows you to build new Wooden Rooms for 2 Wood and 2 Reeds instead of the usual cost of 5 Wood and 2 Reeds. Obviously, this Minor Improvement is only useful earlier in the game as it would have no effect if you had already Renovated to a Clay Hut. If the Start Player Action has already been taken, you can also use the Phase 1 Action of Play a Major or Minor Improvement to get a card into play.

As Minor Improvement cards are generally played in addition to another action, I tend to see these cards as nice extra benefits (sort of like a free half-an-action). I would always try to play a free Minor Improvement if I can when the option is available. However, the Minor Improvements that require commodities to be spent take a bit more consideration. Before you spend any commodities on a Minor Improvement, you need to make sure that you’re not derailing your main plan of developing your farm.

There are also some Occupation cards that are best played as early as possible as they will provide you with extra goods or enhance other Actions that you might take later in the game. The earlier that you are able to play cards such as this, the more benefit you’ll be able to get from them. An example of this is the Woodcutter which offers 1 additional Wood counter each time you use a family member’s action to take wood. Obviously, you’d like to take advantage of this ability as soon as possible. Another option might be the Tutor which offers 1 bonus victory point for each Occupation card played after the Tutor. Clearly, the sooner you play this, the more possible benefit you’ll get from it throughout the game.

The hardest part about playing the Occupation cards is trying to figure out when is the best time to take the action and if the benefit granted by the Occupation card is worth skipping the other actions available. Even though many of the Occupation cards sound as if they could be game-breakers, I have yet to find a card in my games that has been so strong as to single-handedly win the game; though, admittedly, there have been a few two-card or three-card combinations that seemed quite strong. That being said, there are also plenty of occasions where the potential or actual benefit of an Occupation card did not outweigh the regular Action which could have been taken (as well as the potential cost of Food to play the Occupation). I think that a common tactic among newer players is to play as many Occupations as possible as their allure is so great, but as I’ve played more games of Agricola, I find that experienced players may only play one or two Occupations during the entire game.

The middle rounds in the full game take a bit longer a most players will need to take a few glances at their cards to see if there are any cards that they could play to good effect at that particular stage in the game. I often find the middle rounds to be a good time to play a card which offers bonus points in the endgame if I find myself near the end of the turn order without a better Action option available. The advantage is that I don’t have to worry about figuring out how to play the card in the later Rounds when more people are trying to take the same action, but this is balanced out by the fact that my opponents now know a little bit more about what I’m trying to accomplish with the rest of my game.

The final rounds are admittedly slow with the Full Game, and the reason for this rests solely on the cards. Oftentimes the final two rounds are longer Rounds as players are finishing up their farms. As there isn’t much time left for long term planning, any actions not used directly towards the main strategy are spent trying to glean every last victory point out of the scoring system. As I mentioned in the discussion of the Family Game, taking an Action which helps you get into the positive side of the scoring column in any category is really a two-point move. However, some of the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards may offer more Victory Points (possibly on their own or in conjunction with another Action or two), and it may take a minute or two to review the different options to make sure that you have found the best play. Unfortunately, your opponents often can’t help you look for your options as they likely won’t have any idea what cards you have remaining in your hand.

However, balancing out the increased time that it takes to consult the cards is the fact that the cards themselves allow for a much greater breadth of possible strategies. By the end of the game, most players will have played at least a few cards. As a result, some of the Action spaces will have different relative values to different players, and thus each player will have a few more options that are more appealing to that person alone. The trick is figuring out how long you can wait on taking an action that has increased value for only yourself. If you are able to wait longer, you can take some of the other actions that everyone is vying for while still getting the benefit of your own action much later in the Round.

Efficiency is still the main focus in the Full Game when choosing your actions. It still helps to double up on your actions when you can and minimize the number of low-yield Actions you have to take during the game. The Occupations and Minor Improvements help you make the most of marginal Actions as they do provide one other viable set of possibilities when it is your turn to choose an Action. Additionally, I want to repeat that you don’t want to waste an Action playing an Occupation or Minor Improvement card if you’re not going to be able to recoup the benefit of the missing action.

Scoring is much higher in the Full Game than in the Family Game, and I think the main difference is that there are many more scoring options provided by the Occupation and the Minor Improvement cards. First, the cards give the players multiple options for bonus scoring. Additionally, the cards oftentimes give extra benefits when taking some Actions during the course of the game which frees up your family members to take different Actions which may also increase your score. The average winning scores have been around 45-50 range in my Full Games – which is much higher than those seen in the Family Game.

The Three Different Decks

As I have mentioned earlier, there are three different decks of cards that have been included in the Agricola box. Based on discussions I’ve had with the folks at Lookout Games, the game was initially intended to be produced with only the E deck. The I deck and the K deck were intended to be expansions for the game. (I know what you’re thinking – how could there be a Rosenberg game without expansions?!) Though I’m not sure of the exact reason, it was decided to include all of the cards in the base game; and I’m very glad for it!

Each of the three decks has a very different feel. There are no specific recommendations about how to choose between the different choices which again are: E (for Entry), I (for Interactive) and K (for Komplex). In fact, Uwe Rosenberg has said that he prefers to mix all the cards together and deal out 7 to each player from the entire set! However, I am of the opinion that players should stick to a single deck for any one particular game. The main reasoning for this is that it does seem that there is a pervasive theme throughout each deck. As a result, the Minor Improvements mesh well with the Occupations from their matching deck. There is a much higher chance of finding synergistic card combinations (for all players involved in the game) when you limit the card pool to just one Deck. I think that if you mixed the Decks together, it would be much more likely that only one player would get a set of cards that worked really well together, and that could cause significant imbalance in the game.

The basic set, or the E (for Entry) Deck, is the largest and would be recommended for most beginner games. The special abilities and actions on these cards are the most straightforward, and I think that they are the easiest to pick up on first glance. All of the examples that I’ve provided so far of the cards are from the E deck. Many of these cards seem to simply modify the basic Action spaces or offer bonus points for doing things that already score you victory points. Additionally, the majority of these cards seem to work on their own – they are not reliant on other cards or other players. The actions provided in the E Deck seem to be well balanced among the different facets of the game. As this was meant to be the base deck for Agricola, there are more Occupations and Minor Improvements than in the I or K Deck. As such, you will also see the most variability when sticking to just this deck due to the larger pool to draw from.

The I (for Interactive) Deck is exactly as advertised. The cards here create more interplay between players than any other deck. The I Deck cards also seem to tie many of the Actions together for the players. To help illustrate the nature of the deck, let me give a few examples of the Occupations. First is the Market Crier which allows you to take one extra Grain and one extra Vegetable each time you take the “Take 1 Grain” Action space. However, when you do this, every other player gets 1 Grain from the supply as well. Another I Occupation is the Field Worker which gives you 1 Grain (in a 3P game) or 1 Food (in a 4-5P game) each time any other player sows a field. The I Minor Improvements offer similar interactions. The Spinney causes other players, when choosing the “3 Wood” Action space, to give you one of the Wood tokens that they collect in that Action. The Slaughterhouse gives you one Food from the supply each time any other player slaughters animals for Food. As you can see, the cards in this Deck really create a more complex game. However, the I Deck can get a bit fiddly as all the players have to constantly be watching what everyone else is doing to make sure that all of the extra payoffs are happening. For this reason, I would definitely not recommend this Deck for a beginner player as I think the cards in this deck are a bit much for someone who is still trying to wrap their head around the basic mechanisms.

The K (for Komplex) Deck has more cards that are similar to those available in the E Deck with the difference being that the K cards more radically alter the rules. As a result, I would only play this with players that are well familiar with the game. Let me show you what I mean with some examples. The Wet Nurse allows you to grow your family when you build rooms onto your house at the cost of 1 food per person added – that’s right, you might not ever need to take a Family Growth action in the game with this Occupation! Another K Occupation example is the Scholar which allows you to play an Occupation or Minor Improvement card (paying all appropriate costs) at the start of each Round as long as you have a Stone House. The Minor Improvements are just as radical. The Furrowing Plow allows you, twice in the game, to plow 3 fields instead of 1 when you choose the Plow 1 Field Action. The Reed Hut allows you to take a family member which has not yet been brought into the game to be played off of the Reed Hut Card instead of having to be placed in its own room in your house as usual. It can take actions like a regular Family Member and must be fed in the usual manner, but it is not worth any victory points. Finally, the Broom allows you to play any other Minor Improvement if you desire and then forces you to discard all unplayed Minor Improvements in your hand and then allows you to draw seven NEW Minor Improvement cards from the deck. As you can see, the changes to the rules are quite significant – though I will admit that the cards that I chose are amongst the most radical. However, there are enough cards in the K deck with similarly strong changes that each player should get a few in his starting hand. The K Deck will keep all the players on their toes and will lead to a more reactionary game as the entire feel of the game can turn on the play of a single card.

Scalability

The Full Game scales just as well as the Family Game. All of the other considerations that I have mentioned about the scaling of the Family Game still apply to the Full Game. The Occupation cards are also appropriately segregated into groups based on the number of players in the game. The cards which are in the 1+ player group tend to be independent cards that often do not rely on other cards or other players while the Occupations in the 4+ player group are more interactive and reliant on other players.

Overall Impressions of the Full Game

If you haven’t been able to figure out by now, the Full Game of Agricola is already in my Top 2 or 3 games. It provides a sublime combination of complexity and variability while keeping the playing time down to a manageable level. I have played it over 30 times already, and I have owned it for less than 8 weeks! There probably aren’t more than fifteen other games in my entire game collection that I have played that many times… I love the fact that each Full Game has felt different, and this has kept the game feeling fresh despite the constant play. This is partly due to the fact that different numbers of players in the game leads to a completely different style of game. Additionally, the ability to move between the three different decks lends even more possible choices when setting up the game.

The complexities added to the game by the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards make the game shine in my eyes. While the Family Game is fairly meaty on its own, the constantly changing landscape of the Full Game makes me want to play it over and over. The interplay between the different cards and the way in which they make you constantly look at the game in a different light is simply amazing. To put it in food terms, the Family Game is like a can of Campbell’s Clam Chowder while the Full Game is like a homemade Bouillabaisse from a Provençal inn. Yet, despite the depth in gameplay, the game still plays quickly. The rules estimate that it will take approximately 30 minutes per player to get through the Full Game. I have found that most of my games clock in closer to 20 minutes per player (with a one-time charge of 5 minutes at the start of the game for players to examine the cards in their hands) yet provide me with the same depth and richness in gameplay as Through the Ages, Antiquity or Roads and Boats give me in the four hours it takes to play those!

The number of different starting setups and number of possible strategies dictated by those varied card combinations is mind-boggling. I’ve played at least a dozen Full games and I’ve experience at least one “a-ha!” moment in each game where I saw a combination that would be successful or where I was surprised by a play an opponent was able to make. I’ve grown to love Age of Steam and its many varied expansions for the same reason – that there is constantly room to explore the system based on the changing rules provided in the different expansions. However, it’s become hard (and expensive!) to keep up with all the expansions. I have been able to get the same feel in Agricola with the material included in the original box as each new combination of cards effectively represents a new expansion for Agricola!

Given the amount of play it has received in the past 8 weeks, I’m fairly certain that the game will have staying power, especially when it isn’t being played three or four times a week! The replay value remains high despite the constant play it is currently receiving, and is further increased by the additional option of the Solo Game. But before I start talking about the Solo Game, there are a few other things I’d like to cover about the Full Game.

Answering Some Commonly Heard Questions

1. Is Agricola just simultaneous solitaire?
No. Especially not in the Full Game. I will certainly admit that there is not much interaction in the Family Game as each player is responsible for growing his own Farm on his own Farm Board. However, there is still a bit of interaction between the players in the competition for the actions on the board. Being able to block other players from particular actions can significantly change how the game turns out. Though the interaction may not be direct, there are certainly ripples felt in the game from the different actions and the order they are taken in. In the Full Game, the cards, especially those in the I and K Decks force the players to be very aware of what everyone else is doing. In fact, some of the I cards do in fact lead to direct interaction due to trading or selling of commodities or animals, etc.

2. Is it true that the some of the cards are gamebreakers?
I don’t think so. I can’t answer this definitively, but I do know that I haven’t yet run across a single card which was that dominant over a game. Additionally, Uwe Rosenberg claims to have played around 500 games of Agricola in the playtesting phase, so I would expect that any seriously unbalanced cards would have already have been discovered.
Having said that, I will say that I believe that there are some cards which are clearly better/stronger than others. Furthermore, there are certain cards which only have good value when they are paired with a complimentary card. However, there are enough strong cards in each deck that it seems rare that a player would get an entire hand full of weak cards. Again, much of the allure that Agricola has for me is that you are forced with each game to evaluate the cards you are dealt and discover how to make them work to your advantage. There will always be a certain amount of luck/variation in a game with Action or Event Cards. To me, this is an acceptable level of chance especially as I believe that there is no card that is a definite gamebreaker. Even if I feel that my hand of cards isn’t the strongest, I can challenge myself to make the most out of what I started with.

3. Would the game be better using a drafting variant?
I have read in a number of places that some people are suggesting trying a drafting variant to mitigate the random deal of cards. However, I would not be a proponent of such a plan. First, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the cards and how they are dealt. Second, and more importantly, I don’t think that it would be good for the game if players had some inkling about what other cards were in the hands of the other players. I would rather be surprised and have those “a-ha!” moments when someone plays a good card. Additionally, much of the tension and uncertainty in the game would be reduced if the particular cardset would be known before the game. Finally, any drafting mechanism would add length to the game. I’ve already mentioned that I like Agricola for its quick playing time, and I would not want to add anything to the game to make it longer. If a card variant would be needed, I might consider a variant where each player can discard three cards from his initial deal and have them replaced at random from the decks matching those of the discarded cards. However, on the whole, I don’t have any issues with the card setup or play.

4. Nothing bad happens?
A few people, most notable Frank Branham, has complained that nothing bad happens in Agricola. But really, that’s true of most Eurogames – in fact that’s the reason why they appeal to a lot of us! The Eurogames are generally designed to not have any player elimination and to make sure that all players in the game remain active and involved in the game play. There’s nothing really bad that happens in Puerto Rico or Caylus either!

5. There’s too much German for me to play it?
OK, I have no rebuttal for this. The game has more German in it than a clown car in the middle of a Berlin circus! But, the good news is that Z-Man Games has already started a pre-order system for an all-English version. When the English version was announced, it was suggested that 750 orders would be needed to guarantee sufficient demand to make production financially viable. At the time of this review’s publication, it appears that there are at least 633 pre-orders for the game already. So, if you’re German averse, just wait (or put in your own pre-order!), and it won’t be long before you can play it in English.

6. I’ve heard it comes with a Solitaire version. Is that true? Is it any good?
Hey, I’m glad that you asked – keep reading to learn about the Solo Game!

Solo Game Review

There is one more way to play Agricola and that is to play it by yourself. The Solo Game is set up to give you a target score which you try to achieve by playing the game as usual. The initial target is 50 points. The game is based on the Full Game (and uses the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards), though there are a few rule changes that need to be put in place in order to make the game challenging for solo play. The rules that are included in the English translation are admittedly a bit sparse, so I have had a number of conversations with the Lookout folks (on the Geek as well as on the Lookout.de forums) trying to clarify the issues as they have come up in my 12+ Solo Games. So to be clear, the Rules that I present below are not “official”, but I have had a number of clarifications made by Lookout as they have been needed. An updated set of rules for the Solo Game will be included in the Z-Man English version.

Rules changes and Gameplay
Setup is similar to the Full Game for two-players. No additional Action cards are added to the board. There is one change made to the Action Board – the “3 Wood” space only produces 2 Wood tokens a turn. Additionally, there is a significant change to your family members’ food consumption – each family member will require 3 Food chits in the Harvest phase (instead of the 2 needed in the Full Game). However, newly born family members still only requite 1 Food if they were born in the Round that directly precedes the Harvest. To make the Food squeeze worse, you get no Food to start the Solo Game! Finally, if any Minor Improvement cards are to be passed to the next player, they are simply discarded from the game after they are used.

The game is played just as it is in the other forms of Agricola. There are really no other changes other than the three rule modifications noted above. Since there is only one person’s worth of family members in the game, there game becomes focused almost completely on efficiency – you do not have to worry about Actions not being available when you want to take them. Action spaces will accumulate more goods than you would normally see due to the reduced numbers of Actions that are taken each round. I find that I’m often working ahead three or four turns when planning my actions in Agrisolo – since you can count on all the commodity spaces increasing their token count until you choose that Action, you can plan on some huge pickups and huge building Actions as a result. The largest change in strategy that I notice in my Agrisolo games is that I am much more concerned with developing a well-oiled Food production engine early on in the Solo Game as the increased Food requirements at each Harvest really force you to concentrate on how you are going to generate food.

Agrisolo also used the Occupation and Minor Improvement Cards as in the Full Game. You are free to choose from any of the three decks, though I will admit that the I Deck is not particularly suited for the Solo Game as many of those cards are best due to their interactions with other players. I believe that there is probably a slightly higher value to the cards in Agrisolo as there are a few moments in each game where you really would like to wait for another Round to pass before taking a particular Action, and playing a card at these moments allows you to do so. How does that work? Say you are waiting for Wood, and you need 15 tokens. The Wood Space currently only has 14. You could take the 14 Wood now and then have to come back later for the additional wood (spending two Actions to do so), or you could play an Occupation card now and gain whatever benefits the card grants you and then take the Wood in the following round. In the latter case, you end up with the same number of Wood tokens, but you’ve also been able to play an Occupation card as an extra bonus for the same number of Actions. Additionally, many of the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards help you generate Food or improve your Food production which is especially helpful in the Solo Game as you need three Food chits per family member each Harvest.

Scoring is done in the typical manner, and as I have mentioned earlier, the goal of any initial Solo Game is 50 points. This goal is at the high end of scores in the multi-player versions of Agricola, but it makes sense that you will be able to generate a few more points in a game where you never have to compete with other players for the Actions you want. The Solo Game plays rather quickly as you never really have to wait for your turn to come up! I would estimate my usual playing time to come in around 25-30 minutes including initial setup time of about 5 minutes.

Once you finish the game and calculate your final score, you could pack everything up and put it away. However, there is an option for a series of Solo Games, and this is where I think the Solo Game really shines. When you play a series of Solo Games, the real goal is to get through an entire set of 8 games. The target score for each game gets successively higher: 50 in the first game, then 55, 59, 62, 64, 65, 66 and 67. If you can get to the end of the eighth game and meet the target score, then I would consider that you have won the Solo Game Series.

There are two reasons why the target scores continue to increase. First, at the conclusion of each game, you look at the Occupation cards that you had played that game and choose one of them to go into your “Permanent Occupation” stack. These Occupation cards will be in your initial hand of 7 at the start of the next game; you will only deal yourself enough cards to get to a total of seven Occupation cards. Additionally, they will already be considered as played when you start the game – thus, you should have slightly more abilities at your disposal with each successive game. At the end of your second game, you have to choose one of the Occupation cards that you played in that second game and add it to the first card that you chose to keep. These two cards will start on the table at the start of your third game. This continues on (as long as you keep meeting the target score) until the 8th game when you will start the game with the full complement of seven Occupation cards played to the table at the beginning of the game. The other reason for the increasing target score is that you can possibly have a food bonus to start successive games. For every point that you have surpassed the target score in the previous game, you get that many Food chits as a bonus in the next game. Thus, if you managed to play exceptionally well in one game, there is some carryover to help you in the next game as well. So far, the largest food bonus I’ve managed to have is a 21-Food bonus (scored 70 in the second game of a Series!), and it certainly made the decisions in the third game much easier.

There are still a few questions I still have to get answered about the Solo Game. First, is the start player space used? It doesn’t make sense that you include the Start Player action since you really can’t be any player other than First in the Solo Game! However, the ability to play a Minor Improvement when taking that action comes in quite handy at times when you are unable or unwilling to take one of the other actions that includes the option to play a Minor Improvement. My guess is that that space is included in the allowed Actions as it was not specifically contraindicated in the rules. Second, what happens if you choose not to play a new Occupation card in a Solo Game? My guess is that you obviously wouldn’t get to keep another Occupation card and would start the next game without the benefit of an extra card played to the board.

Overall Impression of the Solo Game

I’m generally not a big fan of solitaire board games. I figure that if I’m by myself and I’m in the mood for a game, I can either go play on my videogame console or play something on the computer. However, Agrisolo has proven to be quite interesting and has shown some lasting power. The main reason for this is that, again, the cards continue to make each game a unique experience. Additionally, it is a really good way to see how some cards interact in the wild as opposed to just reading them to yourself as you go through the Decks. Finally, there are a number of itches that get scratched by the Solo Game that you don’t see in the multiplayer versions. Most importantly, the Solo Game is all about advanced planning. Theoretically, you could plan out every action before you even opened the box (though the random nature of the Round Cards coming out makes this a tad less perfect). It is quite rewarding though to be able to make grand plans involving multiple rounds and multiple Actions and see them work out. Furthermore, the challenge of figuring out which Occupation card to keep from a preceding game is quite interesting. Do I take card A which gives me more immediate benefits in the next game or do I take card B which works much better with my other saved occupations, but does not come into play until the endgame of the next game? I much prefer the Solo Game when taken in context of a series of games as the added decision making of the Occupation cards and the ability to see the effects of your decisions makes it a meaningful experience. A Solo Game played on its own is closer to an activity than a game, though it is still enjoyable in its own right.

Again, the translated rules do not really give an endpoint to the solo game, but I figure that if you can get through the entire series to the point where you couldn’t save a new Occupation card (because you were already full!), you’d pretty much accomplished everything that you could with that set of cards. I have also devised a record keeping sheet which allows you to keep track of what actions you took. It will hopefully be posted to the Geek in the near future. It’s a nice way to keep track of what cards you played with and to review successful strategies that you were able to employ.

I have also been toying with the idea of using a random hand generator to start a series of competitive Agrisolo games up where players will start with the identical 14 cards and play the first game. Each player will decide which Occupation he will keep (secretly and simultaneously), and then the next hand will be dealt. Each player will receive 7 Minor Improvements and the number of Occupations needed to make a hand of seven. The Agrisolo games will continue with a new set of cards being dealt each time by the computerized hand generator. This continues until only one player is remaining (by meeting the target score in each successive game). If there are multiple players that finish the entire series of games, the player with the highest cumulative score would win. This method of playing the Solo Game may even help me play Agricola competitively when I can’t round up enough people to play at home!

Well, I can’t think of anything else to say about Agricola than this – stop reading this review, go find a copy of the game (pre-order it if you haven’t already!) and try it yourself!

 

Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor

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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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