The inevitable #Agricola update

Hello everybody, we meet again this Saturday from 10am-9pm in the Bar Convent, for some fun Spring gaming. In honour of the new season, today’s update will be devoted to me explaining why Agricola is my favourite game, and offering to teach it. But first over to John:

“John McCullough, our new Events Officer, tells me his first attempt to organise an event (Scythe Tournament) was unsuccessful – as only 5 including him signed up.  He would therefore be grateful for suggestions (to jjj_mccullough@yahoo.co.uk) about any other games (apart from 7 Wonders) BM members would like him to try and organise an event/tournament for.”
Thanks John. Also a fresh reminder that BM! is also in Travelling Man this Thursday, for some weekday gaming fun.
Straight into our game recommendation of the week (which I offer to teach at the end if you want to jump straight to that bit)…

Agricola

When people ask me what my favourite boardgame is, I always reply Agricola. Even if I’m asking people to play something else, ‘Gric will remain my number one game for the forseeable future. Why is this harsh and demanding subsistence farming simulator rated so highly by myself and others (11th best game ever on BGG)? Well for one thing the theme works perfectly with the mechanics. Now theme normally isn’t the first thing people reach for when explaining why a game is so darn good, but in Agricola the theme just fits perfectly. Everything you do makes sense because of the theme. Of course you need fences to keep your animals in, and of course you need an oven to bake bread. Of course you need to plough fields before sowing vegetables in them, and so on and so forth. At the end of every game of Agricola, whether your farm resembles some sort of super farm with all the animals and crops next to a stone house, or an empty wooden shack next to empty pens which used to hold sheep (you ate all the sheep), your farm is yours and makes sense (poor sheep). Agricola has one of the best mechanics-theme drawing from and using each other. Even if the theme doesn’t excite you, the fact that so little of it is abstracted away means that it ends up being a richer experience than many other dry, dry euros.

So what are the mechanics? Well, Agricola is a (the) worker placement game. What the Key series started, and other games took off with and used, Uwe Rosenberg refined to perfection here. The game takes place over 14 rounds, and each round a new action space is revealed. Then each player takes it in turn to place a worker on a space, going clockwise until everyone has placed all their workers. When a worker is placed you gain the resources or do the action on the space. Some spaces will accumulate resources until someone takes them, leaving a strong element of push your luck to proceedings, especially when weighing up other players’ options.

 
The key space, and the one new players seem to fear, is the grow your family space. One of the key stresses in Agricola is feeding your people. At regular intervals there is a harvest- the grain and veg are picked, the animals breed, and every family member needs to eat. At two feed each it can get expensive, and starvation is almost always a bad option. However if you choose not to grow your family you not only miss out on points, but also on actions, as each family member, when grown, can go out on the board and perform actions. The entire game is built on managing the issues surrounding growing your family and establishing a food engine. Luckily, there are ways to help with that…
Now, it may sound like I’ve just described an extremely good worker placement, but nothing different to, say, Caverna. Well, there’s one thing which tips the favour to Agricola, in a massive way. Cards. Unless you play the family game*, each game every player starts with a hand of cards, 7 occupations to hire, and 7 minor improvements to build, drawn or drafted from a deck of hundreds. These cards not only make every single game different, they make all strategies different. You may have cards which encourage baking, or vegetable eating, or animal breeding, or make building easier, or give food for hiring more occupations. These cards not only make the game more varied, but when drafted with experienced players, add another strategic layer and truly make it an excellent drafting game, up there with worker placement. I cannot understate just how valuable these cards are at turning the game into a 10.
Are there any negatives to this wonderful game? Well, some people (Jim) would have you believe that there’s no player interaction, but don’t believe them (him). Not just direct player interaction with some occupations, but the entire game is predicated on being able to read your opponents intentions better than they can read yours. It’s not just planning, it’s understanding when you can afford to leave resources or food, and when someone else will take them. Battles for the family growth queue are real, and you need to read the table as to when to risk starvation, and when everyone else will pounce. If you play this as a multiplayer solitaire you will quickly find yourself locked out of essential spaces on key turns and gasping for wood. That isn’t to say it;s ever unfair though- good play will always win out, and you will only ever starve if you allow yourself to be.
A few final thoughts. I’m talking about the old Z-Man edition, neither myself nor the club own the new edition, which cut and edited a significant number of cards, changed some of the space names, and removed the fifth player. If anybody has this copy I’d love to see it to compare it to my edition. Next player numbers- 2 is just a battle, where it’s better to inflict 2 negative points than gain 1 positive point yourself. Good, but I’m not a great fan of any 2-player games (unless specifically for that number). 3 is a good Agricola experience, but food is a lot tighter. Without Travelling Players and 1reed, 1 stone, 1 food, the whole experience is a little more challenging and hungry, despite the lack of a fourth player to take some spots (in the new edition they added 1food to the any resource spot to combat this). 4 is superb. It’s how I will always choose to play hands down. All cards can be used, and everything feels correct. I have played 4 player Agricola a lot of times. And I mean a lot. 5 is just to many, a lot of spaces will get taken, especially if you’re fifth player, and to compensate a lot of spaces are duplicated, or things are made easier to get (cattle from the off!). So 4-player is where it’s at.
So there it is, a deeply strategic, richly thematic, multi-faceted always replayable game. A true modern classic (it’s over 10 years old now). And I’m offering to teach it to players this Saturday! (multiple times if necessary). Whether completely new, never played with cards before or just need a recap, I have picked out some synergistic decks to avoid players get defeated by an inexperienced card draw, and will be setting up my copy to teach to players (it has animeeples and vegimeeples). If you are interested I’d appreciate letting me know beforehand so I can organise times. If not I’ll still have it set up on the day, and will be willing to teach it to all and sundry. Here’s a form if you’re interested:

My favourite game. Let me know if you want to wax lyrical about your straight up 10/10, or want to appeal to new converts.
*Whilst the family game is okay (actually brilliant), it can lead to pathetic empty husks of farms and true resource fights, and the game with cards is just better.
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