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Friday, April 9, 2010

Review: Agricola

 This is What Fun Looks Like

So, this week, I thought I'd bring out one of my group's favorites, Agricola.  So many pieces!  What you see there are sheep, boars, cows, wood, clay, reed, stone, food, grain, and vegetables (and, if you look hard enough, two Nintendo Wii accessories).  Because I tend to be compulsive about game pieces, each resource is in their own little plastic bag.  Also seen in the box are the cards, board pieces, housing tiles, and more.  I firmly believe that the more pieces a game has, the more likely it is to be fun.

The summary is that this is a fantastic game that is good for both the hardcore aficionado and the more casual board gamer.  Full review after the jump.

     Agricola is Latin for Farmer (or so it tells me on the box).  In the game, you play a farmer trying to grow crops, improve the home, and raise a family - all while trying not to starve to death.  In that sense, its a little like Farmville, only without the completely illigitimate, yet very real fear that your digital crops will die.
     Each turn a new action opens.  Everyone starts with two farmers, which means they can take two actions per turn.  The more kids you have, the more turns you get.  But, after every few rounds, there's a harvest.  During harvest time you might get more animals or crops, but you also have to have enough food to feed your family.  The more family members you have, the more food they cost to keep alive. Failure to pay means you go begging and begging gives you a penalty to your score at the end. 
     At the end of the game, you are rewarded for diversity (very progressive).  The more sheep, boars, or whatever you have at the end of the game, after the final harvest, the more points you get.  But if you don't have any of something (no cows, or no vegetables, for example), then you are penalized a point.  You are also penalized for unused farm spaces.  So a well rounded, complete farm is best. 
     The game is for one to five players.  With one player, you're trying to beat a personal best score.  And, it comes with a normal mode for the players that like the challenge and prefer to use all their strategery.  But for more family oriented games (like playing with the parents), you can play the Family Version which skips some of the more complex items by removing the cards and still have a great time playing the game.  

     Components: 4 of 5.  Good components on Agricola.  The board is sectioned into three pieces each of which is sturdy cardboard.  Each player also has his or her own farm board.  The cards are about as thick as regular playing cards and can be shuffled without worry that you'll hurt them.  The pieces are made of good painted wood.  This game can be expected to last through multiple playings without significant damage.

     Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5.  This game is heavily reliant on strategy and the player's actions.  If no one takes goods, they continue to accumulate in the next round.  This builds tension between skipping an action in the hope that it is more beneficial later, or playing it safe and taking the goods before your opponent does.  Players can take an action to be first in the next round, so turn order can change.  Sometimes its important that you have first pick of the actions in the following round.
     There is a small amount of luck in the advanced game depending on what cards are picked.  Some cards synergize very well.  Still, you'll be forced to adapt your actions based on what hasn't already been picked, and what will maximize the benefit from the cards in your hand.  And, when I play, I always feel like I'm just a few turns short of being being able to do everything I want - which forces choices. 

     Mechanics: 5 of 5.  The game rules are very straightforward.  Place your farmer on the action you wish to take, then do that action.  No one else can place there until the end of the round.  And, if you have a special improvement or occupation that allows you to do something fancy, it'll say it on the card.  The rules are very clear and stick well with the theme of the game.

     Replayability:  5 of 5.  There are over 100 Minor Improvement Cards and almost as many Occupation cards.  Each player (up to five) gets dealt seven of each.  This means every game you have to maximize the potential of your cards and nearly every game you'll get cards that you've not had before.  In addition, the order when new actions become available is random.  Sometimes you'll be able to build those Major Improvements right away.  Sometimes, sheep don't become available until the fourth turn.  With each game, you have to react to the actions as they appear and adapt your strategy which allows for huge variation between games.

     Spite: 1.5 of 5.  This game has only the barest potential for spite.  By placing your farmer on an action, you can prevent someone else from taking that action that round.  Sometimes it's advantageous, for example, to place on the "Build 1 Major or Minor Improvement" space and build a meaningless minor improvement just to prevent anyone else from building a Major Improvement.  However, this is rarely advantageous and almost always it is better to take the action more helpful for you than to fritter your time blocking someone else.  So, while available, Spite is not a major concern in this game. 

     Overall: 5 of 5.  This game has remained a mainstay of my game stable for all of the above reasons.  It is tremendous fun for about three hours.  It plays differently enough that you are constantly reacting to new events while trying to implement your master plan for growing your farm.  If you dabble in eurogames at all, I highly recommend Agricola.

It can be purchased at Boards and Bits.
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