My Life with Games (part 26)–Agricola

It’s Father’s Day, and that seems like a good day to blog about Agricola (pronounced “agricola“).

If you don’t know, Agricola is Uwe Rosenberg’s board game about…farming. No, seriously. That’s what it’s about. You have a little player board with your farm, and you take actions like “Plow Field” or “Bake Bread” or “Build Fences” to build and develop your farm. At the end of the game, whoever has developed the most diverse farm is the winner. There are twelve different categories to score points in. Things like how many cattle you have or how much grain you have or how many family members you have earn you points.

Ah yes, family members. Let’s talk about that for a moment.

Agricola is a worker placement game. This means that the center board is something like a menu of available actions. You take your turn by placing one of your workers on an action and doing what it says. That action becomes unavailable for the rest of the turn for everyone else. This is where a lot of the tension in the game comes from. You sit there thinking, “I really need to take that wood for fences, but there are a lot of sheep over there, which would also be good. And maybe I should expand my hut to make room for a baby.”

Because, you see, everyone starts with two workers (the farmer and his wife). But, over the course of the game, you can gain up to three more workers by having children. Yes, the time scale of the game is a little vague, but it means that you can gain the ability to do more work on a turn by having children to help you. (There’s also an animal breeding mechanic, which means that this game is also full of SEX!)

Of course, having children is expensive, because of the harvest mechanic.

The game is played over 14 rounds. At the end of rounds 4, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 14, there’s a harvest. At this time, you must pay two food for each of your family members. How do you get food? All kinds of ways, really. You can eat vegetables or grain. You can bake bread out of grain for more food. You can slaughter and cook animals. Pretty much all the ways that you’d think. Of course, this means that you probably need a good oven to have a good food conversion rate.

And if you don’t have enough food, you have to beg. Each food that you don’t have earns you a begging card, which is worth -3 points. You need to understand that most of those twelve scoring categories earn you four points at most. Even one begging card is enough to brutalize your game. A few, and you may as well yield the game.

Agricola wants you to try to get ahead, but it will punish you for not feeding your family. Harshly.

And so, that’s what gameplay becomes. You try to juggle your resources between the need to maintain your farm and family and the desire to “get ahead” in victory points.

It might be obvious by this point that I have a fairly complex relationship with Agricola.

Let me be clear. I think that the game is a wonderful design, fully deserving of all the acclaim it’s received. I love how the game can be easily expanded and tinkered with through the modular Occupation decks. I love the feeling of seeing your little farm grow and develop over time. If I had a physical copy, I’d totally pimp it out with animeeples and vegimeeples, just like everyone else does. I love the effect of “planting” a stack of three grain in a field and harvesting over time. It’s just so cool.

And I respect that Agricola is a game about the common man. You’re not being heroic. If anything, Agricola glorifies and dignifies the everyday occupation of the ordinary individual, living a quiet life. It’s not a game about conquest. It’s a game about the regular rhythms of life. In this way, it’s truly beautiful.

In fact, it does such a good job of modeling the everyday occupation of the ordinary individual that it can stop being fun.

I don’t do the budget in our family. Crystal is much better at handling finances than I am. Nevertheless, I feel the fact that we have limited resources with which to raise our six children. And it’s hard, sometimes, to make all the necessary choices and sacrifices to try to get everyone what they need and still somehow to “get ahead”, whatever that means.

Sometimes, it’s a struggle just to get good food on the table.

Admittedly, we’re not subsistence farmers, and we’ve been closer to the edge than we are now. And yet, the constant vigilance over spending, the constant demand from some area of the household that is lacking funding, the long struggle to save up enough to get that nice thing, the raiding of those savings when an unexpected expense arises…. All these things manifest in some way in Agricola.

And if you get it wrong, your children go hungry, unless you hang your head, swallow your pride, and beg.

It’s rare that subject matter in games gets to me. After all, I’m the guy who loves Diplomacy, remember? But Agricola strikes awfully close to home, and I play boardgames to escape my life, not to engage it. (That’s why I play roleplaying games…but I digress.)

And, until recently, this is where I would have ended this post. But a couple of things happened over the last few months which have also affected my relationship with Agricola.

The first is that I was a playtester for the Agricola iOS app which just recently released. (Check it out! My name is in the credits and everything!) Given my relationship with Agricola, this may be something of a weird move. But I figured that, since I wasn’t a raving fanboy of the game, I’d actually be able to offer a different perspective to Playdek. Also, honestly, I wanted the chance to test something for Playdek. They did a great job, by the way. (Check out this trailer, from just before it released. So cute!) Somehow, through a combination of the cuteness of the game and the ease of play, this app sold me on a game I’d been ready to do away with.

Second, as part of preparing for some game design work with Crystal, she and I played Agricola for the first time in a few years, just the two of us. Our previous games had been four- or five-player games, and we found that two players was much more forgiving. (Rosenberg’s game Le Havre is similar in this regard.) It makes me wonder if maybe four- and five-player Agricola is better suited for more advanced players. But two players was…well…it was kinda fun!

With this sudden increased exposure to Agricola again, my respect and appreciation for the game has increased. The fact that Playdek very generously gave the testers a copy of the iOS app helped, too. Now I can play whenever I want.

And maybe my initial emotional reaction has faded. Maybe additional system mastery has enabled me to better maneuver through the game and be more successful. I certainly think that the time I’ve spend with Le Havre has enabled me to better understand Agricola. I still think that I prefer Le Havre and Caylus to Agricola. But perhaps my relationship with Agricola has been salvaged, which is good.

But still, there’s a little uneasiness for me. Because Agricola is not escapist, and it touches on economic realities that shape my everyday life. And that’s just not as relaxing as I’d like my boardgaming to be.

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