Cubist Landscapes: A Review of Agricola

As I realized during a conversation a couple of weeks ago, I can’t ever remember anyone asking to be passed a white cube or a yellow disc during a game of Agricola. Instead, the white cubes are always spoken of as the sheep they represent, the yellow discs as grain. The same is true with respect to the game’s other components and the resources for which they substitute. It’s fair to say the same linguistic immersion does not occur with Caylus.

If the present onus is on commentators to address games they play often, take this piece as my flirtation with the spirit of the day. I don’t keep a record, but I’m pretty sure the only game I’ve played more than Agricola is Carcassonne. Not that I buy the suggestion that replayability is the greatest metric for measuring a game’s worth (some fine games are too draining to come back to very frequently, for one thing). But there’s certainly something to explore in a game that withstands multiple plays.

Part of the reason why I’ve found that Uwe Rosenburg’s subsistence-farming-based-blockbuster, Agricola, copes with repeated play lies in the immersiveness mentioned, which is a product of the comprehensibility of its resource manipulations. In one sense, there’s a lot to take in (much more than I normally like there to be in a game). But once learnt, the rules are easily remembered: it’s a matter of mapping pre-existing knowledge onto the game’s distillation of it. For instance, grain and vegetables can be eaten uncooked, animals cannot. The amount of grain a player possesses increases when some is sown in a field, while animals multiply periodically if at least two of the same species occupy the same farm.

A player board at the end of a game of Agricola

A player board at the end of a game of Agricola: It’s easy to believe in this as a farm

However, the initial collection of resources is through a more abstracted worker placement mechanism. If a player requires grain, he or she places a worker on the ‘Take One Grain’ action space (on a common board – thus blocking other players from taking this space). If wood is required, there’s an action space from which to take that. Resources accumulate on some spaces if they are unused in a round, on others this is not the case. It doesn’t have much to do with a recreation of farming: there’s no money in the game, so this isn’t a market. It could be that these resources are being collected from common land, but, in that case, it’s not obvious why, say, wood should be exhaustible.

All of this, I think, hints that the player is to see the real game as that which takes place on his or her own player board, rather than in this communal space. The simulation is, largely, confined to the individual domain.

This is not to say that there’s no thought to be applied to placing workers. In particular, timing matters. If you are the only player with either the means to cook animals or somewhere to keep them, you can likely delay collecting sheep – a decision based on a consideration of the condition of your opponents’ farms.

In many cases, though, the choice you are faced with will be between resources valuable to all players. A pile of reed, say, or a large haul of wood, ought to be useful to all players, except in very particular circumstances (though, of course, one or other may be more urgently required by one player or another). But, given that obstreperous play can rarely target all other players, the choice whether to take one or the other is, often, primarily based on individual circumstances. It affects the other players, to some degree, but was not predominantly guided by them.

The combination of the loom and butter churn means the purple player will generate three food at the start of the harvest, without cooking any sheep

The combination of the loom and butter churn means the purple player will generate three food at the start of the harvest, without cooking any sheep (Not pictured, purple’s other minor improvement, the drinking trough, which increases the capacity of a pasture)

Even in a two-player game, aggressive play frequently proves counter-productive. This is because the hand of rule-changing minor improvement and occupation cards each player holds makes any assessment of others’ circumstances an educated guess at best. If, say, an opponent is running low on food before a harvest (when each player has to provide food to his or her workers), it might look like a reliable attack to remove the food built up on the ‘Fishing’ action space. However, it might be that the opponent in question is sitting on an occupation card such as the Mendicant, which can retro-actively wipe-out the minus points incurred in not providing sufficient food.

Indeed, cards exist for generating food in all manner of ways. The right combination of cards can mean feeding a family on clay, or wood. A couple of attacks thwarted in these ways, and it’s hard not to orient oneself towards improving one’s on territory – the state of which is reliably calculable (because you know your own cards).

Nevertheless, the challenges posed by the occupation and minor improvement cards are often pleasurable. There’s joy in realizing that because you have the Tinsmith occupation you can feed your newborn on clay. It’s fun using the Animal Tamer to fill one’s house with a menagerie of animals. And it’s very enjoyable indeed to use, say, the Lover to expand one’s family early in the game, and then panic about how to feed everyone.

At the end of the game, sheep still dominate purple's farm

At the end of the game, sheep still dominate purple’s farm

Certain card combinations are, naturally, more powerful than others. If, say, you have a card that allows you to use wood as food, and a card that provides you with extra wood, that represents the beginnings of a useful machine before the game itself has even begun. However, when cards fall together too well, the tension the game can offer is diminished. If I’m pushed towards a resource others are pushed away from, it can be good for my chances of winning the game, but the lack of competition for the resource I want can make things a bit dull.

As a result, Agricola either offers the satisfaction of utilizing a neat combination, or the tension of scrabbling to improvise survival. It’s rare that both will come together (though setting up a card-driven food-machine can take a number of actions, a player starts with almost enough food to survive, roughly, the first third of the game – meaning there is time to get cards into play). But, for me, it’s not knowing which flavour of experience a particular game will give which makes Agricola compelling to revisit. It’s not just a question of what food sources my cards help me to exploit, it’s a question whether my cards will really help me at all. It’s a shame, perhaps, my experience of Agricola is all about what is happening in my domain – my opponents’ spaces being of limited relevance to me – but at least I can believe in my space as the farm it is meant to be.

3 thoughts on “Cubist Landscapes: A Review of Agricola

  1. Pingback: The New Year Hit Parade | Painted Wooden Cubes

  2. Pingback: On Playing Well, and its Relationship to Reviewing Well | Painted Wooden Cubes

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