Agricola, and Assessing the Value of Moves Untaken

On a game-by-game level I’m choosy about reading strategy articles. For about half of the games I play regularly, I avoid reading anything of this kind. I know there to have been plenty written about how to succeed at Race for the Galaxy, but I want to learn about its card combinations and hand management strategies for myself. On the other hand, there are games I want to play to the highest standard I possibly can, and that inevitably means standing on the shoulders of others to do so – using their wisdom, and advancing from it. I think each approach has value, and there are enough games I have a chance to play regularly that I can utilize each.

Agricola is one game I wish to play at a serious level. However, there is a curious absence in strategy articles with respect to it: the way in which certain decisions either increase or reduce the space in which a player can perform (both in the sense of possible in-game actions available to perform, and in the sense of the range of table talk and body language a player can use to manipulate his or her opponents). Playing a card from hand is necessary to gain its benefit – but there has been little comment on how this action also has a cost in terms of exposing a player’s goals.

This may be true with respect to strategy articles about other games too. It is simple to calculate how much food, say, the Berry Picker has granted a player in a particular game of Agricola. Or how much use a particular building in Caylus attracts, and how much direct reward it grants its owner. It is, by extension, relatively simple to calculate how much food, on average, the Berry Picker gives in different games with different numbers of players. One could then rank the cards on broadly this basis – as I believe has happened.

Working out what options a move denies a player is an entirely more complex business. This side of the equation is, I think, very much under-considered. But, while it may be essentially impossible to trace, that does not mean it should be ignored, with respect to Agricola or any other game.

That pesky farming game

That pesky farming game (Photo by Tony Bosca)

In Agricola, the three most revered cards tend to be the occupations Taster, Lover and Wet Nurse. The latter two in particular must be played early to be valuable. Because of this, they quickly limit a player’s flexibility.

I will not argue that these occupations are not strong. The Taster is particularly powerful. In that it lets a player jump ahead in the turn order with his or her first worker for a small payment of food, It takes much of its potency from the fact it is essentially unblockable; there is no means by which its owner can be prevented from having first choice of action whenever he or she values this sufficiently to pay for it.

The other two are also potent, but do leave more opportunity for opponents to counter them. The Lover costs a not inconsiderable four food to play, but allows its possessor to immediately claim a new family member, even without space in his or her farm. The card is valued for allowing very early family growth, giving the person who played it an advantage in actions through the opening stages of the game. But, in that so much food must be spent by the player in question, his or her survival at the next harvest can be dicey, and can be made punitively taxing with a little targeted play.

The Wet Nurse, meanwhile, allows a player to expand his or her family at the same time as expanding his or her house (thus saving actions and sparing the need to compete for the  highly-contested family growth action space). It too tends to be of the greatest utility earlier in the game – therefore exposing the individual who played the card. If he or she does advance through this gambit, the gains are clear to all other players.

In short a card which must be revealed early to be of value stands to be as much a curse as it is a blessing.

What then, to make of a card like the Hide Farmer? Its power is solely connected with end-of-game scoring; it allows a player to pay one food per unused space in his or farm in order to prevent these spaces attracting the minus points they would normally. Now deceased Agricola card reviewing site, Agricola DEconSTRUCTED (I don’t get the point of the eccentric capitalization), suggested that ‘converting food on 1:1 basis for VP is awesome,’ heralding this aspect of the card, but then it ultimately awards the card a mark of 4/10.

This, I think, rather misses the point. The Hide Farmer allows a player to intentionally leave unused spaces on his or her farm, knowing they needn’t yield negative points. It oughtn’t, ideally, to be used to mop up the results of sloppy play, but to liberate a player to pursue an extreme strategy. I can largely avoid the ever-fraught contests to collect wood for fences, and invest more in potentially lucrative (and useful) major or minor improvements.

What is more, I can, with the right gloss and demeanour, do this without looking to my opponents like too serious a threat. An opponent familiar with the card manifest might have suspicions, but, I would say, these could usually be defused. And then, one finds oneself able to pursue one’s direction, the victim of little or no intentional obstruction.

Being able to hide one’s success is difficult to value in concrete terms – which is why I believe it to be undervalued, in this game and in others. In this case, it might mean that opponents let that bit more stone stack up before swooping, choosing instead an option that hurts a more openly successful player. One’s neighbour to the right might be that bit more ready to play a minor improvemment which has to be passed on to me. I might not be blocked so readily from becoming starting player.

The same is also true of the Yeoman Farmer – which lets a player escape minus points for not accumulating any of a particular crop or animal, and for not building fields or pastures. In his card by card review of Agricola‘s occupations, Alex Chen writes that ‘If you’re playing decently, he shouldn’t be worth more than 2 points.’ I guess I must disagree – if you’re playing decently, the Yeoman Farmer will inevitably be worth more than two points (if it weren’t, you most probably wouldn’t even play it from your hand, after all). The card can look poor in terms of the points it directly yields, but in terms of how it may distort an opponent’s perception, its value is potentially considerable, and undoubtedly immeasurable.

In a sense, many strategy articles which have been influential seem to lose sight of the fact that they address games which involve multiple players attempting to read and manipulate a system. In short, they mistake the economic structure around which a game rotates for the game itself. Knowing, broadly, the relative worth of wood, reed, stone and clay in Agricola is no small part of knowing what’s going on, but it’s the barest beginning of knowing what really constitutes the game and how to win at it.

A large part of Agricola exists in distorting what other players perceive to be your needs with respect to each resource, and taking advantage of that distortion. Bulldozer wins – establishing an early lead other players cannot restrain – exist, but are rare. In that most Agricola strategy articles I’ve come across have begun and ended with identifying the perfect storm of cards which might allow this barnstorming approach to succeed, there’s an awful lot of game that’s yet to adequately be covered.

3 thoughts on “Agricola, and Assessing the Value of Moves Untaken

  1. Pingback: Agricola Strategy Article – Painted Wooden Cubes

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

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

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