I play regular Agricola a lot with two; the key elements which make the game as good as it is are all in place in one-one-one play. The pleasure in seeing your farm develop, and the potential for improvement and occupation cards to power novel play are undiminished in this format.
What is more, the stress of second-guessing which action spaces might appeal to a single opponent is, in some senses, sharper than the possible tension with more players involved: with more players, one is pushed to be opportunistic – grabbing a big haul of resources whenever possible, aware one opponent or another would almost certainly use the action space in question otherwise. Working out who exactly is seldom a credible prospect, and often would not be worth the effort if it were. With two, by contrast, it is both more feasible, and more necessary, to attempt to read your opponent’s needs. It might be possible, say, to leave a large pile of wood to collect next turn, if there is evidence your opponent sees a more pressing need to collect sheep.
The fact that there is no means to acquire stone before round five at the earliest – that is, without the possible assistance of occupations or minor improvements – does make the two-player experience distinct. In that both ovens require stone, this particularly affects the viability of strategies based on baking bread. Perhaps this means a hand of cards oriented towards building and using ovens is tougher to work with in two-player. That’s not really been my own experience, however.
Anyway, with all this in mind, I hadn’t been falling over myself to try Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, the two-player only iteration of Agricola released earlier this year. However, a friend has been good enough to lend me a copy. I’ve played four times over the past couple of weeks. I’d usually be keen to play more before attempting to put a review together, but I can’t keep the game forever.
The first thing to get out of the way is that the name clangs. It’s irksome to be pushed into mangling the phrase ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ in order to speak of this game. It suggests a lack of attention to detail, and, a lack of aesthetic sensibility. The responsibility lies, I assume, with translator Patrick Korner, rather than designer Uwe Rosenberg, but it is nevertheless to the detriment of Z-Man Games’ English language edition of the game that it should make the awkward first impression it does.
That gripe expressed, it would also be remiss not to mention the seeming cynicism in the recent release of the More Buildings Big and Small expansion, only six months after the base game. Composed of 27 new special building tiles – four of which are to be drawn randomly to be used in any given game, it constitutes the only official means to inject variability into the game. It is hard to imagine these tiles (which retail for a frankly indecent RRP of £12 in the UK) had not been devised at the time the base game was released, and could not have been included with it for a modest increase in price. I haven’t had a chance to play with More Buildings Big and Small, and therefore won’t be reviewing it here, but I do feel compelled to express the dismay its release arouses in me.
In itself, though, Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small does much to please and little to offend. A game consumes roughly half the amount of time a two-player game of standard Agricola takes, making playing on a weekday evening a more comfortable possibility. The inclusion of animeeples as standard also makes it that little sweeter on the surface than its big brother.
All Creatures Big and Small essentially condenses the Agricola experience into one of animal rearing and rustling. There are no crops, there’s no family growth, and there’s no need to feed one’s workers. It’s just a matter of yoinking sheep, cows, horses and pigs from the wild, and using resources to fence pastures and build stalls and stables: these can all become crowded to indecent extremes – up to ten horses could live in one small stable, if it has a drinking trough in place. The resulting process of stacking little wooden horses on top of little wooden horses offers a fun distraction as a dexterity game, though it does sit at odds with the fluffy, family-fun feel of the game at large (cardboard multiplier tokens can substitute for large numbers of animals, though this is something of a cop-out, and doesn’t really remove the feel that animals are being kept in less than savoury conditions).
There’s also no individual hand of cards in All Creatures Big and Small. All options are equally open to both players, and no information is hidden. The result, I’ve found, is that certain key decisions can be much tougher to make in All Creatures Big and Small than any given decision in regular Agricola might be. Reasoning between taking a clutch of wood or of stone, one might let one’s cards steer the decision in standard Agricola, but here that isn’t an option. The impact of a given decision is more calculable, meaning there’s more potential to be lost in thought. Things are over more quickly because there are less turns in a game, but do not expect to be substantially less taxed in that time.
I do not feel well placed to make assertions about how similar one game of All Creatures Big and Small will eventually start to feel to the next. In my four games, I’ve ended up a couple of times with my animals spread across large pastures, a couple of times with them cramped in overcrowded stalls and stables. These, I guess, will be the major flavours of experience the game provides – a dense, stall-oriented farm, or a more open, pasture-oriented farm.
None of the four special buildings included with the base game (all of which are on offer every game, from the beginning) feels as though it would have a major role in shaping the taste of a particular game. The storehouse – which gives victory points for resources possessed at the end of the game – is the most particular, and could theoretically be the engine of an extreme strategy, but it is hard to imagine that one could overcome giving one’s opponent the chance to collect a significantly higher amount of animals.
Nevertheless, because fences are relatively costly, it seems to be seldom an option to build a large amount at once, meaning they tend to be built in ad hoc arrangements to meet immediate needs. At this stage, it does not seem that standard maximally efficient layouts could plausibly come to dominate play, given that allowing the time to let resources accrue would mean failing to address short-term needs.
Thus, All Creatures Big and Small provides tough decisions turn-by-turn, but in a smaller strategic space than that of regular Agricola. In that it’s a more comfortable fit for an evening, there is justifiable reason for a person who owns and enjoys standard Agricola to also own this, even considering how well the original game works with two. To add in the new building expansion would take All Creatures Big and Small close to the price of the eminently heftier original game, which would rankle, but would probably be worthwhile to give the condensed iteration legs.
However, I’m not personally planning to buy All Creatures Big and Small having had the chance to try it – much though I’ve enjoyed experimenting with it. As it stands, I typically play regular Agricola a couple of times a month, and that’s probably enough of the system for me. In trade, or on special offer it could yet tempt me.