Life of Pi: First Plays with the Latest Agricola Deck

The Agricola π deck, a mini-expansion composed of 12 occupation and 12 minor improvement cards, was released at Essen this year. When the deck appeared in the Board Game Geek store earlier this month, I decided to take a chance on it. I’m no completist, and do not have any other Agricola expansion decks, but a promo can offer a neat way to dabble with something new.

I was not entirely sure what to expect. The artwork on the cards of the π deck suggests it constitutes a toy primarily for the Play Agricola community who designed its cards: the illustrations, even those for minor improvements, feature portraits of the designers, as well as their friends and relatives. In particular, Angry Duck and Retirement appear to constitute in-jokes from which the player not involved with Play Agricola cannot help but feel excluded. Likewise, the family portraits on the Alchemist and the Fertility Shrine are alienating.

Anyway, on Friday my order turned up in the post, and on Saturday I had my first chance to play with the new cards, using them in two three-player games. In the first of those we used six of the seven occupations in the π deck suitable for play with three or less (the remaining one, the Altruist, looked as if it would demand very unorthodox play from its possessor, and therefore we opted not to include it in this instance). We dealt two of these occupations to each player, along with two new minor improvements each. The remainder of cards were a mix of the standard E, I and decks. In the second game, we played with occupations from the base game, together with the remaining six new minor improvements, again giving two to each player.

The first game offered me the Alchemist and the Chisel Maker, along with the Meeting Post and the Fertility Shrine. None of these seemed to constitute a card around which I could build a strategy, nor did any of these cards particularly contribute to creating a killer combination in this instance. In a sense, I was pleased that this was the case. Expansion elements which make themselves heard by overpowering elements of the base game may speak loudly, but seldom sweetly.

In the end, the only occupation I played was the Schnaps Distiller from the K deck. I did, however, play the Meeting Post early in the game. Though I partly played it for a cheap victory point (one wood for one point), the public pool of occupations which the card opens up contributed a fair amount to my enjoyment of this particular game. One opponent kept voicing a desire to recruit the Seed Seller which the other had contributed to the pool. Was it bluff, or was it sincere? It didn’t seem to suit his strategy this game. Would there be any compelling reason to nab the card myself? I decided against doing so, and so did my opponent. However, even though the occupation pool had had little direct impact upon the outcome of this particular game, it stimulated a more dynamic, nuanced form of interaction than Agricola normally musters.

As it transpired, only one new occupation was played by any of us: the Footman. Its power to reserve spaces in order to activate them later was, however, never used too speculatively – largely to grab sowing spaces before having a crop to sow. However, the possessor of the Footman – the eventual winner of the game – suggests even using the card in this way made him tense.

In the second game, I received the Pitchfork and the Shelter in the Field. The Pitchfork seemed tempting, if only for the amount of actions it might provoke my opponents to spend in blocking the reed space. The Shelter in the Field, by contrast, felt more like part of a potential Plan B than a card I would begin the game intending to use. Neither, however, turned out to be part of my game this time. I certainly didn’t need a back-up plan: the gambit of collecting an early fireplace paid off with a handsome meal of sheep, this providing me with a base from which to build a lead over my opponents which was never bridged.

However, Spars and the Gardener’s Bothy did see successful play by my respective opponents, one of whom also enjoyed building a diamond of fields to satisfy the Landscape Design improvement, even if the point yield of doing so was low. It, like many other cards in this deck, offered a side quest to pursue which added to the regular Agricola experience, rather than diluting it. A couple of cards are too situational to imagine they’ll see a great deal of play, but nonetheless the π deck is made up of cards I’m happy to mix in with the others I own, and which I look forward to investigating further.

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