Bright and Beautiful?: A Review of Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

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).

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

A prototype in play at Nürnberg, photographed by Daniel Danzer. The released version is only slightly different – with slightly thicker card, and one action space changed (I am between cameras at the moment, so excuse the lack of my own photography, splendid as it is)

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.

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

The prototype again. Fences in the final release are yellow, rather than white. Also, though buildings can serve as borders for pastures, the edges of a player board cannot, so the sheep field in the centre of this picture is not closed as it should be. But it’s a nice looking photo nonetheless

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.

Raucous River Rapid Rascalry: A Review of Fast Flowing Forest Fellers

Friedemann Friese’s own account of the origin of his river-rapid racing game Fast Flowing Forest Fellers does not exactly speak of the product of a moment of revelation. ‘I had the idea of making a race game,’ he writes, ‘with totally different boards and a simple mechanic.’  No individual part of that idea is especially novel, and nor is the combination. Formula Dé and Roborally, the most celebrated of the many predecessors of Fast Flowing Forest Fellers, are both mechanically simple racing games, and are each playable over multiple courses (Formula Dé in particular boasts a phenomenal amount of extra tracks available as expansions). Each game predates Fast Flowing Forest Fellers by many years (Fast Flowing Forest Fellers was released in 2008, while Formula Dé came out in 1991 and Roborally in 1994).

However, Fast Flowing Forest Fellers improves upon its predecessors in a respect which is easy either to overlook or to under-appreciate: it is much quicker to play. Where Roborally and Formula Dé can each run to well over an hour, even a five-player game of Fast Flowing Forest Fellers should seldom take more than half that time. Given the tactical and strategic simplicity of each of these three games, the brevity of Fast Flowing Forest Fellers is a very important element in its favour; its duration is in better balance with its density.

Forest Fellers in low light (Photo by Roberto Méndez)

This is not to say that there is no capacity for clever play in Fast Flowing Forest Fellers. There is. As in Roborally, a good number of its courses constitute tricksy spatial puzzles: criss-crossed by currents, and littered with logs, getting to the finish fastest is seldom a matter of blitzing straight downriver. Sometimes moving less far, or moving sideways, might be the best option, if it minimizes the chance of being bashed around by logs and other players.

In the game, each player is trying to guide either two or three lumberjacks (depending on the number of players) to the end of the course. The first player who manages to steer all of his or her figures to the end of the course wins. A player’s movement options on any given turn are, however, limited by a personal deck of cards. Each turn a player selects one card from a hand of three, this determining which figure moves, and how far it can move (a card might allow movement one, two, three, four, or five spaces). Unlike in Roborally, these movement cards do not determine direction. Whichever card is selected, a figure is allowed to move upriver, downriver, or sideways, and could even double back on itself. In order to negotiate logs, and other player’s figures, this range of movement options is often valuable.

Logs appear in vast quantities on some of the game’s boards and are sparse on others, but whether present in large number or not, they tend to create choke points in whatever location they feature. Dealing with them and the problems they create is another of the neat innovations offered by Fast Flowing Forest Fellers. They let the game feel cluttered and anarchic, as it should, even with a lower number of players.

The logs can be pushed, as can other players figures, though only in the direction a figure is travelling (i.e. they cannot be swept aside). This means that removing obstructions tends to mean spending valuable movement points getting to the side of a log. In this lies a neat way to keep players close to one another. Any figure well ahead of the others is likely to lose a good deal of its advantage in clearing logs (which will then pose less trouble to players behind).

A player who has drawn many of his or her best cards early might feel irked by having to do this work, but it is important for the game as an experience that players should be close to one another: after all, the primary pleasure in Fast Flowing Forest Fellers is not in pushing around dead trees, but in pushing around other players. Watching a log thwart a rival has nothing on the joy of getting in his or her way yourself.

Lots of logs in Fast Flowing Forest Fellers

Lots of logs in Fast Flowing Forest Fellers. The logs will trouble the leading figures more than those who follow

Currents offer the most potential for mischief. Any figure or log which ends a turn on a current space will be carried in a given direction. Often, this means a trip back upriver. Many boards are designed to allow chain reactions, where a series of figures can push one another onto consecutive current spaces. Thus, one need not always pick a particular friend to pick on: on occasion, one is offered that special pleasure of  screwing over all of one’s friends at once. It is, need I say it, quite delightful when this works out. The design of the game boards (there are six, all double-sided, two of which are chosen each game to form the course) is such that messing with multiple rivals is frequently possible.

Spotting this kind of opportunity to interfere with others can sometimes take a little thought: comparing the possible effect of one series of shunts to another does take a certain amount of imaginative effort. But that’s to the benefit of the game, in my view. Sometimes the way one might intervene with other players is entirely obvious at first glance, but sometimes not. Perhaps once or twice a game you’ll end your turn celebrating your own cunning, having seen a chance for awkwardness which escaped everyone else’s attention. In half an hour, I need a game to give me some potential to feel a sense of achievement.

In temperance, however, it should be said that in most cases it is possible for players to irk one another, but not to be downright infuriating. A couple of boards have very long currents running upriver, but in most cases a nudge might only set a player back two or three spaces. Also, any player aiming to win will often find himself or herself pushing opponents downriver: because the river gets crowded, it’s often necessary to advance another player in order to improve your own position. To win, it stands to reason you can’t spend all your time knocking everyone else sideways.

That interaction with other players comes in the form of alternating help and hindrance makes Fast Flowing Forest Fellers a fair old hoot to play. There will be begging, there will be gloating, there will be cackling. There will be times where you are presented with straight choices, where you must help one or another player, or must hurt one or another. Other racing games might also spawn such situations during the course of a game, particularly those racing games of the Roborally ilk, but Fast Flowing Forest Fellers maintains this kind of interaction throughout its length in a way its predecessors typically do not. It might not be that much is new, but it represents a beautifully engineered chaos.

Hands Up: A Review of Famiglia

I am often struck by the diversity of the output of many of the foremost designers of board and card games. There’s not overtly much that ties, say, the behemoth of resource conversion, Ora et Labora, to the gender-stereotype party game, The Difference Between Women and Men, but yet they share Uwe Rosenberg as a designer. The same figure who concocted the phenomenally hefty fantasy game Mage Knight, Vlaada Chvátil, also came up with the very, very throw-away rabbit-impersonation game, Bunny Bunny Moose Moose.

It’s great, of course, if designers feel they can follow through with ideas of any flavour: long may board game culture be one with celebrates (or at leasts permits) this.

Nevertheless, there is a flipside. Imagine, say, becoming keen on a band on the back of a first album of raw garage rock, only to learn for their next they’ll be trying out polished electro-pop. One might admire the boldness, one may well be interested in hearing the results, but one would also have the right to be suspicious: the two styles are rather different to master, and the assumption that the same group would have a command of both would be a dubious one.

The world of board games is one in which many designers are this eclectic (or more). Therefore, it’s not realistic to suppose that because I’ve enjoyed one or two games by a given designer I’ll necessarily be likely to like other games he or she has created. I cannot just look at the name on the box: I have to go beyond it.

Of course, this said, some of game design’s more versatile figures do have recognizable strands within their work. Rosenberg might have a range of party games and family card games to his name, but his big box ‘harvest’ games – particularly Agricola, Le Havre and Ora et Labora – share a great many common features.

And then there’s Friedemann Friese. For the taxonomist, his work is incredibly diverse: whether classifying by weight, by mechanisms, or by game length, the spectrum of his work is broad.

Nevertheless, there is a certain comprehensibility to his games as a body of work. Partly, this is cosmetic: his lengthy partnership with artist Maura Kalusky helps to make his games recognisable, while his fondness for the letter ‘F’ and the colour green also serves to tie the strands of his work together.

Another, less superficial, feature of much of Friese’s work is the employment of wobbly, crooked systems the rigidity of which players cannot help but test in the course of playing his games. Network-building game Power Grid and its numerous expansions all offer maps with unequal concentrations of cities: there’s a game of chicken within the wider game, in which a player’s courage is tested – will he or she boldly try to hustle it out in more immediately desirable areas, or will he or she be more cautious and try to build up a network in an isolated area and hope this means little competition. The game is imbalanced if its players allow it to be – if a player beelines for an area with lots of cheap connections, he or she must be stopped by other players, because the game will not do that work for them (though the turn-order system does limit the value of an early lead).

Fast Flowing Forest Fellers, a chaotic racing game, works somewhat similarly with respect to the skew-whiff courses it challenges players to race along: there are ostensibly better and worse routes to the finishing line, but taking the better route dares other players to obstruct you.

Famiglia, on the face of it, is different. A two player card game from 2010 about recruiting mafiosi, it is in some respects more structurally symmetrical than those other games. Each player starts with a functionally identical hand of cards – one of the lowest value of each of the game’s four colours (though there is flavour in the fact that the characters on each card have a different name and portrait). Furthermore, each colour in the game is built as a pyramid: there are five cards at level 0, four at level 1, three at level 2, up to one at level 4.

Starting cards in Famiglia

Starting cards.  The numbers at the top represent the level of the card, the number at the bottom is its value in points at the end of the game. Cards for the red family, La Famiglia, are all worth more victory points than others of the same level

Nevertheless, the Friese feeling is here. Famiglia is a twist removed from many other small box card games. Card collection, the crux of the game, is built upon a slightly peculiar process: cards from a central pool, called the street, can be collected (contributing victory points) if a player reveals two cards of the desired colour from his or her hand, each one level below the card to be collected (the exception being level 0 cards, which can be taken without the presentation of any cards). For instance, to claim a level 2 red card, a player should reveal two level 1 red cards. The collected card is added to the players hand, and one of the revealed cards is also returned to it. The other revealed card is placed on the table, in a personal play area. That card cannot then be used to collect new cards.

This strangeness does affect the feeling of playing the game. In that fewer and fewer cards are available at each level of the pyramid, and in that one card is removed from a player’s hand each time another card is collected, progress is stuttering. The rhythm of the game is the juddering one of a more complex Friese machine, like that of Power Grid or Factory Manager.

Initial street in Famiglia

The street at the beginning of a game. For the first few rounds, players can do nothing but claim level 0 cards

Indeed, the central engine of Famiglia is so clunky as to require an extrinsic injection of energy to keep functioning: given that a player must remove a card from his or her hand each time he or she claims one, help is necessary to climb the game’s pyramids.  This comes through the special powers assigned to three of the game’s suits. The green cards, the Mercinaries, can act as wild cards, used to represent any colour, and can also be used as if they were of a lower level. So, a player could claim a level 2 blue card, say, using one blue card of level 1, and a green card of level 2 or above. A yellow card (a Brute), can reduce the value of a card in the street. Blue cards (the Accountants), can be used to exchange hand cards with those in a player’s own play area.

This is enough to keep card collection from sputtering out. Most rounds of Famiglia go the distance (the game ends when almost all of the cards from the street have been collected), rather than terminating earlier through both players hitting dead ends.

These special powers do also generate some reasonably satisfying conundrums. If a level 4 card, with a high number of victory points attached to it, appears, say, midway through the game, it might be possible to collect it – using, perhaps, a combination of yellow and green special powers to facilitate its collection. But the cost of doing so (in expelling important cards from a hand) can make future card collection more troublesome, potentially ceding momentum later on.

Mid-game street and play area in Famiglia

Mid-game street and play area

Each suit, to a moderate degree, also has a stage of the game at which it is more useful – meaning there is room for a degree of strategic thinking. The green mercenaries are helpful to have early on, since just one of them at level 1 or above can make any level 0 odd-or-sod part of a pair. On the other hand, yellow brutes come into their own later, when collecting high value cards becomes more urgent.

But, given how welded on so much of Famiglia feels, it’s hard to escape a sensation of imminent malfunction: the hand a player crafts never really feels like something to glory in, but rather a collection of uncohesive bits and pieces. I know that I should aim to collect the 15-point red level 4 card (the Brando-alike Alberto Negri), but I never quite want to do so because it leaves my hand much diminished in its effectiveness. This is, by the way, a much more pronounced feeling than I have in in playing Dominion (where victory cards tend to be functionless), because then I’m mildly compromising a deck of some size, rather than polluting a hand of perhaps four or five cards.

This unweildiness is reproduced in the game’s demand for table space: as more and more cards are added to each player’s play area, each becomes more sprawling and awkward (the rules are not explicit on this point, but it feels that all play area cards ought to be visible to both players). It’s portable, but doesn’t necessarily make a great travel game.

There’s pleasure to exploring the idiosyncratic, and Famiglia, like other of Friese’s mixed-up oeuvre, provides that. But becoming acquainted with it is like taking on a job as a maintenance worker at the Large Hadron Collider, and finding that it’s all held together by ad hoc welding and improvised electronics: you’re not learning to manage the system, but the fixes to it. From one perspective, that might not be important: if a game works, perhaps it need not matter how. But where the player-provided balancing of many of Friese’s multi-player games generates negotiation and emotion, playing the suit-power sustained Famiglia means the players have no choice but to reproduce the sticky fixes of an absent party, with the disillusionment provoked by conspiring in inefficiency and iffiness. It’s nobody’s fantasy to sustain some half-botched repair job, and because of this, Famiglia is ultimately not fantastic.

Hanging in the Garden: A Review of Amyitis

I want Painted Wooden Cubes to be about games, rather than about me, so I’ve largely resisted providing justification or explanation regarding the games which I review.

However, the material I cover, taken together, might appear to tell its own unbidden story. I just want to intervene to make sure the story which is coalescing  isn’t misleading.

Most of the games I have written about are not fresh new releases. Because of this, there might be the assumption that my goal is to celebrate those games which have resonated with me, whether new or not. That isn’t precisely true. Though a number of the games I have written about are games I love, that in itself is not the reason I’ve felt it valuable to comment on them. What’s more important to me is that I’m well acquainted with a game before I write about it.

And, in that a game collection is more or less unavoidably sculpted in large part by the whims of circumstance – particularly if it is amassed with a spirit of experimentation and exploration, rather than deliberation and trepidation – a number of flawed games can become familiar.

I want, through the process of writing a review, to explore that acquaintance between me, as a player, and the game in question, flawed or not. I believe that when I know a game well, then the game can start to tell me things about myself which it wouldn’t have divulged immediately.

Indeed, this can happen especially with a game I’ve played a number of times but do not entirely love. Amyitis is one example. It has a personality; stubborn, sour sometimes, and a bit terse. But then, how one engages with a difficult encounter has more to say about one’s depth of personality than how one handles a comfortable situation.

Amyitis in play

Amyitis in play (Photo by Scott Kippen)

Amyitis, with a name like a disease, is a sickening sort of number in large part because it overburdens its two neat central mechanisms with an excess of pfaff, though there’s also something infectious about it. It ostensibly concerns the planting of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (the titular Amyitis was the wife of Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who supposedly built the hanging gardens for her) – a novel, fertile idea for a game – but mostly reduced here to the ubiquitous exchange of resources; players collect palm, barley, salt, dates and wine, and aim to trade them for plants for the gardens. For each plant contributed to the gardens a player takes a tile which will provide victory points, and may provide another bonus in addition, such as money.

Of the two main mechanisms which co-exist for selecting actions, one sees players selecting cards with special powers from a common pool. Four types of cards exist, though it is not certain all will be seen in all rounds (with two players six cards are offered, with three players nine cards, and with four, twelve). The peasant card, for instance, allows players to collect goods, while the engineer allows the player to irrigate a section of the gardens.

The twist is that the cards are laid out in blocks of three (not sorted by type). The first card from a block is free to use, the second costs one coin, and the third costs two. Players select cards in turn, and can activate as many in a round as they wish (and can afford). In that money is limited, this makes not only the choice of action important, but also timing. If a block of cards comes out with just peasants, and, for whatever reason, it isn’t a good time for other players to utilize the peasant (if, say, they have more urgent goals), a player might be able to take another action first, and still have a free action waiting when play comes back.

Action cards in Amyitis

Action cards in Amyitis. Activating a card from the top row would be free, one of the two on the middle row would cost a coin, the card in the third row would cost two

This in itself works well. The problem is with amount of added complication to each action. Thus, for instance, using the peasant card does not purely allow a player to take a good. There are two tracks from which goods are chosen, with five spaces each – one for each type of good. A player must take the leftmost available good from either track (marking that he or she took a good with a cube of his or her colour). Wine, it has to be remembered (and explained) is wild.

When a track fills, the player with the most cubes in that track takes a gardener card, helping him or her to plant lower quality plants in the hanging garden. If there is a tie for first place, no bonus is awarded.

All this adds a lot to remember, but little extra in the way of meaningful choice: if I need a good, there are after all of this palaver only two options available (maybe one, if both tracks have the same good on offer). There’s a pretty good chance one will be wine, which it’s pretty much a no-brainer to take (and, on the flipside, if one of the goods on offer isn’t wine, then one of the goods may well occupy the space before wine, meaning you set up your neighbour to claim the wine if you don’t avoid it). The gardener card doesn’t change much in this respect: it’s worth too little to make it a major factor in most decisions.

Instead of selecting an action card, players may activate a space on a rondel. Here goods can be exchanged either for plants (which must immediately be planted in an irrigated section of the gardens – if one isn’t available, then neither is the plant), for cards granting special powers, or directly for victory points. A caravan commonly controlled by all players is moved to a subsequent space by paying a camel token – typically acquired through the merchant action card. Each space requires at least one particular good, and perhaps two, to be activated, so the rondel is employed much less often than the action cards.

Amyitis rondel

The rondel in Amyitis

As the game advances, players can collect caravan cards, which allow them to skip a greater number of cities when moving the caravan. For much of the game, however, there’s not much to be decided on here either; if it’s possible to move the caravan, through having the required good for the next space, it’s usually best to do so. There is an issue of timing again – while card actions get more expensive as a round progresses, moving the caravan doesn’t.  This, though, doesn’t really provoke significant tension; in that one cannot move the caravan without employing the action of the space to which it’s moving, a player must always telegraph a possible movement.

The designer of Amyitis is Cyril Demaegd, whose earlier jewel-collecting number, Ys, I like rather less begrudingly. There’s not necessarily all that much to tie the two games together, however, beyond the very recognizable Ystari artwork featured in each (the artist in question is Arnaud Demaegd, the brother of Cyril). Where Ys is somewhat intricate in its scoring (players simultaneously bid to collect gems, and bid to revalue them), the fundamental gameplay of Ys is very simple: players take turns making one public, and one private bid. Amyitis is arguably simpler in its scoring (though there are a few means to pick up victory points, the primary method is through contributing to the garden), but much more complicated in the playing.

So what is infectious in Amyitis? Its core, for all that obfuscates the fact, is solid. Timing when to select a given action card provokes satisfying rumination, even if the action card itself gives more hassle than genuine choice in its activation. And, while the rondel feels a little peripheral (it’s even on its own small board), it does provide a means by which the immediate utility of a given good can fluctuate which functions well even with just two players.

I so wish a lot of the cruft had been removed from Amyitis before its release; a leaner, fitter, healthier game could have been built upon the same skeleton. But, had Amyitis been such a thing, been a more taut, more efficient composition, it would have communicated something different. When one has to unpack a message, the process of unpacking becomes part of the message in itself. We have, in life, to be ready to deal with meandering and confused communicators as well as smooth speakers. In the way it stubbornly guards the simplicity of its core, Amyitis represents an awkward interlocutor, but one I try to interact with patiently, because it has enough to say to make hearing it out worthwhile.

Inspiration and Calculation: A Review of Innovation

It’s worth noting that this review is of the 2011 Iello version. As well as introducing some great artwork, the Iello edition changes a large amount of terminology from the Asmadi edition. Here, I use exclusively the Iello terminology.

At half an hour in, we’re roughly midway through a two-player game of Innovation, a tableaux-building civilization game by Carl Chudyk, and I’m well behind my opponent. I have less influence, have achieved fewer dominations, and have fewer resources.

It comes to my turn. I could try drawing a card and putting it into play; it might be something I could use in the next turn. But there’s a fair chance the card will be useless to me, given that I lack resources to fuel card effects.

Also, next turn is an age away when my opponent has a potent and versatile tableau in front of her. Her civilization is developing fast.

So I look at the cards I have in play, and their effects. There has to be something there to exploit.

A tableau in Innovation

My tableau. Cards in Innovation are colour-coded, with each colour following a rough theme. For instance, red cards are typically aggressive and militaristic. The pictures around the edges represent a player’s resources. Here, for instance, the player has six light bulbs in the Renaissance. I suppose the icon symbolizes invention as a resource, but it’s a jarring symbol on earlier cards in the game

In Innovation, there are two types actions offered by cards, referred to as dogmas. The first type, supremacy dogmas, affect any opponent with less of a particular resource than the player issuing the dogma. However, trees are the only resource of which I have more than my opponent, and none of my active cards utilizes trees.

The second type of dogma is the cooperative dogma. All players can take advantage of these if they have at least as many of the required resource as the active player. If a player in addition to the active player uses one of these dogmas, then the active player is able to draw an extra card by way of a bonus. Naturally, in a two-player game, it is often best to use cooperative dogmas when holding the majority of a resource, because then you alone can employ the action.

However, this is not always true.

I have Experimentation among my cards. It has a cooperative dogma, which insists that the affected players draw and put into play a card from the fifth era (cards become progressively stronger in each era, reflecting human progress). There is, though, only one card left in the fifth pile. My opponent, who must carry out the dogma first, will take this, meaning that when I use the dogma, I draw and put into play a card from the sixth era instead.

It’s something of a risk, of course: since my opponent has more resources, she will most probably be able to utilize any dogma provided by the card she receives. It’s the kind of speculative experiment that befits a card named ‘Experimentation’ (Other cards also suit their titles in neat, sometimes subtle ways: for instance, Gunpowder effectively knocks down cards with the castle resource, while Globalization later does the same to trees).

My opponent draws, and receives Coal. It’s by no means a bad card, but it replaces Pirate Code among her active cards. And she’s been attacking me with Pirate Code relentlessly since she drew it. I’m glad to see it replaced.

I get Vaccination. It has a supremacy dogma requiring trees. It’s a great result – I can start to attack back, at last. And, because my opponent had to use this dogma, I get another draw. I pull Emancipation. It won’t be immediately useful (I don’t have the resources to exploit it at the moment), but nonetheless I’ll smile and try to kid my opponent that it was exactly the card for which I’d been hoping.

A player mat in Innovation

A player mat. Like Chudyk’s earlier card game, Glory to Rome, cards may, at certain times, be slipped under a player mat to denote the state of a player’s dominion. In Innovation, those on the left represent a player’s influence. Here, the player has ten influence points (three points from one third era card, four from two second era cards, and three from three first era cards). That influence has been used to dominate the first and second eras, denoted by the cards slipped under the right-hand side of the board (the first era may be dominated when a player has five influence points and an active card from at least the first era, the second with ten points and at a card from at least the second era active, and so on). In addition, the military domain has been dominated, through utilizing the second era card, Construction. Enough dominations (how many depends on the number of players), and a player wins

I guess the point is Innovation clicks with me, and with its own title, because it allows for innovation. Opportunities for gaining extra value from a card arise and recede quickly (a recycling action can return cards to the general supply), and spotting these chances is key in playing Innovation well.

While the effect of something like Experimentation might initially appear invariable, it isn’t. Because the supply of cards from any given era can be depleted, its strength can sometimes grow. Similarly, it’s not infrequent that its first era analogue, Sailing (‘Draw and put into play a 1’) can be used, sometimes, to pull cards from the third or fourth eras.

Moreover, in that a player has two actions per turn, combinations can sometimes be exploited. Imagine using one action to recycle a first era card, thereby restarting its supply pile, then using Sailing to force an opponent to take, and activate, the particular outdated card in question (thereby replacing a better card from a later era).

However, while this kind of potential for exploiting flashes of inspiration during brief windows of opportunity may be a hallmark of a fine card game  – which this is, it is a somewhat strange partner to the game’s epoch-spanning civilization-building theme. In that your tableau is unstable, you can lose the benefit of a technology as quickly as you gain it. It’s thematically strange that when you cover Sailing with another green card, you lose that power. It’s not how civilizations advance and weakens immersion in the game.

Printing Press, Innovation

To reveal more resources, piles of cards can be splayed through some dogmas, such as the second one on Printing Press, seen above

Moreover, the volatility of each tableau means that calculating the level of resources you and your opponents possess is a chore which must be repeated many, many times in a single game. And though certain resources are only available on cards of certain periods – for instance, castles only appear on cards from the first three eras – this does not mean they become entirely irrelevant later in the game. One reason is that  a player may dominate the military domain when he or she has three of each resource visible in his or her zone – meaning castles may stay a concern long after their real power fades. It’s the kind of game where better players must be not only quick-thinking, but also more attentive accountants. Because of these bureaucratic elements, Innovation is best played with two, or perhaps three players. With every player added, book-keeping escalates and control diminishes.

Nevertheless, Innovation is in general a tremendously likeable, multi-dimensional and nuanced game. In particular, the potential for cards to surpass the overt limits of their power allows for splendidly nifty moments, and gives a pleasing reward for quick-wittedness. Though the moment-by-moment gameplay of Innovation fits uncomfortably with the game’s theme in certain respects, control does ebb and flow between players in a way that reproduces in miniature the swoops of history. In moments of inspiration, it is possible to claw back from bleak situations, as above. What is more (as W. Eric Martin’s review after nearly two hundred plays argues) this potential for innovative play stays, even after a great number of plays.

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.