Worker Wednesday – Agricola

agricolaThe second most asked question since I started Worker Wednesday has easily been, “Brian, when will you look at Agricola?” preluded only by, “Worker Placement games? Really how long can you keep that going?” Today we will address the first of those two questions.

Released: 2007
Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
Plays: 1-5
EPT: 30-180 minutes

I have intentionally postponed my review of Agricola for one prime reason; I wanted a palate cleanser before the review. I will go into more details on that later, but up until recently my last experience with the game was far less than idea leaving a bad taste in my mouth; did my recent re-experience change that? You’ll have to stick around… or scroll down… and see.

Just about everyone who is active in the gaming hobby has, at the very least, heard of Argricola even if they haven’t played it. The game is famous for a few things; using worker placement very well, forcing you to feed your workers at the cost of your goods, and making players have near panic attacks at the end of each round.

Previously I looked at Agricola’s spiritual successor Caverna; which scored an 8 out of 10. In that blog I went into great detail looking at the mechanics of the game and detailing how the game played. Agricola follows many of the same rules as Uwe’s 2013 follow up, understandably so as this is the game that laid the groundwork for it; if you would like a deeper explanation of the rules, then I would recommend jumping over to that blog; for the rest of us, let us do a brief overview of how the game works.

Agricola sets each player as a farmer working a plot of land with a workforce of 2. The players use their 2 workers to collect resource, build fences, plow fields, and gather food. Players have the option of focusing their farm on either livestock or produce; though at the end of the game players lose points for missing aspects of their farm while they gain points for farm diversity. This end game scoring forces players to attempt to spread their focus across the various industries. After each round a new card is revealed on the play area increasing the options for worker placement. Every few rounds players hit a harvest phase in which they reap their fields, breed their animals, and feed their families.

The game partners worker placement with minor hand management. Players are given occupations as well as minor improvements which they can play from their hand when placing their workers on a corresponding space. Often these cards will aid them in certain aspects of running their farm and have the potential to lead the player to a specific focus. There are additional cards, major improvements, that players can purchase later in the game when certain card spaces are revealed.

This clever merging of worker placement and hand management is quite clever. The limit of 2 workers at the start of the game is equally intriguing as often players start with 2 to 3 times that many workers. Uwe manages to keep the starting player count low without cutting of the game’s pace by splitting the harvest phase between multiple rounds thus letting players still have 4-6 actions between harvests; this also allows a player to go on the same place multiple times between harvest or multiple players to use the same space between harvests. As the game progresses and as more cards are added to the play area opening more actions players have the ability of growing their families; though to do so they must build more rooms on their house; until the very late game when a space permits gaining new workers without the need of space.

The game is paced quite well as the game starts with a limited number of options which players can become familiar with quite quickly. Then as new locations are added they are not difficult to integrate into the player’s strategies. Analysis paralysis is still an issue that will be faced and there are thus certain friends I do not think I would bring Agricola out to play with as the game could easily take 180+ minutes. With a decent player count and decisive players, however, downtime is minimal and thus frequent engagement is optimized.

The player mats, cards, and boards are well designed and have the traditional euro game dryness which while not overly exciting fits the game’s theme and does not distract players from the game’s mechanics. There are plenty of little wooden bits, however, that could benefit from improvement. The small colored discs serve their purpose but lack the chance to add to the theme; there are great packs players can buy, if they desire, that replace these discs with wooden pieces that look like wheat, wood, stone, and the like.

When I first played Agricola I had been aware of the game for some times and was intrigued by the game and curious to try it. This was well before I had begun to enjoy worker placement, however, and the dry theme and dry art style was unapealing to me. The player teaching the game, far more experience than the rest of us, did little in terms of explaining strategy and failed to adequately explain end game scoring. The game took a while and many of us players spent the entire first half confused. When we finally got our understanding the player teaching the game had established a firm lead that was difficult for us to catch up with leading him to drastically destroy us all. A few of us opted for a second game, having developed some strategies we could use from the outset. The game started well until a couple players suffered the frequent stolen space; these players, rather than roll with the punches made it their goal to hinder the other player’s ability to progress as needed and feed their families. The game quickly deteriorated from an attempt to use the spaces available to make an engine that would lead to victory into a mere game of forcing each other to take poor positions just out of spite. This experience led me to a nearly 3 year avoidance of Agricola.

After becoming more familiarized with worker placement games and finding the inherent joy in the mechanic as opposed to the theme I found a growing desire to give Agricola a second chance; after a year of non-opposition, but rather non-opportunity or passing on the chance due to the presence of AP players, the game finally reached my table.

The game was designed intentionally to give me a new refreshed look; I was sure to have players I knew would not fall into the ‘take-that’ mindset but would rather continue to pursue the game’s victory more so than frivolous revenge. The players count was also limited to 3, both experience with worker placement and neither AP prone. The experience was a complete 180 difference from my prior attempt. The stress of the game was still present as I was forced to decide between gathering food or building fences, expanding my family or gathering wood, building a stove or becoming a fisherman. The harvest phases still forced me to convert out pet cow Chester into dinner, and spaces I needed were taken by others. The game was fantastic; and I am now ready to make the game one I would play much more often; sadly it only took 8 years for the game to get to this point due to a bad experience.

Which sadly still lingers in my mind; a game that can provide two experiences so drastically different is still worrying. The teach at my first play was expecting us all to love the game and spoke highly of it; his poor teaching, the poor player attitudes, and more frequent than not Analysis Paralysis killed the enjoyment. Thus I recommend Agricola with hesitation. Before bringing the game to the table; think about the players, are they AP prone? Will they succomb to trivial revenge seeking? Or do they understand the nature of Worker Placement and the resulting lack of options that will force players to take spaces other players wanted? Can they adapt to the various strategies that will arise as choices fork leading them down different paths?

With the right group of gamers Agricola is a great game, with the wrong group, however, it is 90-180 minutes you will never get back. The variance in the experience thus give the game a 7.25 out of 10; a good game, but one that needs the stars to align for it to shine.
Visuals – 1.5 // 2
Skill/Luck – .5 // 1
Pacing – 1.5 // 2
Theme/Immersion – 1.5 // 2
Mechanics – .75 // 1
Fun Factor 1.5 // 2

Come back for Wild Card Thursday when I look at Gloom. Until then you can find us on social media and let us know what you think of Agricola and what other games you think we should take a look at!
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