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My Favorite Solo Board Games of 2020: #4, Agricola

Agricola

A game by Uwe Rosenberg

Lookout Games.

BGG listing.

She looked out the window of her stone house at the fields bathed in the soft amber glow of sunset, and at her children coming home with their arms full of sheaves of wheat, and with smiles on their ruddy cheeks, and her husband not far behind, his stride tired but confident, leading a cow back from pasture. Her heart was full.

But there was just one thing, one trifle of a thing that bothered her about this otherwise wonderful and patient man with whom she had chosen to spend the rest of her life, and she told herself that in the morning, she would finally take him aside, and point out how the cow in her living room simply took up too much space.

Agricola meeples
Sometimes it’s OK to have a cow in your house.

What a delightful game this is. I must confess that a big reason for that delight must be Agricola’s evocation of some long-buried childhood memory of playing with little sheep and little cows and little pigs and little wooden fences.

Agricola player board
My farm at the end of a game, as seen from above: five fields, pastures, and a four-room house.

My delight comes also from the satisfaction at the end of the game of looking at my farm and my animals and my house and see what I had created. The fact that I call it “my” farm and “my” animals says a lot; I’m looking at my shelf of board games right now and can’t think of a game where I use the same possessive pronouns. (My mechs? My investigators? My mage knight? It’s just not the same.)

What is Agricola about? You are a family of two workers at the start of the game, with fields to sow, vegetables to harvest, stones to quarry, cattle and sheep to purchase and breed. Among many other things. Victory is achieved by having the most points from the resources you acquire.

The fact that you only have two workers means you pretty much only have two actions. The range of those actions is fairly small in the beginning: you can fish, you can cultivate a field, you can purchase sheep, et cetera, but since you draw different action cards every turn to add to the tableau before you, the options increase. You can do whatever you want—as long as you have enough food to feed your workers at the end of every season.

It’s this feeding aspect that gives Agricola, its placid bucolic setting notwithstanding, something of an edge. I take that back; sometimes it’s positively nerve-wracking. At the end of the first season, you are required to have 6 food to feed your workers (for the solo game), and depending on the order of the action cards you draw at the beginning of each turn, you either have a food-generating engine going, or you don’t. The latter is far more likely, so both workers inevitably take the Day Laborer space (granting you 2 food) combined with the Fishing space (usually 4 by the end of the first round) to acquire the necessary food.

At this point you don’t have the capacity to bake bread yet, but it’ll be tough to survive without it. Baking bread, i.e. making your own food, is ideal, but to do that you would have had to do the following actions beforehand:

  1. acquire grain
  2. acquire enough clay to purchase the clay oven
  3. purchase a clay oven
  4. bake (enough) bread (though this is best done in combination with the sowing grain action to maximize efficiency, but you should also have had to plow land beforehand, a fifth action)

I haven’t tried going straight to breeding sheep, because I would have needed to do the following:

  1. Acquire enough clay to purchase the clay oven
  2. Purchase a clay oven
  3. Acquire wood
  4. Build fences
  5. Build stables (ideally)
  6. Acquire sheep (cooking lamb chops in the oven is a free action, thank goodness).

And then comes the next season, where time is even more compressed, with a steadily decreasing number of rounds per season. By game’s end you only have two rounds each for the later seasons.

So how the heck do you do this when all you have are two workers? The answer is easy: you grow your family and get a third worker, and a fourth. But you can’t do that until you’ve added a room to your house (and all the necessary resource gathering that goes with it) and then you also have to feed that third worker, so your food requirements increase at the end of the season.

Agricola cards
See the Animal Tamer card in the middle? That lets me keep animals in the house for extra points, instead of eating them for food.

There are ways of getting around these constraints. You can construct so-called improvements like cooking hearths and ovens to generate more food from grain, for instance. Some action spaces (and improvement cards) allow you to do two actions at a time, so you do what you can to be more efficient with the limited number of actions you have per round.

It’s sneaky, this game. At first it lulls you into thinking that success comes in finding synergies between different occupation and minor improvement cards. (though they’re not as important as you think they might be, i.e. you don’t want to shift all your tactics around acquiring these cards). 

Oh, the synergies are there all right—but the extra steps necessary to acquire them may not be worth the final outcome. (I’ve learned this the hard way, in my earliest games: it can sometimes take up to three rounds—the first to acquire the necessary materials, the second to acquire the cards, and the third to actually use the cards—at which point almost a quarter of the game is over, and you’ve blown it all on this one cool card combination you end up using once.) It’s this constant risk-reward calculation that makes this game of economic efficiency so rewarding. There’s no currency in this game; your actions are the currency, and you must spend them as efficiently as possible.

So yes, there’s this certain level of stress simmering beneath its idyllic surface, one where the player has to manage all these different variables and work towards building up resources and points and feed your family at the end of the season. It all seems somewhat complicated, but the rules actually hit my sweet spot of “easy to learn, hard to master.” All the awards it won back in 2003 can’t be wrong.

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