Agricola: the board game

Sometimes you just need a huge, complicated board game. Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola is a game that is difficult to learn and harder to master, but doing so creates enormous satisfaction; its appeal lies in its complexity.

Agricola is about as realistic a simulation of a medieval farm as it is possible for a board game to be, without getting unpleasantly close to manure. The rules are quite complicated and I won’t go into them here, but the essence of the game is to allocate your farm workers to tasks which either gather resources or spend them improving your farm. Each task can only be allocated once per turn, creating fierce competition for the task cards. However as the game progresses, new tasks are made available which alleviates the pressure somewhat. At various points, your clan of farm workers will require feeding, so you have to keep one eye on your food resources while attempting to expand your farm.

Though it is mainly focused on resource allocation, the narrative of farm life is carefully woven into the game. You must build new rooms in your house before new workers can be born, showing that the family is expanding as it matures. Fields must be ploughed and sewed before bread can be baked. Each section starts with a spring breeding season when your animals multiply, and ends with the autumn harvest when your family must be fed. The story is subtle but ever-present as your farm grows from a few wooden rooms into a medieval manor house with its own livestock, kitchens, grain fields and vegetable patches. The game is beautifully designed, with hundreds of cards and small wooden counters.

There are a host of occupations, minor and major improvements, food and building resources that players need to keep track of to avoid ruin when it comes to totalling up the scores at the end. Great attention is paid to every detail of medieval farm life. A range of building improvements and hired hands are available for your farm; there is a card for every occupation from a basket weaver or stone mason, to traveling players or a pastor. Similarly your farm can have an outhouse, a stone oven, a duck pond, a clay pit and so on. Serious time and effort has gone into including as much medieval farm iconography into Agricola as possible and making it all work within the game mechanic.

One of my favourite aspects of the game is that so many of these cards are exceptions to almost every Agricola rule. Even failing to feed your family at a harvest can be cleverly reversed using the right combination of minor improvements and occupations. The sheer number of cards in Agricola means that there are no certainties and that no two games are ever alike. The key skill Agricola encourages in its players is efficiency in the allocation of tasks, in other words getting as much done in as few moves as possible. The scarcity of task cards means that when you do allocate a worker, the move must accomplish as much as possible. Many of the cards allow you to do two things at once, such as expand your house and build a minor improvement. When you choose a task you must make it work for at least two strands of your long term strategy. Similarly the game teaches you to always have a backup plan, as the task you want to allocate will often be snatched by the player before you.

All of this multitasking is geared towards making your farm as diverse as possible, and so are the many-pronged strategy and the backup planning. When scoring time comes at the end of a game, points are allocated for how many different types of animals and crops you have. Specialising in cattle will only take you so far and the points deducted for the areas of the game you did not explore will offset any bovine benefits. Only a diverse, rainbow farm will secure the player a winning score.

Agricola is not perfect; the competition for task spaces can create a perverse incentive whereby blocking the strategies of others is better than advancing your own. This leads to games of stifled growth and tit-for-tat plan-stumping where mutual cooperation would perhaps be better, or at least more fun. This aside, Agricola is the most fun it is possible to have when indoors, wearing a dressing gown, and pretending to be a farmer. If you like your games long, complex, and with an edge of realism, look no further than Uwe Rosenberg’s masterpiece.