19 September 2023
Harvest the rewards of Uwe Rosenberg’s magnificent farming Euro and let it worker-place its way into your heart, we look back on the ever popular board game Agricola.
What is Agricola?
“The 17th century: not an easy time for farming.” So proclaims the tagline for Agricola, and it’s a philosophy to which Uwe Rosenberg’s 2007 masterwork holds true. Players are dropped into the worn-out boots of European farmers scraping a living in the remnants of the bubonic plague, trying to expand their homestead as they plant and harvest vegetables, raise animals for food or sale, and widen their family with children. (How many other game manuals have a section literally entitled “Family Planning”?)
Still, this is Uwe Rosenberg we’re talking about, so the evocative theme ultimately takes a backseat to the finely crafted Euro gameplay. Agricola is Rosenberg working at what many consider to be the height of his design powers, offering up a complex worker-placement buffet for players to feast upon. (Rosenberg is very much the king of themes about reaping – and eating – what you sow, as later titles Caverna: The Cave Farmers, A Feast for Odin and more will prove.) Players start in a modest wooden shack and, action by action, slowly build up the resources needed to develop their estate, maintaining their crops and breeding animals to keep their family fed and save towards improvements to their house and land. Players’ farmers can also personally improve themselves, learning valuable occupation lessons in their pursuit of the most victory points by the time the game’s 14 rounds come to their conclusion.
As well as collecting the prestigious 2008 Kennerspiel des Jahres for being the ‘Expert Game of the Year’, Agricola has been inundated with plaudits and acclaim in the decade since it debuted. Even today, it remains a permanent fixture at the top of many players’ all-time lists and is frequently cited as one of the pinnacles of hobby gaming as a result of its detailed simulation of farming life, deft interweaving of theme and gameplay, and the number of different ways its various interlocking systems can play out – making every rematch as awe-inspiring as your first.
What are you trying to do in Agricola?
Agricola is essentially a game of rags to riches: players start with very little and aim to attain the most wealth and luxury by the final round, represented as victory points.
Luxury and value comes in many different forms, whether it’s the very house that the family lives in or the goods they’re able to sell. Points are lost for failing to use your land to its maximum capacity and gained by constructing rooms, having children, cultivating crops and raising animals.
Of course, gaining wealth isn’t a straightforward business. Your diddly family of farming meeples will also need to keep themselves fed, symbolised by a periodic harvest phase that takes place at the end of six rounds during the game. Unsurprisingly, food is crucial; if the family can’t eat, they’ll have to go begging – losing you points when scores are calculated.
The harvest phase has a second role, which is to simulate the breeding of animals when your family owns two or more animals of the same type, resulting in the birth of an extra sheep, boar or cow. Thankfully, the parents and newborn can’t be eaten the same round that they breed. Phew.
Bumping up the value of your property comes through either extending the house with extra rooms (that also grant the space to have children)or upgrading your wooden structure to clay and, later, stone, which gives you extra points. Stone was the height of luxury in the 17th century, it seems.
The inside of your home can be further enhanced with minor and major improvements, which can grant points but, more importantly, unlock extra ways to accumulate further wealth. Building improvements is necessary in order to turn your raw goods into food by cooking animals and vegetables, and baking bread, and also allows you to turn building resources into craft products that can be sold for extra victory points.
One of Agricola’s most innovative aspects – and something that has since popped up in other Rosenberg games – is the use of occupation cards to give each player a unique route to victory. There are nearly 50 unique roles in the deck, seven of which are given to players at the start of the game to hold in their hand. Later in the game, players can teach their farmers new skills by playing the cards as lessons, granting bonus ways to rack up points and resources.
How do you play Agricola?
Agricola is the epitome of worker-placement gameplay. The meat of the action involves players selecting just a couple of actions to perform each round, placing down their meeples to select and execute a specific instruction.
Key to the competition between players is the fact that each space can only be selected once a round, so beating your opponents to the punch is crucial. In a unique twist to many worker-placement games, the majority of action spaces are already on the central board but a new action is added every round by being randomly drawn from a deck of cards. This evolving pool of options and slightly unpredictable progression keeps things constantly exciting and ramps up the tension as players are gradually able to choose from more and more possibilities every round – a tricky decision if you don’t have enough meeples.
Each player starts with the ability to perform two actions: one each for their husband and wife pair of farmers. The number of actions you can take during a turn is increased by – what else? – producing children, as long as you have the room for extra offspring.
Agricola presents a huge number of ways to spend your meeples every turn, opening up the simulation for interesting and diverse strategies in every game – but focusing too much on one area can lead to disaster. By juggling looking after your plants and animals, improving your home, and expanding your well-fed family, you’ll be able to prove your household is the most prosperous around.
What's new about Agricola?
Agricola’s success has led the game to be reimagined a number of times since it first appeared. In 2016 a revised second edition was released, adding improved wooden components and cards, and streamlining the original rules.
The game was given a more drastic makeover in the form of Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Rosenberg’s mountain-dwelling redesign of Agricola’s gameplay that swaps the original’s cards for building tiles and introduces a quest system and mining mechanic as its dwarves tunnel into the rock to expand their home.
In 2012, a two-player-only version of Agricola was released, subtitled All Creatures Big and Small. Significantly trimming down both the playing time (to half an hour total, rather than per player) and the complexity of Agricola, All Creatures Big and Small focuses on the animal husbandry of the game and challenges players to manage their livestock in the most effective way.
Why should you try Agricola?
Its reliance on the basics of worker placement means that Agricola isn’t a hard game to learn, but the range of options open to players makes for an absorbing, immersive experience up there with the very best on the tabletop.
The theme is atmospheric and interesting enough to ground the fascinating gameplay in a relatable rhythm, as harvests pass, animals breed and families expand. Yet, it never becomes repetitive thanks to the growing pool of actions available, the way that players’ varied occupations can shift their strategies and the slightly interactive competition of blocking other players’ choices on the actions board.
Agricola is board gaming at its very finest; perfected gameplay mixed with just enough theme and luck to always keep things interesting. Farming in the 17th century may be hard, but in the 21st century it’s an absolute joy.
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