Thursday, August 21, 2008

All that, and a bag of chips? (Civilization, Agricola, High Society x2)

We all gathered once again to conclude our latest game of Sid Meier's Civilization. In our last session, I had managed to stay under the radar and gain a significant lead through the purchase of a large amount of technology. If I was permitted to survive until the end of the game, I would surely win. The players all agreed that they would cooperate to take me out. I fully expected to be obliterated tonight, but something else happened... the other players conceeded the game and we played Agricola instead! (Bharmer wasn't enjoying the game, and successfully stopping me meant that I would be eliminated and they would likely have to spend a fourth evening determining the new winner. My success was far from assured, but I had a real shot so we called it a game)


Agricola is the new "it" boardgame. So much so that it has currently unseated Puerto Rico as the number 1 game on BGG, a feat no other game has yet managed to do (I have no idea if it will stay there, but I wouldn't pick either game as my favorite so whatever).

The theme here, predictably, is farming. The implementation is more literal than most, however... each player actually gets a board depicting a little plot of land and over the course of the game they have to till the land, grow crops and raise animals while trying to improve the house, raise a family and... you know... keep everyone fed.

The mechanics involve a central board depicting a plethora of available actions, each of which can only be chosen once a round. Players start with a two room house and a husband and wife team, and each of those can choose to do one of the available actions every round. As the house grows, babies can be had and they can grow up and take actions themselves. Meanwhile, gathering food becomes tougher and tougher. Predictably, not having to resort to begging is a prime motivator in the game.

In the end, the farm is scored and almost every aspect is graded: from the number of wasted plots of land, to the number of children, the amount of food on hand and the variety of livestock being raised. Because there are way more things that need doing than there is time to do them, Agricola is a capital "E" efficiency game.

Prior to this evening, I had tried the solo family game a few times. It actually works fairly well as a sort of optimisation puzzle, so that was good. Sadly, the rulebook could have been significantly better... it works as a reference but a new player will be lost for a little while. As an example, there is a simplified "family" game which is recommended as the first game. Wouldn't it be logical then to make the instructions prominent and simple to follow? Instead, the advanced rules are described first, then a paragraph explaining how to convert the rules for a family game can be found eight pages in. In other words, those the least familiar with the game are asked to first read and understand the complex rules and then to modify them according to a few paragraphs at the end. Also, on a number of occasions the rules refer to a board by name without actually ever identifying them anywhere AND they include a number of alternate boards without explanation, leaving a beginning player trying to sort out all these components fairly confused (at least, I was). Once you know what everything is, it's all fairly obvious, but new players DON"T know what everything is by definition. There is more, but you get the idea.

Luckily, the game itself is quite good, and play is pretty smooth and intuitive once things get going. The only direct interaction between players is in the action selection, but since competition for certain spaces can be fierce I don't expect anyone to start talking about "multi player solitaire". If I had a gripe, it would be that reloading the board every round gets a little tedious.

Bharmer proved he is the efficiency king by winning with a farm that was completely built up through a balanced approach that left him with five family members in a clay mansion with just about every scoring category covered. By contrast, I had four empty spaces, only three family members and several blanks in the scoring sheet. I honestly thought that my previous experience with the solo games would give me a significant advantage, but since I came in second-last I think we can forget that. Having so many other players competing for the same actions really changes the dynamics of the game... I spent the last five rounds trying to build fences, but the option was always snagged before I could. Goods rarely accumulated. etc, etc. It's very different playing an efficiency game by yourself than trying to be efficient when the thing you want to do is frequently unavailable.

I guess I can't really talk about Agricola without mentioning the huge amount of cards that can be used in the advanced game. By dealing out a hand of 14 cards to every player, each game is slightly different. We didn't play with them, however, so I can't really comment much.

I actually really like Agricola. I find myself thinking about it quite a bit afterwards, trying to think of a better way to get things done next time. I'm also really looking forward to trying out the decks of cards and seeing how they impact the game. It's not my favorite game. In fact, like Puerto Rico, I'm not sure it's in my top 10. Still, it's good and definitely worth trying out.

Bharmer and Kozure left for the evening. We finished up with two quick rounds of High Society. Shemp rocked us in both games, but at least Luch put up a fight.


  1. I like this game a lot but I too found it to fall a little short of living up to the hype.

    Here's a cut and paste from a quick review I put up at TABS:

    "Overall, pretty good. Not worth the reputation (or the BGG rating) as a Puerto Rico killer. I don't think it's better, or even really equal. It's a decent game with a lot of strategic options. Production values are good, but the rulebook is cramped and misses a lot of things.

    Gameplay is relatively fast; at least it was with our group. With five players, we finished the game in two hours and fifteen minutes, including game explanation (according to the box it's 30 minutes per player).

    Mechanically it's pretty simple, nothing really fidgety, though we did have a person who really read-up carefully on the rules to explain the game. There definitely seem to be a lot of paths to success, especially since we only played the 5-player "family" game, and the "K" complex cards seem to add even more options. Not a lot of direct player-competition, so it's mostly individual task-optimization, but there are definitely opportunities to screw people over.

    I don't think it really lives up to the hype, but it is a solid, fun game which is quite engaging. It's not the best game ever, but it's a nice addition to the pantheon."

    I did find it odd that the scoring mechanism actually discourages specialization by forcing players to branch out as much as possible. I actually like the idea of less specialized victory paths in efficiency games, but so many Euro games reward specialization, I sort of broke stride around round 7 or 8 when I realized just how spread out you have to be.

    Someone else commented at BGG (and I have to agree) that the advantage that Puerto Rico has over Agricola is that you can either pursue a specialized strategy or a broader generalization in Puerto Rico, whereas generalization is pretty much proscribed in Agricola. Agricola does win in the direct straightforwardness of ruleset and direct player competition aspect. Agricola is simpler to set up, but takes longer to play. The theme and mechanics in Agricola are also more easily grasped.

    A fan of the game at TABS has rather roundly scorned me for thinking I can evaluate the game without playing the full (i.e. non-Family game) and thinks that the occupation and minor improvement cards add so much to the game that my perception is skewed without them. I argued that while they may add additional depth and thematic interest, I couldn't see them improving the game as a whole to such a great degree.

    In any case, I did enjoy the game and look forward to playing again. I have it on back-order with German Games and apparently I will likely receive the promotional "Z" deck for having gotten on the list early.

  2. I played a full game last night, with occupations and minor improvements, to see how different it is. It's not. The difference is almost exactly comparable to the difference in options brought on by adding players (changing numbers of players adds action spaces to the board).

    The biggest difference is that there are even more choices to be made, and there is more opportunity for setting up combos. Of course, I only played with the basic deck, so more advanced cards might change the game in a more substantial way... which is an advantage of the format I suppose.

    Agricola feels different to me than most of the Euros we've played in that the really good ones typically had clever mechanics which made the game. The experience of playing had something to do with figuring the nuances of the system. Puerto Rico's mechanics create a sophisticated interaction between role selection and the powers of various buildings. El Grande sets up complex boardplay through the interaction of the king, the cards and the tower. Taj Mahal has an auction system which interweaves with board positioning, aquisition of goods and scoring. Etc, etc.

    Compared to that, Agricola is a very simple process of deciding what to do, and in what order. There is no interaction between mechanics, just the optimisation of the options that are presented (cards or no cards). I like it, and it's fun, but it just doesn't feel very sophisticated... which is why i don't consider it a "top" game.