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Agricola Review

I like Agricola. It’s fun. After playing, I don’t regret pre-ordering, I’ll play more when my copy arrives, and I may even try to upgrade my set ala David Fair (and others). I’d play it at the next game session (if I had a copy).

But I do not think it is a great game.

Agricola joins a long list of games that I enjoy despite obvious flaws. I’m thinking of Age of Renaissance, 7 Ages (although my mood on that swings around), and the like. Still, I’d play those instead of great designs I don’t enjoy (Diplomacy, abstracts, etc).

I’m not going to describe mechanisms or details. Dale Yu has written more than enough to enlighten. Just to make things worse, I’m assuming you know the basics. To recap – I like Agricola. I’d play it again at the next game session (if I could). It will likely hit the table another 5-10 times at a minimum. Having gotten that out of the way, I’m going to focus on the negatives.

I’ve played several times now. How many? Well, that depends on how you count. I’ve played four games by any definition. Another four ‘to my satisfaction’, but I suspect most readers will only count one or two of those. “To my satisfaction” means (in this case) that everyone agreed on who would win if the game was played out. Most of these were quickly adjudicated between the first and second harvest.

One was called after the opening deal.

There is a whole class of games where the opening setup determines the likely winner. Card games. They have a few other characteristics (at least for good ones): 1) they are short, 2) you play many hands to reduce the luck (or determine the better player). Good players will win more than their ‘fair’ share of games, but won’t win every hand.

Agricola is a single deal card game that takes 90+ minutes to resolve.

I’ve seen arguments that the cards are individually balanced, and I generally agree (with at least one glaring exception). Some are better, but the range isn’t bad. But cards aren’t just assessed individually. Take Bridge. The Space Ace is worth one trick. The King values usually takes a trick. With the ace, a full trick (assuming no trump). Without it, it depends on where the ace was dealt, how many suited cards each hand has, etc. The deuce of clubs may be a full trick in some hands … if they have enough clubs, but usually it’s not that important.

Each of Agricola’s 350-ish cards adds a new twist on a rule. That makes 60,000 two card combinations that are much more complicated than the relationship between the King of Spades and deuce of Clubs. When you confine things to the E deck, I suspect most two card combinations have been seen. Are there three card combinations? Undoubtedly. Assuming 100 cards (for E decks only) there are 160,000 3-card combinations. You start with seven cards and seven occupations. Five hundred (or a thousand) games is enough to smooth all single cards, but doesn’t begin to assess the combinations … (and how many of those games involved new players)?

I could argue which cards I think are problematic (and I will, but not now). A fair response is that I (or others) missed a counter to that card. I may well have. But we’re still playing a card game. Now, the question is – how many routine hands do we have? For now, call a routine hand one that “Given reasonable and competent players, the ‘better’ hand will win barring mistakes.” You can have routine good hands and routine bad hands, it may be exciting to take 13 tricks with thirteen of one suit, and it’s rare, but it doesn’t require skill. Likewise, it takes little skill to lose all 13 tricks with a flat yarborough.

Apart from routine hands you can have routine games. In card games like bridge, one side has a bad hand the other one often has a good one. These routine hands lead to routine deals. Games where you deal a subset of the cards may see multiple players have very good (or bad) hands.

Race for the Galaxy, which I love, has routine games. I estimate roughly 3%. If you picked a number from 1-10%, I’d be fine with that. I’d argue if you went much higher (or lower). From my (admittedly small) sample of Agricola, I’d put its “routine game” percentage at 50-75%. My estimate may be high since every game I’ve played had new players. I think everyone will agree that this number exists above 10%, and that’s problematic for a game thats 4-8 times as long as Race. (Even if you discount routine ‘good’ hands, you’ll occasionally see a routine ‘bad’ hand, such as one that has no useful early minor improvements, which makes several of the actions much worse).

Only once have I been unsure of the winner after the second harvest, and it that game I had picked two people (out of five), who came in 1st and 2nd. I publicly predicted the winner of my second game (which we finished) during turn 3. He botched the endgame (never building a single fence, so earning -1 for enclosures and something like -5 for unused spaces) and won handily.

[Tangentially, this is why I stopped playing Cosmic Encounter for years … everyone wanted to play with 2+ power combinations. I now prefer playing with single powers, they are reasonably well balanced].

I hope scores will tighten as players get better, but the cards have a huge impact.

Agricola has other issues, as well. These aren’t nearly as important, but exist.

  1. The ‘family increase’ mechanic (which moves you from two actions to three) is very important, and provides a positive feedback mechanism. Feeding does produce a negative feedback as well, but not nearly at the same effect. Assuming no occupations (and no player manages to get a 4th action before anyone gets a 3rd) then the last player to grow his family will miss out on 4 actions (in a five player game). That’s effectively giving the first person an extra full turn. This effect is so important that ignoring everything to focus on family growth seems to be a dominant strategy. Worse yet, growing your family is a strong source of victory points. If growing your family cost you resources, and earned actions but no victory points, it would be a more interesting tradeoff.
  2. [1a, really] – The extra action from family growth is so powerful that the ‘family game’ (without cards) is simply an exercise in getting your home ready for your first child. With two players, even one extra turn seems dominant. [The family game is still a card game, but now the deal is the ordering of the rounds.]
  3. Because of the card interaction and family growth issue, I suspect every 4+ player game will have at least one player ‘eliminated’ early on, with a score of roughly half (or less) of the winning score..
  4. Livestock seem a much superior form of food & victory points than farming. Like family growth, this makes the best “resource” path also the best “victory points” path (since there are four categories for livestock, vs three for agriculture … and stables makes a fifth, arguably). You can delay your plowing until the very late game and still get good agricultural points, but you can’t put off breeding.
  5. Turn order effects. When the start player is passing back and forth between you and another player, it really matters if you are sitting besides each other. Also, some cards improve certain spaces, and again order matters. Caylus’ “Inn” mechanism works much better than Agricola’s blunt “Start Player.”

With all that, I think Agricola is worth trying and playing multiple times. And I enjoy it. But, from a critical standpoint (meaning “looking strictly at the design”), it’s not good. A good game should take as long as required to determine the winner, and no longer. Bridge (a great game) would be farcical if you spent 30 minutes playing a hand. Agricola is chess between even players where you may be randomly up a knight or down a queen, but don’t know until halfway through the game.

The good news? Often the game conceals this from you. Most hands have something, and monstrously good hands may be hidden (until the end). There’s enough going on that even a good hand can be misplayed.

Agricola took several great ideas (a Caylus-like placement system, a Cosmic-like special power system, a complex resource management system) and then shoved them together. It’s enjoyable but, like most cross-breeds, an odd beast. I suspect that, like Age of Renaissance in particular, I’ll eventually get annoyed playing around with all those fiddly pieces to decide a card game. I’d be happy to be proven wrong, though.

Update: I’ve also ported my review to BGG.

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Written by taogaming

April 14, 2008 at 10:38 pm

Posted in Agricola, Reviews

15 Responses

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  1. Excellent critique. Thanks.

    Iain

    April 15, 2008 at 4:45 am

  2. Yeah, very well put. I eventually swore off Agricola for the reasons you outline (card draw just too important, turn order issues, family growth too powerful). I also just find the game not that fun as it is one of these games where you are hoping spot X stays free until your turn comes around. Sometimes it does and feels a little good but other times it doesn’t and for me at least feels more disappointing than the times when I get it feel good – I just usually end up at the end of the game feeling that all in all it just wasn’t a happy experience.

    Aaron

    April 15, 2008 at 11:40 am

  3. Would it be possible to improve this with a drafting and/or bidding mechanism for the starting cards?

    I havent played it, but it sounds like the game makes the mistake of rewarding the strategy which improves your economy the most, by giving it the most VPs also! Another game I can think of that does this is Goa, in which the track that is the best to push down (expedition track), also is the track that awards you bonus VPs at the end based on how far you get it down, based on cards in hard at the end. (They all give 1/3/6/10 pts, but it also gives extra points for allowing you to hold cards that give endgame scoring).

    For balance, the items which provide the most economic growth need to give the least VPs, and items that dont give economic growth need to provide the most, so that there are tradeoffs. Buying the investment items now might give you the resources to buy more VPs later on, depending on situation, that way there isnt one dominant and obvious strategy.

    Alexfrog

    April 15, 2008 at 12:44 pm

  4. I’m sort of where you are I guess, in terms of my doubt as to whether Agricola has long-term re-playability.

    But … a lot of these games succeed on the “exploration” factor. Through the Ages for me anyway was fun as long as you weren’t quite sure what was out there, and you were exploring the game. Puerto Rico was fun while everyone was exploring all the building interactions, and became (for me anyway) a lot less fun once everything had been worked out. As soon as the games started becoming too samey (sooner for Through the Ages, later for Puerto Rico) they lost their appeal for me.

    So for Agricola, the question for me is not whether it’s precisely balanced. As you say, I’m pretty sure there must be winning and losing initial deals out there, although my experience has so far been positive. The question for me would be is it balanced enough, and are there enough interesting combinations and interesting cards, to keep the simple interest of discovering the game alive long enough. Again, my sense is that there is, but we’ll see.

    One thing I like about the cards in Agricola is that they point the players in different directions. While it’s true that everything else being equal, animal husbandry seems better than farming. But the cards mean that everything else is not equal, and they tend to encourage players to do different things. In Caylus, you quickly figured out that there were one or two viable things to do, and the people who got frozen out of those actions were hosed. In Agricola, it seems like between the cards and the board there are lots of viable things to do, so it feels like you have a lot of leeway to constructively pursue your own agenda in a way that’s satisfying even if it turns out in the end that the deal wasn’t particularly well-balanced.

    As an aside, my admittedly early impression is that I think it might have been a mistake to allow the game to support 5 players. While I think it works with 5, I’m not sure it’s well-scaled: I think there is more swingy pressure on couple scarce resources, like family growth, which is a little unsatisfying. There are also downtime issues. I’d certainly want to keep it to 3 or 4.

    Chris Farrell

    April 15, 2008 at 1:24 pm

  5. I’m sort of where you are I guess, in terms of my doubt as to whether Agricola has long-term re-playability.

    But … a lot of these games succeed on the “exploration” factor. Through the Ages for me anyway was fun as long as you weren’t quite sure what was out there, and you were exploring the game. Puerto Rico was fun while everyone was exploring all the building interactions, and became (for me anyway) a lot less fun once everything had been worked out. As soon as the games started becoming too samey (sooner for Through the Ages, later for Puerto Rico) they lost their appeal for me.

    So for Agricola, the question for me is not whether it’s precisely balanced. As you say, I’m pretty sure there must be winning and losing initial deals out there, although my experience has so far been positive. The question for me would be is it balanced enough, and are there enough interesting combinations and interesting cards, to keep the simple interest of discovering the game alive long enough. Again, my sense is that there is, but we’ll see.

    One thing I like about the cards in Agricola is that they point the players in different directions. While it’s true that everything else being equal, animal husbandry seems better than farming. But the cards mean that everything else is not equal, and they tend to encourage players to do different things. In Caylus, you quickly figured out that there were one or two viable things to do, and the people who got frozen out of those actions were hosed. In Agricola, it seems like between the cards and the board there are lots of viable things to do, so it feels like you have a lot of leeway to constructively pursue your own agenda in a way that’s satisfying even if it turns out in the end that the deal wasn’t particularly well-balanced.

    As an aside, my admittedly early impression is that I think it might have been a mistake to allow the game to support 5 players. While I think it works with 5, I’m not sure it’s well-scaled: I think there is more swingy pressure on couple scarce resources, like family growth, which is a little unsatisfying. There are also downtime issues. I’d certainly want to keep it to 3 or 4.

    Chris Farrell

    April 15, 2008 at 1:24 pm

  6. For balance, the items which provide the most economic growth need to give the least VPs, and items that dont give economic growth need to provide the most, so that there are tradeoffs. Buying the investment items now might give you the resources to buy more VPs later on, depending on situation, that way there isnt one dominant and obvious strategy.

    I think this is the wrong way to think about it. The players are supposed to be taking on the role of farmers, so you want to reward the players for doing a good job. So at some level, you do want to reward people for making the best economic choices, and don’t want to have a high VP reward for silly stuff. This is always tough in this sort of game. Agricola I think does OK because the one critical resource – food – that you have to consume during the game isn’t on the final score chart, sort of like in Race for the Galaxy you don’t get points for cards at the end. Plus the ending of Agricola seems right, it seems to end just as the engines are in place but before anyone really starts to crank. What you really want is for there to be legitimate ways to build your economy from most of the different pieces.

    The economic games with a $/VP dichotomy, where you have big VP awards for doing things that don’t help you in-game, are always a little odd. One of the things I like about Agricola is that it rewards you for doing things that make sense. Well, almost; you still get a few VPs for doing random things like fencing in areas you have no plan to ever use. But for the most part, your role in the game and the VPs you get at the end are well-aligned.

    Saint Petersburg can succeed while having a strange $/VP dichotomy because it is short enough that you can play frequently enough to learn the timing, when you need to make the switch. Race for the Galaxy is similar, although I think a little more natural. Through the Ages and Brass have problems because they are so long, it’s hard to play enough to learn the timing, and understand when you’ve done enough engine-building and when you need to start earning points. I think if a game is longer, the rewards have to be more direct.

    Chris Farrell

    April 15, 2008 at 1:54 pm

  7. Taking these out of order…

    … a lot of these games succeed on the “exploration” factor.

    I agree, mainly. I think that Agricola’s exploration issue exceeds Puerto Rico (base) or Caylus. It practically has to, based on the cards. That’s enough to keep me playing and interested despite the problems. I’ve pretty much petered out the two games mentioned.

    And I didn’t explicitly mention it, but I think 3-4 is the sweet spot. Two player has weird zero-sum issues, and five increases downtime a bit much.

    Regarding the VP/Economy — The game still has a few weird points. Enclosed land scores based on # of enclosures, not amount of land enclosed. I agree that you want to reward good economies, but they could have tweaked it a bit more. Making stables not worth VPs, decreasing the amount for extra people, etc. I think they reward the right things. In the real world (etc) the best run farms (businesses) should have the best VPs. But as a game … well, the goal is to make the choices interesting, and without taking cards into consideration, Agricola edges close to the “One way to victory.”

    As for variants — I think that drafting/bidding would take too long. One (easy) idea is to deal each player 18 cards (nine of each), discard to a regular starting hand, and then pass hands to the left (right). So everyone will have an incentive to break up obscene combinations, and you’ll probably get pretty even hands. With experienced players it probably would only add 5 minutes.

    Of course, I’d also play without the grossly good cards.

    Brian

    April 15, 2008 at 6:47 pm

  8. Taking these out of order…

    … a lot of these games succeed on the “exploration” factor.

    I agree, mainly. I think that Agricola’s exploration issue exceeds Puerto Rico (base) or Caylus. It practically has to, based on the cards. That’s enough to keep me playing and interested despite the problems. I’ve pretty much petered out the two games mentioned.

    And I didn’t explicitly mention it, but I think 3-4 is the sweet spot. Two player has weird zero-sum issues, and five increases downtime a bit much.

    Regarding the VP/Economy — The game still has a few weird points. Enclosed land scores based on # of enclosures, not amount of land enclosed. I agree that you want to reward good economies, but they could have tweaked it a bit more. Making stables not worth VPs, decreasing the amount for extra people, etc. I think they reward the right things. In the real world (etc) the best run farms (businesses) should have the best VPs. But as a game … well, the goal is to make the choices interesting, and without taking cards into consideration, Agricola edges close to the “One way to victory.”

    As for variants — I think that drafting/bidding would take too long. One (easy) idea is to deal each player 18 cards (nine of each), discard to a regular starting hand, and then pass hands to the left (right). So everyone will have an incentive to break up obscene combinations, and you’ll probably get pretty even hands. With experienced players it probably would only add 5 minutes.

    Of course, I’d also play without the grossly good cards.

    Brian

    April 15, 2008 at 6:47 pm

  9. It’s disappointing to read your critique, but I’m still looking forward to receiving my animeeple copy. I was shocked by how ordinary Race for the Galaxy was for me after reading your reviews on it, so maybe suppressed expectations will allow me to enjoy Agricola more.

    jacob

    April 15, 2008 at 10:08 pm

  10. Like I said, I think it’s a fun game. I doubt you’ll be disappointed in it … but when I rated Agricola a 7, I then looked and it was stunning to see that I was in the losest quintile of raters.

    Brian

    April 16, 2008 at 10:12 am

  11. I guess I don’t agree with your basic assumption, Brian. While being dealt a nice hand of cards can be helpful in Agricola, I don’t think it automatically determines the winner. I’ve seen plenty of games where the winning player played a small number of cards. I can really only think of one of my games where someone’s initial deal was so powerful that it made him the favorite and even then, he had to execute it properly in order to win.

    Larry Levy

    April 16, 2008 at 12:19 pm

  12. Larry, the thing is, the game is totally symmetric except for the hand of cards. Clearly the deal makes a difference in terms of balance. I don’t think Brian is arguing that a good hand either guarantees a win or is easy to play, or that big hand disparities occur in every game. Just that good/poor hands clearly do exist, and do put one at a relative advantage/disadvantage, and Brian feels the potential swinginess of the cards is possibly too high given the length of the game. I personally haven’t experienced this yet, but can certainly see it might be an issue once you’ve been through the game enough times for the game to be familiar.

    Chris Farrell

    April 16, 2008 at 7:50 pm

  13. I agree with all of your points, Chris, and also agree that the cards can lead to an unbalanced game. My buddy Jason Matthews also has an uneasy suspicion that the cards might prove to be too unbalancing, even though he hasn’t really seen too many problems in actual play. It’s Brian’s estimate of how far this goes that I’m arguing with. To say that the player with the better hand will win “50-75% of the games” is way beyond anything I’ve seen. Even with my relatively small number of plays, my experiences would represent a statistical anomoly if that figure was correct. I just find this a very surprising statement from an experienced gamer who clearly is familiar with games like these.

    Larry Levy

    April 16, 2008 at 10:00 pm

  14. Interesting… my problems with Agricola lie elsewhere.

    I’ve played 7 times now, 2-5 players, 2 family games, the rest with cards, won twice and was second by a point twice (we won’t talk about the other games ;-). I think Agricola makes a very good first impression (mine was a 9), but it’s steadily slipping (an 8 now and probably a 7 after a few more plays).

    Before I played it, I was worried about the cards, reasoning on an a priori basis that either the cards would be too small in effect (in which case, why bother?) or they would be too strong (so that the luck of the draw would dominate). To hit the sweet spot of exactly the right balance, especially given all the combos involved, struck me as a very hard design challenge.

    However, I rapidly came to appreciate that what looks like a killer hand, when it is first dealt to you, is often far less powerful than it looks, due to two factors: cost — cards take actions and food to play and the advantages they confer are often only slightly better than these costs; and sequencing — you generally have to both play a card and then take some specific action to gain its advantage, which increases your vulnerability to your opponents taking that action instead. Sometimes, true, you can acquire the means to exploit a card before you play it but then you run the risk that the space that lets you play the card is taken. And, since some of these card effects really depend on their timing versus harvests, having your timing thrown off by other players is a hidden cost. I’ve taken to re-evaluating cards after a game to see if, in fact, I was correct to play them and made them pay off. It’s often very tight.

    Now, I’m not saying that some very powerful cards or card combos don’t exist, but I think we’re talking about maybe 10-25%, not 50-75%, if we correctly include all the costs of playing the cards and reasonably strong opponents who will mess up your timing. Some experienced players have stated that this occurs 10% of the time for 4-player games which, as you state, is probably ok, even for a game of this length. Given my current experience, I would place this number somewhere between 5 and 25%; I simply don’t have the data to make a better estimate.

    I do think you are really underestimating the costs of getting cards down and working for you. I think calling a game after the deal, or even the second harvest, is not giving the game (and your fellow players) enough credit. I’d be quite surprised if you can consistently predict the winner as an observer after the deal for 4-player games with experienced players more than 35% of the time. But, maybe, you truly do understand the game better than most do…

    In general, though, I really have to hand it to the designer and developer for doing such a good job, overall, with the cards. I’m very impressed with that facet of the game (with a few notable exceptions) and just wish the rest of the game held up as well.

    Tom_Lehmann

    April 18, 2008 at 10:04 pm

  15. Interesting… my problems with Agricola lie elsewhere.

    I’ve played 7 times now, 2-5 players, 2 family games, the rest with cards, won twice and was second by a point twice (we won’t talk about the other games ;-). I think Agricola makes a very good first impression (mine was a 9), but it’s steadily slipping (an 8 now and probably a 7 after a few more plays).

    Before I played it, I was worried about the cards, reasoning on an a priori basis that either the cards would be too small in effect (in which case, why bother?) or they would be too strong (so that the luck of the draw would dominate). To hit the sweet spot of exactly the right balance, especially given all the combos involved, struck me as a very hard design challenge.

    However, I rapidly came to appreciate that what looks like a killer hand, when it is first dealt to you, is often far less powerful than it looks, due to two factors: cost — cards take actions and food to play and the advantages they confer are often only slightly better than these costs; and sequencing — you generally have to both play a card and then take some specific action to gain its advantage, which increases your vulnerability to your opponents taking that action instead. Sometimes, true, you can acquire the means to exploit a card before you play it but then you run the risk that the space that lets you play the card is taken. And, since some of these card effects really depend on their timing versus harvests, having your timing thrown off by other players is a hidden cost. I’ve taken to re-evaluating cards after a game to see if, in fact, I was correct to play them and made them pay off. It’s often very tight.

    Now, I’m not saying that some very powerful cards or card combos don’t exist, but I think we’re talking about maybe 10-25%, not 50-75%, if we correctly include all the costs of playing the cards and reasonably strong opponents who will mess up your timing. Some experienced players have stated that this occurs 10% of the time for 4-player games which, as you state, is probably ok, even for a game of this length. Given my current experience, I would place this number somewhere between 5 and 25%; I simply don’t have the data to make a better estimate.

    I do think you are really underestimating the costs of getting cards down and working for you. I think calling a game after the deal, or even the second harvest, is not giving the game (and your fellow players) enough credit. I’d be quite surprised if you can consistently predict the winner as an observer after the deal for 4-player games with experienced players more than 35% of the time. But, maybe, you truly do understand the game better than most do…

    In general, though, I really have to hand it to the designer and developer for doing such a good job, overall, with the cards. I’m very impressed with that facet of the game (with a few notable exceptions) and just wish the rest of the game held up as well.

    Tom_Lehmann

    April 18, 2008 at 10:04 pm


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