Sunday, August 10, 2008

Agricola

My friend Xaqery sent me his prototype Noblemen (a topic for a post of its own) to try out, and I was anxious to do so before my copy of Agricola arrived - because I figured once it got here that's all we'd play for a while. I did manage to get 1 play of Noblemen in, but then the fateful day arrived, and I've spent all weekend playing Agricola.

When I first read about Agricola I thought it sounded like a good, quality eurogame that I would like. Even before I'd seen the hype I identified it to a friend that was going to Essen. She ended up buying a German copy at the show, more or less on my say-so, and once she made paste-ups and played it, she was hooked. She spent all BGG.con teaching the game and she played it a ton with her friends in L.A. - but since I'm not in L.A. I didn't get in on that - I just played once at BGG.con and that was it.

In my BGG.con game, I did really well - I ended up well ahead of everyone else's score except for one guy who won by a landslide over me (maybe 10 points) - who seemed to have extraordinarily good cards with extraordinary synergy. This was my main concern about a game such as this where you get some cards for the game... it seems like it's possible that one players cards could be "better" (quality, synergy, efficiency, however "better" manifests) than another players, giving that player an unfair advantage. I suspect it's rare that ALL of one player's cards will be amazing/sucky, and maybe on the average players will have hands of relatively equal power/usefulness. Of course, on the average you'll roll 7 on 2d6.

In any case, I preordered the game back in November, since my Grandma was buying it for Hanukkah I figured it didn't matter that it cost $75 or that I wouldn't get it until April.

Time passed and I didn't get any chances to play again. Then at a convention here or there I did have opportunity to play Agricola, but for one reason or another I passed it up. My interest in playing Agricola waned, and when I realized what a silly thought it was that pre-ordering was really necessary I was a little disappointed in myself for making that choice. After all, I could have had *2* games for that price, and I could have had them in time for Sedjcon. 4 months of delays from the projected April date didn't build my interest in the game, if anything I have gotten even less interested in playing. I have recently acquired several other games (Brass, Stone Age) that I am really enjoying, and I don't know if I really want to set them aside indefinitely to play Agricola all the time. Fortunately I did play a lot of each of those when I first got them, so they did get some use.

So fast forward to Monday of this week... I got an email informing me that my copy of Agricola had left Illinois and was on it's way for a Thursday delivery. Eric and Snowden also received their copies on Thursday, just in time for game night at Hat's - when I walked in they each had their copy set up, and a total of 9 players were preparing to play. I went to Frisbee practice, but played a game afterward with Eric and Ben. Friday I played 2 more games, and Saturday again 2 more. I'll be playing again tomorrow (Sunday) as well.

The first thing I thought while playing the other night was that yeah, it is certainly possible for my cards to be worse than an opponent's. Ben had a fistful of cards that were just bomb after bomb dropping on the table. My cards paled in comparison. Zev says he's won without even worrying about cards just by playing well off the board, but that's got to be bullshit... the cards augment your board actions, so not having them means your actions are weaker than someone who does, and having weak cards isn't as good as having strong cards. The question is whether it's really the case that all of his cards were really stronger than mine, or if I just didn't see how to use mine well.

In later games the draws seemed more fair. In both games today I had a really good draw, but misplayed very badly in the early game - losing each game by 6 points to the winner. My bonehead mistakes may well have been enough to make up 6 points in one of the games, not sure about the other.

That said, I did get that feeling like I could really enjoy the game - once I get over the hump of figuring out how to do what I want. That happened with Brass, and I could tell right away that it would. 6 games in I'm finally figuring out how to do stuff "on purpose" - which for me is embarrassing... I'm used to figuring out games much quicker than that, especially games of this type.

The "economic engine" in Agricola is food. You have to have enough food to feed your family, because unlike Stone Age - Starvation is a penalty in this game, not a strategy. You need to bolster your food production before you can increase your family and thereby ramp up your actions per turn. Therefore cards that create some kind of sustained food income are really good. Of course, card that save or give resources are also good as well, but depending on what resources you need their power may be wasted, or a waste of time. Also good are cards which help you increase the size of your family. Once you figure out how you'll feed them, you want family members as fast as you can get them. So any card that will directly give you family or which will help you build rooms cheaper are very good. It's possible to win without all 5 family members, but you won't win with just the initial 2 yielding only 2 actions each round.

In addition to figuring out what path you'll take to feed your family, there are all kinds of ways to get points. To make matters worse, for any of 8 or so areas that you ignore, you actually LOSE points. So you can specialize in a couple of areas and take penalties n others, or you can try and cancel out all the penalties without really specializing in anything. Each possible VP option is like a different strategy or path to victory.

The various abilities on the cards, and the various combinations of cards you can get, give the feel of customization to the game. Almost a metagame of figuring out which cards you'll use and which you won't, and when to put them down. This variety, as well as the large number of strategic paths, will keep the game fresh for quite some time - which is both good news and bad news. It's good because this expensive game that I waited so long for will see a lot of play as I'm sure it's all people will want to play around here for a while. On the down side, nobody will want to play Brass, or any prototypes, or anything old for a while. Why play those when we could play Agricola?

4 comments:

J C Lawrence said...

There are 4+ pasted-up copied of Agricola locally. They were heavily played...last year. =It took two months for them to pretty much disappear entirely and not be seen again.

Seth Jaffee said...

So what you're saying is that it'll be about 2 months before I can think about playing anything else?

I guess I should hold off on buying anything like PotE expansion then...

Scurra said...

I don't believe that there are a large number of strategic paths. There are certainly a large number of tactical combinations (which is where it scores over, say, Caylus), but in the long run there do not seem to be quite such a wide variety of outcomes as it looks as if there ought to be. But then again I feel the same about Race for the Galaxy, so there you go. Part of what I mean is that these games are very good, but not if you play them constantly to the exclusion of all else.

I think this game may also be prone to PR syndrome - put a newbie in amongst the experienced players, and there is potential for serious screwage, even given the efforts to address that within the system.

But don't get me wrong - I still think it's a brilliant design. I just don't think that it's quite as deep as it pretends to be.

P.S. I believe Zev if he says he has won without cards; I saw someone nearly do it the other night, and they only failed because of one of those utterly broken combos...

Seth Jaffee said...

I think this game may also be prone to PR syndrome - put a newbie in amongst the experienced players, and there is potential for serious screwage

I'm not sure I see this as a bad thing. Why do games have to give such a helping hand to a newbie that they can be expected to beat seasoned veterans? If you're new and we're not, you'll likely lose. Then you'll learn, get better, and maybe win in the future. That's the way it should be.

I believe Zev if he says he has won without cards; I saw someone nearly do it the other night, and they only failed because of one of those utterly broken combos...

MY POINT EXACTLY!!!