Board Game Gumbo: Agricola - Getting to the Point(s) by Jason Dinger
Agricola: Getting To The Point(s)...
Contributor Jason Dinger is back with another entry of his popular series — now with a new name. Jason is the designer of the upcoming release, Captains of the Gulf. You can reach him on Twitter @jasondingr.
One of the most often heard complaints about modern games is that the theme is just “pasted on” and players are simply collecting victory points. No doubt, this is true in many instances. A game that not only avoids this issue, but in fact, goes in the complete opposite direction is my all-time #1 favorite game: Uwe Rosenberg’s classic, Agricola.
In Agricola, players take on the role of 17th-Century European farmers building a life for their struggling families in the wake of The Plague. Now, I know that may not sound like the most appealing theme for a game, but the fact that this game draws you in as much as it does despite having such a dark theme speaks volumes for how captivating the game play can be.
Throughout the game, players collect resources and take actions to grow their farms, but scoring does not take place until the game is over. As the game progresses, it can be easy to completely lose sight of scoring. Players often find themselves so emotionally-invested in the struggle to sustain their families while also trying to personalize and improve their farms - completely drawn into the thematic feel of the game’s story and the pressure of the oncoming harvests.
This emotional connection is largely due to two drastically-different, but equally engaging aspects of the game: the need to feed your (hopefully growing) family AND the joy of seeing your farm grow so uniquely before your eyes.
My favorite description of Agricola is that is is NOT a game about building your farm & feeding your family, but is instead a game about FEEDING YOUR FAMILY & building your farm. There are 6 harvests in the game. The number of rounds before each harvest gets fewer as the game progresses and each harvest requires you to feed your family or suffer a begging card.
Each begging cards costs you -3 points at the end of the game. In dozens of plays, I can honestly say that I’ve never tried to avoid a begging card in order to save points. Don’t get me wrong, I do everything possible to avoid begging cards. It’s just that points are the furthest thing from my mind. My motivation is avoiding the idea of leaving a family member starving. That, more than any amount of lost points, is what drives me.
In that regard, the game can be a bit mean - in a good way. This difficulty and the required planning that goes into overcoming it is a big draw to the countless fans who love Agricola.
In perfect balance, this negative emotional investment is countered beautifully with the positive emotional investment that comes from seeing your farm build up on the table before you. Points are awarded at the end of the game for a variety of improvements to your farm including adding rooms to your home, renovating your wooden home to clay or stone, increasing the size of your family, raising livestock, planting crops, and adding various buildings / other improvements.
As players get their food engines up and running, there is additional enthusiasm driven by the satisfaction of knowing your family’s needs during the harvest will be taken care of. This provides players with a sense of relief and gratification.
This feeling of satisfaction is amplified due to the tense competition for the building materials, crops, animals, and actions that make use of them all. As resources accumulate each round, do you take the smaller amount now to ensure you have what you need to carry out your plans? Or do you let it sit, gambling that your opponent won’t take it before you get the chance to reap a bigger reward? The added risk this introduces magnifies the elation a player feels when they finally make the move that adds that next, distinct aspect to their farm.
While it’s certainly possible to track what your score is during the game, I’ve never seen anyone do so. Players are too busy working out the best layout for the fields they plow, the best division of pastures with fencing and stables, training in new occupations, getting a variety of different animals, along with a number of other, engaging ways to make your farm unique and the best that it can be. The trick is that doing all of those things is the key to scoring in the end.
Because of the deep visceral feeling you get from the seeing the incremental refinement of your farm, scoring is of little concern as the game is played. At the end of the game, win or lose, players can enjoy the sight of their individual homestead, growing number of sheep / boars / cows, fields full of crops, stables, fireplaces, and other notable developments.
Agricola stands out as the first heavier game I ever played as I branched out from Carcassonne, Dominion, and Ticket To Ride. As it is far from the heaviest game, I feel it serves as a perfect gateway to introduce players to the heavier side of board games. The thematic emotional fulfillment is a big part of why I hold this belief.
Uwe’s passion for creating new content for the game has been immense over the years. As such, the number of card sets available to play as occupations & minor improvements is into the thousands at this point. However, even with the just original base game, Agricola is a thoroughly enjoyable, challenging, and wonderful experience every time it hits the table. If you’ve never had the pleasure, I encourage you to seek it out, dive in head first, and enjoy a game that stands the test of time magnificently!