Taking a break from this year’s Essen stuff to start a new series. About a month ago, I did a GeekList at BGG about the ABCs of Gaming. I combined the top ten ranked games for each letter of the alphabet, as well as one for games that began with numbers. Each letter had a poll attached where people could vote on what they thought was the most essential game in each category. The response was very good, better than I had hoped, and kind of made me think I needed to do something with the results. And here we are. With each entry in this series, I’m going to look at the winner for one of the polls, give an overview, and my personal thoughts. Some of the games chosen are ones I have played, while others are ones I still need to try. I’m looking forward to it, so let’s get started: A is for…
Agricola (1-5 players, ages 12 and up, lasts about half and hour per player) was first published in 2007 by Lookout Games, and released in the US by Z-Man. It was designed by Uwe Rosenberg, and was quite a departure for him as he was mostly known for light card games, including the well-respected Bohnanza. Agricola garnered almost immediate acclaim, and within a year of its release, had overtaken Puerto Rico as the highest rated game on BGG. It has since fallen to #4 (behind Puerto Rico again), but still has legions of followers. In the poll, Agricola dominated the A votes, getting 38.5% of the vote as of this posting, over twice as many votes as the second place vote getter (Arkham Horror).
Agricola doesn’t have the world’s most exciting theme – farming! You have 14 rounds to build your farm up as efficiently as possible. You’ve got a lot of resource management, cards to play, workers to place, and it encourages diversity in strategies by punishing you for not having enough in certain categories. The game comes with a ton of wooden and cardboard components, including cubes representing sheep, cows, and pigs; wooden discs representing clay, stone, wood, reeds, grain, and vegetables; wooden sticks representing fences; houses representing stables; large wooden discs as your workers; and cardboard tokens for food. Of course, a lot of people sell replacement animeeples and anivegetables if all that isn’t quite thematic enough for you. You get a ton of cards, outlining occupation and improvements, as well as extra actions that appear during the rounds. You get five player boards, three game boards, a major improvements board, and a pile of tiles to be used as rooms and fields.
Agricola plays over the course of 14 rounds. At the beginning of each round, you’ll reveal a new round card which gives an extra action available to the first player who takes it. Several of the action spaces will be replenished with resources or animals. Then you’ll begin placing workers. The player with the start player marker goes first, placing one of his or her workers (also known as family members) on a space printed on the board, or on a card. Only one worker may go on a space. As you begin the game, you only have two family members available. As you go one, you’ll hopefully be expanding your family to give yourself more workers, and thus allowing you to do more on a turn.
If you look at the boards, you’ll see the available options. Beginning with board #1 (far left), you see six empty fields. These will be randomly filled with cards at the start of the game, and each will have an action. The top preprinted action on that board allows you to build new rooms and/or stables. Extra rooms are necessary, because you can’t expand your family until you have a room to put them in. Stables give you the opportunity for more animals. The next space allows you to take the starting player marker and/or build one minor improvement from your hand, which will most likely cost you some resources. The next space allows you to take a grain for your supply. After that, there’s a space for plowing a field, then a space that will allow you to play an occupation card. If you don’t already have an occupation, it’s free. Subsequent occupations will cost food. The last space on board #1 allows you to take two food.
On board #2, there are four preprinted actions, each allowing you to take stuff – wood, clay, reeds, and food. These spaces accumulate resources – if no one claims them in a round, there will be more next time. Also on board #2, and onto board #3, you’ve got 14 more fields. This is where the round cards will be played, giving an extra action each time that will remain for the rest of the game. With all of this, you can see that there will be 17 actions to choose from on your first turn, and 30 by the end of the game.
Also, you may notice little yellow boxes at the base of the round columns. These say harvest, and you have to pay 2 food per person you have in your family at that time (end of rounds 4, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 14). If you can’t feed, you’ll start losing points. Points will be totaled at the end of the game. You’ll get or lose points based on the number of clay or stone rooms, fields, pastures, grains and vegetables, fenced stables, family members, cards, and unused property. The winner is the player with the most.
If this all seems a bit overwhelming…it really is. I wouldn’t recommend this game to anyone who has never played a Eurogame before. But for those familiar with the style, this game is really a fairly deep experience. The theme, boring as it is, is very well integrated into the game mechanics. As a worker placement game, you are confronted with a number of options and lots of strategies from the outset. There was so much in the base game, expansions weren’t really needed. But they have been coming anyway – people always want more. Expansions have been coming in the form of extra decks to use, as well as The Farmers of the Moor, extra bits, and promotional items.
At the same time, this was not my choice. I recognize that it’s very well-designed and there’s a lot of strategy that I have not yet uncovered, but it’s just not really for me. I don’t hate the game, I just don’t have that much fun while playing. I like my games to build in terms of choices and strategy, and while this game does, it’s in small increments. You’re hit with a ton of decisions to make with your very first worker, and if you start pursuing one strategy and get beaten to the punch by one other person, you’re hosed. Some people love that about Agricola. I don’t. It takes so long to get anything going (you can’t expand your family until at least round five, and before you do that, you have to collect resources and expand your house) that, by the time you’ve got your engine working, the game is over. Plus, every game I’ve played has seemed almost exactly like the last. There are slight variations, but I never seem to be able to find a strategy that makes the game different.
So, what would I have picked? Arkham Horror, in second place on my poll, would have been a good choice. It has an even more immersive theme, tense gameplay, and is very popular. However, it’s four hours long and very random, which I think slides it down on the essential scale. My choice for the most essential A-game was 1962’s Acquire, which came in third for the voting. Sid Sackson’s classic stock game is really the godfather of modern Eurogames, and I think it’s something that every gamer should play. That being said, I haven’t. Take away my geek cred.
I’ll quickly go through the other nominations. In fourth place was Alien Frontiers, last year’s dice-rolling retro sci-fi extravaganza. Age of Steam, Martin Wallace’s iconic train game, took fifth. Other came in sixth, followed by Advanced Squad Leader, Amun-Re, Automobile, Antiquity, and At the Gates of Loyang. In the comments, people were encouraged to list other games they would call the most essential, and suggestions included Across 5 Aprils, Ad Astra, Advanced Civilization, Adventurer, Age of Empires III, Age of Napoleon, Age of Renaissance, Air Baron, Airlines Europe, Aladdin’s Dragons, Alexander the Great, Alhambra, Ambush!, American Megafauna, Andromeda, Anno 1503, Antike, Apples to Apples, Arena: Roma II, Arimaa, Ascending Empires, Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, AstroNavis Merchant Advanced, Attack!, Attika, and Axis & Allies. Some good choices there – I haven’t played most of them, haven’t even heard of some. I’ve got some playing to do.
I don’t know how often I’ll be updating the ABCs here. I’m commiting to getting through all 27 posts, but updates most likely won’t be regular. If I do one every couple of weeks, I’ll be done in a year, so maybe that’s what I’ll shoot for. Thanks for reading!