In the world of board games, the reputation of some titles just demands a certain level of respect. Agricola is one of those titles. It created a lot of hype when it was released back in 2007 before it made the transition from Europe to North America, and when it did it rose to the number one spot on BGG’s board game ranking. It has a core of very dedicated players and, as all very popular things do, has created a mob of detractors as well.
Over the years Agricola has drawn a lot of praise and criticism. Most of the praise comes from the strong thematic ties to gameplay, the deep strategies and visceral tension. The criticism comes from annoyances on feeding your family and swingy imbalances from the cards dealt to the players. However, I wonder if most of the criticisms could be fixed by one simple change: playing with the family rules rather than the complex rules. Does that actually make it a better game?
Agricola has three main activities for you to perform on your farm: planting crops, raising animals, and building your house so your family can live indoors. In order to do these things, you need to gather the right resources and do actions in the right order. However, only a certain number of action spaces are available, and in each round of the game everyone chooses their actions one at a time. Which means if Sally chooses to plow her fields, you don’t get to.
One of the biggest features of Agricola is that every few rounds you need to feed each member of your family. Therefore, you need to collect food or have some way of producing food. This is a big driver of gameplay and creates a very tense, almost stressful, atmosphere. This turns some people off, but others like myself appreciate this tension and challenge. This is a game where you simply can’t do everything you want to do, and you have to be okay with that.
Another feature of Agricola are the improvement and occupation cards. Everyone gets a hand of cards which, if played, allows them to do various things or get bonuses. However, this is only in the complex version of the game. In the family game, you focus only on building your farm without the involvement of these cards. And this is why the family version may actually make the better game…
There is a lot in this box. First off are the board. There are board with all the action spaces, player boards, and even scoring boards and component storage boards. They are all excellently decorated in a pastoral setting. Then there are tiles for rooms and fields. Again, the artwork is great.
Actually, the artwork is just great period. Its got a subdued feeling which fits the farming theme, but its also friendly and inviting. You can sense there’s humour there without actually noticing any. There are also lots of small detail, like rocks and scarecrows in the fields, which add a lot. Top notch art.
The wooden components are a mix of cool and okay. The animals come in cool wooden models of sheep, cows and pigs (I understand the older copies of the game don’t include these). They add a lot thematically. However, the other resources are simply coloured wooden discs, which I’m okay with. What I wish was different though was the people, which are also just larger flat discs. I really do believe that they should have thrown in some farmer meeples to represent your family.
Agricola is a great game, but the question I propose is which is better; the family game or the complex game? I lean more towards the family game. Its simply tighter and more focused. You worry about your crops, your animals, your house. Farming in the 17th century was a simple, straightforward lifestyle (I assume, not having lived it myself mind you), and this version of the game reflects that. It just feels like a more elegant game system overall.
In contrast, using the occupation and improvement cards adds, well, a lotta stuff. What it gains in complexity and depth (yes, it does add depth), it loses in elegance. But this isn’t always a bad thing. I did say it adds depth, as you really need to find a way to make the cards work to your favour. However, using cards requires you to use actions, which you don’t have many of. If you do it right, you can make up for those lost actions, but still…
Adding the cards into the game also adds a high potential to cause large gaps between the players, especially with a group with varying experience levels. Therefore, someone with lots of Agricola experience can absolutely trounce on other players because they understand the cards, whereas in the family game that disparity is lessened since everyone has the same goals and paths.
Now, I’m not saying always play with the family game. The problem with the simpler version is the lack in diversity of gameplay, so if you play it lots, you are gonna want some more variety, and the card decks add that. However, as a game system I do think the family game is better. And if you are playing with people new to Agricola or only have a couple of plays under their felt, always choose family. Then everyone can enjoy letting their people starve.