Tonight my gaming group in Chicago broke out Agricola, which has been sitting intimidatingly on my shelf for months now.
Agricola has been greatly hyped in the board game community, and is mostly known among board game nerds for being sold out for over a year. If there’s one thing you have to understand about us nerds, it’s that not being able to have something makes us need it desperately - this explains our desire for Apple products, as well as our dating habits.
The First Important Thing you have to know about Agricola is that it contains a staggering number of pieces… cards; tokens; representational farm components, currency, animals, etc. All of these pieces eventually come together to make an ecosystem which players have communal access to and use to build their own little farms.
The game begins with you and your wife (or farm life-partner or whatever) living in a little wooden hovel on a fixed amount of land. Each turn, you get two actions - one for you and one for your spouse - which you can spend improving your house, growing food, processing that food to eat, raising livestock, or doing dozens of other things (fishing, harvesting wood, baking bread, etc).
Throughout the game, you can have children and put them to work to gain more actions per turn, but that requires more food, since laboring children require nutrition. The problem is you also need to spend your food to plant new crops (seeds), and you can’t eat all of your livestock, because you need to keep enough of each kind around to breed. Also, new children need a place to live, and that means you have to spend time gathering resources like stone and reed, and then build a new room onto your house. Of course, if you build too many rooms, you won’t have enough land for your crops and animals. The game gives you fourteen turns to get your shit together.
Agricola sets multiple economies in orbit around one another, which makes establishing some kind of strategy hard to get your head around. Playing Agricola has the same dizzying effect as learning about economics or metaphysics - merely understanding the rules illuminates the entire world in a new light. It’s kind of thrilling to experience.
Agricola is brilliant for confronting players with subtle, complex, and real-world economic problems like the Tragedy of the Commons and collective decision-making dilemmas. The way the mechanics in this game relate to one another is not merely a factor of what happens in the game but, rather, of how well you can parse all of these puzzles. The same is true for the ways in which your actions affect other players - just like in real life.
And just like in real life, the instructions make absolutely no sense.
This brings me to the Second Important Thing you have to know about Agricola; which is, namely, that the instructions make absolutely no sense.
The instructions to this game are written by the kind of psychotic German board game designers who actually specify in several detailed ¶s that when you have a baby, you can’t immediately put that baby to work in the corn fields, and then create special provisions for what to do with your homuncular little baby token so that you don’t accidentally force the baby renovate your house or something.
The rules to Agricola are so poorly written that even as we were putting the game away we kept noticing new pieces that we completely missed while we played. “What’s up with this token with the Cat Man on it? How did we miss the Cat Man? What does he do?”
When I asked my group if there was anything they wanted me to include in this review, they said, “Your best bet is to find someone who knows how to play and have them teach you, because the instructions are beyond useless.” I completely agree.
Time spent on the first game, including parsing the rules, was upwards of three-point-five hours, undertaken in a marathon session which left one player nauseous, and reduced me to playing Doodle Jump on my iPhone, slumped back in my chair, exhausted.
Agricola is a game of agonizing choices, and it gets harder as it progresses. You can never quite do everything you need to do, so each turn is an exercise in triage. Do you spend your turn accumulating enough food to save your family from becoming malnourished (thus preventing you from losing points), or do you improve your infrastructure so that next turn you can produce enough food in the first place? This gameplay dilemma is compounded by the introduction of new things to do at the beginning of each of the game’s fourteen rounds.
On our first play through the game, I was overwhelmed. My poor decisions subjected my hardworking little family to a series of humiliations; on three occasions, I forced them beg for food, and throughout most of the game, I failed to build enough fences to contain all of my livestock, so they had to share their humble three-room house with a wild boar.
Agricola is great because it confronts you with red herrings. It’s easy to spend your entire turn converting resources through different economies and playing cards off of each other, but, at the end of the day, you only get two, maybe three, actions, and if you don’t use them to add to your farm, you don’t get any points. As one player noted, “There appears to be a lot of stuff in this game that does nothing but rapidly increase the rate at which you accumulate clay.”
On this level, Agricola works as a little parable about our lives. Whenever we choose to do something, it comes at the expense of all other things we could have chosen to do instead - and we have to choose. This is the existential crisis looming before my little family; their time is valuable precisely because it is limited. Although it is not measured in currency, it is the one true economy in Agricola. Is it healthy for a game to force us to recognize this situation in our own lives? And if we do see that, then what? Will we play fewer 3-hour board games? Or maybe play more?
After playing this game twice, I still feel like there’s still a lot to explore, and I love that. For our second game of Agricola, we added a new player, and as we were cleaning up, he found some unused pieces and asked, “So what does the man holding the cat do?”
"Oh," someone replied, "that’s the Cat Man. And we still don’t know."