Agricola is a remarkable little thing: you take the role of a German farmer at the dawn of the 17th century, the Black Death has finally retreated and the time is right for freeholders like yourself to take up your shovels, grab your German shepherd and get your hands dirty.
As a piece of design, Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola is one of the great shining examples of the modern board game and I’ll happily take a pitchfork to anyone who says otherwise. It’s part of the worker placement school, with players taking actions from a common pool, usually involving collecting resources or spending them to build structures and improvements for their farm. Once an action space has been taken though, it’s blocked to all other players till the end of the round so the order you make your moves is incredibly important.
Your aim is to build the most impressive farm by the end of the game, which is a wonderfully abstract way of describing victory points. You begin the game with two workers living in a wooden house with two rooms and very little else, so you’ll need to work hard to impress whoever is turning up at the end of the game to score your farm – the King, maybe? Whoever it’s for, Impressiveness is gained by upgrading your home, growing your family and acquiring livestock and arable produce… oh, and by not starving, the King hates people starving.
Ok, not actually starving, but every few turns it’s time for a Harvest and you’ll have to be able to feed your family because, if you can’t, you’re forced to throw yourself on the mercy of the parish and take the Begging Bowl card for negative Impressiveness. Though everything starts off genteelly, I’m not being sarcastic at all when I say that this is one of the most stressful games I own.
I’m not certain, but I think it’s the food mechanic that lifts Agricola over the crowd of worker placement games out there, because you’re not just competing with the other players for resources, but also against your own greed for points. Let’s say there’s a harvest at the end of this turn and I’m three food short of feeding my family, I could play it safe and just opt for the Fishing action – gaining me food, but otherwise achieving nothing – or I could build an oven and hope that no one notices that big stack of sheep I’m planning to turn into tasty, tasty food. The second is by the most lucrative option as it has long term benefits, but only if no-one gets there first.
On top of the public major improvements that everyone contends for, each player also has a private hand of cards: seven minor improvements and seven occupations. These feature minor buffs and additional rules that improve your abilities in one particular area of the game. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find that chance has given you a spectacular hand that allows you to combo effects to great effect, e.g. an improvement that grants you two extra clay whenever you gain clay, an occupations that lets you get clay every odd numbered round and another that lets you trade clay for food. From experience I can tell you that you will almost definitely not pull these combos off, as each occupation costs you precious, precious food to play and each improvement costs you resources. Resources you ought to be using to build more fences, ovens and sheds.
While there is an intense strategic masterpiece on one level, Agricola also provides a family mode with less intricate rules and which tends to run a little faster. This is a pretty nice option in the digital edition of the game, as the asynchronous multiplayer can take a fairly long time to play with the maximum of five players. The family mode is also a nice option for non-boardgamers, as it ticks all the psychological boxes that games like Farmville are supposed to, but without the desperate neediness and some actual game design on show.
Honestly, Playdek’s Agricola is everything that an iPad adaptation of a board game should be and is, hands down, the best port of a traditional cardboard game that I’ve played to date. It’s a real testament to where we’re at in the industry at the moment, because when board games first started being released for iOS, even games that had been popular as a physical product were fairly shonkily ported. Now we’re seeing games built by people who know the format and love the games they’re making, and it shows.
For those who haven’t played the original board game, Agricola is huge. The table space it occupies is properly measured not in square feet, but hectares. With five players the challenge of fitting it on a table is a mini-game in itself, but in app form the game can be negotiated with ease and with the minimum of screen switching. Once you’re out of the menus and in game, you’ll only ever have to switch between two screens, both of which are gorgeously illustrated and animated.
There’s an offline mode available that features both AI players and pass-and-play functionality, but for those looking for online completion are especially in for a treat. The online multiplayer is available for all currently implemented rulesets, which can be selected easily from the Find Match menu option and a friends list lets you add rivals for later rematches. Common difficulties with asynchronous gameplay are dealt with by setting a maximum timer for each player, leading to instant forfeiture when the timer runs out. I got burnt by this earlier as I didn’t understand the system, but it makes sense when trying to provide a fun, pacey game for five strangers with no reason to wait for tomobedlam (yeah, I managed to forget capitals in my own nickname).
In this release edition, only one of the three occupation and improvement decks is available – the Interactive and Komplex decks are coming as IAPs later this year. I can’t say I’m not disappointed by Playdek’s decision to only include the basic deck of cards, not including two thirds of the boxed copy of the game stings a little, but I get it. Agricola is already sitting at the top end of the price range for iPad games that people actually buy. There’s evidently a great deal of work that’s been put into this game and $6.99 is an unbelievably good price for the content.
An instant purchase for board gamers everywhere. One of the finest eurogames on the market finally comes to the iPad in triumph. Even if the full strategy game doesn’t appeal, I highly recommend the family mode – even though there are still points to be scored and winners to be decided, I challenge anyone not to feel incredible satisfaction at just seeing their little farmyard grow.