5th April 2016

Despite a few regulars being away, there were still enough people for two games and the first group opted for the “Feature Game”, Agricola, a highly regarded game about medieval farming.  Agricola is a worker placement game where players take it in turns to deploy the members of their farming family in activities.  At the start of the game there are very few actions and each  player only has two members of their family, but as the game progresses the number of possible actions increases, but players also have the opportunity to expand their families. Each player has a farm which consists of a three by five grid of spaces and at the start of the game two of them are occupied by a two-room wooden hut.  During the game, players can expand their hut, upgrade their wooden shack to a brick or stone house, they can plough fields, enclose land to keep animals and grow vegetables and wheat.

Agricola
– Image by BGG contributor BeyondMonopoly

The game is played over fourteen rounds with harvests at intervals after which the family must be fed.  Failing to feed the family results in them going hungry and having to beg for vittles which costs points at the end of the game.  Points are awarded for almost everything, but the most successful players are usually those with a thriving farm that makes full use of all the available land and sustains a large family living in a big farmhouse.  The game can be played as a family game, or, for more experienced players, occupation and minor improvement cards can be added.  It had been quite some time since some of us had last played Agricola, and others had never played it, but those of us who were familiar with the game were keen to play with the cards.  When playing with cards it is common to “draft”, i.e. use the primary mechanism found in games like 7 Wonders, Sushi Go! and Between Two Cities where each player chooses a card from their hand before passing it on and choosing the next card from the hand they receive (passing that on until there are no cards left).  The advantage of this approach is that no single player gets all good (or bad) cards by chance, but the disadvantage is that it is very hard to choose cards when players are new to the game and unfamiliar with which cards might work well.  For this reason, drafting wasn’t really an option.  The copy of the game had been “pimped” with shaped wooden resources to replace the original cubes and discs from the base game.  This, combined with three different decks of minor improvements and tight space enhanced our initial confusion, but we did eventually get ourselves sorted and chose the basic “E” Deck.

Agricola
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor henk.rolleman

Green started off by learning a new occupation: Reed Collector; reeds are important for house building.  Having looked at his cards in hand, he had a plan:  he also had the Renovator which would reduce the cost to upgrade his farmhouse, so he thought he could expand his wooden house and then upgrade it on the cheap. He also had the Chiefs Daughter who would give him an additional three points if he successfully upgraded his house to stone. Meanwhile, the others set about collecting resources as a base from which to build their farms.  Indigo quickly learnt the second occupation of the game: the Hedge Keeper which would enable her to build three additional fences each time she built at least one – impressively powerful we thought at the time, especially at end game for filling unused spaces.

Agricola
– Image by BGG contributor lolcese

The first rounds were a lesson in frustration as resources and actions were limited and we all found ourselves unable to get what we needed and do what we wanted, a problem compounded by only having two farmers each.  Progress on the farms seemed slow; Green, Pine and burgundy seemed more interested in home improvements than actual farming and at one point it looked like we should have renamed the game, “Yuppy-ville”.  Green then invested in a canoe and went fishing a lot:  was the price of farming so high he was going into retirement before he got into a financial mess?  Despite her highly prized hedge making ability, it wasn’t Indigo who fenced in their first field but Pine, which he promptly filled with the four sheep that no-one had been able to find a home for previously.  This was especially funny since, as the vegetarian of the group, he had planned to make his and arable farm rather than a pastoral farm.  Still sheep are good for wool, so his moral stance was intact, for the moment, at least. Released from Market, Pine’s sheep quickly produced a nice spring lamb for our intrepid veggie farmer, to keep as a pet in his farmhouse.

Agricola
– Image by boardGOATS

Burgundy meanwhile had made use of his special ploughing skills to turn over two fields in one go, but that was about as far as they went for many rounds.  Although he was forced into a fallow strategy (not one that scores any points or subsidies in this game), he wasn’t complaining. That was reserved for anyone else who took the available wood before he could reach it.  This forced Burgundy into becoming a bit of a clay specialist which meant he was able to build an oven before anyone else, something he desperately needed to feed his family since there was so little actual production going on on his farm.  In keeping with his non-farming, farming strategy, Burgundy was also the first to renovate his home, twice in quick succession to a give him a grand two room stone cottage.  Pine and Green followed and extended their wooden shacks. This gave Green room to grow and he became the first player to gain an extra farmer.  Pine quickly followed suit, but his attempts to grow vegetables was being scuppered by everyone else taking the one available “Plough & Sow” space before him. So, with a tear in his eye, he was forced to build an oven and take some of his precious sheep to the abattoir.

Agricola
– Image by BGG contributor HRune

Our farms were slowly growing.  Green still only had one ploughed field and no pastures, but he had learnt several trades, built a number of improvements to his farm and extended his modest cottage to four rooms.  In one move, he upgraded his house to brick and built a clay oven (the one that Indigo had just returned after trading it in for a better model), which enabled him to bake bread and get enough food to feed his burgeoning family.  By this time, Pine had turned into a hardened livestock farmer, his earlier heartache a mere distant memory.  He enclosed his massive second pasture, moved his sheep around and expanded into cattle.  The Master Hedge Maker, Indigo, still had only one pasture and no animals, but the arable part of her mixed farm was very healthy, overflowing with wheat.  The failure of her livestock attempts did not last long either, and she emulated Pine enclosing a large second pasture and captured a couple of wild boar to place in it.

Agricola
– Image by BGG contributor sufertashu

Back on Green’s farm, he had decided that maybe he should do a little farming and finally having got some wood, he built some fences and acquired some pigs. His skill in ceramics had enabled him to get a free pottery and started turning the now unwanted clay into some strange tasting food.  Green then turned his clay house into a stone mansion and quickly fenced in another pasture and got some cattle.  With the game rapidly drawing to a conclusion he had four farmers to work with, but he was still hampered by the availability of resources and actions, often taken by others.  For example, his plans for a third pasture and some sheep were stymied by Pine who nabbed them to add to his ever growing flock.  Meanwhile, Indigo’s farm was flourishing and when she finally got some sheep, it seemed all she needed to to to be able to say she had a finger in every pie was get some some cattle – one was available and she was so keen on it that she let it live with her in her own house.

RedAgricola
– Image by boardGOATS

In contrast, Burgundy’s whole game seamed to have constantly been scuppered at every turn.  Even taking the start token usually only lasted one round and invariably he then seemed to find himself choosing at the end of the round once more. We don’t quite know how he did it, but somehow by the end of the game he had filled every space on his board – clearly he got that wood and fencing in the end.  With only two rounds left, Pine finally moved into wheat and vegetables.  Discussing the game afterwards he commented that he’d been dealt a poor set of cards at the start and on reflection they did look like a very difficult set to work with.  On the other hand, Black on the next table piped up that the cards were not really all that important.  While that may be the case, in this game Green was the winner primarily thanks to having played a great set of cards. In fact, of his forty-three points, he scored twelve from his cards, which was seven more than anyone else.  In contrast, Indigo’s balanced farm netted her a solid second place, just six points behind.  Were the cards that important?  We’ll play it again sometime soon and maybe find out.

Agricola
– Image by BGG contributor nolemonplease

On the other table, meanwhile, The Voyages of Marco Polo was getting a second outing after its introduction at our last meeting.  The game is played over five rounds with players recreating Marco Polo’s journey to China via Jerusalem and Mesopotamia and over the “Silk Road”.  Each player has a different character and special power in the game.  Each round, the players roll their five personal dice and can perform use them to perform one action each per turn.  The actions include:  gathering resources, gathering camels, earning money, buying purchase orders and travelling.  The game ends with players receiving victory points for arriving in Beijing, fulfilling the most purchase orders, and having visited the cities on secret city cards that each player gets at the start of the game.

The Voyages of Marco Polo
– Image used with permission of
BGG contributor bovbossi

Purple (who also played last time) decided to try the teleporting trader, Johannes Caprini again and work more on getting contracts.  Last time, we realised that taking an action first was a huge benefit because it avoided the problem of having to pay to take actions.  So, after that, Black chose Berke Kahn which would allow him to choose actions already taken without having to pay.   Scarlet, who was new to the game, opted for Wilhelm von Rubruk (played by Black last time) for the extra trading stations.  Also new to the game, Pink, felt that having an extra die and contract each round would give her the edge, and chose with Matteo Polo.

The Voyages of Marco Polo
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

Despite her teleporting ability, Purple was unable to get to Beijing, but she was the only one who hadn’t made it across the board for the extra points by the end of the game.  It seemed her extra experience could not help her make full use of her special power as she failed to complete her second destination card as well.  Reading opinion of this character on BoardGameGeek, it seems Purple’s fondness of this character is rather misplaced, as it seems to be universally felt to be a poor one to get to work.  Scarlet had done rather better with his choice it seems, although he just failed to get his extra houses out, which is a tough ask in this game.  Others who play this character seem to get varied results, though perhaps for people that can make it work, it can do really well, but otherwise it can trip players up.  The general opinion on Matteo Polo also appears to be good; sometimes it can work really well, but it is never a hindrance.  Pink, however, just struggled to get the game to work for her and it just didn’t seem to fire her enthusiasm. She failed to complete either of her destinations and only managed to place three “houses” and generally found the game difficult all the way through.

The Voyages of Marco Polo
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor henk.rolleman

Looking back at the last time we played, as well as Johannes Caprini and Wilhelm von Rubrukand, we used Mercator ex Tabriz and Kublai Kahn.  Mercator ex Tabriz (who gives the player a free resource when others use the market) seems to be widely regarded as the best character, however, Pine really struggled with him. In contrast, Kublai Kahn appears to be seen as a middling character, who is very reliant on how the city bonuses fall – last time they fell well for Green who made good use of them, but the character could be a lot less effective if the bonuses were less favourable.  There are two characters we have not yet played, Raschid-ad-Din Sinan and the pairing of Niccolo and Marco Polo.  Even though Raschid-ad-Din Sinan looks good (he allows the player to choose their own dice values), it seems most players only rate him average.  Maybe it’s because poor dice rolls can be compensated for and turn into good ones, so the actual values rolled are of less consequence to the game than might be thought initially.  The pairing of Niccolo and Marco Polo can be difficult to make work as two characters does not mean twice the resources, quite the opposite and they can get stuck in a city, although with less players it is felt they might do better (as there are less opponents to steal the city bonuses first).

The Voyages of Marco Polo
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor henk.rolleman

So clearly, although some characters might have a tendency to be more useful than others, ultimately success depends on circumstances and how well the player uses that character.  This was also the case for this, our second game where Black finished first with a massive fifty-eight points, a combination of a good character played effectively. On the geek there seems to be a general consensus that Berke Khan is one of the top characters in this game, demonstrating others appreciate the power of not having to pay for actions. With Agricola still a few rounds from finishing, there was time for a quick game of Click & Crack, a game of simultaneous action selection game in which the players control two penguins each, walking around on a big ice floe – a cold arctic game to contrast with the heat of the eastern deserts.

Click & Crack
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor aleacarv

Learning Outcome:  Sometimes it is best to put even the most deep-seated moral objections to one side for the duration of a game…