Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Agricola - Initial Thoughts

Finally got to play Agricola at Chris' last night - 2.5 hours for five players, about what I'm told we should expect. Not bad considering two of us were playing for the first time, although I do *not* think that we slowed the game down that much compared to the other players. This is a very tactical game in some ways, as I learned on pretty much a turn by turn basis.

First off, thanks to Chris for his superhuman efforts in getting his German edition (won on Saturday night in Eugene) ready in time to play on Tuesday. Quite a feat given that his family had new carpeting installed on Monday. There were a *lot* of cards, as we used the Easy deck of minor improvements and occupations.

Second off, I came in fourth of five, with Mike trailing me by a handful of points. I'm told 29 points for a first game is pretty good, but considering that George came in with 33 after following what looked like the Vriese-patented "Let's try *this*" strategy, I don't consider it that great of a score. Ian came in with 48 (IIRC), and Chris with 57, so the rest of us were clearly using sub-optimal strategies.

As for the game, I was whelmed. Chris assures me that I am wrong, but I see a couple of serious problems, at least one that I experienced directly. My first problem was that I think there is potential for this game to have the same problem Settlers has - one player gets screwed early, and they are doomed for the rest of the game. In my case, I spent literally three harvest cycles trying to get an extra house built and populated. I finally did it with three turns left. As such, everyone but Mike had more cycles (people) working for at least four or five turns before I started to catch up. And believe me, this game is *all* about cycles. Like Formula De, every cycle you blow (similar to missing entering a corner in the racing game) puts you further behind.

The problem with building a house and getting it populated is that it takes a lot of cycles. You need two reeds, five wood and the build action just to get the extra room put on, then you need to get the populate action. That's four actions, which late in the game is an entire harvest cycle, leaving no room for baking bread or getting food if you don't have another way to do it. That means you need to somehow, with all of the other players doing exactly the same thing, try to get those four cycles out of 20, done. Those of you with higher math skills see immediately that *everyone* will be trying to get these goods/actions, and everyone will have in essence one shot - harder if you consider that only one reed can be gotten each turn unless someone skipped the previous turn, and that you are likely to only get four wood in a given action.

And this is for *one* addition. Chris had three. Of course, once you get one offspring, you get more cycles, so whoever gets their bundle of joy last is already working at a disadvantage for a good part of the game. That was clearly the case for Mike and I, who were the last to add offspring (although I came after Mike but scored higher than he did). Conversely, the two players who added offspring early, Chris and Ian, did very well. More cycles are good in this game, it is the measure of how much you can do over the course of the game and there was a direct correlation between cycles and success in our game.

The other problem I had, and I personified it quite effectively, was what happens if you draw a bunch of minor improvements and occupations that are a complete mess. And i do mean a mess. I got exactly five cards played the entire game, one of which was free (chief's daughter for 1 point) and two of which were play-and-pass (Stable and Mini-Pasture). I also played the Farmer (free livestock, which was an obvious focus) and Woodchopper (which I used twice over the entire game). I also ended up with two major improvements, a Fireplace that morphed into a Professional Gas Cookrange later on (or whatever it is). The rest of my cards were pretty much useless, like a woodstove (only useful if you have no other choices as all it does is bake bread) and several cards that all did the same thing - plowing multiple fields with a single action. The occupations weren't much better - the Cook let me blow off one food for each offspring, which I neither had any of, nor needed once I did.

In comparison, Mike played something like seven cards, but everyone else was closing in on ten cards played each. In other words, they had useful cards, or cards that worked well together, while I put down my hand after about the eighth turn when I realized they were a complete waste of my time in this particular game. What I find interesting is that the cards are used with the *advanced* rules, meaning that they make the game more strategic, at least in theory. I think they add wackiness and instability to the game, at least if they are used as the rules state.

While I like the general idea of occupations and minor improvements, what I don't understand is why the designer didn't use a drafting mechanism instead, giving everyone an equal shot at the cards. All you have to do is not deal out cards, but instead have a row of seven occupations and seven minor improvements. When you take one of those actions, you get to pick a card, and it gets replaced in the draft from the deck so there are always seven cards. If there are seven crap cards out, everyone suffers equally. Yes, it is possible for one or two good cards to get snapped up quickly with seven bad cards left, but I don't think that's as big of a problem as someone having a useless hand. You'd have to do something with the start player/minor improvement choice (it seems strange that drawing a card would give you first crack next turn as well), so perhaps this variant would need some fleshing out, but I think it's necessary to level the playing field.

If you think that not playing cards just gives you cycles for doing other things, you are absolutely correct. However, keep in mind that some of the actions you'd spend cycles on have probably been taken already, so often your only real choices are to do an improvement or get an occupation. In other words, I had several actions that were simply not available to me as the game went on simply because I had a bad hand. In a short game, I can forgive this sort of thing, but not in a 2+ hour game.

Don't get me wrong, I think Agricola is a fine game and I'm likely to pick up a copy when the English version comes out (hopefully with some component fixes - the scoring track on the action board is a sick joke with type that I couldn't have made out in my 20's, much less my 40's - I didn't even know there were numbers on the icons, they were so small, and I was sitting close to it). I am extremely unlikely to play it willingly with five again, as I felt there was far too much downtime for what was almost certainly going to be a tactical choice of actions once everyone had taken the three I'd had in mind. I just think that the game needs a few tweaks, not a good thing for something that's been kicking around for years. Make the occupations and improvements drafts instead of hands, and make it easier to get reeds (this was my main problem with building an addition and getting an offspring).

Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps I'm missing something. Given my understanding of the importance of having actions/cycles in this game and the vagaries of the card deal, I don't think so. I think this game is an 8.5 right now, certainly not the 9.5 or 10 some are giving it, but it could have made that extra point if I thought that the game didn't have a fifth-wheel problem a la Settlers.

I expect a few comments now!


Chris Brooks said...

You know I have to comment...

1) I think you are rushing judgment with too little experience with the game to back up the concerns. That said, I've only played the game 4 times myself so I need to play it more to see if it holds up as well as I think it does.

2) Yes, extra cycles are good. I think you are underestimating the number of choices you had earlier in the game to set yourself up - I'm surprised you are writing this off to "5th player gets hosed" or "I got bad cards" rather than "I didn't realize I needed to do X, Y, and Z and it was my first game so I'll try and do better next time." For example, you complain that you couldn't get reeds, but I know that early in the game there were a few times I took reeds on my 2nd action, which means they were available to you. This is OK - it was your first game! I just wouldn't be so quick to blame the system itself until you've had a for my times around the block with it.

KuifjePDX said...

"I'm told 29 points for a first game is pretty good, but considering that George came in with 33 after following what looked like the Vriese-patented "Let's try *this*" strategy, I don't consider it that great of a score."

Now THAT'S a slam if there ever was one...;-)

But aside from that, it may show that, since I had no clue about the dynamics of the game either, the system is forgiving enough to find an alternate path to improve one's performance. I only got to use my fourth disc last three rounds. And disc number five came out at the very last harvest.

For nearly half the game I was wandering (and wondering) what to do to improve my position. I never sowed or harvested and only built three pastures (one with the mini-pasture card, the other one because I happened to get a wood windfall) and had one field.

I did have a reasonable combo in cards, but I did decide early on in the game to spend the extra bucks and buy an expensive improvement rather than going the cheaper route and upgrade later. But I only made use of the special power of that improvement twice (exchanging live stock for food) and the card itself gave me one victory point.

And you took quite a few actions that I wanted to take.

Eric said...

I have yet to play Agricola (an affliction I'm hoping to cure soon) but the comments are sounding a lot like what it's like to learn Roads and Boats.

The first few times you play, nearly everything you do is sub-optimal and only experience shows you how to improve and decrease the amount of time it takes to produce those stock certificates.

I'm guessing that the big difference here is the introduction of randomness via the cards. It would seem to be easier to blame the cards for being "stuck" in the early game when it's really just unfamiliarity with how the pieces of the system interlock and develop over time. Race for the Galaxy is not dissimilar here, but is much shorter - thus making the learning curve shorter in real time.

Of course, not having played (or really even looked into the game with any sort of depth) I could be completely off base.

This comment thread does, however, illustrate a trend that has increasingly disturbed me over time - the willingness to write off games too quickly. I can't think of a single deep game worth long-term play that didn't take at least two or three playings to really understand. I fully expect to not grok Agricola for at least three to five plays.

Dug said...

I'm aware that this is a deep game, that will take several plays before I start to build good strategies. That's really not my point.

I'm saying that from what I can see of the game's mechanisms, not from my sub-optimal play, that I see two problems that create an asymmetrical game fairly early on. One is that the game looks to leave one player in the lurch *even if they know what they are doing* because of the scarcity of actions and the need to build extra cycles as early as possible. Second is that the cards can give one player advantages through fortuitous combinations, or can be useless.

The first concern will be borne out (or not) through repeated play, and word is that this is not the case (although it's too early to tell). The second concern is apparent, repeated over and over through numerous games that use the same technique. Ticket to Ride: Switzerland is an excellent example - you get the right cards that repeat your routes and you win easily.

In my game, I had exactly *one* card out of 14 that was effective throughout the game, plus two that had very short or minor uses. None of the cards worked well as a combo, and most were very expensive to get out (required three occupations when I didn't *have* three occupations that were useful). In other words, I started the game with a handicap, there is simply no other way to put it.

There are games that leverage this asymmetry, but usually there are other factors involved. Red Dragon Inn is a good example - everyone has cards that do different things, but they are *designed* to be separate decks. I'm just saying I'd like to see the cards in Agricola *not* create an asymmetrical situation, as a poor hand creates other handicaps beyond just the cards - less likely to play to take first position, fewer actions you have to choose from, etc. I don't think this particular game element can be defended in a "serious" game (as opposed to, say, Red Dragon Inn, which is clearly not serious).

Again, I'm not writing off the game, and I'm definitely not pointing out design flaws to justify my mediocre performance (although I'm fairly certain I could have scored another 10 points at least had I been able to do what I wanted to do). I'm saying that I have one concern about the potential for one player to get left behind a la Settlers, and that the cards create an asymmetric position for the players. The first may or may not be true, and would be difficult to fix, the second is clearly true and may be fixable through picking those cards via a draft. I will definitely play the game again, but I'll want to do it with four players and I'll keep on eye on how well cards played corresponds to results.

Dave said...

"[T]he cards can give one player advantages through fortuitous combinations, or can be useless."

*cough* New Sparta *cough*

Chris Brooks said...

the cards create an asymmetric position for the players

Yes, I guess that's a true statement. Is there a game involving cards that doesn't create such a position? You could make the same comment about every CDG, Race for the Galaxy, Tichu, etc. What about Agricola makes this such an annoying problem? I don't think you've done enough analysis of the cards yet to assert that this creates an overwhelming imbalance (i.e., one that can't be overcome by strong play).

Dug said...

Chris responds to my comment about the cards creating an asymmetric situation in Agricola thusly - "Is there a game involving cards that doesn't?" Or words to that effect.

There are two ways to defend my position, I'll take both of them. Interestingly, both defenses relate to how chaos is added into a game, from both the perspective of a lot and a little.

Let's take the "mucho chaos" position first. Tichu is an excellent example, as are all games that rely exclusively on cards. In Tichu, you get multiple hands of cards over the course of the game. While you are not guaranteed to get a good hand at any time, the odds that you *will* get a fortuitous hand are significantly higher than if you only get a single hand (as you do in Agricola). The same goes for games that involve dice - having only a few rolls makes for *increased* odds that you will get screwed (Mike and I have had this argument before when it comes to "buckets of dice" games). Phalanx's First World War is an excellent example of a game that had a handful of critical dice rolls (to see if the war ended), one of the reasons why it is no longer in my collection.

On the other hand, there are definitely cases where a small amount of chaos in a game adds a lot. Agricola itself provides an excellent example - the way in which the various action cards come into play. However, this is a case where all players are dealt the same hand, so to speak. We all have to deal with the deal, as it were. The Occupation and Minor Improvements, however, are player-specific and thus imbalance the game by giving different players opportunities while denying them to others.

As a corollary, note that my problem with AoE3 also has to do with the introduction of chaos into a system that doesn't need it otherwise. The entire Discovery mechanism, a central tenet of the game that is required for the players to move forward, contains such a wide range of results that luck plays a significant factor in the game. While you can choose not to participate, there is the danger that if everyone chooses that path that the game becomes small indeed - everyone sends colonists to the Caribbean and nowhere else! While I don't think that Agricola is quite so egregious in it's flaws, it's not far off.

Chris also mentioned CDGs. I ignore this case out of hand for the simple reason that these are historical strategy games (hard to call Twilight Struggle or 1960 a "wargame"), and thus are simulating to some extent what is already an asymmetric situation. The cards definitely have an effect on how these games progress (many of my wins in Hannibal have come from a good hand in the final round), but those games are narrative rather than competitive, at least to some extent. I accept the wackiness that is the card deck going in as I know that the story the game tells is what I'm really after, not play balance (as it is in Euros).

That is not to say that I haven't found issues in wargames. Paths of Glory has a particularly strange rule that penalizes the Central Powers units being out of supply at the end of the turn right after the Allies get their go. In other words, the CP can lose units with no chance to salvage their position, while the AP has no such onus. The designer refuses to change any of the rules (although he did change the rule in the WWII ETO game based on the same system). He has also said that this was *not* a design decision, that the situation simply never came up. That doesn't change the fact that the CP has to operate under a more stringent set of conditions for the entire game with no historical or even conscious design goal behind it. I simply change the supply check so that it occurs after the sixth CP play rather than after the sixth AP play of the turn, just like in Barbarossa to Berlin. A simple fix that improves the game.

Fortunately, Agricola has a similar fix. Instead of giving out a hand of occupations and minor improvements to each player, use a draft pool of eight cards of each type. When someone takes a minor improvement or occupation, refresh the pile. You can draw blind from the deck if you choose to. Then just put a limit on how many of each type each player can have. Refresh the pools with cards from the deck as they are taken. Like the action cards, this now becomes chaos that is common to every player.

If you still don't agree with me, consider this: Play Die Macher with exactly the same rules, but in this case mix up the contribution and shadow cabinet cards, then deal them out randomly to each player at the start of the game. That's the overall effect that Agricola achieves. Some players get good combos or useful cards, while others don't. Perhaps I'm just incapable of seeing how this is a good thing in this particular game.