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!