Friday, August 10, 2012

Board Game Review: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

Uwe Rosenberg is a well recognized name in the board game business. His first major hit, Agricola, still sits at #2 on the BoardGameGeek list of highest rated board games. He followed that up with other notable titles: Le Havre, At the Gates of Loyang, and Ora & Labora. His most recent addition in his popular series of work-themed games is a sort of spin-off title of his first game of medieval farming, Agricola.

Rosenberg's new title is Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small. It takes gameplay elements from the original Agricola, narrows down the theme, and simplifies a few things to make a much quicker game. It is also strictly for two players. In effect, this game attempts to capture the basic gameplay of Agricola while making it more approachable, quicker, and better designed so two players can enjoy it. The question is, though... Does it work?

Inside the Stable

Holy cow! Animeeples!
The game comes with all of the bits necessary for two players to play the game. There is an action board, two starting farms, farm expansion pieces, wooden tokens for resources, cardboard tokens for notable buildings, and a big bag full of animeeples. Although there are a significant number of the different wooden tokens, there are also cardboard chits for representing larger numbers of beasts and resources. Running out of bits its generally not a concern in this game as it comes with enough of everything to play the game.

For those unfamiliar, animeeples are little wooden pieces cut into the shape of animals that they are meant to represent. When the original Agricola was released in the United States, it came with wooden cubes for the animals. Although the original publisher provided animeeples as a preorder bonus, it was not until years later that another company shipped an "expansion" for Agricola that included the animeeples. So, for this new Agricola game, animeeples are the standard playing piece.

Old school Agricola animeeples, once highly prized.
The game sets up relatively quickly out of the box after a little cardboard punch out. Each player begins with a farm board, containing a bunch of open field spaces and a cottage. The main action board has a number of action spaces, some of which require placing resources on them every round (refilling, as it is called). Each player takes a set of three worker discs, representing the three workers on his or her farm. They each also get nine border pieces (long yellow wooden pieces representing fences). At that point, the game is set up and ready to play.

The game setup at the start. Liter of beer not included.
Eight Rounds of Farming

The game plays out over eight rounds. Each rounds has three (or, apparently, four) parts. In the first phase, spaces on the main action board are refilled with resources. Every space is filled with a certain amount of resources every turn, such as "3 Wood" or "1 Border." These resource spaces accumulate over time, so if a space is not taken during a round, it will have even more on the next turn. Players of the original Agricola will find this quite familiar. Some of the resource spaces accumulate a bit differently, though. They get one type of resource if the space is empty but a different type if the space is filled. It keeps certain types of things (such as more valuable horses or cows) from accumulating too quickly.

Once the first phase of the round is complete, the game moves into the main part of the game: the action phase. Here, players take turns placing their workers (the red or blue discs) on spaces on the action board. Actions let you claim the resources on the space, get specific resources from the supply, or build things on your farm such as buildings and fences. Everything seems relatively simple and I found it can be a little confusing at first as to what actions are best to take. But, like any Rosenberg game, it does not take long to at least figure out something that looks like it will work for you.

Agricola: ACBaS during the fifth round of play.
Building resources like stone, wood, and reed, can be stored with no limit but animals have to be put in pastures, stalls, or stables. As animals are the thing that get you points at the end of the game, the bulk of the game experience will be creating places to store animals and then claiming animals from the resource spaces. Stalls and stables are special buildings that are built on the farm board and allow storage of a few animals. Pastures are built by fencing in an area and allow the storage of a certain number of animals per space of the pasture. Feeding troughs can be built in a pasture or on a building to double the storage capacity of that pasture or building. The key is to optimize your farm to get as many animals on it by the end of the eighth round.

My farm, late game. Lots of sheep and horses, a couple of pigs, and
one notorious "house cow." Not sure what a "house cow" might be.
The game also provides four "special buildings" that can be built on a farm using a specific action space. These one-of-a-kind buildings are not necessary but provide bonus points, bonus animals, or additional storage for animals. These buildings provide different options and provide a good opportunity for players to diversify their plans from one another.

At the end of each round, players take all of their workers back (the "Home phase") and then have the "breeding phase," where new animals are born. If a player has two or more of a type of animal, they can get one additional animal of that type. Thus, investing in an animal early will yield bonus animals throughout the game. The only unfortunate part of the breeding phase is that animals for which there is no room "run away" and are lost. So, a player has to ensure that there is room in the stables for the new creatures. After breeding, the round is over and play continues to the next round, starting with the refill phase.

At Game's End. As it ends up, we tied, but I lost because I had the starting
player token in the first round. My farm was cooler, anyway.
The game continues for a total of eight rounds, readily tracked by the extra border space. At the beginning of the game, eight extra border pieces are set aside and one is placed on the extra border action space each round. Thus, when you place the last border on the space, you know you have come to the last round of the game. Once that is over, final scoring occurs.

The game scores relatively simple. You get one point for each and every animal you have. You also get bonus points for certain buildings on your farm. There are bonus points (and potential negative points) dependent on how many of each type of animal you have. Finally, there are fixed bonus points for filling every space of any expansion boards that you may have picked up through the game. Generally, your points come from getting lots of animals.

In Comparison to Agricola

Agricola: ACBaS captures a lot of the gameplay principles as its predecessor, Agricola, with a few notable changes. Some of those changes are actually quite pleasant while some of them feel somewhat limiting. For those unfamiliar with the original Agricola, these comments may not have much context, but they illustrate some interesting features and unfortunate parts of the game.

No need to fear the
Begging card!
Where the original Agricola required that you feed your family members, ACBaS has eliminated that. There are no feeding requirements in Agricola: ACBaS. It tends to make the game less frustrating because you no longer have to spend every few rounds worrying about food. Instead, you can focus entirely on getting the most animals.

Not having to worry about meeting some minimum resource threshold every turn does change the overall feel of the game round. In a game like Agricola or Le Havre, it often feels like most of the turn is spent stressing about meeting the end of round feeding requirement. Some players may find that kind of situation engaging or interesting as it continuously gives you short-term challenges to face. After a few games of ACBaS, I actually came to find the lack of a feeding requirement to lead to a much more entertaining game. I could put together more coherent long term strategies instead of constantly stressing about avoiding the starvation penalty. So, in that regard, it was a nice change.

Agricola: ACBaS has no random elements in it. Agricola itself had randomly dealt "Occupation" cards and "Minor Improvements." Le Havre had randomly selected "special buildings" which could impact your potential strategy. Several of the people I played with felt that although the game had a lot going for it, the lack of any sort of random elements as in Agricola or Le Havre created a certain lack of depth. I could imagine a pro Agricola player finding a "best" strategy, or perhaps a small number of "best" strategies, and continuously repeating those strategies. Perhaps Rosenberg already has plans for a ACBaS expansion that includes something akin to the Occupation/Minor Improvement system in original Agricola, but its lack here does seem to limit the game experience.

Fans of the original Agricola will also notice that this game has brought horses from the original Agricola expansion, Farmers of the Moor. As with the original Agricola, horses are simply the most "valuable" animal in the gaming, granting the player bonus points at the end for an overall smaller number of horses. As the game focuses exclusively on animal husbandry, it would have probably been too limiting to only have the original three animals (sheep, pigs, and cows), so the inclusion of horses was nice.

That's right. This horse has a bum leg. I spent some time
trying to find the Glue Factory special building in my set.

Agricola makes Medieval Farming fun (again?)

After a few games of Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, I can honestly say that it is a really good contribution to the Rosenberg library of games. It is a quick game in comparison to most of his titles, it plays well with two, and it has enough going on to give you quite the Rosenberg worker placement experience. Playing ACBaS really does feel like playing any other Rosenberg worker placement game, but a bit lighter. Further, it's quick to set up (unlike a game such as Le Havre). It also falls considerably cheaper on the price range, coming in at roughly $40 USD.

All that being said, the game does have a few negative points. For a two player game in a relatively modest box, it seems bit pricier than I would have expected. Everything about the box says "$30 game" except the price tag, but Rosenberg games have always had a history of being priced in a seemingly high fashion. The lack of any random elements like Occupations or Minor Improvements distresses the long-term replayability of the game, but we all felt that this will be quickly remedied in some sort of expansion.

Overall, I consider it to be a really great title and I recommend it for anybody interested in worker placement games, especially if you wanted something a bit lighter than the typical worker placement fare. It's biggest flaw will likely be remedied over time, whether it be through new "special building" expansions or some new random element, making the game a worthwhile purchase and worthy contribution to practically any game library.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! Thanks! I've wanted to buy Agricola for some time now, but the price tag is just a bit too high. After reading your review, I think I might just grab a copy of ACBaS!