How to play Agricola - (Or how I learned not to worry about feeding the family)!
The above statement is of course a lie, in Agricola feeding ones family is not only essential but difficult at times, and failure to do so will result in potentially crippling victory point losses. For those who do not know Agricola, it is a worker placement game about managing a farm, developing and expanding the farm, and keeping the family fed and growing.
This guide is going to cover the basic game, not the simpler family game or any of the variant rules. Agricola is not a hard game to play, the rules are fairly straightforward, but what hides behind it is a really challenging game with some difficult decisions to be made and a continual pressure between conflicting desires.
Set-up is going to vary a little depending on the number of players with additional spaces that can be used by workers for two, three, four and five players, the more players the more possible actions. Other than this set-up is always the same:
- Set-up the three main game boards, and place Action Cards on these boards according to the number of players, and Round Cards for each Stage of play randomly and face down in associated Round – there will be four in Stage one, three in Stage two and so on.
- Place the major improvement board next to the main boards and place the Major Improvement cards on it.
- Sort the Occupation cards according to the number of players, shuffle and deal seven face down to each player.
- Shuffle the Minor Improvement cards and deal eight face down to each player.
- Place the Begging cards face up near the board.
- Give each player their set of coloured wooden tokens comprising of five family member discs, four stables and 15 fences. Give each player a farmyard board on which they place two wood house rooms in the indicated spaces and one worker disc in each of those rooms.
- Decide who is going to be first player, give that player the First Player Token and two Food tokens, and give each other player three Food tokens.
- Give each player a game summary card.
Some Thoughts on Set-up
There are only two random aspects in Agricola, the order that Action Cards are turned over each turn and the initial dealing of occupations and minor improvements. Everything else is visible and known.
- Try to plan to make the most of the occupation and minor improvement cards you have been dealt, especially because these may make you less dependent on grabbing resources or food from the main board.
- If there is any obvious synergy between any of the occupation and/or minor improvement cards, or between these and the major improvement cards consider working towards these and do bear in mind any costs or prerequisites.
- Give very serious consideration towards playing any occupations or minor improvements which help in obtaining food – food will always be in short supply.
Gameplay is actually very simple. Play is split into four phases in each round and after a set number of rounds there is the Harvest Phase, and after 14 rounds and a final Harvest the game ends with scoring.
- Phase One - Round start. Draw a new round card and turn it over.
- Phase Two - Replenish. Place resources on Actions and Action cards. Do remember that if resources have not been taken they still get replenished in subsequent rounds, and that resources such as "take on grain" do not need to be placed on Actions or Action Cards – these are simply taken from supply.
- Phase Three - Work phase. Beginning with the starting player, place a single family member on an Action or Action Card, and take the resources or action(s) associated with it. Remember that only one family member can be played on any Action or Action Card.
- Phase Four - Return home. Once all family members have been placed and actions taken, all family members then return to their home farm.
Repeat this process until the Harvest.
After rounds four, seven, nine, 11, 13 and 14, the Harvest takes place. Harvest is split into three phases:
- Harvest Phase One - Field. Players remove one grain or vegetable token from each sown field in their farm containing these resources. Players may also receive additional food from occupation or minor improvement cards that have played.
- Harvest Phase Two - Feeding. Each player must feed each of their family members. The cost is two food per family member, with it reduced to one food for any family member who has not as yet taken an action, (having been born on rounds four, seven, six, 11, 13 or 14). Each unprocessed grain or vegetable can be converted to one food. Fireplaces, cooking hearths as well as some occupations and minor improvements allow players to convert resources to food at a better rate. Some of these can also be used to convert animals to food at any time. Do remember that normally improvements with the bake bread symbol can only be used with the bake bread action and cannot normally be used to bake bread during the Harvest phase. A player who cannot or does not want to produce the required food must take 1 begging card for each missing food, and players may not give up family members.
- Harvest Phase Three - Breeding. Any player with at least two animals of any kind in their farm at this point receives exactly one addition animal of that type but only if that additional animal can be accommodated. This new animal may not immediately be converted into food in order to get around the need to be accommodated.
Thoughts on Gameplay
What you need to bear in mind is that Agricola is a victory point game. There are various ways of collecting victory points and strategy may well depend on what Minor Improvements and Occupations were dealt to any particular player. However there are certain principles to keep in mind:
- Having five family members will net a whopping great 15 victory points.
- Having five stone house rooms will net 10 victory points and remember that generally speaking you cannot have more family members than house rooms, so you need those rooms for the above.
- With grain, vegetables, sheep, boar and cattle the difference between having one and having 0 for each of these is two victory points. This is because having no cattle results in a score of minus one whereas having one cattle scores one point. For this reason it is generally a good idea to try to collect at least one of each of these.
- Every time you fail to feed your family, for each food missing you must take a begging card and for each of these you are in all probability going to lose three victory points. Try to avoid this.
- If you don’t have occupations or minor improvements that are immediately beneficial especially to food production don’t worry. Others in the game probably have. This does not matter a great deal because whilst they are using their actions and resources to get those down, you can grab other stuff. There is a great deal to be said for having grabbed all the building resources, wood, clay and/or stone.
- If you do have occupations and minor improvements that are immediately beneficial to food production get them in play as soon as you can. There is a lot of pressure on the need to feed, having a route to food that is secure is very worthwhile.
- Being first player in any turn is useful, as is selecting the first player and minor improvement action. Keep resources in stock to ensure that a minor improvement can be paid for.
- The only random factor after initial set up is the order action cards are exposed. Don’t count on a card coming out early.
- Remember that you always know how many actions you have before the harvest phase and the need to feed your family so you can plan towards this, but bear in mind if it involves collecting all those sheep in the last turn another player might beat you to them.
- Putting fences around a stable not only nets victory points but allows that pasture to hold additional animals – remember that only one type of animal may be in one fenced (enclosed) pasture.
- If you have had the good fortune in any phase you have done all you need to do, there are two potentially useful things to do. One is stockpile resources for the future the other is to take an action an opponent was likely to need. Denial of actions is a perfectly good strategy.
- Turn order can be really important, and of course turn order can be manipulated. Use this to your advantage.
Agricola and Decision Paralysis
It is very easy to attempt to overthink in Agricola and to agonise over the best strategy. So going back to my original descriptor of “how I learned not to worry about feeding the family,” perhaps this was not so much of a lie. The reality is this; Agricola is only as difficult as you make it, and generally speaking if your mind is working on massively convoluted multi step strategies then the reality is these strategies are in all probability not going to work.
Keep it simple, feed the family, grow the family, grow the house and gather other stuff as you go along. Oh, and if come final scoring you maybe miss out on an extra one or two victory points by not having at some point agonised for 10 minutes over a decision you will in all probability have given you and your fellow players a far more positive experience – so go with the flow, go with the growth, and worry less.