Boxed Worlds: Agricola

The joy of stress

The best online resource for the game-obsessed is easily BoardGameGeek.com which uses two different rating systems to rank games: the average rating and the geek rating. That second one is almost always the lower of the two and usually rewards games that are all about pure strategy — games where every decision matters and you only have yourself to blame when things inevitably fall apart.

Agricola (2007 Z-Man Games) is a pretty unassuming game to occupy the No. 3 spot on the BoardGameGeek charts. The top two are a Cold War-era spy sim and a sweeping civilization-building epic. In Agricola you’re a farmer. You plant crops and build fences for the sheep boar and cattle that you’re hoping to acquire. Every so often you might have a kid. It is on the surface low key.

It’s also one of the most stressful gaming experiences I’ve ever had. That’s partly because of the more intimate setting — worrying about an invading goblin army is one thing but it’s got nothing on worrying that your family is on the brink of starvation even if your family members are just round bits of wood. More importantly though it’s stressful because you’re perpetually a few actions shy of properly setting up your farm. Just when you’re on the verge of building a new room to house your newborn the harvest comes along and you have to scrap your plans to scrape together enough food to survive for one more season. You get more turns by having more kids but each one takes up space and food so growing your family too quickly can turn into a nightmare.

In each round of Agricola there is a certain set of actions available to each player from sowing fields to baking bread to expanding your house. The trouble is each action can only be taken by one player. So if you were counting on using that oven to turn your grain into food and someone else steals that space first you might be forced into begging for scraps. And if you’ve been forced to beg it’s almost impossible to recover.

It’s not exactly fun in any traditional sense but it’s attracted an obsessive following. There are currently over 4000 discussion threads (not posts threads) about the game on the BoardGameGeek site and still more on the iPhone and online adaptations as players talk about common mistakes and try to hone their strategies. It’s the kind of fanbase that will heatedly debate not just whether the four-player game is better than the two-player but whether a two-player game even counts as true Agricola.

So what is it that leads to that obsession? I think it comes down to the sense of ownership for your actions. There’s so little left to chance that you can’t help but blame yourself for every failure and while some find that frustrating others think “I know I can do better next time.” Every round teaches you a little bit more and you manage to hold in the chaos a little bit longer. Then when you’re finally close to feeling good about your new farm the game’s over. And you do it again.