Ah, the Middle Ages. A time for knights and ladies, lances and castles… turnips and mutton? Yes, it’s high time we had a game about how the other 90% lived. If you’ve always wanted to play a struggling peasant family living on the edge of starvation, then Agricola is the game for you.
Agricola is a faithful translation of a popular board game by Uwe Rosenberg. You play peasants looking to better their lot in life by growing crops, raising animals, having children, and improving their farm. You start with two family members, who each do one thing during each round of the game. There’s a lot to do and never enough hands to do it, so you face a constant struggle to gather resources and score victory points while keeping food on the table.
In board game circles, this is known as a worker placement game. It’s a popular genre because it lets players develop complex strategies by making simple choices. You may have 10 different things to do on any given turn, such as gathering wood, fishing for food, plowing a field, or buying some sheep. However, it’s easy to narrow those options down to the one or two choices that will benefit you. Each turn moves along quickly, and good planning is rewarded.
One drawback of worker placement games is that they can be dry. You look at a board with a lot of spaces and text on it, then you put a pawn in the space and follow the instructions. That’s not too interesting, but it’s an issue that developer Playdek has addressed. Instead of looking at a board, you’re looking at a lively little village full of huts and townsfolk. You still have pawns to place, but now they’re visiting the plowman or the shepherd instead of sitting in an empty space on a board.
The attention to aesthetics is not completely practical. The village extends over several screen widths, forcing you to swipe back and forth to find the places you want your peasants to go. However, it adds character and charm to the game.
Computerizing Agricola also fixes its greatest flaw, which is the number of physical components players have to deal with. The game is full of cards and tokens, and it’s a nightmare to keep track of them in the real world. The app handles everything for you, leaving you free to focus on beating the game.
That will take a while. The AI opponents are decent, and there’s a solo mode that challenges you to win the game with progressively higher scores. There’s a lot you can do with this game without ever going online looking for human opponents.
Unfortunately, you’re likely to be a little disappointed if you do join some online multiplayer games. Playdek has set up a good matchmaking system, and the games are fun when all the players are present. You’re more likely to play an asynchronous game, though, and that quickly turns into a slog.
The short turns that make Agricola a fun synchronous game are a liability in asynchronous play. Placing one pawn and passing to the next player just isn’t enough entertainment to be worth logging in for. The difference is especially noticeable when you compare Agricola to Ascension, another Playdek game that uses a similar interface but lets you do a lot more each turn.
Even without a solid multiplayer experience, Agricola is a lot of fun. The strategy is complex, but the game is easy to learn. It’s just too bad that you can’t have more fun playing real humans.