Agricola is among the top-rated board games on Boardgamegeek’s rankings, and one of the best-reviewed board games ever released, a complex strategy game with very little luck or randomness involved that requires players to make a ton of difficult decisions. I like the game, but I’ve never rated it as highly on my own rankings because of its extreme complexity: The decisions and tradeoffs are so tight, the game straddles the line between play and work. A successful game brings as much relief (that you didn’t screw it up) as pleasure (which is the point of games, no?), and it can take two hours to play a four-person game, more if you don’t really know what you’re doing. The design of the game is brilliant – it is so balanced, and the idea of forcing players to choose among a host of imperfect options, accepting that they can never check all the boxes, is pretty unusual even with all of the games on the market. But good grief is it frustrating to play, even when you’re doing it right.
Playdek just released its long-promised Agricola iOS app earlier this week, and as adaptations go, it’s just about perfect. The app runs smoothly, without a single crash through a half-dozen games so far. Rules and requirements are easy to access within the game. The graphics are superb, very clear and very bright, easy to stare at for the 10-15 minutes it takes to play a solo game against AI players. And the AI players are solid competition, even the “easy” opponents, at least for a novice player like me.
I’d only played the physical game twice, so I came to this app as a near-rookie, only understanding the basic concept of the game and the part of the mechanics that resurfaced in the later game Le Havre. In Agricola, each player is trying to build a farmstead, beginning the game with a husband and wife, each of whom can handle a work assignment every round. Tasks on the farm include collecting resources, plowing fields, sowing plants, rearing animals, and building additions. The point is to maximize your scoring opportunities while ensuring that you can feed your family at the game’s five Harvests, which occur more frequently as the game progresses. The catch is that you can lose points in any area where you don’t accomplish something – leaving any farm area undeveloped, failing to rear any of the three animal types, etc. And getting enough food each harvest is no easy task; it would be ideal to get a steady food supply going, but that’s hard to do early in the game, and by the time the game is nearly over, the harvests are happening faster and you’re also trying to max out your scoring.
One way the game reduces the potential for frustration is by giving players a slew of choices for work assignments, adding another choice in each of the fourteen rounds of the game, so that players can vary strategies and won’t often find themselves blocked from all of the moves they need. (Most work assignments appear on only two spaces on the board, and some appear on only one.) Another is with Minor Improvements, which appear in the full game but not the shorter “family game,” a quicker, simpler version that only includes Major Improvements. Improvements offer players ways to gain extra resources or convert resources to more food. Players can also choose Occupations, which function much like Minor Improvements and can also provide point bonuses or spend less on future construction. (Hardcore players of the physical game may be interested to know that the app only includes the E deck so far, but other decks will be available as future in-app purchases.) Understanding what Improvements and Occupations can do for you allows you to tailor slightly more focused strategies – fun, but also again skating dangerously close to ‘work.’
Playdek’s biggest challenge beyond crafting the AI players had to be the interface itself, as Agricola takes up a lot of space when played on a table. There’s a central board with the ‘town,’ containing all of the work assignments, which gets larger as you include more players. Each player has his own farmstead, with up to a dozen or so squares, as well as his own resource piles and room for Improvements and Occupations. And there should be central piles of those cards as well. The app does a solid job of including all of those views without sacrificing too much information. The player can switch from town to farm view with one click. A bar at the bottom of the screen shows his/her current resource levels, including a food counter that shows how much he’ll need to feed his family this round. The player can find out what an assignment space or a card does by double-clicking on it, and there’s an option to include the labels on all assignment spaces if you want. When you drag one of your workers to a space, it’s grey if you can’t place your worker on it (because you don’t meet the resource or space requirements), and beige if it’s available. After two games, I was familiar enough with the town to know where everything was without having to keep all of the labels visible.
I’ve only found tiny flaws in the app version so far, nothing that seriously interfered with gameplay but, when the big stuff is all done right, these are the little things that stand out. The AI players seem to hang on basic decisions for five to ten seconds at times, and sometimes it becomes unclear what the app is waiting for (as in, is it my turn?). The tutorial is a little sparse and seems to be written for players who’ve tried the physical game at least once. The default animation and gameplay speeds were too slow for me, but turning them up in the options panel solved that problem. It might be easier if a greyed-out assignment space also explained why you can’t place a worker there. It also took me a few games to figure out that if you acquire more animals than you can house in fenced-in pastures or with stables, you can cook the extra beasts immediately if you have a fireplace or oven. They’re all minor issues – considering how many boardgame apps have crashed on me, the fact that one this complex played six games without such a hitch puts it in the best-of-breed category.
The two most comparable games in app form are Caylus, not as complex but with a similarly long view; and Le Havre, which takes many of the best features of Caylus and Agricola in what might be the most complex game I’ve ever seen. Caylus and Agricola both have bright, sharp graphics, while Le Havre’s are dimmer and less attractive. Le Havre gets everything on to one screen, while the other two force you to jump around or scroll more for the sake of larger images and clearer text. Caylus has the easiest AIs for me to beat, which means Agricola will probably have far more staying power for me – if it doesn’t turn out to be too frustrating when I’m playing the stronger computer opponents. It’s absolutely worth the $6.99 price tag, especially for a game that usually retails in physical form around $50, but with the caveat that the learning curve for this game is steeper than what fans of games like Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne might expect.