Agricola is a resource management game, where you play a 17th century farmer who struggles to expand your farm, improve your house, and feed a family, all while competing for resources against other players who are trying to do the same.
The game, which is a port of a popular board game, starts you off with an empty farm, a two room house, and two farmers. Each member of your family can perform one action per round, like gathering building material (wood, clay bricks, stone, or reeds), collecting grain or vegetables to sow or cook, or plowing a field.
As the game advances, more options become available, like buying livestock, improving your wood hut to clay or stone walls, improving your house with ovens, shops, or wells. You can also add additional rooms to your house, which lets you expand your family, which gives you more actions per round. The catch is that as you add more family members, you have to come up with more food at the end of each stage.
There’s never enough time to do all the things you want, because most actions require multiple steps. Want to grow grain? It’s one action to get the grain, one action to plow the field, and another to sow the seed. The grain itself will only net you one food point, but you can bake it into bread for more. But that requires a kitchen or, better yet, an oven, which means you have to acquire the clay or stone to build that first. Oh, and baking bread is a separate action as well! Keep in mind that other players can interrupt this process at any time by taking the action you need: each action can only be performed once by any player in a round.
The good news is that certain resources build up in the village if they’re not taken in a round; if no one takes any stones from the mason, or sheep from the shepherd, the next round they gain one more, which you can take with a single action. Also, certain actions allow you to make multiple improvements in one round if you have enough resources, like adding a room to your house and building a barn (which allows you to house more animals in a fenced-in area).
As the game advances, each stage gets shorter, which means that the harvest time comes sooner and sooner. At the end of each stage, crops are harvested, the family must be fed, and finally pairs of livestock will breed, giving you additional animals next round, provided their stable is big enough.
There are a couple of things I really enjoy about Agricola, one of which is that you have to keep improvising. Not only can someone else take the resource you were going for in a turn, but the order of players can change as well—meaning that if you start the game in the first spot, next round you could be the last. You’ve got to be thinking a couple of steps ahead the entire game, balancing your long term goals (like building your family for extra actions) against the reality of what’s available to you. Also, the actions available to you are slightly randomized, meaning certain actions will always be available in a particular stage, but you don’t know in what round of that stage they’ll show up. Planning on building a well for bonus food? Too bad the stone mason didn’t show up earlier.
The other thing I like about Agricola is that the game changes as you add more players. You can play a solo game (where the food requirement is higher per family member), or you can play against humans using a pass-around or Game Center connection. But as you add more players, more options are added. Suddenly, there are multiple places to get lumber and clay, but the other two merchants don’t carry as much as the first. There are also spots where you can work as a day laborer to acquire one food and one building resource of your choice, and another where you can get one each of two different resources, but the merchants don’t accumulate goods like the others do.
Agricola is a wonderfully competitive game, but there’s always a way to win, if you’re flexible. If another player is making it impossible for you to plant grain, that means he’s left shepherding open. It’s impossible for one player to completely dominate every winning aspect of the game.
The graphics are cute, sort of a super-deformed cartoon of a village with minor animations of the townsfolk. To assign your family members or resources, you just drag them across the screen, and if you make a mistake, you can cancel the turn you’re currently on without penalty and start over.
Since doing pretty much anything in the game involves multiple steps, learning the rules of Agricola is slightly complex, but the game comes with a multi-stage tutorial that walks you through the concepts of the two-player game. However, I wish the tutorial had delved a bit deeper; it took me several confused games before I realized other players could take the first position spot. Fortunately, tapping on any of the “stores” reveals how they work, and the help button shows all of them at once in case you get really confused.
Agricola quickly became an obsession with me, especially when I learned that the rules changed with different numbers of players. The computer AI features three levels of intelligence, helping you to learn the game before tackling your friends in head-to-head play. It’s a great game of resource management where patience and an ability to improvise a new plan are the two paths to victory.
Compatibility: iOS 4.3, iPhone 3GS or better, iPod touch 3rd generation or better, iPad. Optimized for the iPhone 5.
Age Rating: 12+
Availability: Out now