For those not in the know, Agricola is the Latin word for farmer. I know this because it says so in the rule book of the game, and because of the weird case of Agricola-fever that dominated the board gaming world (yes, we have a world) when Agricola was released a few years ago.
Agricola was released in October of 2007 in Europe, but didn’t make it over to the US until August of 2008. In the meantime, board gaming forums were clogged with angst about its delayed arrival. Entire podcasts were dedicated to Agricola strategy from people who had managed to find the German copy and had pasted up the 300+ German cards with English text. There was anger as gamers realized that their box might not have the same components as those who pre-ordered it. Once released, it stormed to the #1 spot on BoardGameGeek, dethroning Puerto Rico which had held the spot since early in the 2000s. People began pimping out their copies, adding wooden animals and sculpted farmers. In other words, the board game world was apeshit for Agricola.
This history is crucial to understanding what Playdek was getting into when they acquired the rights to Agricola. This may be the most scrutinized board game port ever. This isn’t some light tile-laying game that you play with your grandma, this is Agricola! King of board games! And if they screwed it up, their entire reputation (they were Publisher of the Year for 2012 right here on Pocket Tactics) might be tarnished forever.
So, how did they do? Not only is their reputation intact, but I think it may have improved with this amazing port.
Agricola is a game about raising your family and running a farm in the late 1600’s. Seriously. There aren’t any zombies, no starships, and definitely no Lovecraftian horrors. Amazingly, this mundane theme works, and it works doubly well in the digital version thanks to Playdek’s presentation.
Agricola is a worker-placement game in which you will assign members of your family to collect resources and build improvements while attempting to prevent your opponents from doing the same. This is done over a series of rounds in which a new action is opened up each turn, thus expanding the game as you get deeper and deeper. After a certain number of rounds, a Harvest begins and you better have enough food for your growing family (yes, there’s a “Family Growth” action that ends up not being as hot as it sounds) or you’ll have to go begging, which loses you points. After a labyrinthine scoring phase, the winner is the one with the most productive, and varied farm.
Playdek presents these actions not as cards, but as locations in a medieval town that is a joy to behold. Everything in the town is animated, from the water fountain with its clucking chickens to jugglers putting on a show and animals roaming in their pens. As autumn harvest approaches leaves blow past the town and smoke rises from chimneys. Is all this necessary? Probably not. It creates a town that is too big to see on one screen and scrolling is required to see all the actions available each turn. That said, after the second game I learned where the different actions were located and the scrolling became natural to the point where I didn’t realize I was doing it. Playdek ingeniously placed actions with similar functions together, so once you get the hang of it, scanning the board isn’t a problem.
Building your farm, which exists on a separate screen accessible via button-press, is also a delight. The rooms of your farmhouse have little animations in them like candles burning and a dog looking up at the player. Seeds bloom into rows of grain and vegetables and animals meander about their pastures. It’s not just looks, though. From a gameplay standpoint, all your resources are located in a tray at the bottom of the screen so you don’t have to scroll around to drag animals to the dinner table or sow seeds in your fields, all of which are appropriately highlighted when those actions are legal. The user interface is actually amazingly intuitive considering all the information that needs to be displayed and all the parts of the game that need to be interacted with.
Why bother throwing in all this fluff when the nerds who really want Agricola would be happy with poorly scanned images of the boards and cards? Playdek may have just broken the nerd barrier with this one, and might be taking Agricola into the mainstream. Not only will people who’ve never heard of Agricola love the look and feel of the app, but Playdek has also included a set of amazing tutorials that step you through each portion of the game as well as a button that replaces much of the animation with text explaining what each action does. Add these touches to the available Family Game, which removes the cards and simplifies the game somewhat, and I can see people who wouldn’t dream of playing a board game enjoying themselves here. And for a long time, too: after the Family Game is understood there’s a whole new level of the game that introduces Occupations and Minor Improvements in the form of cards which can be randomly dealt or drafted before a game begins. Currently the game only has the Easy deck available, but the Interactive and Complex decks will be coming later this year as IAP.
From a single-player standpoint, Playdek has a lot to offer. Not only are there 3 levels of AI but they also offer a solitaire version of the game and, more interestingly, a Solo Series variant that challenges you to hit a target score that increases each game, but you get to keep Occupations that you’ve played in previous games. As soon as you miss the target number, you have to start over. So, even for those who will steamroll the AI in short order, there is another option that will keep the single-player game viable. And, of course, there’s always multi-player which is robust and done with the usual Playdek flair that includes player ratings, matchmaking, and game timers.
So, it looks great and the UI works, how is the game? Well, it’s Agricola. You’ll never have enough time to build that stone oven you wanted, and the jerk you’re playing against will always take those two sheep you really needed this round. There are many Euro-style board games with moments like this, but Uwe Rosenberg (who also designed the under-appreciated Le Havre) perfected this style of game with Agricola. Every turn is full of tension and angst, and every decision feels like a game changer.
Agricola was already a game that had everything a gamer could want: tough decisions, deep strategy, and the ability to make babies. What Playdek has added is a layer of polish and charm that you don’t see in many apps, and even less in board game apps which tend to be somewhat pragmatic. This is truly one of the best, if not the best, board game apps you can play on your iDevice.
The game was played on the iPad 2 and iPhone 4 for this review.