Review: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small31 Aug 2016 3
Review: Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small
Released 17 Aug 2016
Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola was a literally and metaphorically ground-breaking game, as you tilled the earth in an attempt to keep your family fed and competed with other players to develop the biggest and best farm. Though worker placement games had been around for about a decade before Agricola, this is the game that defined the genre for many people, myself included. Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small (hereafter referred to as All Creatues for brevity and clarity) is also a worker-placement farm-improvement game, and if you played Playdek’s port of Agricola, you’ll immediately feel at home in Digidiced’s All Creatures.
On tabletop, Agricola is intimidating. The digital version made it much easier to get started, but the climb from knowing the rules to playing competently was still steep. I got myself in trouble for describing the two-player All Creatures as “sleeker and snappier” than Agricola, but it does start more simply. I’d go so far as to say that it’s a good first worker placement game, precisely because it takes the agriculture out of Agricola.
Waitaminute, how can you have a farming game without farming? Well, Agricola was a farming game, but All Creatures is really a ranching game, focused on the titular “creatures." Copy for the game describes it as featuring “farming and livestock breeding,” but don’t be fooled: you neither sow nor reap in this game. The only reference to things that grow in the ground is a single building in the expansion: the “Fodder Beet Field,” and it’s very name states that these veggies are for the livestock. Nor should you think that “breeding” means you’ll be selecting for desirable traits or working out Punnett squares. A cow is a cow in All Creatures: you just want more of them.
Gone with the wheat is Agricola's seasons mechanic, the all-important harvest turns one prepared carefully for. There's no harvest, and no hunger. This focuses the game on creating pastures and stables for one’s livestock, shaping smaller and larger enclosures, maximizing the benefits from your feeding troughs, etc. This change also makes the game feel more like a friendly rivalry, as punking your opponent no longer means that you are literally taking food out of the mouths of your rival’s family and making beggars of their children. Also gone is the family growth mechanic. You have a fixed three workers in All Creatures, and while the shepherd and shepherdess in the game’s splash screen are saucily holding hands, the only thing you won’t be breeding in All Creatures is more Homo Sapiens.
The initial simplicity of All Creatures is deceptive. Even on “Hard,” the AI is really little more than a tutorial, practice for playing against a human opponent, and it doesn’t take long before you have to add in the “More Buildings Big and Small” expansion to keep games against the computer interesting. You can experience the additional buildings without purchasing the expansion: ranked multiplayer games are always played with a rotating selection of structures from the expansion, whether you want them or not. Many of the new buildings can be gamechangers, opening up new assymetrical strategies, as any given building can only be built once per game. If your neighbor builds a Ranch, giving them free walls whenever their horses foal, you can snap up horses to delay their acquisition of a breeding pair, but you can’t build your own Ranch to mirror their strategy.
Ranked multiplayer is the heart of All Creatures. I lost my first couple of multiplayer games because I was playing like I’d played against the AI and had zero experience with the buildings from the expansion, but even so I loved every minute of it. There’s a substantial pool of players, I’ve only experienced good sportsmanship, perhaps because building fences and counting sheep isn’t a big draw for the toxic hyperaggressive demographic. All Creatures includes an impressively diverse and detailed set of player avatars, and I was charmed when I also ran across some players with cheerful Patchwork puppet-avatars.
Notifications, chat, and the other sundry elements of asynchonous multiplayer all worked like a charm for me. The 24 hour/turn timer may seem excessive, as one could play this game comfortably with three minute turns, but it works out really well: multiplayer games take place nearly in real time, but when life intervenes, they shift seamlessly to slowpace. All Creatures’ relatively low resource load meant that I could generally multitask between turns without pushing it out of memory, and that it didn’t take long to reload when necessary.
The game’s animations are also clearly designed for multiplayer, being minimal (fewer than in the subtly "breathing" Agricola), smooth, and functional. Moving your herds around between different pastures is quirky: the game animates them moving from their starting position to “holding” and from there to their destination whether it’s necessary or not. In multiplayer it becomes clear that the animation was done that way to make it easy to follow the other player’s moves. The other side of these design decisions is also clear: even more so than in Agricola, you’ll never forget that you’re playing a board game. That doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but anyone looking to get a little dirt under their fingernails and appreciate a country sunrise will be better served by Farming Simulator 16.
"More Buildings Big and Small" is an expansion to the tabletop All Creatures, so making it a day-one IAP for the digital version is fair enough. The expansion adds so much to the game, however, that I have to wonder if it might have been wiser to include it by default and price the game higher to compensate. As it is players will quickly exhaust the singleplayer experience without it, and then may prematurelhy write off the game as played-out, or be else put off by the unfamiliar buildings in multiplayer.
Otherwise, my only real complaint is that All Creatures leaves me wanting to play Agricola again, with it’s pumpkin-y veg and insta-babies, it's upgraded hearths and begging tokens. I’m not saying that All Creatures is inferior, just that it doesn’t escape the shadow of it’s predecessor. There’s something almost like sibling rivalry in the way Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small relates to Rosenberg’s original Agricola.
Both tabletop versions are published by Z-Man Games, and in that context they feel like differently scoped takes on the same theme. The mobile ports, however, are divided between different developers, leaving little possibility of their rivalry resolving into synergy. It may well be that, with both games being as strong as they are, the player base will converge on the better-supported of the two titles.