Prepared by Master Farmer Jeff Hannes.
So you’ve bought Uwe Rosenberg’s masterpiece game Agricola. You’ve learned the rules, played several times, maybe even invested in upgrading your components to fancy wooden or even handmade clay pieces. That’s all well and good, but now how do you actually win this brain-burning game? You’ve come to the right place…
This article focuses on the regular game, which includes Occupations and Minor Improvements, though many of the basic concepts also apply to the Family Game. The main difference between the regular game and the Family Game is that when playing without the cards, your accomplishment expectations need to be lower. Even with good cards it’s hard to do everything well; without cards it’s impossible. But even in the family game there are tried-and-true techniques and strategies that will allow you to build a balanced and (mostly) appealing farm. So where to start?
LET IT GROW…
There are a lot of moving parts to Agricola, but ultimately it all comes down to making your family bigger. More family members means more actions, more actions means more points. Not to mention, family members themselves are worth three points each at game end. But it’s real simple… the sooner you get a new family member out, the more actions you’ll have for the rest of the game. Everyone starts the game with 2 family members, which means a base 28 actions during the game. If you manage to grow your family in Round 5 (typically the first time the option might be available, barring a select few occupations/improvements), that will give you 9 more actions.
So how do you grow quickly? Well, first you need a room, which means 5 wood and 2 reed. Your goal should be to collect these resources by the end of Stage 1 (the first four rounds). How available these resources are will depend on the number of players in the game, and the cards in players’ hands. Ideally you’ll be able to collect these resources in three actions… In a 2-player game it might be 3 Wood, 3 Wood, 2 Reed. In a 4-player game, the Reed, Stone, Food [RSF] is also a very good option… You might take four actions (3 Wood, 2 Wood, RSF, RSF). That’ll give you everything you need to build your first room, plus 2 extra food (enough to get you up to four for the first harvest) and a couple of stone, which you’ll certainly find a use for down the road.
In a 5-player game it might be even easier to collect the resources, since you have the 4 wood and the Reed, Stone, Wood space. Take those two and then you just need one more reed. 3-player games can be tricky, as you’ve got three players fighting over one Reed accumulating spot. Unless you’ve got a card that lets you replace or lower the reed requirement for building (for example, Brushwood Roof which lets you use Wood instead of Reed, or Ladder which makes your rooms cost one less Reed), someone probably isn’t going to get their room-building resources until well into Stage 2. There’s always the “Take 1 of any resource” space which you can use to get a single reed in a pinch, but without cards in play to give you something more from there (for example, Landing Net would give you 1 reed AND 2 food), that space is a pretty weak play. In 3-player games in particular, jockeying for starting position can be very important.
And so we get to the importance of a well-timed Start Player action. Typically (though not always) players won’t bother taking 1 Reed from the basic reed accumulation space, because there are often better spots. This means that in rounds 2 and 4 there will be two reed available for the taking — exactly what you need to build a room. The best way to ensure you get that reed? Use the Start Player action in round 1 or round 3, and then use your first action of the round to take the Reed. Though keep in mind that the other players will have the same thoughts, so don’t expect the Start Player space to be waiting for your on your last action; you may need to spend your first action of the round to ensure it. And if you’re already Start Player? The only way to prevent someone from taking it from you is to take it yourself to ensure that you keep it.
Getting the wood will often be easier, but don’t get greedy. Don’t wait for wood to accumulate to 6-wood or even to 4-wood. Early game actions are going to be less efficient than late-game actions. In a 3-player game there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using two actions to grab 3-wood and 2-wood to ensure building resources for your first room. Would more wood be better? Yes… but if you aren’t willing to grab wood when you have the chance and wait for it to stockpile, your opponents may well shut you out.
Once you get to that magical 5 Wood and 2 Reed, you still need to build the room. Here’s where it really pays to take notice of what resources the other players have. Just because you have the resources to build your room doesn’t mean you need to rush to take the action. If no one else has the capability to build a room, you can wait and do it when you’re ready to grow, or if someone else gets the necessary resources to build a room, immediately after so they don’t have a chance to build before you. With a rare few exceptions (the often-banned Wooden Hut Extension for example), your opponents can’t steal actions out from under you. Though do be aware of how a changing Start Player can affect turn order. Let’s say it’s Round 4 and you are the start player. With your first action you take 2 reed, and now have the resources to build a room. The next player only has 3 wood and 2 reed and uses his action to take Start Player. Now it’s your turn… Your opponent doesn’t have the resources to build a room so you can wait, right? Not exactly… If you don’t build a room, your opponent could use his second action to take wood and then, with the first action of the next round, build his room before you have a chance. That can be a big momentum shift, as you’ll now have to wait until turn 6 to build your room, and maybe even later to finally grow your family.
This jockeying for position is particularly tricky in the four-player game, because you’ve got four players competing for one Build Room and one Family Growth spot. If Family Growth doesn’t appear until Round 7, it’s probable that one of the players won’t get first growth until Round 10. Often in 4-player games you’ll end up with what experienced players call the “Family Growth” queue. You’ve got your room, but now you’re waiting for growth to appear. After a player takes Family Growth, the player to his left will take Starting Player to ensure that he is the next to have an opportunity to grow, and so right down to the final player in the queue. Try not to let that person be you! If you do end up being the last to expand your home, see if you can gather enough resources for a double room build (10 wood and 4 reed minus any deductions from cards). Then you can at least make up for being the last to grow by efficiently building two rooms in one action (whereas the others will likely spend one action per room) and also, if timed right, being the first to get your fourth family member.
PLAY THE CARD, USE THE CARD
It’s easy to get overwhelmed or over-excited by a handful of cards. When choosing which cards to play and when to play them, try to follow two important rules. First, can you put the card to good use within the next few turns? There’s no point in playing the Stone Carrier (gain an additional stone every time you take stone) in the first round of a 2-player game. At a minimum, you won’t be able to use it until round 5, and possibly not until round 7. By contrast, Clay Worker (gain an additional clay every time you take Wood or Clay) can be put to use immediately. And that leads to card rule #2… “Play the card, use the card.” If you spend an action to get the Field Watchman into play (Plow a field every time you use the Take 1 Grain action), then USE it. If you then only take one grain for the rest of the game, the card was basically a wash. Success in Agricola is about efficiency, and generally the purpose of the cards is to turn multiple actions into fewer actions. Always remember that it actually costs an action to play a card.
A good example here is the Plough Maker (When you Plough a field, you may pay 1 food to plough a second field). Seems pretty good right? Well, it depends. Without the card it’ll take two actions to plough two fields. With the card it’ll still take two actions (one to play the Occupation, one to plough) and also at least 1 food (and possibly more depending on which space you used to play the Occupation). At this point, you have not been efficient. Now if you plough a second time, you’ve got four fields for three actions, though it also still cost you 2-3 food. To make the most out of the Plough Maker, you really have to plough three times. That’s four actions for six fields. And even then that’s only worth it if you’re actually going to be able to plant in those fields. Do you have cards that give you extra grain or vegetables, or a bonus for having more than five fields? If not, then it might not have been worth it to play the Plough Maker at all. Never play a card just for the heck of it. It costs a precious action to play an Occupation; make sure that action is well spent.
Minor Improvements are nice boons, but resist the urge to try to play them all. Until you’ve got a really good feel for the game you should pretty much NEVER use the “Major Improvement/Minor Improvement” space to play a Minor Improvement. Instead, wait for an opportunity to take Start Player or Family Growth + Minor Improvement. And don’t play a Minor Improvement just because you can. That Grain Storehouse might look nice (Pay 3 Wood or 3 Clay to to receive three grain in future rounds), but will spending the resources to play the card cost you the ability to play something vital like a Build Room or Fireplace? This is why Minor Improvements that have no cost and no requirements (like House Goat and Horse) are particularly prized in draft formats. Having them ensures that you’ll always be able to play something when you choose Starting Player or Family Growth.
So you know how to get more family members, you’re getting a handle on only playing cards that will actually help you, but then there’s this one other element you have to worry about… feeding your family at the harvest. Having a 4-person family by Round 6 might seem exciting, but you’ll think otherwise if you have no way to feed them.
The most common food engine involves a Fireplace or Cooking Hearth and, well, nothing else needed. As soon as you have one of these Major Improvement cookeries in play, you can always take animals and immediately cook them for food. If you have a Fireplace and you use an action to take 3 Sheep from the sheep space, you can cook all three for six food immediately, even if you don’t have room for them. Trust me, it’s right there in the rulebook. Or better yet, you can cook 2, keep one in your house, and then cook that one at any time only if necessary. Once Boar show up in Round 8-9 and Cattle in Round 10-11, your food options will be even better.
An early Fireplace can make a big difference, which is why being the first person to have 2-Clay can be valuable. Though watch out… if the Major Improvement space doesn’t show up until Round 3 or 4, another player might have the chance to get that cheap fireplace before you. And once two or more players have a cooking improvement, animals become a less reliable source of feeding.
There’s also the Fishing space, and in 4-5 player games, the Traveling Players, but unless you have cards which give you extra food or resources on these spaces (like the Fishing Rod), they won’t be a *reliable* food source, especially later in the game when you’ve got more mouths to feed. If you don’t get your hands on a Fireplace or Cooking Hearth, the accumulation spaces alone won’t be enough. If you don’t have cards to supplement your food intake, you’ll need to be able to cook animals… or bake.
The second main food option is baking bread, which can be very efficient when it gets rolling, but is also difficult to pull off without card support. Look at the Clay Oven… You need 3 clay and 1 stone to get it into play (that’s at least three actions to take the resources and play the card) and then you still need Grain to bake. Don’t make the rookie mistake of being inefficient. Taking 1 Grain and then a Sow & Bake action is NOT a food engine. It’s 2 actions for 5 food, and you have to repeat the process over again. Instead, you only want to have to take grain once or twice the whole game. And this is where farming comes in. If you want to go with a baking strategy, here’s a good baseline to try…
Go for these five actions by the end of Round 7: Plough a field, Plough a field, Take 1 Grain, Take 1 Grain, Sow both grain in two fields. Then, from the Round 2 harvest on, you’ll receive two grain per turn. Once your fields are empty, resow two of the grain (allowing you to use the other four to bake) and hopefully by then you’ll have at least one more field and be able to sow a Veggie as well. Meanwhile, you’re now free to pursue a Baking strategy without having to waste critical mid-game actions taking grain. Now when you build that Clay Oven you automatically get a chance to bake one of your grain for 5 food. If you must you can use a Sow & Bake action to turn around another 5 food on a later action, but ideally by then you’ll have ploughed another field and be able to also Sow with that action. It’s all about efficiency.
A baking engine takes some effort to set up, and without some really supportive cards you shouldn’t expect it to kick into gear until Round 8 at the earliest, but when done right it can make feeding your family a breeze. Often setting up an early baking engine comes at the expense of other areas of the game (like being one of the first to grow), but once you have the engine going you’ll be spending fewer actions to feed your family than your opponents will, which can make up for growing late or last.
VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF CARDBOARD FARMING
Ok, so you can make your family bigger, you’re only playing cards that help you move forward, and you’ve figured out how to feed your family? You’re all set then, right? Er, not exactly. Ultimately, the name of the game is points. When calculating the worth of various items, keep in mind two things: First, negative points for not meeting the minimum “requirement,” (for example, -1 points for having 0 sheep), and second, unused farm spaces. Every unused farm space is worth -1 point at the end of the game. But since everyone starts with the same -13 points (13 unused spaces), it’s better to think of every used space as +1 point. So with that in mind, consider:
* Plough at least two fields. Here’s a point comparison: 0 fields = -1 points. 2 fields = 3 points. (+1 point for having two fields, +2 points for two used spaces). And from there-on, every additional field (up to 5) is +2 points (+1 for the field scoring, +1 for the used space).
* Build fences. Not only will fences allow you to hold more than one animal (critical to avoid negative points), but they chew up a lot of points. Consider the difference between no fences and a simple 2×2 pasture that covers four spaces: -1 points for no pastures, or 5 points (+1 for the pasture, +4 for the used spaces. That’s six points for 8 wood and a Fencing action, AND it gives you the capacity to hold two types of animals (including one in your home). Now consider a step up from that… With just 4 more wood in your stores, you can fence a 2×2 grid of four single-space pastures. Now you’re getting 8 points vs. -1 AND you’ve got space for all kinds of animals. And with just 3 more wood, you can hit the gold standard of fencing… A 2×3 enclosure with 1×1, 1×1, 1×2 and 1×2 pastures. That’s 10 points, and capacity for 12 animals.
Realistically, not every game is going to present the opportunity for 5 fields and/or 4 pastures, but there is one certainty… If you ignore either or both until the final rounds of the game, it becomes that much harder (if not impossible) to get there. You don’t need to build your fences right away (and often you won’t want to until Stage 4 or later), but you CAN collect the wood ahead of time so you’re not scrambling in the end. Likewise, plough an early field or two when the opportunity arises, so you aren’t left with nothing accomplished as the end rolls near. Until Round 12-13 there’s only one Plough Field space, which can make it VERY competitive in larger games. Likewise with the Fencing action… If you wait too long, you might lose your opportunity to fence. These are less likely to be issues in 2-3 player games, but even then you need to pay attention to what your opponents are doing. If a 3-player game enters Round 14 and no one has fenced yet, someone’s going to get left out. Don’t let that person be you!
* One or none. Several of the remaining points options are much easier to quantify. Until you really become a whiz, it’s easiest to just think in terms of them in one of two states — some or none. Sheep, Boar, Cattle, Grain, Vegetables…. Get one and it’s effectively worth 2 points (going from -1 to 1). The progression after that can be confusing until you have a good feel for it, so just ignore it for now. If you get an early farming strategy going, you should be able to easily extend your points from Grain and Veggies by planting them. (Consider that sowing a vegetable is effectively worth a point, since it bumps you +1), but when learning to get good at the game it’s more important to just worry about erasing negatives than trying to maximize a single one of these categories).
* Stables? Don’t stress on them. A common rookie mistake is to go into a Build Room action with 7 wood and 2 reed and build a room and a stable. However, unless you have very specific plans for that stable, it’s almost always a bad idea. In most cases one stable does very little for you. You still can’t breed animals, and it’s effectively only worth 1 point (either if covers an unused space or it’s in a pasture). You’ll almost always be better off holding on to that 2 wood to help pay for a Minor Improvement or your second room expansion. The one time it makes sense to get early stables is if you can get a pair. Then you have “breeding” stables… You can keep two animals in the stable, and during the harvest their offspring can go in your home. Then AFTER the harvest and in the following stage, if you’ve got a Cooking Improvement, you can cook the third animal, giving you food toward the next harvest and making room for a new baby so you can start the cycle again. It can be an effective food engine, particularly if you’ve got a Cooking Hearth and you’re breeding Boar or Cattle. BUT… it’s four wood you’re giving up toward your second room expansion. As with all things in Agricola, just because you can spend the resources doesn’t mean you should. If you’ve got cards that give you extra wood then it may well be worth it, but when faced with the choice of building stables, choose very carefully what you do with those resources. As for the increased capacity afforded by stables… it rarely comes into play in most games. Usually unstabled pastures will hold all the animals you’ll be able to get your hands on (and not have to cook for food). Rare is the game when acquiring and housing 8 sheep is a realistic goal.
Finally, how big do you make your house, and when do you Renovate? Two other common beginner mistakes: First, building a house too big, and second, forgetting to Renovate. First, house-size. In most games, a 4-room house is a perfectly acceptable and realistic goal. In 2-3 player games without card-support, there just might not be enough Reed or Wood in the game to support a 5-room house. Unless you’ve got cards which make building cheaper, you should often just make a 4-room house your goal, and then try to jockey for the Family Growth Without Room space that appears in round 12 or 13. (This often then means using your first or second action of Round 11 to take Starting Player.) If you can get to a 5-room house, great. But don’t do so at the cost of everything else. With fewer and fewer opportunities to grab wood, the 5-wood cost can be painful in the late game, especially if you haven’t fenced yet. And the 2 reed? You may well need that reed for Renovation. Which brings us to the second part… Don’t ignore Renovation! Renovation is one of the most powerful actions in the game. First, there’s the immediate points. Renovating a 4-room house to Clay or Stone gives you 4 points for one action — very efficient. What’s more, you then get an additional, powerful action. In most cases that second action will be a Major or Minor Improvement.
The best thing about Renovation is that it’s very easy to see who on the board is capable of taking it and plan accordingly. Let’s say you’ve got a baking strategy in the making and you’re ready for that Clay Oven. You’re the only one with 3 Clay and 1 Stone, so you know no one can swipe it out from under you. But what if you can’t get to the Major Improvement action. Although generally you want to use that space for MAJOR improvements, there’s nothing stopping an opponent from using it to get out a Minor Improvement, which could then muddle your plans. But if you are the only one who can Renovate… well then you’ve got a guaranteed Major Improvement opportunity waiting for you. In the example of the baking strategy, consider stockpiling these resources: 7 Clay, 1 Reed, 1 Stone. Now, as long as no one else has the means to renovate, you’ve got the ability to Renovate and build the Clay Oven all in one action — without any fear of being blocked. If you plan it right, that’s 6 points and 5 food in one action. Majorly efficient.
On a smaller-level but equally efficient scale… If you’ve got a Fireplace, then the Renovate action can also be a good time to upgrade that Fireplace to a Cooking Hearth (for free). Bottom line, Renovation not only gets you points, it you gives you a good, well-timed opportunity to play a Major improvement. You almost never want to Renovate without playing some kind of improvement; unless it’s the end of the game and you have no other means to get points that’s just a waste. The act of Renovating itself does nothing to further your game, so wait until you can couple it with a useful improvement (or fencing in round 14). But as always, be aware of the competition. Towards the final rounds of the game, if you still haven’t renovated, it’s good to take stock of which players have accumulated the necessary resources to renovate. If it’s round 13 and there are five outstanding renovations (perhaps including a player who has enough resources to renovate to clay and then to stone) there’s going to be competition for the three remaining renovation actions.
Obviously all these tips are baselines, and can be modified dramatically by the card play, both yours and your opponents’. Consider that your opponent’s card plays can affect you just as much as them. If your opponent puts Brushwood Roof into play (can use Wood instead of Reed to build and renovate) he’s less likely to take the Reed space, which means there will be more for you and the other players. Renovating early CAN have a function if you have a card like the House Steward, which lets you take Family Growth as a “Without Room” action once you have a Clay Hut. So the cards may change the rules and the way you play the game, but for most games the baseline strategies outlined above will help you get a leg up on the competition.
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