|Posted by Chris Crooks on September 1, 2014 at 8:55 PM|
To those not in the know, Agricola is widely considered to be one of the most challenging and fun board games for hardcore game connoisseurs. It sounds innocent enough: you are a peasant at the end of the dark ages, competing with your neighbors to build the most prosperous farm over the course of the game. However, to build such a farm you will all be competing for a common pool of resources and actions, each of which can only be taken once per round, most of the time. This adds such an incredible bevy of tactical and strategic considerations I won’t even go into them this moment. It takes a game or two merely to become comfortable with the process of playing the game and how the scoring works. The fact that every player is dealt a large hand of randomized Occupations and Improvements from a massive card pool, and that all these cards can and often do interact with each other in helpful and surprising ways, you never, ever play the same game of Agricola twice, something very hard to achieve in physical space with a board game. But Uwe Rosenberg has done this very thing.
Agricola is the inspiration, or less generously, source, for our fundamental gameplay mechanic in FreeHolder. You have a character that can perform a limited number of actions each month, and each action is taken on a specific space with some defined properties. This is known as “worker placement” mechanic, and its a favorite of Eurogamers everywhere. Unlike game boards or printed tiles, though, we have the luxury of virtual magic hexes that dynamically present multiple actions based on the character or situation. A Forest hex, for example can be hunted in, or timber or firewood can be gathered, or herbs can be searched for. Rather than limiting these hexes to one placement per turn, as in conventional worker placement mechanics, you can take as many actions on a hex as you want, but in most cases there are diminishing returns on natural resources. You can overfish, overlog, or overhunt a Forest and it may take several months to recover and produce reliably again. This encourages the player to spread out their collection, and is a bit more organic (although random) than minutely calculated resource takes.
A slightly more obscure but no less relevant lesson that I’ve taken from Agricola is the way that Uwe Rosenberg carefully planned the variety and availability of resources in the game. He succeeded in such a fundamental way that he reveals some core truths about trying to use resources as a gameplay mechanic.
In Agricola, there are four building resources, wood, clay, reed, and stone. Upon some examination I think it can be stated that for most purposes three resources are a minimum, because you are undoubtedly going to want one common building material, one uncommon building material, and one rare material. This makes it easy to influence the difficulty of building something by changing the rarity of the resources needed to build it. The simplest buildings can be made purely out of the common material, while the most difficult would require quantities of rare and uncommon materials.
Uwe spices this up a bit: wood is common and clay uncommon, but for the two rares he makes a tactical distinction. Reed is available from the very beginning of the game, but is in short supply and absolutely critical to staying competitive, as you cannot add more family members and take more actions per turn without building more rooms, and new rooms require (most of the time) reed. Stone is available a bit later and is slightly more common (there are two different stone spaces), and slightly less necessary for winning the game, but of course that is always circumstantial.
Agricola has helped me figure out how to actually create a resource system with the view of implementing building mechanics. There’s little reason to avoid those same materials, seeing as how Uwe simply identified the things people actually build with. I have Timber and Clay as common materials (Clay less so), Stone and Reed being uncommon (reed less so), and Willow and Marble as rare. Marble and Stone are gathered out of finite deposits. Willow forests are ephemeral and may appear and disappear suddenly. With this rubric, it has given me much help in determining what the hell each building should actually cost to build.
One key difference is that in Agricola you are competing against other players for resources, whereas in FreeHolder you’re fighting the clock, and Lady Luck. Therefore I never have to worry about the consequences of some other player being denied building resources, and some of the close tactical considerations needed for a game like Agricola are loosened substantially in FreeHolder. FreeHolder is not a zero-sum game.
At a certain point, I have to understand that playtesting will arbitrate where my feeble reasoning skills cannot. It is certainly easier to play a game out and see that a building is too cheap or expensive than reason endlessly about it. But when one is trying to borrow substantially from such a near-perfect game as Agricola, one has to make sure that one does so with extreme skill and subtlety.
Speaking of extreme subtlety, our feeding mechanic was also lifted directly from Agricola. (cough). Somewhat. I’m fairly proud of what will be our nifty cooking system and you’ll be stuffing your face with a lot more than Grain and Vegetables, I can tell you that. Furthermore, you can customize rations to increase health or save food during lean times, apply medicine, and burn firewood for heat during the winter (I was unaware of the Farmers of the Moor expansion when I came up with that, not that its a stroke of brilliance to acknowledge people need heat to survive).
Still, the immediate need to feed your peeps every turn (or every few turns in Agricola) is such a lovely pressure mechanic we adopted it immediately, with some significant alteration. Your folks can get sick and die, for example. Closest thing to that in Agricola is the Rat Catcher.
I have some deranged fantasy about Uwe Rosenberg giving me a pat on the back about doing some of his mechanics a bit of justice in videogame form, but I don’t know if the man even owns a computer. I mean, I assume he does, but I prefer to think of him as some bearded, philosophical toymaker living in a manor in the Bavarian forest. Maybe I should look at a picture, but why kill the fantasy?
Don’t answer that.