Agricola is a bit of a departure for Uwe Rosenberg, previously best known for his tight, engaging cardgame, Bohnanza. Agricola is instead a big, sprawling game, quite complicated by the standards of the Eurostyle, and "tight" is not quite the word.
The US edition retails for $70, and the box contains enough wood to build a substantial house -- well, a substantial dollhouse, in any event. You play a family of farmers, seeking to plow and harvest fields; fence in pasturage and raise sheep, boar, and cattle; and build a larger house for your family, while upgrading it from wood to clay to stone.
It's an "action selection" game, but unlike Puerto Rico, when you choose an action you exclude others from choosing the same action on the same turn. At game start, only a limited number of actions are available, but a new action becomes available each turn. Each person in your family can perform one action, and you place the marker representing a person atop one of the actions when you select it.
Basic resources are wood, clay, reeds, and stone; stone does not become available until midgame. Collecting a resource is an action; resources accumulate on the action cards if no one grabs that resource in a turn. In addition to building houses and fences, you can also build "minor" and "major" constructions, some of which earn victory points and almost all have some use (e.g., ovens to increase the rate at which grain and animals can be converted to food).
Every few turns, you must feed your family; grain and vegetables from field, as well as domesticated animals, can be converted to food.
Because almost everything can generate victory points, there are several potential paths to victory -- concentrating on animals or farming, or on house construction, going for the largest family, or trying a balanced approach. In addition, the action limitations are a key source of strategy -- as much in terms of selecting an action another player needs to screw him up as in terms of careful selection of your own actions.
I've thoroughly enjoyed Agricola each time I've played it, it's highly rated on Boardgamegeek, and it won
the a 2008 Spiel des Jahres award for best complex game -- and yet in some ways, I find the fiddliness of the game awkward. As an example, many of the actions actually allow multiple actions -- e.g., improving your house and building a minor improvement. Presumably this is for purposes of "balance," encouraging players to use actions that are otherwise less powerful than others, but it's an inelegant complexity. Similarly, the rules for when and how you can sow, plow, and bake bread feel a little awkward.
At the beginning of the game, each player receive 8 "minor improvement" and 8 "occupation" cards; each of these offers some special ability (e.g., gain food when you gather reeds, gain a stone before it normally becomes available). These are, in fact, quite necessary to break the symmetry of the game, and intelligent players will build their strategy around them; but this system is awkward in two ways. First, some card combinations can be quite unbalancing, and second, this means that new players, in particular, have a lot to try to absorb and interpret at game start. (There is a "family game" version which eliminates the cards, but it is a far less interesting game without them.) It would be more elegant and smoother, I think, if players accumulated these cards over time, instead -- but that would also create a feeling that the game is more luck-driven, with a lucky draw toward the end-game possibly determining its outcome.
It's clear that Agricola has been very extensively tested and refined -- indeed, the fiddliness to which I object is a reflection of this, minor additions and changes by the designer over iterative play. But one of the aspects of the Eurogame aesthetic I find most appealing is the stark elegance you see in games like Medici or Rosenberg's own Bohnanza -- an aspect that feels missing from Agricola. Consequently, while I admire the game and think there's much to be learned from it, it leaves me short of unabashed enthusiasm.