What if I told you that Agricola was not originally designed to be about peaceful 17th century farmers? In fact, Uwe Rosenberg originally intended the game to be his first foray into heavily thematic Ameritrash games. He only decided to change the theme to farming at the last minute, under pressure from the publisher that his dark and violent story line would render the game ineligible for the Spiel Des Jahres award.
I’m sure this sounds crazy at first, but please humor me for a moment and consider the following facts:
- In this complex game about farming, there are only two types of “crops”.
- The “Harvests” take place at a rapidly increasing pace, rather than occurring at a regular frequency.
- Of the 169 possible occupations, only one is a Farmer.
- Players score points for building a big sturdy structure and lots of fences, even if these additions outstrip the number of workers or animals and take up valuable farming space.
- Players are given no option to trade with one another or work together in any way.
Now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to explain the original story of Agricola.
In a nearby village, a rumor began to spread that the land would soon be overrun by aggressive, ravenous, zombie-like monsters. Some people took this news to heart, and decided to build a fortress in the wilderness to survive the impending apocalypse.
Players take the role of these doomsday preppers, and they each begin with a small wooden cabin, two characters, and a meager supply of rations. They have a fortnight (14 days) to build a secure compound, recruit warriors, and stockpile resources. These goals are indicated by the victory point scoring. Players are rewarded for the size and sturdiness of their fortress, the number of fenced-in areas, their number of warriors and beasts of war, and their stockpiled resources.
To begin the game, the main characters are jobless, but they have a few ideas of ways they might be able to help make ends meet. They can decide to take one or more occupations; or none at all. It doesn’t really matter as long as they are prepared for what’s to come.
As players race around the clock to stockpile goods and build barricades, they become increasingly exhausted and overworked. Accordingly, they make the tough decision to grow only two crops: sugar and coffee. This explains why the finished version of the game features only “grain” and “vegetables”. And don’t tell me Uwe couldn’t be bothered to come up with a few veggies – just look at how many beans he named in Bohnanza! It’s notable, however, that coffee was the most plentiful bean in that game too.
Using their sugar and coffee, players can brew a drink that replenishes their energy in short bursts. The drink becomes known as Agri-Cola.
Unfortunately, the drink is not without its drawbacks. As players build up a tolerance (and continue on with little sleep or nutrition), they must consume it more often to obtain the same effect. This is reflected by the ever-increasing pace of the consumption phases throughout the game.
Unbeknownst to the characters at first, Agri-Cola causes a ravenous, uncontrollable hunger. As the game progresses, players become able to gain sustenance from cooking and eating their beasts of war, or even from converting raw materials such as wood and brick to food. The original design also allowed for cannibalism, but Mr. Rosenberg had to take that part out. There is one vestige of this thematic element – why do you think the “Traveling Players” space yields food?
Combined with lack of sleep, the overconsumption of Agri-Cola causes players to suffer from severe paranoia and animosity. This is reflected in the fact that players are unable to trade with one another. Furthermore, when players select an action space they must take all of the available resources on that space, stripping the land and thereby undermining their adversaries.
The original design also had a Battle action, where players could send a war party to attack a neighboring faction and roll to destroy their structures or pilfer their resources. If players owned animals, they could choose to send a mounted war party, receiving powerful attack bonuses. Sadly, this portion of the game was axed by the publishers in the last minute redesign. While Agricola is a great game, it pains me to think how much better it could have been without this key omission.
In the end, as players observe their belligerent, over-caffeinated characters terrorizing the countryside, they are left with the realization that they have become the very monsters they feared. The best-prepared player is awarded the victory, but it’s little compensation for the humanity they’ve lost.
Overall, I still definitely enjoy Agricola despite the last-minute change of theme. The farming theme works fairly well as long as you overlook the holes in the story, and the mechanics are so sound that you could really paste any theme on this game and still enjoy it. However, I really hope that one day Mr. Rosenberg decides to allow gamers the opportunity to experience Agri-Cola as it was originally intended.
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