down_on_the_farm

If you play Agricola for the ruthlessly honed gameplay, there is no reason the boar space in this iOS port should have a baby boar with a spotted coat snuffling around inside the pen. There is no reason a chicken with two chicks should stroll through the town center. There is no reason the cows should wag their tails. There is no reason sheep should wriggle when you pick them up. There is no reason plowed and sown fields should sprout rows of ripening crops as if you were playing some sort of latest-gen Harvest Moon. There is no reason successive turns should have icons representing different seasons.

After the jump, unreasonably cute.

But like Uwe Rosenberg’s other well known boardgame, Le Havre, you can’t very well play Agricola just for the ruthless gameplay. There is too much charm and unpredictability. Le Havre flirts coyly with charm and unpredictability by folding into its industrial progression a touch of random flavor. No two games play the same thanks to the special economic cards. Along the way to building a fleet of steel ships, you might buy a zoo, become a furniture magnate, build a soccer stadium, or make a fortune from sandwiches.

These special tweaks, with all their charm and unpredictability, are a foundation for Agricola. The special economic cards emerge over time in Le Havre (using the marketplace gives you unique insight into what’s coming down the economic pike). But Agricola begins with giving each player seven occupations and seven improvements. Basically, here are fourteen different ways to tweak the game, most of which are different from last time you played. Agricola is at its best when you play a pre-game round-robin draft with everyone’s cards (supported in this excellent iOS port!). It’s the game before the game, featuring the chieftain, his daughter, a dancer, the pastor, the maid, a brewer, a fishing raft, a birdhouse, a ratcatcher, a butter churn, a beanfield, and whatever a potato dibber is. Agricola is just so gosh durn precious.

So it’s ultimately fitting that the ruthless hunger and deprivation and frustrated plans are lovingly adorned with cute touches only a videogame can add. Agricola’s boardgame artwork is already cute enough. It’s earthy orange/brown autumn palette is perfectly reproduced here, now with smatterings of spring and winter around the edges, and wriggling livestock and an animated board. So gosh durn precious.

The preciousness comes at a minor cost to functionality. A lot of screen real estate is spent on cute, which I don’t begrudge the developers at Playdek. You can call up a text overlay for an easier overview, obscuring the panting sheepdog next to the sheep pen. But there will still be a lot of swiping back and forth from town to your farm to your hand of cards to the available ovens back to your farm back to town to someone else’s farm and back to town. Which occupation cards do you have in your hand again? It’s a lot to manage and I can’t imagine how Playdek could have done any better, short of stripping out all the cute and going entirely functional. They made the right call. A bird flaps overhead. The river flows. The beggar fidgets forlornly.

As a single-player game, the AI acquits itself admirably (one of my favorite things about ports of Euro games like this is that purer math lends itself to artificial intelligence). It’s also got a chess puzzle style campaign. Draw a handful of cards and try to reach a certain point threshold in a solitaire game. Now carry over one of the cards and try to reach a higher threshold. Now carry over another of the cards and try to reach an even higher threshold.

I’m less enamoured of Agricola as a multiplayer game. It works fine, and developer Playdek knows better than to leave you high, dry, and solitaire only. But heck if I can remember what I was going to do when my turn finally rolls around again. This isn’t a knock against the Agricola port so much as a fact of its gameplay. I’d rather play the AI, and the AI is easily up to the task. Besides, I have a real-world copy of Agricola to play with friends, at which point I have only myself to blame for forgetting what I was going to do from turn to turn.

4 stars
iOS