Daily Archives: March 14, 2014

The (Board) Gamer’s Guide to Supply Management Part : Agricola, Part II-A

So, you think you’ve mastered the basic game of Agricola, and can now manage the basics of an industrial farm at the back-end of your agricultural supply chain. With your limited resources, you can deftly balance growing food with feeding your family (investing in crops versus paying your workers), expanding your farm and/or family versus maximizing the return from what you have (and trading off short-term gains today for long-term gains tomorrow), improving your infrastructure (by upgrading your buildings and making them more resistant to the elements and lowering their annual maintenance costs with some up-front investment) versus focussing on your fields (plowing and sowing your fields) versus raising and breeding animals (and the supply and demand dynamics of the meat-eating versus vegetarian marketplace), growing grain versus vegetables (and the internal dynamics of the basic commodities market), and raising sheep versus pigs or cattle (and the various preferences of different locales, taking into account that Americans love their bacon and Hindus don’t eat their cows). You think you have it all figured out and end every game with a fully utilized farmyard, a nice balance of crops and animals, a big family, and a better homestead than your peers. Think again.

Just like the real world agricultural supply chain isn’t this simple, neither is the full version of Agricola. Adding in the occupational and minor improvement cards adds a broad range of new elements to the game and greatly increases the complexity and available dynamics. Basic strategies go out the window as you try to find new and innovative ways to build a better farm than your rivals, who now have access to new skills, equipment, and innovations to acquire food, grow crops, and raise their animals. Just like every innovation in the real world pulls the rug out from under your proverbial supply chain feet, every occupation and minor improvement has the potential to completely change the balance of power, especially when these occupations are skillfully paired in a complementing manner.

There are 66 basic occupation cards, which include:

  • Merchant: his skills in trade allow you to take an action a 2nd action for the cost of 1 food, just like skilled merchants always find a way to take advantage of the situation
  • Seasonal Worker: his services double the amount of grain or vegetables you can harvest, just like more labour in the real world speed the harvest
  • Stone Carrier: this strong man can harvest stone from the quarry twice as fast as the average labourer, just like a skilled labourer is much more effective than an unskilled one
  • Frame Builder: this skilled tradesman allows you to mix wood and clay and still build a solid structure, just like the best engineers know how to mix materials for the best construction
  • Organic Farmer: his ability to command a higher price for his crops allows you to get more for animals that get to free-range graze (in uncrowded pastures)
  • Maid: provides you with one food at the start of each round, as part of her job is to bake and cook (while you plow, sow, and harvest)
  • Plow Driver: this day labourer allows you to plow 1 (extra) field each round for the cost of 1 food
  • Chamberlain: this market manipulator allows you to take actions before your peers have the opportunity to do so, just like an inside man gets you access to new technology before your peers
  • Stablemaster: this master shepherd allows you to hold more animals in unfenced stables than you could otherwise, just like a real shepherd can keep a heard in line without having to fence it in
  • Mendicant: this master begger is immune to the effects of (up to) two begging (debt) cards

And even though these are just 10 of the 66 basic occupation cards, and there are 41 more available in a 3-player game and a total of 103 more available in a 4 or 5-player game, you can quickly see how each occupation provides you with a skill that can significantly impact your strategy.

If you have the seasonal worker advantage, you will focus on plowing and sowing fields early in the game, as you will be producing grain and vegetables twice as fast as your opponents, and will quickly lock-in your ability to produce food and extend your family. If you are the organic farmer, you will play a live-stock centric game and build lots of pastures because you won’t need many animals to rack up animal-based points. If you have the maid, you can focus more on building early on as you will need less food to progress to the later rounds. If you have the Stablemaster advantage, you will build lots of stables early as this will allow you to keep lots of animals without needing to acquire the wood required to build lots of fences. If you are the Mendicant, then you will use this to your advantage in the later rounds to avoid the need to feed two family members and take extra development actions instead. And if you are the Chamberlain, you’ll use this insider’s advantage to stay one-step ahead of your rivals who will have to double-down into their chosen strategy to try and keep up with you.

Just like specialists in the real world give you a competitive advantage and alter your supply management strategies, so do specialists in Agricola. The right ability at the right time can not only significantly alter your best strategy, but even give you a considerable edge over your rivals if they don’t have an skills of comparable worth. And the wide variety of potential skills, and combinations thereof (as your family members can partake in multiple occupations) can make it a different game every time (just like every go to market event is distinct from an informed sourcing perspective). This is what makes Agricola one of the best games out there for sharpening your supply management skills, and a great foundation for getting yourself ready for the ultimate supply management challenge. More to come!