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

Even after reading last week’s post, you still think you’ve mastered the basic game of Agricola, and that you can now manage the basics of an industrial farm at the back-end of your agricultural supply chain. With limited resources, you believe that 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 marketplaces), 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 still think that because you were ending every friendly family game with a heavily utilized farmyard, a nice balance of crops and animals, a big family, and a better homestead than your peers that you have it all figured out. 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 139 minor improvement cards, which include:

  • Loom: Your ability to weave wool into cloth, which you can sell, gives you extra food each harvest (just like farmers who can sell wool and meat versus just sheep can make extra money).
  • Canoe: You’re a more efficient fisherman, and secure extra fish (food) every time you fish as well as reed (for building).
  • Brewery: Your ability to convert grain into beer provides you with extra food during trade as everyone wants a piece of your production.
  • Spinney: You own the woodlot, so anytime another player uses the “take 3 wood” action, they must give one to you.
  • Water Mill: Your ability to covert grain to flour allows you a trading advantage and you can get 3 food for every grain.
  • Millstone: You are more efficient at milling grain into bread and can produce three times as much bread (food) in a single action.
  • Turnwrest Plow: Your bigger and better plow allows you to plow fields three times as fast as your rivals.
  • Carp Pond: You have your own private fishing pond that no one else has access to, can fish before and after your field work, and catch fish (food) every round.
  • Milking Shed: You can milke your livestock and get additional food every harvest.
  • Sawhorse: Your better-equipped work-shed maximizes your ability to build and place fences faster and with less raw-material (and you build every 3rd fence free).
  • Broom: You can clean house faster than your peers, and when you need to, you can discard all the remaining minor improvement options in your hand (that are available to you) and select seven new minor improvement options (that become available to you).
  • Cooking Hearth: While your rivals are struggling with a small fire-place, your state-of-the-art cooking hearth allows you to easily cook grain, vegetables, and livestock and produce a plethora of food with ease.
  • Fruit Tree: Your foresight to plant apple and pear trees allows you to produce extra food each round.
  • Wooden Crane: While your rivals with their pick-axes can only quarry a single stone at a time, your crane allows you to quarry two or, if you add a day-labourer at the cost of one food, three stones at a time.
  • Bookshelf: Your foresight to invest your spare change in a library allows you to not only learn new trades quickly, but excel in them (and earn 3 food every time you embark on a new occupation).

If you have the millstone or the water mill, you will want to embark on a grain-based strategy in the early game as it will guarantee your ability to feed your family (and pay your workers) later in the game. If you have the spinney and/or the sawhorse, you might want to focus more on raising animals as you can expect free wood or the ability to build fences and stables more efficiently than your peers. The turnwrest plow puts you on a more agricultural course as you can quickly plow and sow fields. The carp pond and/or the canoe makes fishing a part of your strategy because it’s cheap and easy food. The crane puts a focus on building and renovation as you can more quickly acquire stone than your rivals. And the bookshelf puts you on an occupational track as every occupation you learn feeds a family member.

And then the strategies become even more complex and dynamic when you try to balance the occupations and the skills they provide with the minor improvements and the equipment that they make available to you. For example, if you have the Turner Occupation, who builds furniture, you can trade 1 wood for food at any time, and this goes well with the spinney improvement as it pretty much guarantees you will get a lot of wood to turn into furniture which turns into food to feed your family. The spinney also goes well with the frame builder occupation, since the free wood reduces the amount of resources he needs to build clay structures even more. The organic farmer occupation and the sawhorse minor improvement go well together, since the first requires lots of pastures and the latter allows you to build fences quicker due to the reduced material requirement. The seasonal worker occupation goes well with the planter box minor improvement which, if your field is beside your hut, allows you to plant additional grain or vegetables, which the seasonal worker can easily harvest. And so on. Just like in a real supply chain, when the right skilled resource has the right tool, her productivity multiplies.

Played properly, this game emphasizes the important relationship between the three T’s — talent, technology, and transition — because advantages come when you pair talent (occupational skills) with the right technology (tools granted to you by minor improvements) to allow you to transition your basic farming operation into a strategically designed one, where the focus of your strategy will transition over the game, from insuring you can produce enough food to feed your family (and pay your workers) in the early rounds to growing your family and plowing fields and building pastures in the mid-game to doing whatever it takes to maximize your agricultural output in the later rounds so that, by the end of the game, you’ve maximized your crop production, filled your pastures, expanded your buildings, and built the biggest, most profitable, and most cost-effective farmyard.

This game definitely requires you to put on your thinking cap and get comfortable in that thinking chair, because, just like when you sit down to analyze a potential supply chain configuration, you’re going to be in it a while as you put your supply management skills to the test.

Game On!