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Game Review Double-Dip: The Questing Farmer Edition

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There Will Be Games

Sorry Farmer McSwarthy, she's not interested...
Yes, I know I'm late with these.

Still, better late than never, right?

Two quickie reviews are dished up:  would-be Talisman killer World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game, and the German wunderkind, be-all-and-end-all, shit-eatin' good Agricola.

Join us on our quest to be KING FARMER, and while we're at it, stop by "Booty Bay" for a little "bling."

If that doesn't scream legalized prostitution, nothing does.


PHEAR THE SHEEP~!Unless you've been living in a cave, it's been hard to miss the 800-pound Euro gorilla that is Agricola.  The game caused mass hysteria and frenzy not seen since Mr. Skeletor was allowed near the F:AT liquor cabinet.  Egos were bruised, heated words erupted as the game's most ardent followers clashed with, well, most everybody else in those early days.

Reviews that dared give the game a "9.0" a cited a few small problems were flooded with comments from indignant gamers.  Shill ratings were given, then anti-shill, then anti-anti-shills, until when the smoke cleared, Boardgamegeek had a new #1 game.  And the masses rejoiced, and soon there was much card-flopping, grain planting, and wild boar cooking.

In the face of all that, how does one even BEGIN to review such a game?  Before you even lay hands on it, you've got an opinion on it already, one way or another....and likely that opinion stems from dealings from "the other side", whichever side you just so happen to be on.

Despite all this, I think I'll give it a go.

First up, the components.  You pick up this sucker for the first time, you realize just how densely packed the box is.  The game is loaded with more wood than a Viagara patient gone wrong, piles of cards and tokens, individual player boards, the whole nine yards.  I said it elsewhere, and I'll say it again--from the Euro perspective, this is essentially the German answer to Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition and modern AT gaming in general. 

Yeah, it kind of sucks that your animals are little cubes and your familly members are extras from Tron: Deadly Discs, but we'll ignore that for the moment.  The price tag is high on Agricola ($70 MSRP, less at various on-line game stores) but it seems to be packing the goods.

The cards are going to at least momentarily grab any ex-CCGer like myself.  These have pretty much been the secret weapon of Agricola in keeping the game fresh and giving fans a lot of stuff to explore.  There are enough cards in the "E" deck, for example, that you could play several games and not see the same cards dealt to you...and that's well before you even tear the shrink off of the "I"nteractive deck or "K"omplex deck (apparently they're fans of Mortal Kombat.  FARMALITY~!)

Anyway, enough about the bits, let's talk about the game itself.  Agricola is all about keeping your family fed and making the "best damn farm you can"--think of your goal as creating the Steven Segal of Farms.

You do this by using your family members to take actions and slowly but surely build the farm the way you want it.  The game is going to have a familiar feel in several respects.  Each turn, you alternate with other players placing your family discs on your desired actions.  When you take an action, you execute it immediately.  Example actions are "Day Laborer" which allows you to take 2 food, or "Occupation" which allows you to go out and get a job (as if farming weren't enough, the game allows you to have seven jobs.  It kind of reminds you of early 90s wrestling shows, where you'd have wrestling plumbers, wrestling garbage men, and wrestling tax men.  "Don't you guys have other jobs to do?"  "Naw, it's cool, we paid the extra food.")

Like Stone Age, you can increase the size of your family, but only when that action becomes available and only if no one else took it that turn.  Must be a "love hut" in this game as well, DO NOT DISTURB, ZEKE!  Of course, with an increased family size comes increased food needs.  There are predetermined "harvest" times that occur, and during harvest you must be able to feed your family to the tune of 2 food per person, or 1 for family members just born.

While you're wrestling with the food situation, there are all manner of other things for you to either make your farm better or just make life easier for you.  There are Major Improvements that are available to everyone, and these take the form of powerful cards that grant you permanent abilities.  You won't be able to cook without a fireplace, or bake bread without a stove, or mysteriously retrieve food from a Well unless you've taken those cards as Major Improvements.  There are minor improvements and occupations that are dealt to you at the start of the game as previously mentioned.  These are generally less difficult to obtain but take up precious time and resources to get them into play.

Most of the Occupations and Minor Improvements either deal with granting you bonus points or enhancing your available actions.  Some grant you more food when you fish, others free resources when you perform certain actions.  The points-based ones key off of either how many resources you've gathered, or how well you manage to improve your farm.

How do you improve your farm, you ask?  There are essentially three ways.  You can improve your house via increasing its size or upgrading the material it's made from; you can fence in pastures for your animals; and you can plow fields.  Fields and animals have their own little sub-systems each where you can plant grain and vegetables in your fields where they'll grow more, and with animals if you have at least two of them at harvest time then a new one will be born.

I've already went more in depth on the mechanics than I meant to, but as you can see, that's the basic flow of the game.  You go through the rounds, taking actions, improving your farm until the very end.  Then, everyone sees exactly who is KING FARMER.  That's it, that's the wrap. 

So what do I think of the game?

I'll grant it this--this is probably as thematic as a Eurogame will get.  While your actions don't really often make that much sense--why can only one person build a fence in a season?  Why can only one family have a child per season?--what you're doing translates directly into something very tangible.  You increase the size of your home, plow and plant fields, and raise a bunch of animals (cooking up some delicious hamburgers along the way.)

Something it can't escape from is the fact that it remains pretty mechanical.  The number of options available will do a good job at masking the optimum path, but it's pretty clear that you can look at your initial cards and couple that with your knowledge of the game to find the "math" underlying everything.  You'll work out that hey, I need 2 Reed and 5 Wood for this, or 2 Stone and 2 Clay for that, and the rest of your time will be spent balancing the food needs with claiming those resources and executing them in a timely fashion.

Those cards do make the game, though.  Without them you'd be looking at an optimally solvable game no questions asked.  Agricola does feature rules for a "family game" that's just that, but it strips most of the randomness out of the game and I would think that would make it less enjoyable for families, not more.

The first time you play it you're going to be overwhelmed by the choices available.  You're going to have seven occupation cards, seven minor improvement cards, all the publically available major improvement cards, and a board that periodically fills with resources as the game progresses, forcing you to keep an eye on how much is going to be available, and when.  It's not complexity through the rules as none of them are all that bad at all, but it's complexity through options.

I think as you play the game more, you'd start to see a lot of those choices as "false."  There are some of these cards where I wonder where you'd even bother, as the work to be done to earn them would outstrip the benefits.

All in all, it's not a bad game.  It does feel like you're pushing and pulling levers in a puzzle, despite the game's heavy thematic trappings.  I like the variance of the cards, I like that it does pay respect to its theme in many ways.  I don't like the headache of feeding the family, something I didn't enjoy in Stone Age either.  It adds another element to the game that doesn't deal directly with victory per se...it's like this side thing that keeps distracting you from your actual goals.  The first part of the game feels samey as you kind of claw your way to some sort of food engine as quickly as you can, trying to sneak in an Occupation and whatever else.

There is a big thematic disconnect in the seasons passing.  Either they put infants to work on these farms, or there is more than one year passing between harvests.  If that's the case, what about those harvests we skipped?  And why do years get shorter and shorter?  By the end of the game, you've got harvests piling on top of each other with little room to breathe in between.

Most AT games promote exploration of the game system--to push and prod at everything you can.  Agricola is firmly in that philosophy of "restraint".  Restrain everything you do, rein you in at various points, keep you from exploring the system.  You'll have a fistful of cards but only be able to use a few of them.  There's never enough time to do all the things you'd like.  You'll just get your farm the way you want it with lots of animals, vegetables growing, a nice house, and boom, it's all over.

I think I like Agricola OK.  The theme originally seemed a detriment to me--seriously, farming?--but that turned out to be the game's strongest point.  I don't think this game is the greatest thing ever, and it's the kind of game I'm only going to want to play face-to-face very occasionally.  Oddly, I've played about a dozen games of the Flash-based solitaire web version, and I think I liked that better as it felt "truer" with just you essentially puzzling through the max/min of how to best use your farm.

Yeah, yeah, people will tell you there's tons of interaction in Agricola.  Don't listen to them, there's not.  People randomly taking the actions you want is annoying, but that's as far as it goes.  I haven't used the "I" deck yet, but from reading them the interaction mostly takes the form of "if someone does this, you can do this."

One thing that BUGS ME pretty badly is that there's no tie breaker.  I have no idea what the deal is with Euro game designers and tie breakers.  My brother and I tied in our first game of Agricola.  I'm flipping through the rules, having that sinking feeling, and yep--there's no tie breaker.  Ties suck.  You don't want to spend an hour and a half playing a game so you can get a tie.

Dear Euro designers, a final note from me:  PUT DAMNED TIEBREAKERS IN YOUR GAMES.  I do not want to "share in the glory and prestige" with some other player at the table.  That's my final word on that subject.

3 out of 5 for me for AGRI-COLA.  If you're going to own a 'complex' Euro, you could do far worse. 

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game

There's a whole WORLD of Warcraft awaiting you!
Here's one that I had been really wanting to try for quite some time, since first reading about how the development on the game was going.  The "light, yet complex" adventure game has been something of a grail for me.  Something that plays quickly, but has enough meat in it to still feel like a *real* adventure game.

I've never been crazy about World of Warcraft.  At all.  I'm not one to get sucked into MMORPGs.  Their culture is foreign to me.  Add to that the fact that I really, really didn't care much for this game's big brother World of Warcraft: The Board Game and it becomes a testament to just how badly I was looking for a game to fill that niche for me.

World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game was the first in the short-lived "$39.96" line of FFG board games.  It was a short-lived line because the prices on them all jumped to $49.96 just recently.  Billed as an adventure game that featured plenty of World of Warcraft adventure flavor in a palatable 2 hour sitting, it's a game that cuts way back on the typical FFG plastic but still features a decent selection of components.

You get four heroes, with plastic miniatures for each.  These are the only plastic figures in the box.  For each of those characters you also get 4 character cards depicting each character at one of the four available levels, an ability deck, and some tokens with your characters picture on it.  There's a nice large mounted board, lots of wound tokens, and four small decks of cards with these little flimsy-ish holders to put them in.  The holders are necessary because like Fury of Dracula you draw cards from the bottom of these decks.  But more on that in a minute.

Last but not least there are two quest decks--one filled with those to be dealt out at the start and then an "elite" (or as WoW players would say, "l33t") deck that has quests you will draw into as the game progresses.  These quests have point values, and this is how you win the game, by accumulating 8 victory points.  Yeah, it kind of sucks earning VPs in an AT game, but at least you're doing something...adventuresome to get them.  A typical quest will either say something like "Place one of your character tokens on here when you kill a beast creature.  When you have 3 tokens on here, complete this quest" or "Kill another player character."  Each time you complete a quest, you earn that many victory points and draw a new quest card.

The board is where all of these quests will play out.  It's kind of an odd design as the first time you see the board it will look like a really, colorful flowchart to you--and you're not that far off.  Instead of moving from area to area, there are colored paths that link all the game's key locations together.  You can't move on the paths until you've earned that color in level--the character cards will relate directly to this color scheme.  So you can't move on green spaces until you've made green level or higher. 

What do you do as you move around?  First, you roll the movement die (yep, it's roll n' move.)  Low results are offset by the fact you get more energy to spend for the turn, either for your abilities or for your ability cards.  High results will zip you around the board faster, but you'll have less energy to spend on your ability tricks.  Once you've moved, each square has icons on them for resources that are available on that space.  These take the form of being able to heal 1 damage, or drawing an ability card, or cycling quests, or something similar.  Most "wilderness" spaces between key locations have only one or two choices, but cities have lots and lots of choices, making them hubs of activity.

Once you've done that, unless you're on a city space you resolve a challenge there.  This can take the form of a pre-printed encounter or an encounter already being on the board, but most of the time you'll draw from one of those four encounter decks I mentioned earlier.  They're color coded as well so you draw the bottom card from the stack of the same color as the space you're on.  Most of the time these will be monsters, and combat is a pretty quick system of each roll one die, add the appropriate base stat, and resolve.  Monsters generally have only one life, so if you can come up with a higher total, you kill that monster and flip them over, where you'll find a treasure that you've earned.  If the monster rolls higher, they'll deal their damage to you based on the amount that they can do, and the space is marked with a token where that creature will wait for its next victim.  If it's "aggro", watch out--aggro creatures prevent players from moving from that square and must be fought again next turn, meaning you'll need  to either defeat it, find something in your bag of tricks that will get you the hell out of there, or simply meet a grisly demise.

"Demise" is really a pretty strong word as dying in this game sets you back less than almost any adventure game I've ever seen.  You lose "attached" cards, heal your wounds, and get teleported to the nearest city.  Half the "attach" cards we saw were either "attach me to reduce the cost of an ability later" or more commonly "attach to your opponent to screw with him and/or deal damage", so losing those is often not even really a setback.  The true setback is on time, as this is a race game to 8 vp so if you get sent away from the area you're trying to complete a quest in, dying can slow you down.  But that's about it.

I mentioned leveling up earlier, and you do that at these printed encounters on the board.  These encounters have an arrow on them to show that you'll advance to that level if you defeat the encounter.  Pretty straightforward, and you don't even have to keep up with XP.  Just find you a few nice items and go whack the "gatekeeper" for that level to power up.  Much simpler than any other adventure game I've seen in that regard.

And...that's pretty much it, in a nutshell.  You move around, complete your quests, find goodies to make you stronger, and try to earn 8 vp as quickly as you can. 

There is player vs. player combat, and even several items and quests that deal with attacking other players.  This is an area most adventure games really struggle in, as without it a game feels too much like solitaire but it's something that's hard to implement properly.    I think this game does it about as well as a game like this is going to.  There's still very little reason to attack another player unless you have a quest dealing with that.

It is fun, though.  One of my starting quests was to kill a player character.  When I was ready, I used a flight path to get near, tossed some dynamite at them as I moved, then engaged them.  Before combat started I used an ice attachment that dealt damage to them, then unleashed a powerful frostbolt that did the KO.  It felt pretty good to string that combo together.  But without the quest telling me to do that, there would have been little point.  And you're always free to go to a city and cycle one of your quests for a new one, so all in all it's just not that necessary of a thing to do.   Games like this really need a "loot ALL their stuff" option, but getting kicked like that when you were down wouldn't be much fun either.

What did I like about this game?  I really liked the focus on completing quests rather than the typical "level up and defeat the BIG BAD" that most adventure games feature.  In that regard it had a very fresh approach.  Sure, you can defeat one of the strongest monsters on the board and get 4 points, but that's still only half what you need and won't win you the game instantly unless you've accomplished other things.  It's quite possible to win and never take on any of those ultra-strong "boss" monsters that are printed on the board.

I liked the ability cards.  Again, very CCG-ish in how you used them.  The combat was quick and clean and because it only went one round, it didn't bog the game down and force other players just to watch for extended periods of time.  That makes sense to me, as other similar games would see one player fight a quick battle and the same amount of gametime pass when another player has an epic, ten round contest.

What did I not like?  I didn't like the mixture of the "serious" adventure with random goofy tidbits.  One of the cards has flavor text that says, "You just got MALOWNED!"  and there are a couple of dumb items like "Stylin' Jungle Hat" that lets you give it to an opponent to cancel a battle.

RANGNOR:  I have come to extract my vengeance upon thee, lo I have hunted you for many days!

URLACHER:  Uh...would you take this Stylin' Jungle Hat as a gift instead?

RANGNOR:  Verily!

One other thing I didn't dig was the roll n' move thing.  I'm not an anti-roll and move guy, far from it.  But thematically it doesn't really make a lot of sense.  If you're going to need to take your time charging up your mana as you wait on the outskirts of town, you're not just going to suddenly decide to sprint as fast as you can, mana be damned--but that's just what can happen here.

I like the balance of movement and energy, but a good variant might be just to let you choose your die facing and place it for the turn.  Take it slow and charge your spells, or race to your next location--your call.

The movement system is kind of cool in a way, but ultimately it just restrains you.  You can't venture out of these relatively small starting areas until you level up, and then that doesn't expand until you level up again, etc.   My brother's critique of this was that you felt like you were moving along a very limited family tree.  Do this, then do this, then do this....not the feeling you want your wide-open adventure games to give you.

Truthfully, WoW: TAG's problem is that it's neither fish nor fowl.  It's not so complex as to give you that meaty adventure game feel, but it has enough little tidbits to memorize (and TONS of anti-newbie iconography) that you won't be able just to bust it out with your beer-drinking pals either.  You're going to be juggling little bits, moving around, and--I hate to say it--but mechanically pursuing your victory conditions, which are also very much "do this, then do this, then do this."

I'm hard pressed to tell you what a medium-weight adventure game like World of Warcraft could do that would make it better.  And then it dawned on me that maybe I didn't want a game like that as badly as I thought.  Either you want a breezy light-on-rules adventure game like Prophecy or Talisman, or you want the REAL DEAL in the form of Descent or Runebound.  A little too "heavy" to knock down quickly, but too light to truly satisfy as a "main event" game.

Again, I'm going to damn with faint praise and say that I liked World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game okay.  I really do enjoy the quest system, like the tweaks they've put in to encourage player versus player combat, and sort of dig the whole no muss, no fuss leveling up system.  But the game can overstay its welcome by getting a touch repetitive and could use a little more "stuff to do" to keep things interesting.  I'm guessing with the expansions, we'll probably get just that.

A 3.0 out of 5.0.  Again, you can do far worse with adventure games than to pick this one up, but you can do a lot better, too.  Recommend to "try before you buy."

That's pretty much going to do it for my babbling today.  Comments and criticisms welcome.  Thanks for reading, and see you again on Friday for our News update.

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