With proof that your Monday could ALWAYS be worse, check out guest reviewer Simon Mueller as he goes where angels fear to trod. --Ken B.
DISCLAIMER: I have no clue how the various game terms were translated into English, so I just made up my own.
Apart from the fact that neither I nor the people I met at Essen, noticed this game at all there, I had to try it after it was so obviously over-hyped on BGG. I wanted to know why people go to such great lengths as trying to handle a product developed in a different language and importing it from overseas (I do the same, but I understand English fairly well, and the dollar is currently so weak that it's worthwhile to shop in the US). Luckily two guys in my local game group own Agricola, so I didn't have to buy it myself. In contrast to what the BGG marketplace conveys, the game is commonly available in Germany and can be bought for 30 Euros.
The games comes in an ugly box which features brown text on orange background and awkward looking people and animals still working hard with the sunset on the horizon. The sheep on the left has a proud look on its face probably thinking: "What'cha looking at?" and obviously has no business with the pig on the right staring embarrassedly at the ground.
The box comes packed with vast amount of cards and many wooden bits shaped in different forms, most of them colored brown. To produce five units of this game approximately one square meter of woodland has to be cleared.
Outline of play
The game having a farming theme is divided into seasons. After each season you need to have acquired enough food for your family or they die (not all of them, the rest survives through cannibalism). Each season you have the choice of certain actions which are placed as cards on the board. There is some randomness in what gets drawn, however the more powerful cards always appear late in the game.
Actions are picked and resolved one player after the other until everyone runs out of family members, which are placed as reminders on the cards being taken. Initially you start with two family members/actions but can receive more during the game. Taking actions has no result on other players apart from blocking those. Examples for actions are: 'Pick up Wood', 'Become starting player', 'Learn a profession', 'Plow field', 'Buy sheep' and so on. Some of the actions have prerequisites, for example 'Build fences' requires one piece of wood per fence one's going to build. Players start the game with a tableau depicting their farm with several vacant spaces which get used up as the game progresses.
Everybody randomly gets two sets of card at the start of the game: 'Professions' and 'Improvements'. Both enhance the benefits you get from certain actions and if you're lucky you draw a good combo like 'Draw extra sheep' and 'Get extra victory points for sheep', so you know your focus are sheep in this play of the game. If you neglect those cards it's harder to win.
Victory is accounted for what things you could amass in the end. Get X points for Y family members, sheep, wheat, plowed fields, and so on. Sometimes you have to accept negative points for example if you leave spaces on your tableau empty.
As you see, the game does indeed have some nice mechanics.
Agricola as a farming simulation
The setting of the game is supposed to be pre-industrialization agriculture but apart from starving to death nothing bad can happen to your family. However, who would want to swap a clean white-collar job to work at a time were diseases, famines, raiding bands and feudalism were due. Those aspects are not portrayed at all (I guess the game's supposed to be family-friendly). Another inconsistency is that for example if somebody picks the 'Build fences'-action, nobody else can do that for the whole season (That guy bought all the bloody laths.)
To be successful in a certain niche, one would usually have to specialize, but in Agricola no special benefits range from focussing on wheat production for example. You have to score well in a columns: sheep, corn, family members, etc to win and everything has a maximum score, so accumulating more than what is required to get the highest score is stupid (This is why the city Vienna burns as much superfluous bread as is consumed by Graz every day).
One rule I played wrong in my first game is "animal reproduction". After each season you get a new animal cube for two animals of one kind you already possess. However, you could shepherd 20 sheep but still only give birth to one baby sheep (Those stupid farmers always get fobbed off buying 1 sheep and 19 rams). Another point is that your family members are basically too gifted to be true. At any point in the game you can have an unlimited number of professions for your family, ranging from butcher to puppeteer.
Towards the end of the game the seasons get shorter with no apparent reason.
Two things are positive though: Firstly you can store exactly one animal (your favorite one) in your "tiny hut" to serve as a central heating system or for other purposes. Secondly you can always cook animals if your harvest falls short (I guess it took the designer some guts to include this in the game).
Competitive play and interaction
Although the game would basically scream for a market mechanism, there is none. Interaction is of passive type only, meaning that players restrict each others' actions with blocking the ones already taken that round. Players who start with good card combinations have major advantages.
Several problems accrue from the missing active interaction, which means that taking an action draws no consequences from other players. First of all in the final phases of the game players will always watch who of them is probably leading in score and take steps to hamper this person's ability to win. For example if it is obvious someone wants to 'Build fences' with the lot of wood she has amassed before, this action is very likely to be blocked by someone else. I usually don't have a problem with the 'Bash-the-leader' syndrome, but I highly loathe it when the leader can't react to moves directed against her.
Another thing is that often enough the player who just moves before you do, is going to take away the action you intended to pick, so you will have to rethink your strategy and this costs time. Similar to this you always have to take the best action every turn to stay competitive, because there is no luck to equal out things after initially drawing the cards. I think that last point makes any game very dry and boring. I can best compare Agricola to building a puzzle, only that pieces are frequently unavailable to you, although you wanted to place them next. To me an activity like this is frustrating and not fun at all.
I can only conclude that the game attracts most hype because it combines three things so popular in other high-ranked games before it: cards, brown cubes and a repelling theme. Furthermore I have to admit that any puzzle presents a challenge the first time you try it.