And Do The Things, Ah, Do The Things, That We Like To Do, Do A Little Dance, Make A Little Love, Get Down Tonight
I've always thought a lot of productive and useful information could be gleaned from board games. Memorization, planning, reasoning, and prioritizing have all been skills that have become honed and refined from my many years with gaming, board and otherwise. I always assumed that the most a few bits of plastic and wood could ever instill in me was a more logical perspective on the world and the wherewithal to reason my way through it. I never thought that lessons of philosophy and morality would ever come into play when puzzling over a particularly cutthroat game of Monopoly (boo! hiss!) or that I could suss out any lasting ethical lesson from an all-hours session of Castle Risk.
However ever since discovering the world of Euro-style board games I've come to understand that some games more than others have a bit of substance to go along with their themes and that some games are more than the sum of their mechanics.
The game which best illustrates this thesis is a recent addition to my collection, Agricola. Not only do I consider it one of the finest examples of theme meeting mechanics in the middle, but I also consider it to bridge the gap between having a theme and actually have that theme be a universal one.
According to Board Game Geek (www.boardgamegeek.com):
In Agricola, you're a farmer in a wooden shack with your spouse and little else. On a turn, you get to take only two actions, one for you and one for the spouse, from all the possibilities you'll find on a farm: collecting clay, wood, or stone; building fences; and so on. You might think about having kids in order to get more work accomplished, but first you need to expand your house. And what are you going to feed all the little rugrats?
The rules include a beginner's version and an advanced version.
Agricola is a turn-based game. There are 14 game turns plus 6 harvest phases (after turn 4, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 14).
Each player starts with two playing tokens (farmer and wife) and thus can take two actions per turn. There are multiple options, and while the game progresses, you'll have more and more: first thing in a turn, a new action card is flipped over.
Problem: Each action can be taken just once per turn, so it's important to do some things with high preference.
Each player also starts with a hand of 7 job cards (of more than 160 total) and 7 item cards (of more than 140 total) that he/she may use during the game if they fit in his/her strategy. Speaking of: there are countless strategies, some depending on your card hand. Sometimes it's a good choice to stay on course, sometimes you better react on what your opponents do.
A very complex game with some easily digestible rules, but what makes this game so special that puts it heads and shoulders above the rest when it comes to relating gameplay with the human experience?
Simple. The game posits that the family you're playing with is your family. This isn't a game about futuristic soldiers struggling against an alien horde. This isn't a game about building a cathedral or a palace. It doesn't involve fantastical settings or foreign concepts that many people haven't experienced. At its heart, Agricola is about raising your family and pretty much eking out a living farming so you can provide for them.
That leads to some personally challenging and rewarding life lessons that the game subtly works into the gameplay.
For instance, lesson one is that it's bad to rely on others to provide for you. One of the quickest ways to lose in the game is to fail to provide enough food for your family. For each bit of food you fail to produce, procure, or otherwise scrounge up from your farm you lose three points from your overall score. Do this more than once or twice and you're guaranteed to lose the game. Unlike some games I've played this one doesn't reward starving your family, stealing from other players instead of doing the work yourself, or otherwise bending the rules so you can shirk your duty and put the responsibility of working on someone else's shoulders. You fail to plan, you fail to work, you fail to take your family's best interests to heart, you lose.
However, conversely, lesson two is that should you ever need the help, that there is always someone you can turn to. The same mechanic that nets you minus three points is also the same mechanic which thematically I found comforting. Your family never actually starves. Instead, your family goes asking for food from the village and the village is more than willing to provide so that your family doesn't pay for your mistakes. This idea that you're not alone, that there's always a community around you to assist you also flies in the face of conventional games where you're often playing a solitary figure. Any ramifications are often one-sided in those games because playing alone means playing more vicious and ruthless than you would in real life. By placing your perspective as one family among a village of families, I'd like to think that the experience more approximates the experience of how you would handle such problems in your actual state.
The three points isn't to punish you by saying that your wife and children all die, but to say because your lack of planning you lost a little of your pride and some respect in your community. Yet, despite that, they'll never turn you away and watch you go hungry.
Lesson three branches off the previous lessons and states that everybody pitches in. You start the game with two pieces, a husband and wife, and they both work the farm. They both build the fences, they both make improvements to the house. They both take care of the animals and the crops. They both share in the duties equally. Subsequently, with every addition to the family, you get more people to share in the chores and life on the land becomes easier to deal with. There are no questions of sexism or ageism. Everybody gets put to work on every job. And in that way everybody, hopefully, gets accomplished what needs accomplishing.
Lesson four one can learn from the game is that there's never enough time to do everything, it seems. Granted, this is a quality many European games share, but the way Agricola handles it feels more right on the money. At the beginning of the game the harvest, periods where you need to your family and the benchmarks of progress through the game, are relatively spaced-out. However, as you work your way through, they become more frequent. In that sense it kind of emulates life. Your first few years seem to drag on and often time you find yourself with more leisure time than you know what to do with. But, compared with the later stages of life, you need to realize that this is the time you need to be maximizing your opportunities. Agricola rewards the player who sets himself up in the best position for the later stages of the game. The person who takes and takes in the beginning of the game without implementing some sort of strategy for the endgame is often the person who finds himself bringing up the rear when the game finishes. On the other hand, the player who delays and invests in setting up a system to take care of him in the middle and end portions, at the expense of forgoing scoring opportunities in the early game, often comes out in a position to do well later on. Often times while the former players are still struggling to overcome their blatant inefficiencies, the latter players, with their basic needs all met, is free to enjoy the fruit of his labors and score at will.
Planning, planning, planning--that's the name of the game with the game and real life. The more work you do early on, the less work you have to do later on.
Lesson five is you have to play the cards you're dealt with. In the game you are dealt seven occupations and seven minor improvements, and that's it. You never draw cards again in the game (with one minor exception). Your strategy revolves around the benefits you receive from these fourteen cards. It has been argued that some hands players get dealt with are better than others. While that might be true, I still also think that a better player beats a better hand any day of the week. The way I see it, people are always going to have advantages over you. Someone's always going to be smarter, better, or faster than you at something. That doesn't mean you give up and that doesn't mean you use it as an excuse to complain if you should lose. All that means is that you've got to put your own skills and talents, the ones nobody else can use, to better use than they can their own. It also means you have to limit your liabilities. It's just like the song says, "when the odds look good you gotta play the hand you see." Yes, some people will get the better cards in the game, but it is not so unbalanced as to be game-breaking. And, yes, some people are going to have advantages you won't have, but it is not so outrageous a chasm as to be insurmountable. Like my friend's always telling me, "Sometimes doing your best is only half the work. Sometimes you have to do your best better than anyone else is doing theirs, sugar."
baby, babe, let's get together
Lastly, the most important lesson you can learn is that family comes first. Basically, this one is easily recognizable in the game. There are two goals in the game that are intertwined in the game. The first goal is straightforward. Score more points than the other players in the game. The second goal, however, is less obvious. Feed your family. Points are easy to see in the game--whoever has the bigger house, the biggest fields, filled their pastures with tons and tons of animals. What's harder to see is how effective one was at at feeding their family. The food is consumed. The engine that got the food from the field to the oven to your family's mouths is harder to point and explain than the accumulation of wealth one has by game's end. However, I'm willing to bet the person who scores the most point is the player who made the most effective use of his time to provide for his family.
In a sense, everybody wants to be the biggest, baddest, and most prosperous person among their peers. However, the game is almost saying, it's the person who thinks of their family first and their toys second is the one who ultimately turns out to be the big winner. The player who focuses his effort on maximizing his property from the get-go without providing first for his brood is doomed. However, I've seen people shoot from far behind to come out near the top in the last couple of turns simply because their families were so well-provided for that they stopped worrying about feeding them for the last third of the game, which gave them all the opportunities in the world to blow out their farm huge in a very short span of time.
By putting your family first--expanding it and taking care of it--you'll put yourself on the track to winning rather easily.
I don't know--the way I always explain it is by using the model of the American Dream. You and your family work hard in the beginning, sacrificing and doing what you need to do to scrape by, so that you can play hard in the end.
Sure, a lot of people like games where they play the lone-wolf type of character, oblivious to everybody but himself. When you're alone you don't often have to think of repercussions. The whole model of a family who works, plays, eats, and loves together and actually do it because these are the things that they like to do might seem a little old-fashioned in these cynical times, but I believe Agricola has the right idea by adhering to the maxim that family comes first.
After all, the family that works together just may be the family that gets down together too after the work is done. LOL