Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, August 19, 2011

More Farmers: Farmers on the Moor

One of my acquisitions at WBC (has it been almost two weeks ago now?) was Farmers of the Moor, an expansion to my old favorite farming game, Agricola (designer Uwe Rosenberg, artist Klemens Franz, publisher Z-Man Games).  FotM introduces fuel for heating homes, horses, 14 new major improvements, and two new decks of minor improvements.  A game that was already a fun worker-placement challenge and satisfying farm-building game presents a whole new set of challenges with this well-thought-out expansion.

Farmers of the Moor:  fuel tokens
Agricola already poses the problem of feeding the family at every harvest.  Now FotM adds the requirement of burning a fuel token for every room in the house at every harvest as well.  Fuel comes from cutting peat from the eponymous moors that dot the farm at the beginning of the game, or from trading in wood for fuel.  Clay huts provide some insulation and save on heating fuel; stone huts even more so.  Heating the hut is necessary to keep the family healthy; for every unit of fuel needed at harvest but not available to heat the home, a family member is "bedridden" in the next round.  The only action a bedridden family member can take is to go to the infirmary for the round; at the end of the round, that family member returns home with the rest of the family.

Farmers of the Moor:  Bedridden family members
In our first game, I took advantage of a minor improvement "Thicket," a major improvement "Forester's Lodge," and a horse to build up a big supply of wood.  Unfortunately I lost sight of the need for fuel, and at one point spent all my wood to build a room and build fences for two pastures.  Suddenly I was facing harvest with no fuel, and the entire family was bedridden for the next round.  It was a funny, if bone-headed, mistake, and we all got a good laugh at my family members making their way one by one to the infirmary.  Surprisingly, I won the game, but by the narrowest of margins - my 37 points to my wife's 36 and our friend Theresa's 35.  We were all astounded at how close the game was.

This evening, my wife and I played a two-player session, and we both thought that I was on my way to a strong finish with a stone house, stone oven, and full supply of grain and vegetables.  But my wife made up the difference with animals, the well, and the basketmaker's workshop.  We ended up tied at 46 points.  Again, we were both astounded at how close the scores ended up despite our perception of my lead.  What a fun game.

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
And therein lies a clue to the mystery of the success of Agricola.  I am continually astounded at the balance of this game.  There are so many different ways to score points, so many different actions to take, different opportunity trades between one path and another - and yet scores can end up very close, where every point at the end can make a difference.  And FotM seems to have struck that balance even more finely.

What is it about the design of this game that makes it work so well?  Surely some decent quantitative analysis went into the unit cost and point value of the different components, but there's more to it than pure calculation.  The only conclusion I can reach is that it was thoroughly playtested and continually adjusted to refine the game play.  Every effort must have been taken to create a gap, a question, a balance among two or more choices, so that no choice was ever obvious.  Every good move meant sacrificing another good move.  Every opportunity taken meant leaving another opportunity open to the opponent(s).  In this respect, to me, this game is brilliant, and FotM just cranks up the candlepower.

If I can ever figure out how to capture that kind of design genius, I'll have bottled lightning.

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