Thank you for checking review #98 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
**Note: A review copy of the game was sent in exchange for an honest review.
An overview of Agricola, Master of Britain
Agricola, Master of Britain is a board game designed by Tom Russell that is published by Hollandspiele. The box states it plays 1 player in 90 minutes.
It is the year of Vespasian and Titus – the sixth such ordinary consulship that Titus shared with his Imperial father. The civil war of a decade ago is but a memory, and the Flavians have restored peace and order to all corners of the empire, save one. The people of Brittania remain fiercely resistant to the will of their Roman masters, and the emperor has charged YOU with the seemingly impossible task of bringing them to heel.
Agricola, Master of Britain is a solitaire game of governance and conquest. To master the delicate political situation, you will need the right blend of military force, administration, bribery, and diplomacy. Every action you take matters, changing how the native populace feels about you and your rule. But you’ll never know exactly who’s with you or against you, because the game tracks this “under the hood”, or, more precisely, “in the cup”.
Three chit-pull cups (Friendly, Unfriendly, and Hostile) represent the allegiances of the units contained within those cups. After each action you take, one or more of these units are blindly moved from one cup to another. You’ll have a general idea of “I’m really cheesing them off” or “I should have a lot of friendlies available for recruitment”, but until you pull a chit, you won’t know who your friends really are, or where the next rebellion will spring up. This isn’t totally random: certain tribes naturally skew more in one direction or the other, and taking actions to stabilize a region after it’s been pacified will diminish the chances of revolt there.
Building the right armies, and taking the right actions at the right time is key to your success. But the Flavians – and particularly the hated Domitian – expect greater and greater results with each campaign season. You’ll need to meet and exceed them if you want to duplicate Agricola’s achievement.
I’ve always wanted to be a wargamer, but I’ve struggled to find a wargame system that is engaging enough to merit more plays. Something about “just play both sides” doesn’t appeal to me in a way to motivate it to hit the table beyond a first play. That is why I was always hesitant to pick up Agricola, Master of Britain because my history with solitaire wargaming has been less than stellar so far. Well, safe to say this shattered every expectation, not only being an enjoyable experience with every play (even those ending in an early loss), but providing an interesting game to play. It is wargaming that doesn’t make me try and outplay myself, and I cannot express enough how great that feels.
The cup system on this game feels really innovative, and is far more interesting than rolling a die and consulting a table. It allows you to understand how your actions, as the Roman forces, are impacting the population’s feelings toward the Roman rule. Almost everything you do is going to send those chits conveying down toward the Hostile cup, and most of the game will be spent with a fairly sizable grouping in the Unfriendly cup and with almost nothing going into the Friendly cup. Apart from the mechanical enjoyment of the system here, which I did enjoy greatly, this also does a good job of representing (abstractly) the impact that certain decisions might have had upon the local population.
While I absolutely hated it during moments of the gameplay, the fact that you can’t choose to “just move” means you need to really plan out your course of actions in order to reach the areas of the map you are trying to reach. In some instances you’ll be able to interact with the tribes on the map and at least try for something meaningful as you move through the map. Other times you’ll get the desirable Peacekeeping movement, which has a rare effect of moving chits out of the Hostile cup and into the Unfriendly cup. And if you really fail to plan – well, your movement might be accomplished only by passing for the turn and forfeiting the rest of your actions on the round. At least you get 1VP per action skipped, right? #planbetter
Let’s talk about losing conditions in a solitaire game for a moment. This game can – and sometimes will – end long before the typical endgame trigger occurs. For example, in this you have 8 rounds to play and every round has a minimum VP threshold to meet in order to not lose the game. You must also balance the loss of troops, meaning you cannot blindly commit to battles without considering your odds of victory, and the use of your treasury which, if undefended, could get raided and if that raid brings it to 0, you lose. All of these are excellent ways of providing tension to the player, as you have variable things to juggle and make sure to meet minimums on throughout the game. You can’t simply ignore parts of the game and limp along to win. I love it so much, because it adds pressure and tension and gives me objectives to shoot for every round.
Points are difficult to obtain in this game as a whole. The fact that you need to go from getting 3VP in the first round to getting 20VP in the final round shows that there are ways, as you get an “engine” going, to obtain that VP in bigger chunks. Because that VP is a losing condition, you can’t just focus on slaughtering the biggest threat because that may not be the best choice. You also can’t just sweep through with your strongest army, as promoting your troops is a key path to gaining consistent VP each turn. I love trying to puzzle out how to get a few more VP, and it is especially good when you finally get enough VP surplus to take advantage of purchasing new Legion units. Which…
Those Legionary units are HARD to obtain because you need to spend VP to buy them. And you need to spend that VP prior to checking if you win or lose for the round, meaning you can only spend a surplus of points. Not only do they cost VP, but you need to have a Legion on one of the three starting camp spaces – something not necessarily easy to do late in the game – and no one Legion can have triple the number of Legionary units of any other Legion. Did I mention that you need to spend Legionary units to form Garrisons, which are essential to gaining VP and increasing your Income because they allow you to build Settlements? Oh, and if a Legion is ever without a Legionary unit in there, you automatically lose – so you can’t just dump all of your best troops into one Legion at the end to sweep through the far north where the Tribes are more challenging. If it sounds like I’m gushing over the brilliant struggle here, you’d be right: I absolutely love this challenge.
Every action has an opposite reaction – apart from the free actions that Agricola can trigger. If you do Peacekeeping, chits move from cup-to-cup and then you pull chits from the Hostile cup to add to the map. Battle? Same thing. Passing? Yep, same thing. Which means every thing you do will inevitably lead to something on the map changing (unless you get lucky, because there ARE ways to prevent the chits drawn from getting added to the map. Usually via Legion/Garrison/Settlement presence on that specific location), This ensures a dynamic landscape to play in, as well as it provides a degree of risk. You can’t bank on X remaining static unless you know there are none of that particular chit in the Hostile cup.
Agricola feels like an important part of the game because he has a set of actions he can do, and his presence “boosts” the action you take. He isn’t tied to a specific Legion, which is nice, but you’ll want to be using his Legion more often than the others just because he makes everything you do more powerful. Because the game responds to every action you take, you’ll want every small advantage you can get.
The game is still going to have a decent amount of luck. Sometimes it swings in your way. Sometimes it swings against you. That 1/8 chance of failure will happen. Sometimes it might happen several times in a row, completely obliterating you against all odds. Such is the way things go in war. If this would cause you to flip the table or walk away in frustration to never want to play the game again – this probably isn’t the game for you. Chit pulls are random, and sometimes those will completely go against your plans. Die rolls, being d8 help some but they can still cause those wild swings. Randomness happens. Consider yourself warned.
So far the game takes longer than it should for me. A complete game of 8 turns runs close to 2 hours still, and part of that is because I need to reference the rulebook for the number of Tribal Reactions for each action. The back of the rulebook has a handy reference on the cup changes for the actions, but surprisingly leaves this aspect off the quick reference. Realizing this now after typing it out…I’m going to mark those on that back myself to see if that makes it faster. While I’ve always enjoyed the game and it never felt like it went too long, I’m still nowhere close to the marketed 60-90 minute time on there unless I lose early.
If you are spoiled by the high production quality featured on Stonemaier Games products or the latest Kickstarter funding projects, then your expectations are going to be disappointed when you receive this game. Understandably so, as Hollandspiele is a small company run by a husband and wife and their focus is on making great games, not great components in games. There is a half sheet of chits, a rulebook, a d8, and two paper maps in the box. It isn’t going to scream production quality when you get the game (although if you can snag a rare mounted copy of the boards, that’d be a great steal for you!). However, as you’ll see here shortly…the quality of the gameplay MORE than compensates for the price of this one.
My biggest regret about Agricola, Master of Britain is that I didn’t pick it up sooner. I’ve wanted to. I have literally been on the Hollandspiele website with it in my cart, and decided to hold off. All because my relationship with wargames as a solo experience had never lived up to my hopes. But I shouldn’t have compared this to those other experiences, because this game was designed to be a solitaire experience. I don’t have to play both sides, trying to make optimal decisions on each side and being conflicted about which side to root for. The game’s system plays against me in a masterful way for a solitaire experience.
There is luck and randomness, as you would expect in any wargame, and it hasn’t really bothered me. Most of the time the odds level out over time, and rarely has a string of bad luck completely bombed the game for me. Better play will triumph over time. And that is exactly what I want out of a game like this. The cup system is brilliant and exciting, and the Tribal Reactions are enough to both keep me on my toes and to make me strongly consider certain actions, knowing how many cup changes and then reactions will happen as a result.
While the game runs longer than it should based on the printed playtime, it has never overstayed its welcome. The host of losing conditions, and the real possibility of losing in an early round, are both enjoyable qualities for the game. And an early loss only motivates me to reset and try again. The setup and teardown for this game are relatively quick and easy once you get things organized which will only help it hit the table more often.
There are so many excellent decisions to make throughout the game, and every action feels important. And every action has a reaction, making them even more vital. This was my first Hollandspiele title to hit my collection and my table, and I can say with absolute certainty that it will not be the last. It is worth every penny for this game, as the gameplay more than compensates for any perceived lack of production quality. This game is brilliant and satisfying and will be a game I delightfully return to time and again going forward. Charlemagne, Master of Europe will be hitting the table in the near future for a review, and I expect that to be at least as enjoyable as this one – only bigger and longer and likely more epic. With several more solitaire wargame titles already in the Hollandspiele catalog, and a host of interesting multiplayer games to choose from as well, I will definitely be expanding my collection of their titles going forward.