[Ed. Note: We’d like to welcome our newest reviewer to the team, whom will will refer to only by the mysterious name of “Andrew.” Starting off with this review of Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, you’re going to see a lot more of this guy around here. We’re excited to have him and excited that we keep growing so we can put out more of the highest quality reviews on the interwebnets!]
The concept of a farming simulation may seem incredibly boring on first consideration. But as anyone that has played or watched a game in the Harvest Moon series can attest to there is a certain charm that turns menial chores into addictive game play. I think part of what makes it work is the intuitive nature of a simple farming simulation. Everyone has a pretty good idea of what needs to be done around a farm to keep things running: grow some crops, manage some animals, clear out some space to expand for your growing family. It’s also fun to build something from the ground up and such a simulation literally lets you watch the fruits of your labor grow and multiply. As long as you keep things simple you’ve got a winning formula in an unexpected place.
How It Plays
Agricola: All Creatures Big And Small is a worker placement game that was designed specifically for 2 players. Much like in its bigger brother, Agricola, the players are managing a farm but in All Creatures the focus is exclusively on raising livestock. The players are competing to build the better farm, judged largely by the number and variety of animals that they have.
Both players receive a personal farm board where they can construct buildings and fences to hold as many animals as possible. At the start of the game the farm boards consist of a single cottage, a building that can hold one animal, and a limited space to grow. There are many tasks that need to be done in order to prepare the farm for raising livestock. In order to hold their animals the players may either build fences that enclose pastures or construct a building which comes already enclosed by fences. Additionally, materials are needed to build fences and buildings so workers must be sent to gather the required wood, stone, and reed before these tasks can be performed.
Once a pasture or building is in place a worker may be sent to claim livestock that has been gathering on the main board and bring them back to live on their farm. The animals come in four varieties: sheep, pigs, cows, and horses. Once there are at least two animals of the same type on a farm they will start breeding and produce additional animals. It’s good to specialize in a few types of animals quickly to get the most out of allowing them to breed for the remainder of the game.
The farms may also be expanded by acquiring additional land on either side and players are rewarded for developing the newly expanded areas. Timely building and expansion is a key aspect of the game as players will quickly discover that they don’t have enough space to hold all of their animals.
The game takes place over 8 rounds in which each player has 3 workers that are used to perform actions. Players alternate placing their workers on a shared board which depicts the tasks already described such as gathering resources, constructing fences, or acquiring livestock. Placing a worker will immediately carry out the action that the worker was placed on and block that action for the remainder of the round. These workers are retrieved at the end of each round, freeing up the spaces that were previously blocked to be taken again in the following round.
At the conclusion of the 8th round scores are tallied in a number of categories to determine the winner. Points are scored for the total number of animals on the farms as well as additional bonuses (or penalties) for each type of animal. Points are also awarded for buildings and expansions that were added to the player’s farm. The player with more points has built the better farm becomes the new mayor of Farm Town!
Has Agricola produced sheepish offspring?
First off, I’ll get the obvious comparison to Agricola out of the way. Agricola is already a great 2 player game and can even play with 1-5 players. Do I really need another farm management worker placement game when I already have a perfectly good one? Maybe not, but the real question is does All Creatures really offer something unique that would make me want to play it instead of Agricola?
To answer that we should look at the reason why I bought this game in the first place: to play with my wife. Don’t get me wrong, we are both huge fans of Agricola. However, Agricola can be a bit stressful for my wife for various reasons. You have to feed your family in increasingly shorter interval while never quite being able to do everything that you want. Perhaps a shorter and more focused experience would alleviate some of this stress. After a handful of plays with her I can say that it absolutely does achieve this without completely removing the underlying tension that makes Agricola so great. By focusing exclusively on managing livestock, the stress-inducing challenge of managing an overwhelming number of tasks has been reduced drastically. Top that with the fact that it sets up and plays in a much shorter timeframe and we suddenly have Agricola-lite that we can pull out on a weeknight or take with us to a coffee shop. In that respect it is a resounding success, I even played it with someone who shuddered at the thought of playing Agricola and he enjoyed the bite sized experience of All Creatures.
As in Agricola, the mechanics in the game are connected directly to the theme of managing a farm. The actions are very intuitive because they do pretty much what you would expect from the task at hand. Other concepts, such as breeding, do not require a lot of explanation or reminder because they closely reflect how you imagine things work in real life. This makes teaching and playing with new players very smooth and the narrowed scope of All Creatures means that it’s easy to focus on the handful of concepts that are present.
Keep in mind that although All Creatures does a great job of creating an excellent 2 player game without some of the baggage of Agricola it does not claim to be as deep of an experience. For me this means that it is not an obvious choice over Agricola when I’m looking for a 2 player game. If I want a brain burner I’m going to go with Agricola over All Creatures every time. This is not a bad thing at all, there’s definitely a time and place in which I would prefer All Creatures which means that there’s room for both games in my collection.
With the comparisons to Agricola out of the way, I’d like to take a look at All Creatures based solely on it’s own merits. There’s a very nice balance of tension in All Creatures that highlights one of the things that I enjoy so much about worker placement games. The players have a good variety of choices for how to use their workers, there are a lot of spaces on the main board and only 6 workers to be placed on any given round. Additionally, there is only one other player competing for the key spots so you have a fair amount of control over which actions you’ll get to take without having to worry too much about getting completely blocked out. The tension comes in adapting to what the other player is doing, both in adjusting your plan when what you wanted gets blocked and preventing the other player from taking a spot that they were hoping you would ignore. You can make a general plan for how to develop your farm but you have to tweak the execution along the way according to what the other player does. This is not a solitaire experience with both players building their farms exactly how the want. If I focus on taking horses then that probably means my opponent is going to focus on another type of animal. This is not a hard and fast rule but its generally good to specialize, especially early on in the game. Thus both players’ farms may have a similar structure but tend to develop differently based on what the player has chosen to specialize in.
Another area of tension is between expansion and acquisition. If you grab resources and build up your farm early then you’ll have lots of room to hold animals but by that point the stockpiles of livestock might be largely depleted. On the other hand if you snag some early animals to get them breeding then you may be hard pressed to provide enough space to hold all the offspring.
The spatial element of building up your farm provides a nice puzzle for how to best construct your fences to hold the animals that you’re hoping to contain. Key placement of fences, buildings, and expansions challenges players to close off areas just big enough to hold the animals that they’ve got with future expansion in mind.
To top off the solid game play, I must say that I am incredibly pleased with the components and artwork presented by All Creatures. In addition to nicely detailed boards and buildings there are the fun and stackable animeeples that bring the farm boards to life. Get ready to cram those animeeples around a feeding trough as you scrap for space or let them graze in a nice and roomy pasture. It’s fun to watch your development throughout the game and the components provide great character and personality as you transform from a humble cottage into a bustling farm.
The one note of criticism that I would bring up is the lack of variability between plays once players become experienced with the game. The setup is the same each game and the first few turns will generally fall into a familiar opening pattern. The game does open up a bit after the first couple of turns and there is some wiggle room for creative play, but you’re probably not going to drastically change the way you build your farm from game to game. Fortunately there doesn’t seem to be one obvious set of actions that dominate the start so at least you can experiment with different openings without suffering a huge set back right out of the gate. This doesn’t really bug me considering the quick play time but it’s definitely worth noting.
I’ll end with a short note on the expansion, More Buildings Big And Small. I wouldn’t necessarily call it an essential expansion but if you’re expecting to get a lot of longevity out of All Creatures it sure seems important. Given All Creatures’ lack of variable setup, the More Building expansions provides a bounty of additional buildings from which you select 4 to include at the start of each game. These special buildings open up additional strategies and make the player’s consider how they might play to the strength of one or more of these buildings. I definitely prefer the game with the expansion included for the extra depth and variability. The game does play fine without the expansion and I would not necessarily use it while playing with someone for the first time.