On the island of Majorca, nestled among the hills in the village of Alpich is a small farm. Your farm. Island life is calm and peaceful, but don’t be fooled; the competitive spirit is alive and well in this sleepy Spanish town.
So you farm. You tend the pigs. You sow the fields. You hawk your wares. It’s hard work, but you’ve never been afraid of getting your hands dirty. In fact, if hard work were all that it took to be successful you’d be the best farmer there ever was. Unfortunately, Lady Luck is also against you and it’s up to you to tame her, because ward work isn’t enough on La Granja.
How it Plays
Victory points. You want them. Whomever has the most at game’s end is the victor.
La Granja is played over the course of six rounds which are broken down into four phases, the first of which is the Farm Phase.
In the Farm phase, you’ll play a card to your board and draw new cards, collect income, add goods to your empty fields, and your pigs will procreate if able. You’ll also have an opportunity, in turn order, to purchase a roof tile which grants a one-time ability, and potentially some points.
Next comes the Revenue Phase in which a handful of dice are rolled and arranged near their matching actions on the board. In turn order, players will select a die, place it on their farm board, and carry out the associated action. Some of these actions include gaining a pig or farm good, gaining money, and making a delivery. After all players have selected 2 dice, there will be a single die leftover. All players will take this remaining action.
Hopefully you’ve collected some goods by now because it’s time to deliver them in the Transportation Phase. In secret, all players will select one of their available donkey markers, then reveal them once everyone is ready. These markers have a combination of donkey and siesta symbols on them. Donkeys dictate how many deliveries you can carry out, while siesta symbols move you up the siesta track. Turn order is evaluated based on who is highest on the siesta track and the new order goes into effect immediately.
Deliveries consist of you sending a good to one of the craft buildings on the board or a market barrow card that you placed in your farm board earlier in the game. If you fulfill the needs of a craft building, you will be rewarded with a craft marker that grants you a bonus, such as additional income or extra deliveries. If you fulfill the need of a market barrow card you will place a marker in a corresponding numbered market stall on the main board. The number grants you victory points, and you can remove adjacent stalls that belong to an opponent if they have a lower value.
The round concludes with the Scoring Phase. You receive a number of points equal to the number of market stalls you have on the board. Additionally, if you’ve met certain thresholds on the siesta track you will get points. The players are then reset back to zero on the siesta track, and a new round begins.
On the Shoulders of Giants
Nothing is created in a vacuum. We are influenced by our experiences and formed by our surroundings. Likewise, the games we play today are only possible because of the groundwork laid by games past. One game will build on the concepts of another, refine away the impurities of staid motifs in order to create something new and exciting. Only rarely are there innovations that seemingly come out of nowhere to forge a new paradigm in the gaming landscape.
La Granja is no great innovator. It borrows ideas and concepts liberally from games that have come before it, and if you’ve played some of the great Euro games of the recent past, you will surely recognize elements of them here. Designers Michael Keller and Andreas Odendahl are quick to point out their influences and give due respect to the games which guided their development process with a thank you note in the rulebook to Matthias Cramer, Carl Chudyk, and Stefan Feld for their respective creations.
Whereas Trains took the basic structure of Dominion and built upon it to make something new, La Granja is an amalgamation of systems from disparate influences framed under a single cardboard roof. It’s an homage to the games of the designer’s leisure time, a remix of the greatest hits. But taking inspiration does not guarantee success. Mixing so many ideas into a single experience is a perilous endeavor. Is La Granja successful?
The Dice Made Me Do It
Since La Granja is a mashup of ideas seen elsewhere, lets look at them individually, beginning with the dice. I’m a huge fan of dice mixed with action selection. I like it in Troyes. I like it in Grand Austria Hotel. And I like it here. There’s something about this type of randomness that resonates with me. I like it when the randomness is front loaded and I have to figure out how to make it work in my favor.
Interestingly, the action dice don’t dominate your turns. The benefits they provide are a definite boon and you wouldn’t be able to accomplish what you need without them, but their impact is diminished by the free flowing nature of La Granja’s turn structure.
While turn order is clearly defined, you’re allowed a lot of freedom on your turn. You can buy, sell, and upgrade goods just about any time you want if you have the cash. You can harvest goods from your fields, exchange trade goods for a multitude of goods, and take advantage of any helpers freely. Even outside of the Revenue Phase, you can be quite busy maintaining your farm. It keeps you involved and attentive even if the dice don’t roll your way. The side effect is that the dice actions don’t feel as important as they otherwise would be.
It’s a minor observation and I don’t mean to oversell it. The dice are still meaningful, just less so than in the games I mentioned previously. There’s also some neat decision making to be had when you know that the last die will be taken by all players. When a single die is on the Take a Pig action in contrast to three dice on the coins action, the urgency to the take the pigs sets in even if you don’t particularly need it the moment. The scarcity of dice lures you in, tempting you and keeping you on your toes. Knowing that you’ll likely get those coins later in the round means you’re even more willing to jump on that pig to deprive everyone else of it. This makes turn order more important. Having first choice of action dice lessens the odds you’ll miss out on the action you were hoping to get. Be first, be happy.
The Siesta track. It’s so unassuming. 10 spaces of lackadaisical hats lull you into a false sense of security. Don’t be fooled. Napping has never been so serious. The fact that you can get up to 18 points from the Siesta track isn’t to be overlooked. That can be more than 25% of a winning score.
Admittedly, moving up a track solely for the sake of points isn’t very exciting. Thankfully, there’s more to it than that. I’ve mentioned turn order already and I’ll touch on it some more later, but the means of ascending the Siesta track is also worth expounding upon.
The most common method of moving up the track is through the use of the donkey markers in the Transportation phase. Every player has an identical set of these markers. Every siesta symbol showing on the marker you choose will dictate how far up the track you move. The problem is that markers with a high number of siesta symbols have a correspondingly low number of delivery symbols which means less deliveries can be made. You can’t make many deliveries in your sleep. You’re giving up the opportunity to do something in the now for the points and turn order advantage later. Clever stuff.
There’s a bit to unpack when it comes to deliveries. There are two distinct areas to deliver to: the craft buildings and the market. The craft buildings are permanent fixtures on the board and the goods they want are the same from game to game. To mix things up from game to game, half of the buildings are randomly closed to start each game and slowly open up as the game progresses. When you successfully deliver everything a craft building wants you’ll be rewarded with a craft marker. These markers will grant you some sort of advantage that will help you for the rest of the game. You’ll also be rewarded with victory points equal to the round in which you collected the marker. So if you earn it in the first round, you’ll only get a single point but you’ll be able to take advantage of the marker for the entire game. Earn it in the last round and you’ll get a whopping 6 points, but you’ll get much less use out of the ability. It’s a really interesting choice you’re faced with. Will the constant stream of a 3 coin income help you more than just getting 6 points? Which order should go after them? Or, should you focus on the market?
When you play a card as a market barrow, you can now start delivering to the market and open up the market area on the main board. Filling up a market barrow card allows you to place your player marker on the board. You’ll get points equal to the number you place on and you’ll knock out lesser numbered markers. Not only is this muscling out of your opponents enjoyable, it denies them future points in the Scoring Phase.
The market board is tight, and jockeying for position can get intense. High numbered market stalls are at a premium since they are so hard to get knocked out of, but of course delivering to these spaces requires valuable goods. It’s a mini area control game nestled within a larger game. It’s fun enough, but it isn’t meaty enough to stand on it’s own. Fortunately, it serves its purpose well in the context of the larger game.
And this is a notion that can apply to majority of the game. The dice, the siesta track and the deliveries are all perfectly fine systems. They aren’t substantial enough to fill a game experience on their own, but they merge together to become something greater. Every decision made is made with these systems in mind. Managing your turn order is important for dice selection, which in turn is important for making sure you get the items you need to make deliveries. There’s a nice cohesion of multiple ideas in a game that could have ended up feeling like a collection of separate mini-games.
But these elements still aren’t enough to create a memorable game. Luckily, there’s more. Luckily, there are cards.
It’s All About the Cards
The cards are, by far, La Granja’s most interesting and enjoyable element. Their multi-use nature makes every hand of cards trigger a sea of possibilities in your mind. From the opening draw, you’ll hem and haw over how exactly you’ll want to play them to your board. It’s exciting.
Of the four uses, the helpers are the most appealing. They give you abilities that let you bend rules and differentiate you from the other players. In a large way, the helpers dictate how you’ll play the game. They are your home-field advantage, and fully gaining their benefits means playing the game with them in mind. For example, the Donkey Driver helper allows you take make a free delivery any time you take an action die that moves you up the siesta track or gains you a pig. It would be in your best interest to prioritize those dice, and make sure you have something to deliver.
Whenever a game allows you to break the rules or do something that no one else can, it’s empowering and a whole of fun.
The cards also introduce a nice decision point in that you are limited to only 3 helpers at a time. You can’t play every card as a helper so you have to decide which ones will work best together. There are synergies that develop, and with a deck of over 60 cards you’ll constantly be discovering combos over many, many plays.
These cards are the cherry on top of the cake. They elevate a pretty good base to something really memorable. They are the peanuts, giving you something substantial to chew on, and proving texture to the game to make it far more memorable.
La Granja makes a strong showing for a first time design team. It manages to be inspired without feeling like a shameless ripoff. Its smartly interconnected systems must constantly be taken into consideration, but it’s not overwhelming. And the cards take the entire game to another level.
There are some things that I wish La Granja did better to appeal more to my tastes. You do farming things in the game, but I never felt like the head farmer; more like a card playing, dice selecting spirit in the sky. I always enjoy when I can actually place myself inside the game world. Also, in a game where you’re building a farm, it’s pretty difficult to differentiate your farm from someone else’s at a glance. Your farms always move out from the same side. Your helpers are just lines of text. It’s a presentation preference and mostly superficial, but I just love seeing the visuals of a game when it’s able to tell the story of your journey. I would have liked La Granja more if it covered those bases, but the game is strong enough that I can easily overlook these minor quibbles.
A multitude of influences, effortlessly melded together
Multi-use cards with varying abilities grant replayability and foster empowerment
Players define their own paths
Farms don't have much visual differentiation
Little sense of being a character in the world
Pingback: Review Roundup | Tabletop Gaming News