Friday, March 13

Worker Placement: Agricola, The Pillars of the Earth, and Stone Age

Cait and I just finished our first two matches of Stone Age, which is the most recent of the new triumvirate of worker placement games (the other two being Agricola and The Pillars of the Earth). We had fun, and probably place it between the other two in order of appeal.

Agricola our the favorite because building a little farm is just a lot of fun. It’s even more fun with the clay pieces that Cait made. At the end of the game you can look over your land and just feel joy at the accomplishment. This sentiment is so strong that I felt incredibly dissatisfied at one of my recent wins. Even though I came out on top, I did so with a cold stone house, too many children, and pastures that I fenced in at the very end. It was not a fuzzy, pastoral scene.

Agricola also has three decks worth of Occupation and Minor Improvement cards, which, beyond just introducing variation for variation’s sake, really let you come at each game from a different angle. Yeah, some of them are ludicrously unbalanced (I’m looking at you, Field Watchman), but that adds to the fun and luck.

Variation for variation’s sake is The Pillars of the Earth in a nutshell. So much of it is micro-randomized:
  • Only 7 of the 9 Resource cards are available each round
  • For each round’s Craftsmen cards, two are available for purchase in the draft and two are on the board
  • 4 Event cards are left out of each game
  • 2 Privilege cards are left out of each game
  • Turn order is determined by drawing master builder pawns out of a bag each round
I can sort of see where the designer is going with this, but it just gives the overall game a fiddly vibe. The randomness forces you very much into the tactical end of that infamous continuum, so, by the end of the game, I felt like I hadn’t really accomplished much.

We’ve only given Pillars a few plays, so I’m not necessarily going to judge it, but there’s definitely a reason why we’ve been unable to put Agricola away while Pillars just hit the table once. 

Stone Age has a lot of randomness as well, in that your resource acquisition is determined by die rolls (and also the cards and buildings come out in a completely random order), but it’s very much manageable luck. If you really need a type of resource, you just learn that you have to potentially over-allocate your workers to it to increase your chances of getting enough. The tools help a fair amount by boosting the die rolls that need it, and, if you do over-shoot, the game is forgiving of over-allocation. You’ll definitely be able to find a use for those extra resources on a later turn.

I’ve seen criticism of Stone Age that the winner is the one who rolls higher, but I definitely don’t agree. The randomness here adds more tension than anything, and over the course of the game the die rolls will tend to even out. And, if they don’t, and one player happens to dominate by continuously rolling 6s when panning for gold, that’s just an excuse to play it again. It can’t happen twice in a row, right?

Now that I’m starting to burn out a little bit on Agricola (Cait and I are at 22 plays), Stone Age is a nice bit of refreshing change. Cait has also recently figured out how to turn her Risk prowess into dominance at Nexus Ops, so I’m welcoming of a game where I have a shot at winning.