Saturday, February 19, 2011


In my second blogpost I talked about hot games and classic games. Agricola was released in 2007 accompanied by a huge amount of buzz, quickly rose up the ranks of games to become the third-highest rated game on BoardGameGeek, and is now regularly name-checked by both newcomers and longtime gamers. It has a nickname (The Gric—as in “Get him to The Gric” ), a Java implementation,  and a fanmade yahtzee-style spinoff (Agricola Express).

The "original" Agricola?

When I heard there was going to be a game called Agricola I immediately thought of De Re Metallica, published in the mid 16th century. It was a complete treatise on mineralogy and was one of the stepping-stones on the way to the development of the steam engine. Its author was ‘Agricola’—‘farmer’ in Latin—whose real name was Georg Bauer (‘bauer’ being the German word for ‘farmer’).

Was I the only one to make this connection? Maybe not; gamers are a notoriously recondite lot, and for all I know it was an intentional reference by the game’s designer.

Speaking of which, that very same fellow, Uwe Rosenberg, was previously best-known for a very different kind of trading game, Bohnanza (soon to be blogged about here under one of its expansions, Al Cabohne). After the huge success of Agricola he has gone on to tweak and nudge its basic design mechanics with a series of (in my eyes) similar games: Le Havre, At The Gates of Loyang, and very recently Merkator. Each of these has attracted devoted followers—and yet none of them has inspired the amount of fervent pimping that Agricola has.

The term ‘pimping’ is unfortunate on so many levels, and after this paragraph I’m going to use the less loaded word ‘customization’. However, I think it’s worth talking about how this term made it into gaming lingo. It seems to have been appropriated by gamers from automobile subculture in an attempt (perhaps unconscious) to make boardgaming cooler. (Whether it has succeeded or not is another question.) As for how it came into use originally: young men have been customizing their cars since the automobile was invented. According to Wikipedia, sometime in the early 2000’s however, the term ‘pimping’ began to be used to refer to some of the more extreme make-overs done by young urban males, presumably copying the flamboyant clothing and lifestyles of those who followed the demanding and abstruse trade of whoremongering.

(Apparently, according to the same source, the term has also invaded medical education and the US military—go figure.)

Back in the world of boardgames, there have been (and continue to be) specialized chess sets whose pieces and pawns were sculpted to resemble historical figures, animals, Simpsons cast members, and so on. These are generally novelty items not used to actually play the game but rather to show off on a coffee table. Most of us grew up playing games ‘right out of the box’, and any modifications we made to the components were forced on us by necessity (losing the metal shoe from Monopoly, for example, meant we had to substitute a paper clip).

In the world of miniatures and fantasy gaming, however, customization is a common practice and is an integral part of playing the game. People have been painting their army men for more than a century, for example. When D&D and other roleplaying games exploded on the scene in the mid 70’s, there was a rekindling of interest in miniatures and the customization thereof.

What seems to have happened, just in the last few years, is that this impulse to ‘make the game your own’ has spread from fantasy and miniatures to ‘regular’ board games. Note that I’m not talking about ‘house rules’ (which of course have been around in regular gaming forever) but about changes to the physical look of the game.

Nowadays gamers remake the components, using much higher-quality materials (here is a version of Dune done in inlaid wood). 

An Agricola cake (not my friend's)

Or they take an existing game, leave the rules completely alone, and re-theme it (here is a version of Dominion redone as a zombie-killing game, for example). And when one of my best friends in the TABS group had a birthday a couple of years ago, his girlfriend made him an Agricola cake.

Customized Components (Yay!)
Generic Components (boo)
The very first edition of Agricola released at Essen in 2007 came with specially-shaped tokens for the various foodstuffs and animals in the game. This edition sold out quickly, and the first major releases of the game came with generic-looking round wooden tokens. People (such as myself) who had played copies of the original version suddenly found themselves not enjoying the game as much playing this perfectly-serviceable-yet-somehow-less-satisfying version. Exactly the same rules, exactly the same cards, exactly the same everything—but the cute little wooden sheep were now just round white tokens.

Somehow, the theme of the game cried out for more realistic-looking bits. Maybe, also, since the game came explicitly with a ‘family’ version, people like me who wanted to play the game with their families wanted more family-friendly components. After all, a grown-up might be willing to believe that a brown circle is a head of cattle, but a child is more likely to stay interested if the cattle look like cattle.

So, soon after buying my own copy, I went looking for realistic pigs, sheep, and cows for my game. I scoured the bins in my parents’ basement. I ended up going and buying a farm animal set—actually, I think I had to buy several to have enough of each. They looked neat, but their scale was not the same as the game, they took up so much space we had to stack cows like matchsticks on our farms—not unlike modern factory farming, I guess.

The Score-O-Matic

In my zeal to customize, I even printed out and assembled an Agricola scorer which purportedly made the somewhat complex task of calculating players’ final scores a snap. Alas, it never worked properly, and today of course there are several apps for it which serve equally nicely--and actually work...

Then someone had the bright idea to sell “Agricola update” packages, which included new tokens for all the components—resources, animals, even the farmer tokens themselves—all to the proper scale for the game. 

Finally, Lookout Games, the publishers of Agricola, realized there was money to be made here and put out a Goodies expansion themselves, which included replacement components.

In my case, I spent about twice as much customizing my copy as I did on the game itself. NEXT WEEK: AL CABOHNE: OR, POLITICALLY-INCORRECT BEAN-GROWING SOLITAIRE FUN.

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