I first played Agricola at last year's Board Game Geek convention. Back then the game was only available in German, but some people had taken the time-- the considerable time-- to make English translations of the 300+ text-heavy cards and then either paste those translations onto the originals or slip both into card sleeves so the game was playable in English. Any game that inspired that amount of dedication seemed worth trying.
The subject matter certainly doesn't sell the game. Agricola is a game about farming. Each player begins with a 2-room wooden house on a larger plot of land. As the game progresses you can extend your house and upgrade it to something sturdier, have babies and put them to work on the farm, plow fields, gather, sow, and harvest grain and vegetables, fence in pastures, gather, breed, and slaughter farm animals, build ovens, hearths, and other improvements to the farm, feed your family, and somehow find time to learn an assortment of other occupations that will assist you in your subsistence lifestyle. Thematically, it sounds like a total snooze.
In practice, it's one of the most engaging games to come along in a very long time. Those 300 cards I mentioned? Each player gets 14 of them at the start of the game, and no more. That initial allotment influences your strategy throughout the game. Cards that make it easier to extend your house, or reward you for upgrading its materials, encourage you to be a builder. Cards that increase farming efficiency steer you towards having a green thumb. You get the idea. The pool of possible cards is deep, so no two games are ever alike.
Even without the cards, however, the base mechanics work well. Agricola is a worker placement game-- the board offers a bunch of actions (collect building materials, take food, plow a field, etc), each of which can only be selected by one player. Each member of your family-- you start with only two-- gets one action each turn, and that's never enough. So right away there's a feeling of "So much to do, so little time!" To make things more interesting, most of the "take <something>" actions accumulate-- each turn that nobody selects them, more <somethings> get added to the pile until someone selects that action and collects them all.
At the root of it all are two imperatives. First, you have to feed your family. Every few rounds there's a harvest, and after the harvest each member of your family consumes two food. The penalty for having insufficient food is severe, so the first order of business is securing a reliable and sustainable food source for your family. That is, if you don't get distracted by shiny, accumulated objects along the way. Once you know you can feed your people, the second imperative is the long-term goal of having a balanced farm. At the end of the game, players are measured in several categories-- grain, vegetables, fields, pastures, animals-- earning up to four points in each based on how many of that category they own. Having nothing in a category earns a one point penalty, so the game strongly encourages players to generalize rather than making a single super-efficient engine. This makes everything in the game valuable to everyone, increasing competition and tension.
I suspect one reason Agricola has proven popular is because it's purely constructive. There's competition for the action spaces, but there's no direct way to harm another player or beat him down. Each player is focused on sustaining and improving their own farm, and there's a certain amount of satisfaction in that process. Just getting enough food to feed your family feels really good and rewarding. Likewise for planting in time for a harvest, or putting breeding pairs of animals in pastures. Figuring out what your engines will be and making them work is rewarding. Though players are focused on their own farms, it's not multi-player solitaire. It's important to watch other players and assess which actions they'll want to take, so you can plan ahead and prioritize your own actions.
The cards aren't well balanced-- there are cards that are just flat-out better than others-- but in a set of over 300, that's not surprising. And with fewer than 25% in play in any given game, I'm not sure it matters. We've taken to drafting our cards (first the occupations, then the minor improvements) by dealing out 7 to each player, keeping one, and passing the rest clockwise until all have been taken. It adds a tiny bit of time up front, but it's fun time.
I'm still finding myself looking forward to each 2-hour game, convinced that this time I'll stay on target and get some fields or pastures running early. And then an attractive occupation will come along to steer me some other way, or some shiny accumulated action space will pull me off course, and suddenly my game is going much differently than planned. That need to adapt to circumstances and make the best of what you're dealt is part of what makes Agricola compelling.