Some designs come together very quickly (my Irish Gauge or my Shields & Swords II series); some are basically sound right from the start, but need a lot more tweaking and finesse (Von Moltke’s Triumph was one of these); some you struggle with for years, convinced you have something but not entirely sure how to actually turn it into a playable game. Agricola, Master of Britain was one of those.

I began working on it in 2011, as a two-player game. One player naturally controlled the Legions under Agricola, taking actions to suppress rebellion and build up civilization. Every action required a cost in coins, and so the more you were able to exploit the island economically, the more you could do. Your Legionary forces could be supplemented by recruiting natives from friendly tribes.

The second player “controlled” the game’s sixteen representative tribes, but I’m not sure if “controlled” is quite the right word. One of the features of Agricola’s conquest—a feature, by-the-by, that is shared with most Roman campaigns against tribal peoples—is that the Britons were far from united, constantly squabbling with one another and unwilling to really and truly cooperate. (Boudicca’s uprising some years previous to Agricola’s campaigns is a notable exception of various tribes working together for an extended period of time.) So, rather than control the various tribes, the second player had more of a loose influence over their disjointed actions, with the success or failure of their nudging being determined by a die roll.

Unpleasant statue of Agricola erected at the Roman Baths at Bath, England in 1894

Now, you might be looking at this and saying that there’s a couple of problems with this set-up. The first being that while the role of the Roman Player is clearly defined—you are Agricola, or representative of his staff, with defined goals—the role of the tribal player is not, as you don’t really represent any particular faction, person, or ideology. So, personally, that isn’t as big of a problem for me as it is for some other people. I’ve never really bought into the, “I’m Hannibal and you’re Scipio” school of playing or designing wargames, because any player is going to have more information about, and more control over, what’s happening on the map than the historical commanders. I’ve always thought of the players as being more “interested historians, playing with what could have happened and what did happen”, so for me, having one player with a finitely-defined role and another with a more amorphous one isn’t really a problem.

What was a problem, however—and you could make an argument that this is part of the aforementioned—is that the tribal player couldn’t really win the game. By that I don’t mean that the Roman Player always won, or that he couldn’t lose—he didn’t, and he could. But the tribal player didn’t have any victory conditions to pursue besides not letting the Romans win, and the tools they had to stop them were largely indirect. His role was almost always passive, and reactive, and just plain boring.

At a certain point I came to the conclusion that while there was something there, it wasn’t a something that could make a playable simulation game of Agricola’s conquests. I actually took that something and transplanted it into another, more ambitious design, and it seemed more successful there. Successful enough, in fact, that I came to think of my Agricola as nothing more than a sort of private “tech demo” for that something. As it turns out, while that other game was more successful, it wasn’t "more successful" enough, and it was abandoned a few months later.

Agricola wasn’t, though. I kept being drawn to it, kept returning to it a couple of times a year, only to throw my hands up in frustration, only to come back to it again down the road. I think a big part of that draw was the theme, the specific story of Agricola and his singular, impossible achievement, and challenging the player to equal that. Well, the Roman Player, anyway. I had no idea what his opponent would be doing. What should have been obvious from the start is that this was really a solitaire game, and not a two-player contest.

Why it wasn’t obvious to me is a long story, but the long and short of it is that I didn’t have a lot of exposure to designed-for-solo-play wargames, a state of affairs that persisted until last year when Mary got involved with publishing Hermann Luttmann’s Invaders from Dimension X. I also scored a review copy of John Welch's English Civil Wars solo title Cruel Necessity around the same time. I enjoyed both games, and Hermann’s game in particular really cemented for me the fact that there’s a growing and hungry market for solitaire titles. It was with that in mind that I turned my attention back to my Agricola, and started reworking it as a solitaire-only design.

A lot of solo games rely rather heavily on randomness to give them their spice and replayability, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Both Invaders and Cruel Necessity had what you’d call a healthy dose of chaos, and those worked like gangbusters for those games. But that was more chaos than I was personally comfortable with, and so one of my design goals was to minimize and mitigate the random factors, so that it was less about some crazy thing happening and trying to react to it, and more about statistical probability. Somewhat solipsistically, one of the games I looked to for inspiration was my Irish Gauge, which features a very tightly-controlled random element that allows the players to increase and decrease the probability of certain types of cities and towns paying out. I wanted something similar here, where the primary randomization element is something that you can influence and control by your actions. I felt that would also make it feel like the player’s actions had real consequences, with long-term effects on the course of the game.

The other thing I wanted to do is “track” the loyalties and dispositions of individual tribes without making that information known to the player. In a lot of games where players must vie for the loyalty and support of various and disparate factions, each faction has a marker on some kind of track. A classic example is the venerable Nicaragua! by Joe Miranda and John Burtt, in which each of the game’s ten types of people (workers, students, etc.) are incremented along a track toward one side or the other. And so you know for example that the workers are staunchly in your camp, and the students leaning that way but not there yet. I’m not saying this approach is wrong, necessarily, or that it wasn’t right for that era and topic. It’s just that I didn’t want the player to have that same level of information in my design set in the first century AD. I wanted the player to know, if I use the carrot, it’s generally going to push the various tribes in this direction, and if I use the stick, it will push them in that direction, but I didn’t want them to know where each tribe precisely sat on that spectrum from friendly to hostile. I also wanted some way to represent the tensions that might exist within a given tribe, with some parts of the tribe being friendly, some hostile, and some undecided. At the same time, I wanted to “bake-in” certain tendencies—the stiff resistance of the Scots, and the mildness of once-proud but thoroughly conquered peoples like the Iceni.

All of this came together in the cup adjustment system, which is the key mechanism that drives the entire game. Really, once I came up with this, I felt like the thing really and finally “clicked”, that I had something that definitely was a game, and was playable, interesting, and worthwhile. Once this fell into place, development ran much more smoothly and swiftly, with the game taking its final shape within a handful of weeks.

Map of Roman Britain c. 150 A.D. from Ancient History Encyclopedia

Each tribe is represented by between two and four counters, which exist in one of three states: as auxiliaries, attached to a Legion; as tribes in open rebellion, placed on the map; or in one of three cups (Friendly, Unfriendly, and Hostile) representing that particular faction of that particular tribe and how it feels about Agricola’s rule. Each action the player takes alters the contents of the three cups, blindly drawing one or more markers from one and placing them unseen into another. I might know, for example, that my actions have resulted in three chits going from the Hostile Cup to the Unfriendly, two from the Unfriendly to the Hostile, and two from the Friendly to the Unfriendly, but I don’t know which ones, or how many of each Tribe/Region are going to be in which cup. I can make some educated guesses based on the starting game state and what’s come out since, but that’s it.

Units that are eliminated are set aside until the end of the turn, and then they are placed back into one of the three cups. Which cup the units from each of the game’s four color-coded regions go into depends on what’s going on in that particular region, with denizens of a peaceful, “Romanized” region skewing friendly, and the inhabitants of a restive region skewing hostile. This means that in addition to your short-term tactical decisions having an impact in aggregate over the course of the game, you must also work on your strategic, long-term plans. Further, what hostile units do when they’re pulled out of the cup depends on what’s going on within their Tribal Box and Region, so if you’ve done a thorough job of stamping out resistance, it’s less likely to erupt again. And, areas where you haven’t been doing a great job will continue to be hotbeds for subversive activity. All of this is exacerbated by the presence of tribal leaders, who impede your actions and incite rebellion. They’re also able to impose unity in their regions, and to prevent internecine conflicts—at least, temporarily. At the end of each Game Turn, any tribal leaders that you haven’t defeated in battle are removed from the map, and the tribes go back to picking fights with one another.

A 19th century print depicting the probably fictitious Calgacus delivering his probably fictitious speech to the Caledonians

There’s one tribal leader who doesn’t go away when he comes out, and that is Calgacus, who led stiff resistance against Roman rule in modern Scotland. He can only be removed from the map by defeating his forces at the Battle of Mons Graupius. There might be games where Calgacus never comes out onto the map, but it’s highly unlikely, and players really should be building up their forces in anticipation of a climactic battle with Calgacus and his confederation. Which brings up the question, how do battles work?

Well, I’ve got to save something for part two. So, next time, I’ll discuss the game’s tactical battle system, and the related army-building system that gives it some strategic depth, and how this changed over the course of the development cycle.

See Part 2 of Designing the Agricola Game


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