Tom Russell of Hollandspiele is quickly becoming a favorite game designer of mine. I absolutely love his Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 with it’s look at the logistics of the American Revolution. I had seen some buzz about his solo game, Agricola: Master of Britain, so when it came on sale I ordered it.
At its core, A:MoB is an area control game. As Agricola, the player must try to pacify the unruly people of Brittania. Military conquest in only one option; Romanization and bribery and diplomacy are also useful.
To represent the unknown and constantly shifting allegiances of various tribes, a three-cup system (Friendly – Unfriendly – Hostile) is used to pull chits that are blindly moved between cups by the game engine. These blind moves really make the solo game experience intense. The other part of the game I like is a Tom Russell design nugget: you can lose the game before the end of the campaign. In A:MoB this is represented by several sudden death conditions like losing ANY battle or not gaining enough Victory Points in a turn.
In my first game this is exactly what happened to me. In the second turn I was one VP short of the necessary amount but I purchased the extra point and was able to continue. Unfortunately, this strategy did not work by the end of the fourth turn where I had fallen too far behind and was sacked by Rome!
Usually, my gaming interests skew away from pure solo designs because I tend to find them formulamatic and uninteresting. I have to say that Agricola: Master of Britain is different and I feel it is because of those sudden death conditions. Having these in-game makes every turn feel important and the experience becomes one of not just getting to the end, but assuring you get to the end of the campaign.
Hollandspiele rates Agricola: Master of Britain as a Medium-weight game. I am not sure why this is as the game engine is actually very straight-forward and easy to learn. The rulebook and charts could use a little bit better organizing and cross-referencing. Oh, all the information is there; it can just be confusing as the chart on the back of the book has not rules numbers to reference, or the Agricola’s Actions, Legion Actions, and Housekeeping Phase lists are arranged on the page in an order not related to the sequence of play (i.e. I would have liked to see them reversed). These are minor quibbles; the game is excellent and can still be played easily (albeit with a bit of attention).
Of note, as I write this post Hollandspiele is having a special offer for a mounted boards for Agricola: Master of Britain. Although the printed paper boards are perfectly serviceable, being able to pick up a mounted board for the same cost is a real bargain and will only make this game a more enjoyable experience in play.
Another challenge Agricola: Master of Britain delivers is in the next game, Charlemagne: Master of Europe. This looks to be similar to A:MoB but in addition to tribes there are “intriguers.” As the publisher’s blurb states:
Like its spiritual predecessor Agricola, Master of Britain, this game models the consent of the governed (or lack thereof) with a series of three opaque containers, the contents of which secretly change in reaction to the actions you take. Do something that people like, and the populace leans friendly. Do something they don’t, and they lean in the other direction, inviting rebellions from within and invasions from without. Over the course of your long reign, these subtle adjustments will pile up, resulting in a game state that reacts to you and reflects the character and effectiveness of your rule. This makes it a solitaire gaming experience in which your decisions matter. You’re not fighting against the vagaries of an event deck, trying to outsmart a braindead AI, or finding loopholes in a flowchart. Your job is to govern a vast and fractious empire with a savvy combination of wisdom and ruthlessness.
Tom Russell is boasting here about how his solo game design is different. The reality is he can because Agricola: Master of Britain shows it is true.