A few months ago I visited a friend who'd recently taken up playing Agricola with her husband. "We think there should be a bigger handicap for going second," she said, "Otherwise the person who keeps taking the wood always wins." I thought this was rubbish, and took her on in a 2-player game, letting her take wood first every time while I concentrated on a Major Improvements-dominated strategy. I can't remember the final scoreline but I'm pretty sure I won the game by double figures of points.
I just played a 2-player game on the excellent boiteajeux.net, where my opponent went first, and started as he meant to go on, by hogging the wood space. I had some really bad Occupations and Minor Improvements: I played the Pieceworker in the first round, but thereafter never had a really big incentive to play another card. Opponent took some more wood, and eventually some reed, before playing - uh, oh - the Wet Nurse.
I decided in the face of this obviously unbalanced game not to scrabble for 3 wood or the starting player token (I had no good Minor Improvements to play after all), but to cut my foe mercilessly off food whenever possible. This certainly slowed the pace of his domination of the game, but he still had enough breathing room always to take 6 wood when it was available. Eventually he made his move and grew his house from 3 to 5 rooms with a full complement of people, with me still on 2 actions a turn. I continued to make it hard for him to get easy food grabs, but ultimately he was able to build a lot of fences while my farmyard had, in the end, 2 rooms, 5 fields, 1 pasture... and 7 painfully empty spaces. The ultimate scoreline was 43-30 in his favour, not exactly a rout but not very close either.
My question then is: is it impossible to win Agricola this way? Do you have to compete for the wood to go under? Against my married friend I was able to keep her in check by cutting reed to keep her off room building; but this might not work against a more determined opponent. Should I have resigned myself to the fact that I needed to "waste" an action by taking Starting Player without having a minor improvement to play? Or to take 3 wood even though this would give my opponent more opportunities to move ahead in other areas and cement his lead?
Or can I just chalk up my loss to the fact that the Wet Nurse is a bit unfair against a player with no good cards of their own to fight back with?