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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?

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Out of interest: how did you make your pasture with no wood? Pieceworker conversion? A minor improvement? –  ire_and_curses Oct 26 '11 at 16:43
    
Good point - I did cave in and take 3 wood in the final turn, turning it into 4 wood with the Pieceworker, and building one pasture with Renovation & Fences. I should probably have stuck to my guns and gone completely woodless throughout the game, just to maintain the moral high ground, though! –  thesunneversets Oct 26 '11 at 16:50
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I'd rephrase the question, because the answer is obvious that "yes", it is possible to win without taking wood. Easy counter-case is one in which your opponent is an idiot, never takes food, and ends the game with a dozen beggar cards. And it's a little unclear in your question, but it sounds like you already answered yourself that it the answer was "yes" in the game you played with your married friend. So what's the question you're really trying to get answered... what a good strategy would be in a game where you don't take any wood? –  Sterno Dec 8 '11 at 19:31
    
@Sterno, yes, that does sound like a good idea. I've played a lot of Agricola games since, and avoided wood in a good few of them with interesting, if not entirely successful results... I'll see about rephrasing the question title when I have a spare moment. –  thesunneversets Dec 9 '11 at 10:46
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To your anecdote, Wet Nurse is widely considered imba. See boardgames.stackexchange.com/questions/1414/… –  warbaker Dec 20 '11 at 17:54
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2 Answers

You have answered your own question, then contradicted it. The question you wanted to ask is it easy/sensible to win Agricola without wood. The answer is no. But it is not impossible. With some good occupations and minors you can do it, even easily, but why bother? If you can survive without it then fine, work around the wood hog but don't pass up opportunities to pick up a load if it presents itself to you. Including taking SP so you can take 6 sometime.

The issue with wood denial is not so much that it's used for everything but that it's useful through out the game, unlike clay and reed that are far more important at the beginning and stone that is more useful towards the end. Wood gets used for early room and late fences and fills in the gaps around improvements, mostly because it's the cheapest resource it gets used for finer balancing.

So no it's not impossible, just very tricky and you should be able to do it if your opponent is using every first turn to take 3 wood, you should have a good shot.

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Normally I wouldn't like to answer my own question, but I have played a lot of online Agricola since posting this one, with the specific goal of taking as little wood as possible, so I hopefully have some interesting new information to provide by now...

Wood is a really hard commodity to ignore in Agricola, just because it's so versatile. You need wood for all the below things:

  • to have space to grow your family quickly
  • to grow your house to a good size so you can get big points from removation at the end of the game
  • to build early stables and/or fences to pursue the animal breeding strategy
  • to build a giant pasture in the late game to avoid losing big points from unused spaces
  • many, many good Minor Improvements require wood, as does the Well

When it comes down to it, wood just does more than anything else in this game, so much so that I think it's a bit of an insult that the Joinery also exists: wood does all of this AND you can get bonus points from having a surplus of it too? (Not that anyone ever buys the Joinery, because in practice there's always something else useful you can do with your wood.)

In the light of all this, how can you do well in Agricola without wood? Well, here's the big things you can do without it:

  • get a lot of food

None of the efficient food-getting strategies in Agricola requires a single piece of wood. And while food-gathering is not an end in itself, it does mean that if your opponent is hogging the wood space, you have every opportunity to cut them off from a good food engine, specifically by taking all the clay for the first half of the game. When your opponent has no good way of feeding his family (Fishing and Day Labourer don't count), then it's academic that he can grow his family - fear of Begging cards may mean he just can't afford to. Lack of a steady supply of food also limits the number of Occupation cards he can realistically play - after the first they do start inhibiting the ability of a food-poor player to feed his family!

So would I recommend a food-denial strategy as a counter to a player who remorselessly goes after the wood? Yes and no. In the first half of the game you can definitely hold your own against the wood-mad player by trying to starve them. Unfortunately, you have to be an actually terrible player to stumble blindly into a situation where you can't avoid getting Begging cards; so generally I'd say the food-denial strategy can only contain, not crush, an opponent. It's not hard, though, to engineer a situation where you have a Fireplace, some grain fields and maybe an Oven too and your opponent has nothing but a lot of wood and a heavy reliance on Fishing and Day Labourer.

The problem is that I don't think this position is sustainable all the way to the end of the game. You can't cut an opponent off from all avenues indefinitely. I had a great game where opponent dogmatically took all the wood and I dogmatically took all the reed, every time. Sadly he finished a few points ahead of me: the sad fact is that, even once I buy the Basketmaker's Workshop, a gigantic pile of reed is only worth 5 points and some food, while a gigantic pile of wood enables, at the very least, the building of a giant pasture that uses up all the empty space in your farmyard and ends up being worth 10+ victory points. Plus, to add insult to injury, they probably go on to buy the stupid Joinery and totally crush you!

As such, my ultimate conclusion is that, no, it's not possible to win Agricola without ever taking wood. Not without some ridiculous combination of Occupations and Minor Improvements, at any rate. There are good ways to attack the players who take wood aggressively at the start of the game, but once you've done this you'll want to make a strategic U-turn and compete for it aggressively yourself starting from about round 7 or 8.

Wood is just too useful for too many things, and if you've played a very miserly, explosive-growth-impeding game, you still need 9 wood at the end to build a 3x3 pasture and save yourself from losing double figures of points at the end. What's the alternative - ploughing 9 fields? I don't think so.

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