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Agricola is my favourite boardgame and I'd love to reach a level where I could call myself a master of it. However, having found a place to play it online and gotten a lot more games in, I've been finding myself a little frustrated by the random elements of the game, which are few in number but can have an enormous impact.

In particular, I'm talking about the Family Growth spaces that become available in Stages II and V. It seems to me that if you're the only player planning ahead for room building and Family Growth becomes available in Round 5, you can get a substantial advantage in terms of extra actions by having a third person to use early. However, if Family Growth doesn't show up until Round 7, the other players have more time to play catch-up (and reap the benefits of having sown fields or obtained a breeding pair of sheep before the first Harvest).

And then this happens again with the Family Growth Without Space action. It feels like someone getting this at the start of Round 12 can really influence the way the endgame plays out, such that there's often a big race to grab Starting Player in Round 11. But if by chance Plow & Sow is revealed instead, dreams can easily be crushed - especially as the starting player typically then changes before Round 13!

What's the best strategy for playing Agricola in order to maximise your chances of doing well whatever order the action spaces become available? Is there a "middle-ground" approach that allows you to do well whether or not the ostensibly more powerful actions show up early? Or in the end is it better just to roll the metaphorical dice and take your chances?

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It sounds like it's not the randomness of the action spaces that bothers you, but the unknown factor. If you're playing in person and others share your opinion, I'd suggest revealing the cards after they're shuffled and just use something else to track what round you're on. You'd have to keep an eye on upkeep to make sure you're not letting things accumulate too early, but that seems like it would address all the concerns you brought up.

If you want to play with the rules as written, you really can't assume that something will come up in any particular spot. For the first Family Growth, what you're describing is exactly the dilemma; if you invest early actions in the hopes of growing your family in Round 5, you have no way of knowing if that will pay off or not, and that's not something that will change with experience. You just need to factor your decision to build early (or not) with the possibility that it will not work out for you. I don't think there's anything you can do about that. For the second family growth, if it's that important to your strategy to get that first, I would say plan on being the start player in both Round 12 and Round 13, probably holding back some Minor Improvements so that it's not a total "waste" of the first move in Round 12 if the Family Growth action isn't the one that comes up.

In general, I think your question is looking at Family Growth in a vacuum, which seems to run contrary to the idea of Agricola. The best path to victory (generally) is diversity, and I realize that Family Growth is instrumental to that since it gives you precious additional actions, but regardless of what you're trying to do, relying on a specific space to be there exactly when you need it is risky. Competent opponents will often block you if possible (since there are few actions that would be detrimental, only slightly less attractive in a vacuum that would be pushed over if it both benefits them and hurts you), and if you spend too much time trying to manipulate turn order, you won't do well. Agricola is also not Chess; the random bits mean that there's not really an "if X, do Y" truism that will be a silver bullet winning strategy.

The way the question is worded makes it sound almost like you consider Agricola to be a zero-sum game, but it's not - it's more along the lines of a Nash equilibrium, even when played two player. I guess my answer to your question would be to "always have a plan B", or maybe plans 1-n where n=the number of players. If you have multiple viable options at all times, you can't be blocked easily (I've never seen the entire table collectively decide to leader-bash in Agricola, and I play with a cutthroat group of people). Ways to do this will vary considerably with the cards you get, the cards your opponents get, and what their biases are (e.g., I've played games where the 3 Wood space was taken literally every Round because most of the table thought they needed to have a 5 room house and use all of their wooden bits - as you may imagine, that took a big strategy adjustment). If you're looking to master Agricola, I think the best thing to do would be to understand how ROI works with scoring in the different categories and watch what everyone else is likely to go for. This extremely long analysis might be a good place to start in terms of Agricola's in-game economy.

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I like lots about this answer, but I do feel like you can't look at Family Growth as "just another action" like any other. Not only does an extra family member pay for itself REALLY quickly (it's almost impossible for a family member not to be able to derive at least 2 food from its actions per Stage - and usually you'l get lots more too), every one is also worth 3VPs at the end. If it wasn't by far the best action in the game I'd be less worried about it! –  thesunneversets Feb 6 '12 at 14:51
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@thesunneversets: Yes, 1 more turn can easily net 2 more food. But, that is NOT the entire cost. There is also the opportunity cost - IE what else could you do if you weren't doing that. (which that agriconomics essay mentions). At poster: +1 for that agriconomics link! That's a fantastic article. –  David Oneill Feb 6 '12 at 15:42
    
Also, it's noteworthy that if you're in a balanced N-person game, you're doing well to win over 1/N of the time. So if there's a play that gives you a guaranteed win with 30% probability, it's a probably the right move, even if it costs you the game 70% of the time. –  warbaker Feb 6 '12 at 17:10
    
@thesunneversets I agree with about the opportunity cost. Maybe in theory family growth is always the optimal action, but what if there are 12 wood sitting there? Or you have a card that would make taking one vegetable net you 4? Or if you really need both clay and reed this turn? One of the things I like about Agricola is that everything is a trade-off - family growth is investing in the future at the expense of the present, and while it's certainly a worthwhile investment (especially due to the 3 points as you mention), I don't think it's always the best tactical move. –  VolcanoLotus Feb 6 '12 at 18:37
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@thesunneversets Absolutely: the 3VPs are huge. But you get the same victory points whether you do it now or later. Since your question was regarding the value of making sure to do it earlier (vs later), the VPs aren't part of the now vs later choice. –  David Oneill Feb 7 '12 at 15:19
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When it comes to the stage 2 Family Growth I'd agree with you somewhat. If you prepare for family growth to come in Round 5 and no one else does, you won't have to waste moves to get Starting Player. If it doesn't show in Round 5, grab the wood or the reed to delay room building for your opponents. You still get compensation for being prepared but of course you would have been better off if that FG had come in Round 5. (Also do not focus too much on getting FG. I always laugh inside when my opponents grab Starting Player in Round 4 hoping for FG in Round 5, and then they take SP again hoping for it in Round 6. All this without the ability to play a minor improvement when taking SP and certainly no minors left when FG comes.)

What I think is worse about Stage 2 is that you never know when Renovation comes. Even though I can find awesome card combinations for early renovation I never want to take the risk as it would be horrible if it comes in Round 7. I rather discard the cards and grab new ones instead (I usually play with Mulligan).

I've previously proposed to my opponents that we fix the Stone action in Stage 2 to Round 5 and then FG and Renovation come in Round 6-7 (random). This way Renovation strategies are more viable and the players not getting the first Family Growth likely gets good compensation in the form of 2-3 stone.

For the Stage 5 Family Growth even without room I don't agree that it is too random. You should always have a grain or vegetable ready if the Plow and Sow comes up instead. And don't be too disappointed, that too is at least a 3 point action that probably gives you food, compared to FG that gives 3p and costs you food (the extra action which you may have to spend getting that extra food). There's also often 2 Cattle available at this point which is also worth at least 3 points (4 if you afford to breed it twice). Nowadays if I in Round 13 or 14 get to choose between FG without room and Plow and Sow I often choose Plow and Sow.

Conclusion: Don't overvalue Family Growth. If you make efficient actions like taking 6 wood, 3 Stone, 2 Cattle it doesn't really matter if you delay your FG.

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Mm, I guess the issue I have is that growing your family does not generally preclude you from taking sweet actions like 6 wood/3 stone. In practice I find that the player who grows their family first often gets a whole round of such actions cheaply - the round in which the other player has to play catchup by building a room/ family growth. Even if there's nothing great on the board that round, the 3-action player can grab some food, take starting player, do something else too - and be in a position to take 6 wood next turn. –  thesunneversets Jan 4 '13 at 17:54
    
I will agree with you that taking starting player (multiple times?!) just to be first to Family Growth is horrible play though. I can't see how that would help anyone win the game. The action you gain from having a bigger family has already been lost by taking starting player, plus you now need more food when the harvest comes around! –  thesunneversets Jan 4 '13 at 17:55
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I love random elements in games. Randomness doesn't mean you can't play optimal, it's just a lot harder to find optimal strategy because you have to correctly determine EV (expected value) and the odds.

Let's say you build up to prepare for FG on turn 5. If it appears your chance of winning is 75%. If it doesn't your chance of winning is 40% (just random numbers here). The odds of the first happening are 1 in 3 (so 2 in 3 for the second). This gives:

Win% = 1/3 * 75% + 2/3 * 40% = 52%

If the swinginess is higher (random numbers again):

Win% = 1/3 * 84% + 2/3 * 24% = 44%

So if the "prepare for FG on turn 5" strat is very swingy it's probably best not to try it (I've only played Agricola a few times, so I have no idea what the actual win% for a strategy are, so maybe an expert player can fill these numbers in)

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My problem is really that players pursuing a relentless "I will take all the wood" or "I will completely ignore wood" strategy can really do an awful lot better or worse based on what order the cards proceed to turn it. I guess that makes for an interesting game, as once you've worked out what they're up to you then have to plan for various outcomes. I think Agricola, like many great games, is one that does favour people who have the power to adapt their strategy to circumstances - I'm trying to work out the best way of doing that I guess! –  thesunneversets Feb 10 '12 at 11:32
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Two responses come to mind:

If you are playing on a physical board, and with people who are willing, simply pre-determine the order. (Yeah, I don't like this idea either, but it is a way to mitigate the random factor).

Otherwise, it's a value calculation. The value of a decision based on chance is equal to the value of the desired outcome times the chance of the desired outcome minus the value of what you had to give up to get it.

The value of the desired outcome is 1 more action in the next turn. (This assumes if you don't bet that it will come up a particular round you'll get it the next turn - could have greater value if not getting it now means you're unable to get it exactly when you want it later)

The chance of a particular action appearing on the first round of a stage is very straight forward - 1/4 for the 1st stage, 1/3 for the 2nd stage, 1/2 for the rest.

The cost (that is, the value of what you give up to get it) is hardest to figure. There are two types costs:

1) The costs of being able to support an additional person (food, room if needed). However, at least for person #3, it's a safe bet you'll do it sooner or later, so the only real cost is action order IE if you're expanding you're house you can't use those turns to plow and sow.

2) The costs of making sure you're able to cash in (IE taking starting player). Given that it takes a turn to take starting player, and there's only a 1/3 chance that it will come up, it's a losing proposition. But if there's a big pile of food there, it might be worth it. (if food gained > 2/3 of a turn, go for it)

~~ edit

To know if you should be prepared in case FG flips on turn 5, ask if the following is positive or negative: (Note, I'm slightly misusing the term marginal here. Sorry to any econ majors)

VF+P(1-F)-C

where

V = Value: marginal Value of doing FG on turn 5 (That is, how much more valuable is it to have FG on turn 5 vs. turn 6)

F = Flip: likelihood of FG being Flipped on turn 5. (This is equal to 1/3)

C = Cost: marginal Cost (including opportunity cost) of being prepared if it is flipped on turn 5 (That is, what is the value of the choices you can't make because of your preparations)

P = value: independent value of Preparation (that is, what is the value of these preparations if FG is NOT flipped on turn 5)

What you said (in your comment) about getting a better return on a family member the sooner you get them is right on. But, it's important to differentiate between marginal and absolute value.

Absolute value vs marginal value:

The absolute value of using FG on turn 5 is: 3VP + 9 additional turns (which is a 32% increase*).

The marginal value of using FG on turn 5 is: 1 addition turn (~3% increase*).

*(these are compared to the base 28 turns. Obviously, you'll use FG more than once, and thus have more than that, but it is still useful for comparison)

You use the absolute value in determining if you want to do FG at all, but you use the marginal value to determine if I should do it right now.

Note about P in the equation: this represents the value of already having the room (and food) for an additional person. If you are prepared for FG on turn 5, and it doesn't flip, the opportunity cost of preparing for it to be flipped on turn 6 is 0! In a sense, P is the opposite of the opportunity cost of preparing for FG on turn 6 or 7 times the relative likelihoods of it flipped on those turns.

This is not an answer per say, but more of a framework for finding the answer. I've only played Agricola 4 times, so I don't have a feel for the relative values of V, C and P. By making sure you're ready for FG on turn 5 or by preventing your opponent from being ready, you're saying that VF+P(1-F) is greater than C, that is you gain more by doing that than you could gain by doing something else.

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I do like the random element as a tool for keeping Agricola interesting, I just feel like it can prove very "swingy" in determining people's fortunes. One thing to keep in mind is that you don't always get a free choice of what strategy to adopt in time for Round 5: if you're not starting player, and the person who is is aggressive about taking wood, I'm pretty sure he can stop you from building a room by round 5 if he wants to. (The question then becomes if you are willing to take all the reed to keep him honest too!) –  thesunneversets Feb 6 '12 at 14:45
    
If your opponent is taking all the wood, the 'cost' (so to speak) becomes infinite, since you can't afford to do the preparations (without cheating). I would think that the situation where your opponent is taking all the wood and you're taking all the reed would be better for them, since there is more you can do with a big stack of wood than a big stack of reed, but as you said, that's the question: Is the value of preventing your opponent from getting FG worth the turns spent not doing something more useful than a bunch of reed. –  David Oneill Feb 7 '12 at 22:20
    
for sure - in fact I posted a question a while back about how to deal with a game in which your opponent goes first and aggressively takes as much wood as possible. Didn't get many suggestions, but the conclusion I came to was basically that wood is too good just to let your opponent have it all, you have to compete for it eventually. boardgames.stackexchange.com/questions/5178/… –  thesunneversets Feb 8 '12 at 10:10
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The spaces on Agricola are designed to give the game variation and chance. You don't know when you're going to get a Family Growth or not, same as not knowing if you'll get Fences first turn or fourth turn, which can sometimes hamper strategies, though the early game isn't as critical as people are just starting to get resources. I feel this is what makes the game fun and helps to make it a dynamic play each time I play it.

As for some suggestions, what I usually end up doing in game, when I have a win condition in mind and I'm working for it, is expecting the action I want to flip up first in the phase I want it to. Say you're trying to maximize everything and plan for your house expansion and then family growth to start getting that extra action. If that's what you're going for, house expansion should be done well before you get that far and you should have a food source ready to feed your third person before you get to the year that has Family Growth. Then, you adjust your tactics accordingly. Don't expect to have the third person right away, but plan for it to happen the first round. Watch what other's are doing. If they have expansion already, then all of you are getting ready for that spot and it's a matter of who's going to hold First Player.

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I'm not saying the random factor isn't good for Agricola, just that quite often I've found it makes a HUGE difference to player fortunes. Playing for Family Growth to show up on Round 5 may well be an excellent strategy, but if you have no backup plan for the times it doesn't appear till Round 7, your chances of doing well are seriously reduced, I'd have thought. –  thesunneversets Feb 6 '12 at 14:38
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