Today I finally beat the local Agricola shark that I have been taking aim at for a full year. The game had four strong players and the scores were 46-42-40-39 so it was definitely a close one. We used the world championship card set which I like a great deal, mostly because the cards seem pretty balanced overall. There are lots of things worth using in the set but very little in the way of rubbish or overpowered nonsense. It certainly feels like a good draft set because you can actually hunt for combos but the lack of bombs means that it doesn't feel so luck based.
Agricola is an odd game in that there is a particular point that seems hugely influential but which is actually just a barometer of the game success so far. That point is who picks up the first couple of sheep. Being the first person to get an ongoing sheep breeding based food plan is powerful and it strikes me that it is a good way to figure out who is winning. However, just picking up sheep randomly is terrible so it is mostly just a way to figure out whose game really came together. If you grab those first 2-3 sheep and have a pasture for them to live in and an oven to cook them in you are in fantastic shape but that is mostly just a testament to how effectively you have set yourself up.
In the game today I was the person who grabbed sheep first. I had Master Stableman, a profession that let me build 2 stables for 1 Wood each when I picked up 2 critters at once, and a minor improvement to cook them so I had a great situation going. Nobody else set up a breeding situation in the early game so they had to rely on other methods of getting food. I ended up taking starting player about 5 times to get out a large collection of improvements and managed to get Growth without Room twice. Somehow Renovate + Fences wasn't a factor in the game and it just wandered around the table a couple of times.
I can't say exactly what it was that worked so well for me. I have some very decent improvements but nothing that felt broken. The Master Stableman was probably the key to the whole thing though as he got me 4 extra Wood over the game and let me build my stables precisely when I wanted them instead of having to save up a ton of Wood before expanding. Getting to start breeding sheep in the first Harvest set me up pretty well. Even so, 4 Wood and a bit of tempo isn't breaking the game by any stretch.
I guess it says something about my skill at Agricola that I can't really say what it was exactly that made me win this game when I lost so many of the previous ones. Everything came together nicely and I got all of my combos down that I was aiming for but none of them were devastating by any means. I usually assume that when I beat some strong players for the first time after many losses the game should feel like I broke it but it just felt like things chugged along reasonably. Maybe that is the key though since often Agricola feels like an exercise in desperation and failure with me being unable to make all of the things happen before I run out of game.
In Puerto Rico I usually feel like I am doing obscene things and crushing the world while in Agricola I usually feel more like I am barely avoiding catastrophe at all times. I can't decide if I like that or not.