Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
In a subtle nod to François de Bellefeuille, the man who would unanimously win Assistant GM of the Year if such an award existed at WBC for his tremendous work in bringing great technology to several convention events in 2022, as the old French epigram goes translated roughly into English: The more things change, the more they stay the same. This was undoubtedly the theme of this year’s Agricola tournament in Seven Springs, PA.
In long-standing tradition, the Agricola tournament serves as the unofficial kickoff of eight and a half days of serious, momentous Eurogaming at a ski resort in the middle of nowhere. This year saw tons of new faces mixed in with subsistence farming stalwarts. Let us briefly stroke a few egos. With the advent of Revised Agricola on BoardGameArena since the last WBC Agricola tournament, this brought a bunch of new folks to the Seasons room on Saturday, some of whom turned out to be quite capable of matching their skills with the well-established shark tank that everyone has come to know and love in this tournament. But that is not all. The Play-Agricola crowd decided to descend upon the tournament en masse this year. Overall attendance was down a bit from the average norm, but so was overall convention attendance. There were a few familiar faces missing from the convention this year, some of whom make up the Agricola ecosystem. Judging from the baseline level of this year’s competition it seems that some casual players have drifted away from playing a heat of Agricola in favor of other events that have slowly begun to populate the first day of the convention. Consider the following excerpt from Chad Weaver’s personal annual convention write-up:
- I was planning to squeeze in a heat or two of Agricola again this year, but I ran into Rob Murray in the open gaming area, and Rob was listing off the credentials of a half-dozen ‘Gric experts on top of the experts I already knew about like Micah McCormick, and I decided I didn’t need any more soul-crushing defeats so I skipped that this year.
Regardless, the fifty-six players who decided to chance having their souls crushed did so with gusto. Twenty-one of those would play in all three heats. Due to the pervasive, convoluted changes implemented to the advancement and tiebreaker rules across the convention this year, many players chose to sit out the third heat after respectable performances in the first two heats. For five of the folks likely to advance to the semifinal it turned out to be the correct move. For two notable folks, it turned out to cost them a pass to play on Sunday morning. Those two were defending champ Alex Bove and Andy Exley, who notably has 5,000+ completed games on Play-Agricola.com and authored the exceptional Wm compendium.
The elephant in the room was the question of whether the Agricola tournament should switch over to the Revised version of the game, particularly now that a clean, playable version is widely available on BoardGameArena. With the three year break in activity, surely there would be a noticeable shift to a preference for playing the new version of the game compared to the old, but until the numbers can definitively make this conclusion, the tournament will continue to run as a democracy. Players could opt to play one version or the other, or be truly indifferent. Somewhat surprisingly, 2022 saw only a slight increase in preference to play Revised, with approximately 25% of the smaller field opting in. Therefore, expect more of the same in next year’s tournament.
Everyone in the top 16 after three heats punched their ticket to a seat at a semifinal on Sunday morning. It was the first time since before 2012 that Eric Wrobel didn’t make it through the field (he’s made it every year he’s entered). While he would prove later in the week that his Terraforming Mars skills are still elite (having repeated as champ in that tournament), he admitted afterwards to being rusty at Agricola since last playing in the tournament in 2019. One guy who wasn’t as rusty was Rob Murray, who now sits alone on a throne of consecutive semifinal appearances at nine.
After the customary World Cup-esque sorting method, the four tables were seated as follows:
- Table 1: Dan Adams, Binh Phan (BGA), Mark Gee (PA) and Robbie Mitchell (PA)
- Table 2: Allan Jiang (a.k.a. AJ), Ryan Feathers (PA/BGA), Carl Chauvin, Eddie Chen (BGA)
- Table 3: Steve LeWinter, Rob Murray, Jack Wolff, Micah McCormick
- Table 4: Sceadeau D’Tela, Ricky Boyes, John Corrado, Andrew Martin (PA)
Table 1 was the largest collection of new faces. None of these players had ever made it to the semifinal at Agricola, and considering the field and history of the tournament, this is quite surprising. Dan Adams was the lone player to advance from a strong group of players located in the Berea / Lexington, KY area, with Keith Dent and Derek Glenn both not qualifying this year (both were behind the eight ball after missing the first heat when San Juan ran too long). Binh was a complete stranger to everyone at the tournament, learning the Revised game and apparently excelling at it on BoardGameArena. Mark Gee is a long-time Play-Agricola regular, and Robbie Mitchell has been attending WBC since he was a child, but has also joined the Play-Agricola crowd and accelerated his way up the learning curve.
Robbie started in seat 1 and played an early Animal Breeder with breeding cows by Stage 2. Cool. Binh played the “nur” strategy and pushed for an early room with Thatcher. Mark got an early Fish Trap out and was able to get lots of Reed/Stone/Food actions, which coupled with an early Village Elder helped him double-build two wooden rooms. Finally, Dan played Field Watchman in seat 4. He was able to get three grain in the ground before the first harvest, but it did assist other players in getting more resources to fuel their personal strategies. Binh was rewarded with the early first growth in Round 5 and eventually set up Outrider and Plow Driver in the midgame. Mark followed his mainline and grabbed the BMW, Robbie was able to grow with a Loom and some Sheep, and Dan struggled a bit being late in the growth queue in an early growth game. He also had Sow/Bake blocked going into stage four, which was detrimental to his game. Binh was able to close strong with a Reno/Stone Hut Extension, played Lasso and Forest Pasture, and otherwise got everything he needed for the Constable that was in play. Mark had a few slick plays late with a sawhorse to help him fence out his farm, and he tried to win both global bonuses. In the end, it was Binh (53) – Mark (49) – Robbie (44) – Dan (27).
Controversy ensued immediately following the opening bathroom break at Table 2 when the players could not agree on which pieces to use for the wood and the clay. We kind of thought this was settled law, but apparently not. It could only be resolved by using customized pieces of wood and clay provided by another player in the room. Once those shenanigans were clear, the theme of Table 2 was early food. A key moment of this game came in Round 3. Carl had Magician in play and had not yet taken an action, while reigning Caesar, Consul and Praetor AJ had Fishing Rod in play. With Sheep not flipping until Round 4, Ryan tried to apply some pressure to what appeared to be a food starved table. He took the three food from Fishing, expecting Carl would need to take the three food from Traveling Players with his first action (negating Magician). Instead, Carl took resources, and AJ also chose resources over Fish. Ryan chose violence, and took the three food from Traveling Players with his second action. The downstream consequences were that AJ needed to play Cabinetmaker to feed, and Carl was forced to take Day Laborer with his second action and then Magician in Round 4 with just one food on Traveling Players. Eddie chose winning. While the others were struggling for food, Eddie simply gathered room parts, built a room and grew in Round 5 with a Simple Fireplace, as one does when trying to win a game. With an easy path to food (he would upgrade the Simple Fireplace to a cooking Hearth) and three Sheep in Round 6, Eddie had peeps and food while the table struggled with both.
The midgame didn’t get better for team not-Eddie. When AJ grew third, he did so with a Spinney while Eddie already had 12 wood on his board. The crotch-punching among the other players didn’t slow down. Ryan grew last with some Clay Supports with the hopes of trying to catch up in actions, but was jumped for second growth by Carl. Ryan expressed his distaste by taking three food from Traveling Players after Carl added Conjurer to his button, which led to some begging cards for Carl. Eddie would play a mid/late-game Field Watchman to round out his farm and was Start Player in Round 11 when Family Growth w/o Room flipped. At that moment, AJ extended his hand to Eddie, congratulating him on his win and wishing him luck in the final. Eddie (47) – AJ (41) – Ryan (39) – Carl (37).
Table 3 was filled with perennial Agricola laurelists who all knew one another very well. The story of this game was Phase 2, as many games are. Rob was pretty well set up for growth to flip in Round 5, so was pretty disappointed when he saw the Stone accumulation space turn up. He spent well over five minutes reviewing his hand and the board to determine how to play this one out. The board had a good amount of resources considering it was only Round 5, and he was the only one who had a room built, although every other player was threatening to also build including Jack who was sitting to his left. After his very long think ended, Rob opted to take four wood. He vocalized that his assessment was that if growth did not flip in Round 6, Jack would easily win the game with Rob doing all of his work for him. Jack was pretty bummed when Rob did not take Start Player, and also thought a long time about his own options. In fact, all four players chose to take resources rather than either build or fight for Start Player, so on Rob’s second action he could not justify passing on Start Player a second time. Growth wouldn’t come until Round 7, but Rob was satisfied that he was able to get some value off the board since there were four stacks of good resources in Round 5.
The mid/late game got pretty painful for Steve due to Rob’s actions, who was ironically seated to his left. Rob had a Guildmaster in play and was able to strategically take both BMW and, more importantly, Pottery which appeared central to Steve’s food engine. This was a game that was filled with global bonuses, as House Steward, Church Warden and Reeve were all in play. More of Steve’s pain dealt by Rob came when Rob was able to Start Player with a Clay Hut Extension to five rooms, slowing down Steve’s late game growth plans. The table was able to block Rob from hitting Church Warden when Jack took Start Player in Round 13. However, Rob was able to play a Guest in Round 13, thus claiming Church Warden as well as the other two global bonuses after all. The race for second place was extremely close in this one. Rob (45) – Jack (35) – Steve (34) – Micah (33).
The semi-random draw of the semifinal tables produced a real treat for the room. It meant two-time champ Sceadeau D’Tela, who many consider the strongest player in the tournament, would be pitted against Andrew Martin. Andrew barely made it past the cut as the sixteenth seed after playing in just two heats. This was Andrew’s first Agricola tournament at WBC, but during the pandemic he played multiple games per day on Play-Agricola. His spongy teenage brain was able to accelerate very quickly up the learning curve, and being able to consistently play top level players didn’t hurt either. But simply put, the kid is really freaking good. An odds maker would likely put Sceadeau and Andrew at the top of the list… if this was something people bet money on.
So not gonna lie, this game was a weird one. Sceadeau found himself in an unfamiliar position early – hungry. He played an early Fence Overseer and used it during his first room build. With Sheep on the board, this put Ricky in decision-mode, as he had a Fireplace and first opportunity to grow when it flipped in Round 5. Ricky opted for growth and would figure food out later. Sceadeau took the Sheep into his fenced pasture. The fly in the ointment was that with John taking a bunch of clay actions, Sceadeau didn’t make a clay grab to be able to build a cooking implement to actually eat his Sheep. Meanwhile, Andrew took two food actions early to gain tempo, with a Day Laborer in Round 1 and a three food grab in Round 3. Andrew would grow second, and have an opportunity to grow again in Round 7 since he built two rooms. However, looking across the table at Sceadeau’s small, hungry family and empty room, Andrew opted to open the round by building the Basketmaker’s Workshop. Sceadeau was unable to grow even though he had an empty room because of his food woes. Andrew grew to four family members in Round 7 after all with his second action and was rewarded with big wood grabs and the ability to build a bunch of major improvements with all of his extra actions. Beyond that, Andrew turned on auto-farm mode, with another close race for second place. Andrew (53) – Sceadeau (38) – Ricky (37) – John (36).
So the final was set, with three finalists playing in their first ever Agricola tournament at WBC. Rob was the lone representative of the old guard. Although Andrew was probably the favorite to win the final, Eddie and Binh were both completely unknown to anyone else at the convention. As Dave Brown taught us in 2016, the guys you don’t know are the ones you have to watch out for. The final ended up being played only hours after the semifinal, being pushed up in the schedule by several days to accommodate Andrew, who would be leaving the convention on Sunday evening.
Editor’s note: This is normally the part in the report where we get into an immense amount of detail and scrutinize draft decisions made and walk through a near play-by-play of the action in each of the game’s six phases. But statistically speaking, if someone makes the semifinal every year, they ought to be making the final every four years or so. This year just happened to be one of those years where the GM that normally is fastidiously logging every move in the game on his laptop made it through to the final and had to focus on actually playing the game. But the good news is that if statistics continue to hold, you all have the next three to four years to look forward to if you enjoy a 5,000 word recount of the final table.
In this year’s final, Eddie drew seat 1, Andrew seat 2, Rob seat 3 and Binh seat 4. Overall, the draft was relatively weak. Andrew did find an Animal Pen, so rushed out four occupations early to play it in Round 5. One of the occupations he played was Rancher, which led to a large influx of wood to his game as nobody seemed to take any interest in playing Rancher police against him. A further advantage that Andrew enjoyed was that the Minor Improvement draft was so weak that it was difficult for anyone to take Start Player away from Eddie. Andrew had no interest in disrupting going second, and Rob’s best Minor Improvement was unfortunately Alms and he was trying to hold off as long as possible before playing it. Once he did, he went on to play a mid-game Educator powered by Dancer. After first picking Guildmaster, Rob was both surprised to see Educator second and then Dancer come third. But Rob’s plan was just to push first room and hopefully grow with the Alms. Had growth in fact flipped in Round 5, Rob’s winning chances would have been quite strong. Fate had other ideas in mind.
There is not much to tell in this one. When growth flipped in Round 7, Andrew’s early Animal Pen and uncontested Rancher led to an easy win. There was also a critical moment in the midgame where Eddie needed to Renovate to stone to turn on Manservant, which gave Andrew the six wood he needed to play all of his fences early. The race for second place was close between Eddie and Rob. There was a key point in the game when Rob attempted to starve Eddie, but being that he was two seats away he was only able to apply a moderate amount of pressure. Eddie was able to swoop in and get some large late game wood grabs, and his big end game fences / fenced stables would be enough to hold onto second place by one point. Binh did have Charcoal Burner (the card he kept over Educator), but couldn’t get a strong food engine going to both get room parts and play Animal Breeder. The deficit was too much to try to overcome in the late game. Andrew (52) – Eddie (47) – Rob (46) – Binh (37).
It turns out that age and treachery doesn’t always triumph over youth and skill. Andrew Martin is the embodiment of what the old guard of 30 & 40-something-year-old Agricola sharks has been jokingly foreshadowing over the course of the last few years. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that some kid (or kids) would come in and start wiping the floor with them. It started when Jack and Sam Wolff started making regular appearances in the semifinals. The cycle seems to be nearly complete, with a kid in high school taking down a bunch of old guys, not to mention the debut appearance of two guys fresh out of college coming in and making the final in the convention’s toughest shark tank. We saw lots of new faces in this year’s final, and Andrew becomes the eleventh different winner in the tournament’s thirteen-year history. When it comes to this tournament, the one constant is change.