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Ever wondered what it's like to compete as a merchant in an ancient Greek marketplace? Of course not. But trust us, it's exactly like this. Agora is a fine little tile game in the Hip Pocket series, featuring the unique mechanic that you can play a card anywhere on the table and in any orientation. The resulting board is so organic you'd swear you were in ancient Greece.
Players take turns collecting income and constructing shops. You only make money if pedestrians can reach your shop, so if you wind up completely surrounded by new construction your income drops to zero. Watch out if you own the biggest store on the table: it's likely to burn down or be destroyed in a sudden, freakish, and highly surgical flood. On the other hand, the biggest shop probably stands to make a bundle from the festivals that happen suddenly from time to time.
I picked this game up only because it was cheap and ended up being very impressed. The first few turns are pretty casual as you try to buy small shops and spread out to keep you from being boxed in. Then, quickly you find yourself realizing that the game is only going to last a few more turns and you'd better make wise choices. You can use your card to expand your own shops (for free), box in your opponents (to take away their future income) or protect your own shops (buy building near them but not blocking). It is great, lasting fun for 4 bucks.
If youve read many of my past reviews, youd know that Im certainly not a fan of cheap, component-lite games. I owned a couple Cheapass games, but they never really gave me the desire to own many more, despite their cheap price. However, a recent trade netted me about ten Cheapass games and when you own a game, you have to play it, right? So slowly, Im playing through them, finding some nice gems, and some real stinkers. I had read in GAMES Magazine that Agora (Cheapass Games, 2002 James Earnest) was a fairly fun game, so I had higher expectations for it. As usual, I was annoyed about the lack of components (people do care about that!) but was able to find a place in Korea where I could get small wooden blocks. So I slapped them and the game in a nice plastic container and presto!, I had a fairly nice board game.
And after playing it, we found that the game play was fairly fun certainly more fun than Ive had playing any other Cheapass game, with the exception of Lightspeed. The game scales well from two to four players, and has a good deal of interaction not to mention it has a certain aesthetic appeal once the game is finished, not totally unlike from Carcassonne. Everyone who played the game agreed that it was good, with a tinge of surprise (we usually dont expect much from James Earnest). For its price, and as long as players are willing to put a little work into accumulating components, Agora is an excellent choice.
Each player is assigned a different letter: A, B, C, or D. Each player also starts with a certain amount of points, or dollars, etc. We found that keeping track of points was a lot easier than handing around money all the time. A deck of thirty-six cards is shuffled, and one of them placed face up in the middle of the table. Each card has a different symbol and letter on it, and a different layout of stores. Each side has nine doorways on them, with various walls also on the cards; so that when the cards are placed together, they form several stores with various entrances. One player is chosen to go first, and then play proceeds clockwise around the table.
A players turn consists of four phases, beginning with the income phase. In this phase, the player receives one point (gold, coin, etc) for each doorway to every shop that they own. Only doorways which touch the perimeter of the area (marketplace) count, if doorways are cut off, or touch an isolated area in the middle of the market (called alley), they generate no income. Quite simply, a customer to that store must be able to walk to the doorway without passing through any walls or other cards.
The next phase is the draw phase, in which the player draws the top card of the pile and checks the letter on it. If the letter matches his own assigned letter, the symbol tells what action immediately occurs.
- Fire symbol: The largest shop (shop with the most player counters on it) burns down, removing from the table all cards involved in that shop.
- Flood symbol: The largest shop is flooded, removing all counters from that shop, but leaving the cards on the table. In case of ties for largest shop in Floods and Fires, nothing happens.
- Festival symbol: Every player immediately collects income for their shops, starting with the active player.
If the letters do not match, then nothing occurs and play proceeds to the next phase.
In the third phase, the player places the drawn card down. They can pretty much place the card anywhere they want on the table, as long as they follow a few simple rules, such as not overlapping cards, making sure that shops owned by different players are not connected, etc. A card doesnt even have to touch any other existing card in play. If any shops are enlarged by the placed card, the shop owner(s) expand their shops, placing tokens on each new circle in their shops.
Finally, the player can buy one shop any open shop on the board. The price of the shop is the amount of income it would currently receive. The player subtracts the amount of points equal to the shops value from their score, and place one of their counters on each circle in the shop. Play then proceeds to the next player, who follows the same four phases. As soon as one player reaches 50 points (coins) at any point in the game, they are the winner!
Some comments on the game
1.) Components: Well, cant really cheer too loudly here this is Cheapass, you know. Agora is part of their Hip Pocket line, and truly does come packaged in a small plastic bag that can easily fit in ones back pocket. However, after I added some paper and a writing utensil (for keeping score), found some nice (inexpensive too!) 10 mm cubes of four colors, and packaged them all in a plastic container the game really didnt fit the hip pocket category either. This was more work but its a lot easier for me to entice people to play a game with nicer components. And it really wasnt that much more expensive, but did add a nice level to the game. Card quality was a little lower than I would have liked but the graphics, while simple, were extremely functional, and since the cards arent handled excessively, it shouldnt pose much of a problem.
2.) Rules: The rules are on a small sheet, both sides, that folds up nicely into the bag the game is packaged in. There are some illustrations, showing how several shops are scored, which is a nice visual aid to understanding that part of the rules. However, the rules arent that hard to understand, and most people will not have a hard time picking them up. The only thing that could cause some trouble is the card laying rules. Not because they are hard, because the opposite is true but because people arent used to being able to throw a card anywhere on the table.
3.) Tile-Laying: I really enjoyed laying down the cards in this game. Unlike most other games, the ability to lay the cards down any way you want to really makes the game interesting. At first glance, I thought that the millions of combinations possible would cause for some serious analysis paralysis, but there are really only a few excellent choices, so the game doesnt bog down as much as it seems. Laying the cards also adds a lot of strategy to the game. Whose shops will you expand? If you expand your opponents shop, he may make more money, but at the same time be vulnerable to fire and flood. At the same time, you can expand your own shops but at what price. Cards can also be used to cut off the entrances to other shops and oh the joy when you can place a card that lowers a shops income, while making it larger. This is possible by lowering the amount of doors, but increasing the amount of circles and really can be fun to play on an opponent.
4.) Time and Players: A two-player game is fairly fun, but three and four player games are where it really shines. No matter how many players, the chance of drawing a card with your letter is still 25%, so the odds are the same, and everybody often waits with baited breath to see if a fire or flood will happen each turn. The game flies by, as 50 points isnt that hard to reach and can often be completed in only half an hour.
5.) Fun Factor: The game really was a lot of fun more than Ive had with most games of this type, and the replayability factor was quite high. Even the theme, which is thin Ill admit did okay, and living in South Korea like I do, I can see how the shop structure really mimics some of the markets over here! When the game is over, you can look at the board, seeing all the tokens and shops laid out, and it looks pretty neat! When first playing, one player built one shop that was immediately destroyed by a fire. He was almost turned off to the game, but realized that it was only a minor setback and came back to win the game. Soon afterwards, he was hoping for a fires and floods to destroy his opponents, and everybody had a blast!
For its price, you really cant beat Agora. Getting a good game for less than $5 is a great deal. Now, once you add in the other components, it comes up to around $10, but still a reasonable price. And unlike other games of this genre, Agora seems to be a game that will be pulled out fairly frequently. I enjoyed it, as it was a fun filler, but one that had some good strategy available. Not all of James Ernests games are worth ones time, but Agora is certainly an exception to that rule fast, fun, strategy-filled, and cheap.
Tile laying games are among my favorite types of games. So a game this cheap with such an interesting twist in gameplay instigated my purchase. You see, in Agora, you not only connect tiles side by side, but you may lay them anywhere on the playing surface and at any angle! My head was spinning -- how would it play out?
Well, gameplay, thankfully is fairly simple. Players flip a tile (a small black and white card) and place it somewhere on the table. Since you are trying to establish market dominance in the Agora (Greek marketplace), you want to place it in such a way as to create high income markets for you, and limit, or shut down the income production from other players' markets.
On a player's turn he may buy any unpurchased market (series of connected hallways). The price of the market is equal to the income it will produce, and the income is determined by how many entrances the market has -- which, incidentally, is a nice fit for the theme of a teeming Greek marketplace. Since expansions is free, players will want to do a lot of expanding and a limited amount of purchasing.
The cards each have parts of markets (they look like white hallways; think Cartagena) which often will be matched together (like Carcassonne) to expand existing markets. When you add more entrances to your market, you will get more income next turn. However, the bigger your market gets, the more likely it is to be subjected to 'acts of the gods' such as Fire or Floods. Bigger markets are more like to be either ruined (player loses ownership) or comepletely destroyed (cards removed from table. So sometimes you won't want to expand -- which means other players may want you to expand, and may start expanding your shop for you! They will do this trying to limit your income gains (trying not to add any additional exists) while at the same time enlarging it as much as possible.
And, of course, tile can be place at angles. This allows players to turn thriving parts of the Agora into deadend alleys, costing you opponents valuable income. The way cards will be angled, entrances blocked, deadend and alleys formed is interesting. It isn't as mindboggling as it sounds since there are fairly optimal 'angling' tactics and the general idea is to limit big gains by your opponents.
Agora ends up being a great deal for the price, but doesn't have too much game to it. It is fairly short, and much better with 3 or 4 players than 2. Not a bad game, and if you want to try a game from this company, this is one of the better ones to sample.
Everyone gets start-up capital of 10 coins. Each card shows line segments, counter spaces, and store entrances on every side. On a turn, do the following: (a) Collect income for each of your shops' open entrances (an open entrance is one that does not abut another card or lead to a space that is completely surrounded by cards); (b) draw a card (some cards cause the destruction of the largest store, or earn everyone extra income); (c) place the card in the array, matching line segments on adjacent cards (continuous segments often create bizarrely shaped stores); (d) lastly, you may choose to end your turn by purchasing a store; its cost depends on the number of open entrances it has. Put a counter on each of its counter spaces to show ownership. The first person to earn 50 coins wins this intense and zany marketplace battle, which is best with three or four players.