It seems the boxes to Uwe Rosenberg’s games keep getting bigger and bigger. Amazingly enough Fields of Arle can easily crush lesser games but is designed for only two players! Needless to say, there’s a lot of game packed into this huge box.
How it Plays
Exploring Uwe’s heritage
Upon opening the rulebook for Fields of Arle readers are given this quote to ponder:
Designer Uwe Rosenberg’s games have been getting more personal and autobiographical until he finally arrived home in Arle, a small village in East Frisia. Fields of Arle is a game about exploring Rosenberg’s heritage, building a village in Arle, and visiting the surrounding regions.
Developing a historical village
Fields takes place over four and a half years which is divided into 9 half years (or rounds). In each half year there are six month in which to build your village. In order to get started you’re going to need a reliable team. The first month is used for preparations in which you’ll be gathering four of the most reliable workers together and planning for the coming season.
The following four months are busy with all the work that needs to be done in order to develop the land in the most productive way possible. During each month you’ll send off one of your workers to do various tasks around your home region. After all the work has been done the half year is closed out with some routine inventorying – unloading the vehicles that are returning to the barn, tending to the fields and animals, and feeding your hungry workers.
Before you can do much of anything you’ll need to gather some materials. There are plenty of resources available to you but the most basic ones are wood and clay. With some effort these can be crafted into timber and brick for more involved projects. Gathering resources can be done in several ways but the most straight forward is to simply send your workers to roll up their sleeves and cut down some trees.
You’ll start from pretty humble beginnings – a large track of land but very little that can be developed. With the room that you have you’ve already managed to plow a couple fields and set up a stall with a single horse. To the north there’s a tidal flat area that you’ve blocked off with some dikes, everything above the dike line is unusable. Sending some workers to build more dikes will push forward the dike line and open up new land to be developed.
To the south there are moors that are too wet to be useful. You’ll first need to dehydrate them and then have your workers cut down the peat to cultivate the land and make it habitable. While peat might not be as useful as wood for building it can come in handy for heating your homes in the harsh winter or traded for other resources with the aid of peat boats.
There are many ways to cultivate the land once you have more space to expand. Local farmers could use help building plows in order to cultivate wheat and flax fields to be harvest in the fall. Others in the community wish to conserve the land with beautiful forests that can be utilized as an annual source of wood.
There are also plenty of buildings that would do wonders for the community. More stalls can be used to store and breed animals over the harsh winter. When you run out of room to hold animals you can expand your stalls into much larger stables. There’s also a large demand for various buidlings to put the local population to work. Erect a mill to get extra food from your fields, build a smokehouse or Sluice Yard Inn to put your Fish Traps to work in gathering resources, or maybe even construct the beautiful Berum Castle in order to refine your tools. There are plenty of buildings to choose from so you’ll need to utilize your land and resources wisely.
Along with your stalls and stables you’ll want to leave some open space for your animals to roam. There are three animals in particular that are useful for supporting your village. Cows and sheep can be milked for food during the summer while sheep can also be sheered for their wool after winter. Horses and cows are useful for pulling plows while horses are able to transport vehicles to the surrounding towns. If food is running low then it might be time to take some of your herd to the butcher. The community will benefit from a good balance of animals so make sure to gather and breed your animals with this in mind.
Once you’ve managed to gather enough flax from your fields, wool from your sheep, and hides from the butcher then you’ll be able to convert those crude resources into more useful materials. These materials can then be crafted into clothing which is always in high demand. Keep them on hand for your villagers or trade them with other towns for food.
In order to visit the established towns that surround your developing village you’ll first need a vehicle. Vehicles range in size and functionality from very small (1 spot) to quite large (4 spot). Each spot in your vehicles can be filled with wood and clay to be crafted into timber and brick or materials to be converted into clothing. You can also journey further to take animals, clothing, and other resources that are in high demand to be traded for food and while you’re at it you can bring back stories of your travels in the surrounding land.
Your workers may wish to be more productive and what better way to help them out then to provide them with better tools to get the job done more efficiently. A trusty workbench can come in handy when upgrading all the tools of your trade as long as you bring along the necessary resources. Each season offers it’s own set of jobs to be done but as the years go by you’ll find plenty of opportunities to improve your tools in both the summer and winter months.
There is much work to be done but your time is short so you’ll have to plan out your actions well and make good use of vehicles. But even perfectly crafted plans can be derailed when your neighboring village beats you to the tasks that you wanted your workers to perform. It seems there’s a shortage of skilled help so better grab them early in the half year to ensure they end up working for you. Don’t worry though, there’s plenty of useful thing to do even if it wasn’t what you originally had in mind.
As you can tell, Fields of Arle is a fairly involved worker placements game with a wealth of options for two competing players to develop their personal boards. At the end of 9 full seasons the town that has built an impressive village and contributed the most to the community will earn Rosenberg’s approval and be rewarded with victory.
Something New on the Farm?
I wanted to start off not by talking about what new and innovative gameplay Fields of Arle brings to the table but rather the story that it shares. It’s not uncommon for games to have a vague setting, leaving it up to the player to explore the game world with stories of their own imagination. With euros this can often be a pretty thin veil but Rosenberg is a master of bringing atmosphere into his games. It may be the friendly artwork that accompanies them or the way that the mechanics integrate nicely with the theme in a way that immerses the player. When the game is over you’re invested in and proud of what you built.
Fields of Arle accomplishes this but does so in a very special way. The game is set in a time and place that is very personal to designer Uwe Rosenberg and it’s one that he wants to share with us. This context makes Fields come to life with little touches that let players explore every aspect of the game. The towns that you visit are real places, the tiles have unique designs, and there’s even a cow that’s been lovingly branded “UR”. Uwe wants you to feel at home and it’s a wonderful place to visit for a few brief hours.
Uwe’s game evolution and my rocky journey
You could say that making a game about farming isn’t exactly breaking new ground for Rosenberg. After all we already have Bohnanza, Agricola, At the Gates of Loyang, Le Havre, Ora et Labora, Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, and Caverna. Fields falls into familiar territory but it doesn’t mean that he’s simply been churning out the same game over and over. On the surface it may seem that way given how much Fields appears to have in common with a good chunk of that list but it can be useful to view Rosenberg’s body of works as an evolution of sorts. Fields borrows quite a bit thematically, mechanically, and conceptually from what came before it but it also has its own clear identity. Due to this, I find it hard to talk about Fields without first approaching Rosenberg’s previous works. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re not familiar with his other games but bear in mind that knowing the history that lead up to this point will help frame my opinions on Fields.
I’ve had a pretty rocky journey with Rosenberg since the release of his masterpiece, Agricola. Granted that’s a completely subjective thing to say considering the diversity and scope of what followed it but it shows my own personal bias. There are some mechanical themes that Agricola established that became staples of his designs moving forward. First is the concept of expanding complexity by offering additional actions to the players as the game progresses. Next, the game is framed in seasons with periodic breaks for annual events such as a harvest in which you must feed your family or workers. Additionally there is the struggle of scarcity, you simply can’t do everything that you want to do. Last is the simplicity of function within the game’s resources. That is to say your resources have relatively straightforward functionality. Plowing fields in Agricola allows you to plant wheat and vegetables. Wheat in turn can be baked in order to feed your family. Both of these things are produced with the goal of scoring points (or avoiding penalties) at game end. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, these four elements are simply helpful for following the progression in Rosenberg’s designs.
As he followed up Agricola Rosenberg’s games became more and more open, by that I mean players are presented with more choices and given less guidance. I found that I was enjoying these designs less and less as they became more open. This isn’t to say that the games were worse but simply that they were moving away from what I liked so much about Agricola. Three of the core elements that I mentioned before were still intact but the increasing scope blurred the last, simplicity of function. This is what I have largely taken issue with. In both Le Havre and Ora et Labora, Rosenberg started to explore resource conversion in a way that required players to learn how to properly utilize their resources. The functionality of resources is muddied when there are additional steps between acquisition and the end result (function or points). This requires you to plan your actions early in the game with your intended path (or general strategy) in mind. It’s true that this is the case for Agricola on a smaller scale but as Rosenberg introduced a more complicated conversion process the game systems as a whole became less intuitive. In addition to maintaining simplicity, what Agricola does to combat scope is to provide the players with goals (through Occupation and Minor Improvements) that help guide their strategy with information that is present at the start of the game. Coincidentally, Caverna removes this system and replaces the private cards with public buildings (much to my dismay). In eliminating an element of luck and asymmetry the game vastly increases choice and can easily overload players. A big part of the reason why I prefer Agricola to these later designs is because I find it to be the most intuitive in large part due to the narrowed scope and simplicity of function.
There is another game that marked a significant departure from Rosenberg’s core design elements, Glass Road. While this game maintains the struggle of scarcity it abandons nearly all of the other concepts. Most notable of these is the elimination of expanding complexity, you are simply given all possible choices right from the start of the game. This made my first game miserable as I’m used to being eased into Rosenberg’s designs and with Glass Road you’re thrown right into the deep end. However, while I would say that expanding complexity is useful for letting the action in the game ramp up slowly it does not prevent players from being overloaded with information simply because certain actions are not yet available to be utilized. It’s safe to say that my first (and subsequent) plays of Le Havre and Ora et Labora were far more overwhelming than Glass Road. Despite how drastically different Glass Road is from Rosenberg’s other designs I do feel like it was an attempt to rein in the steadily increasing scope of his releases. This appealed to me and once I revisited the game I was very happy with the result.
So where does that leave Fields of Arle? How does it fit into Rosenberg’s body of work? Much like the bulk of his games it follows the principles of being framed in seasons and challenges players with the struggle of scarcity. However, despite the fact that it followed in the trend of having a large scope it successfully returned to the simplicity of function that games like Le Havre and Ora et Labora diverged from. And most surprisingly it followed Glass Road in abandoning expanding complexity in favor of presenting players will all the actions right from the beginning of the game. Simply put, it borrows the design principles that I enjoyed the most from his previous designs while being an innovative step forward. I’ve approached all of Rosenberg’s games since Agricola with a bit of hopeful hesitance and ended up being disappointed that the scope required more effort than I wanted to put into the game (with the exception of Glass Road). Fields of Arle managed to overcome my struggles and deliver a game that is both broad in scope and intuitive in design. More than anything that Rosenberg has done to date I would point to Fields as the culmination of his work. If that sounds like high praise that’s because it is. For me it was well worth the journey it took to get here.
Drawing from the past and offering something new
Despite being a refinement of what’s come before it, Fields still manages to innovate in many ways. Most notably are the tool and vehicle systems. While they aren’t entirely new mechanics they do offer concepts that I found to be very refreshing and ones that integrated seamlessly into the worker placement and resource conversion genres (respectively). It’s common for worker placement games to let players perform increasingly efficient turns as the game progresses. Two common practices are to provide more actions (workers) or better actions. In general pursuing either of those advantages becomes crucial to winning. The tool system takes a unique approach on letting players beef up their actions without making it a required path to victory. Everything in Fields of Arle has been balanced in the pursuit of creating freedom of choice, tools are no exception. In fact, I have found that they are one of the hardest game elements to utilize well because of the high opportunity cost. It seems like it should be a no brainer to upgrade your tools but there are so many good choices that no path (outside of building) shines brighter than the rest.
While tools let players take more powerful actions, vehicles provide the players with more actions. Granted these actions are limited in scope to resource conversion but unlike tools they are pivotal to nearly every strategy in Fields. I really like that they open up a more efficient source of upgraded resources (along with points from clothes) but the system really shines when locations are brought into the mix. Locations provide food for harvest in a pinch but, perhaps more importantly, they let you afford the food-heavy buildings. What makes this whole system fascinating is that you are required to give up things that are worth points in exchange for food which you will then hopefully spend on a building that is worth more points. In fact, all the buildings require you to give up resources that are worth points in order to get more points. To an extent this makes it harder to figure out exactly what kind of return you’re getting from a series of actions. This can be viewed as a positive or negative depending on how much (or little) mental number crunching you want to do. It reminds me a bit of Glass Road in that respect, you’ll see something that’s worth 4 points which is great but then you realize you have to give up 3 points to get it so you only ended up netting 1. This could certainly prove frustrating if the game wasn’t constantly reinforcing a feeling of progress that helps you move past all the min/maxing that you could be doing.
A shorter, more intuitive type of resource conversion
That leads into a topic that I touched on during my brief history with Rosenberg’s offerings up until now, the importance of simplicity of function in resource conversion. Rather than take the approach of providing a long convoluted conversion tree, Fields offers a broad one. Players are presented with a wide variety of options that represent the pursuit of the game’s various resources. This can prove extremely overwhelming at first – you have basic resources (wood, clay), peat, and several trackable ones (wool, flax, pelts, wheat, food). Fortunately, all of these resources have only one or two steps between being gathered and being spent (or kept for points). Wood and clay can upgrade into timber and brick to be spent on buildings, tools, and vehicles. Wool, flax, and pelts all follow the same conversion path of being refined into materials which are then upgraded into clothing. Peat and wheat are a little more nuanced but have a pretty clear function once you’ve been through a full game. Likewise the sources of the resources are both straightforward and make perfect sense thematically. Wool comes from shearing sheep after Winter, flax and wheat are harvested from fields in the Fall, and so on. Having the process of gathering and spending/upgrading resources make sense goes a long way towards making a game easier to learn, play, and enjoy. It makes a heavy game feel slightly less heavy. This was one of the things that I liked so much about Agricola and it is echoed in Fields.
On the back of the game manual there’s a section called “What do I need … for?” that’s very useful for understanding the functionality of each resources. It’s an invaluable aid but I only recommend reading this page thoroughly after your first game. There is a lot to take in during your first play through and I’d encourage players to approach Fields with a sense of discovery. This is a game that was meant to be explored. Sure, you can read up on strategies between games but in my opinion that will ruin part of the journey. I’d hold this as true for most games but Fields is inherently more exploratory in nature than most.
How much room is there to play in the sandbox? (Considering interaction and replayability)
Your first game of Fields of Arle may go a little something like this: Spend 15 minutes setting up the game. Look at all those buildings, there sure are a lot of them. Stare at all of the actions for the summer season and try to formulate a plan. There’s a lot to choose from and you haven’t even gotten to winter yet. Become overwhelmed with the sheer scope of your options. Wing it for the first half of the game based on what actions sound useful (or fun) at the time, later regret those decisions. Start to figure out what you’re doing in the final turns and try to scrap together a decent score based on your earlier ignorance. Don’t worry though, when the game ends the scores are very close as neither you nor your opponent knew what you were doing! Immediately start thinking about what you could have done better. When can we play again?
Fields has a very broad decision tree but the paths themselves are moderately short. This means that it won’t take long to wrap your head around all of your options and once you’ve played once or twice you’ll be able to grasp the paths easily. In essence, there are a lot of options but they are simple in nature and the resulting outcome of each choice, what you are working towards, is intuitive once you’ve experienced it. This means you have a freedom of choice based on goals that you set for yourself. This is as close to a sandbox game as I’ve ever seen while still maintaining some semblance of competition. The reason it works is because the strategy isn’t necessarily about the goals that you pursue or the paths that you take but how efficiently you execute your plan. I’m not going to say that everything in this game is perfectly balanced, I don’t think it was intended to be. What I am saying is that the sandbox nature of the game prevents play from becoming scripted. Yes, certain buildings or actions synergize well so there will be patterns that develop to pursue goals. Luckily this is a multiplayer game and it’s unsurprising to note that you will do better if you pay attention to what your opponent is doing and interfere (when the time is right) to combat perfectly scripted play. And hey, if you want perfect planning you still have the option of the solo game. Bear in mind, this game isn’t cutthroat in nature but that doesn’t mean it’s not interactive. Even with the ability to copy once per round there are times when resources or actions are in short supply depending on the season. On top of that, crossing over to the other season (which can be done once per season) in particular is a crucial element of timing and interaction.
Concerning replayability I’d like to think that the broad decision tree is in itself enough to provide plenty of room for exploration. You can specialize or diversify from many, many different pursuits. For those still unconvinced, Fields took a trick from Agricola: All Creatures Big And Small’s expansion model and offers a subset of available buildings in each game. There are key buildings that are always in play but those that vary can really highlight different strategies to great effect. This is a good time to revisit the topic of interaction in Fields. At the beginning of the game both players get to see which buildings are available, some of them (especially in combination) can be the cornerstone of your strategy. It’s possible that you could happily pursue a different set of building from your opponent but if you both have your sight set on the same key building then one of you will likely have to fast track your efforts to claim it or risk missing out. This competition for buildings can be just as important as your timely placement of workers on crucial actions.
A game built for two (or one)
For me, a huge part of the appeal of Fields is the fact that it was designed for two. Now I know this actually creates a barrier for quite a large portion of gamers that play in groups or prefer lighter games for two. I completely understand this but here’s my perspective: quite a few heavier games scale down to two but few of them are ideal at that player count. The best way to ensure that a game will play well for two is to simply design a two player game. Fields does just that and really captures the dynamic that lets two player games shine. It’s my opinion that if you tried to add more players this game would suffer greatly and from what I read they narrowed the player count for this very reason. If you have the opportunity for 2-player gaming and want something meatier than the rest of Rosenberg’s excellent two player line then Fields of Arle is perfect.
There’s also a solo variant that is fantastic and I don’t say that lightly. For the most part I have found solo variants to be tacked on and dislike playing against automated opponents who make me feel lonely. Neither is the case for Fields. I would describe the solo version as being Fields’ “puzzle mode”. In a game that is already very puzzly in nature this should prove very appealing for players that appreciate a solo option. Removing the uncertainty of another player’s actions turns the game into a perfect information venture, you could theoretically sit down and plan out your whole entire game from the very start. That isn’t to say that’s necessary but it does change the dynamic of the game a lot and lets you pull off strategies and building synergy that would normally be unavailable or very difficult. You’ll be able to explore Fields in a whole new way rather than resorting to the lonely man’s variant. I’ve enjoyed my solo games just as much as my two player games for drastically different reasons. I would suggest this game to someone solely for the solo variant, it’s that good if you enjoy puzzles. One caveat that I must point out is that not all solo games are created equal. The synergy between available buildings can lead to games that will likely turn out better than others. I don’t view this as a downside because I see each solo game as its own unique challenge. This mean that rather than playing until you “solve” the game with the perfect strategy you will be forced to adapt to the available buildings and thus get more replayability.
Another added bonus of the solo game is in easing the teaching process for those hoping to introduce the game before actually getting a chance to play it. The flow of the solo game is nearly identical and it will help you iron out most of the details. Playing a solo game first prevents having to struggle through your first rules explanation without a play under your belt.
The final word of Fields of Arle
Some people think that Caverna was the culmination of designer Uwe Rosenberg’s work but I’ll point to Fields of Arle as his true highlight thus far. It utilizes concepts from his earlier games without being derivative. Quite the opposite, it introduces new mechanics and immerses us in the narrative of his heritage. A tall task considering what came before it. I can say with certainty that Fields is the best heavy two player AND solo game that I have ever played. This is an experience to be cherished and revisited often with a good friend. Or instead, on a quite night, spread out on a table for you to explore with Uwe himself as your companion.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Z-Man Games for providing a review copy of Fields of Arle