Dogs make such a great theme for games. You can race them (as in Snow Tails), live their lives in the street (as in A Dog’s Life), or rescue them (as in Dogs). Dogs are so active and cute that there are many ways to create a game around them. (Unlike cats who are too dignified to be part of a board game, unless it involves sitting in the box or knocking the components off the table.)
But now I’ve discovered a game with a new twist on the dog theme: Agility training! Agility is a two-player game from the creators of Morels that has you racing to recruit the best dogs and then be the first to get them through the agility courses. Sounds like something that might be difficult to pull off in board game form, so how good of a job did the designer do? Read on.
How It Plays
Agility is basically a race game, although there are (sort of) two races going on simultaneously. The first race is to adopt the best dogs that can most easily clear the obstacle courses available in the game. The second race is to be the first to get those dogs through your chosen courses. In order to accomplish these goals, you’ll be playing cards, taking the resultant actions, and collecting dog treats which allow you to adopt dogs and complete obstacles.
Turns are fairly simple. First, you’ll play one of the training cards from your hand. These cards have both numbers and two kinds/quantities of dog treats on them. The number indicates how many spaces to move the marker around the action rondel. You will take the action on which the marker lands.
To avoid suffocating detail about the actions you can take, here’s a high level overview. Some of the actions are permanently fixed on the rondel. Others are displayed on tiles which can be moved in and out of the rondel and placed in different positions. Not all actions are used every game, meaning each game may have slightly different available actions.
Some actions allow your dog to clear a specific hurdle for free. Others allow you to choose an action on which you did not land. Some allow you to swap training treat colors, others require you to return some training treats, and some give you additional treats. There are some actions that let you mess with your opponent by requiring them to pay more to complete an obstacle, manipulating the number of action cards they have in hand, requiring them to complete actions in a specific order, or making their course longer.
After you’ve taken the action, you will collect one of the types of dog treats shown on the card. Dog treats are “currency” in the game and can be spent to adopt dogs and complete obstacles. (In the case of completing obstacles, it’s completely thematic because agility dogs work for treats!)
If you have enough treats to spend and want to adopt a dog, you may do so. When you adopt the dog, you also choose one obstacle course from the six available. You only get to adopt three dogs all game, so choose wisely.
If you have enough treats or your chosen action allows it, you can move your agility dogs through the course as the final part of your turn. You can move up to all three of your dogs if you are able.
You now draw another action card from the display of face up cards and your opponent takes their turn. Play continues until one player gets all three of their dogs through their chosen courses. The only exception is if the player that wins does not possess the tiebreak marker. If they do not, the other player gets one last turn to try to finish her obstacles and then win by virtue of holding the tiebreak marker.
Does It Jump All the Obstacles to Fun, or Crash at the First Hurdle?
I’m always on the lookout for strong two player games. Games like 7 Wonders Duel, Jaipur, Lost Cities, or Jambo which offer strategic yet simple experiences in a dedicated two player format are some of my favorites. I never had the chance to play this designer’s earlier effort, Morels, but many people gave it strong reviews. So when I saw that he had a new(er) game for two about dogs competing in agility trials, I knew I had to give it a chance.
First off, let me state that I loved the theme. I’m a huge dog person so it was an easy sell, but for such a small game, the theme comes through tremendously well. It has dog meeples and cute art on the dog cards, but more than that, the gameplay suits the theme. Some dog breeds are better at certain types of obstacles in the game, just as they are in real agility. Dogs can be distracted, just as in reality. Dog treats are the currency of the game because in real agility training, dogs work for treats.
All of this means that when you’re playing the game, you feel a bit like you’re competing in agility. Your strategy comes from making thematic decisions. The dogs you adopt should (ideally) be the ones best suited to completing the courses on offer in the game. The more agile dogs tend to cost more, though. If you want to slow your opponent down, you want to distract or intimidate his dog. (Or even cause it to slip.) If you need to trash cards and get new ones, you can take a break and chill with your dog. And so on.
More than just playing with cute dogs, though, or being a simple set collection game, Agility has a little bit of engine building going on. At the beginning, you’re just trying to amass enough treats to get a dog. But as the turns go by and you collect more treats, things speed up and you’re able to accomplish more and more. Adept players will be able to work the action rondel in their favor and chain actions together to efficiently accumulate resources, dogs, and course completions.
Agility hits my gaming sweet spot, providing some thinky, puzzly decisions in a relatively short and easy to learn package. Each turn you have to evaluate which action spots you can reach with the cards in your hand and decide which action benefits you the most. More than that, though, since the card you use will give you dog treats, it can be beneficial to take a less desirable action in exchange for treats you need.
When adopting dogs, you’re looking at which ones might do best on the courses available, but also which ones are affordable/easiest to get. Maybe getting out on the course first with a “lesser” dog can give you the edge over your opponent who saves up to get the “star” dog. And, of course, the cards in your hand have something to say about the colors of treats you can get, so some dogs might be out of reach if the draw isn’t going your way.
There are even ways to sabotage your opponents, giving you more to think about. Do you need to take an action that will benefit you, or would it help you more to slow them down? Some of this can feel a bit aggressive and upset sensitive players, but the good news is that since the action rondel is modular, you can remove some of the punishing actions and play much nicer. Since it’s a two player game likely to find a home with couples, this is a nice touch for those who don’t like beating each other up. (Of course, if you do enjoy beating each other up in your games, add in all the mean actions and have at it.)
We found agility to have a lot of play in the small box. Most of the components are or can be variable each game. The dogs you have to pick from are always different as the display only shows five at a time. With a maximum of six to be adopted each game and fifteen dogs in the deck, you won’t always have the same dogs. The courses are also randomized and since the tiles are double sided, you have plenty to play with. As noted above, much of the action rondel is modular, so after you master the basic game with the recommended set up, you can add/remove actions to suit your play style. And, of course, since your moves and treat rewards are determined by the action cards in your hand, you won’t always have the same combination of, well, anything.
Speaking of the action cards, yes, there is a bit of luck involved. You have to choose cards from those on display or from the deck, so you have little say in what you get. If you really need red treats and none are coming up, it can hurt. However, with three dogs to adopt and then run through the courses, there’s almost always something you can do. It only gets really frustrating at the end when you need one treat of a certain color to get that last dog through the last obstacle and it’s nowhere to be found. However, careful forward planning on your part can mitigate this somewhat.
So what are the negatives to Agility? Well, there’s the obvious fact that if you’re a devout cat person, this game probably isn’t going to appeal to you. And the other obvious fact that it only accommodates two players out of the box. If you have a big group, this isn’t for you. (However, there is a printable file set on BGG that expands the game to 3 – 4. It was posted by the game’s designer, but he does note that it has not been formally tested, so whether or not you’ll find it enjoyable is a matter of taste. Try at own risk!)
Other than that, potential negatives come down to what you want in a game or personal taste. I’ve heard complaints about the art, but I found it very attractive. Agility isn’t the deepest, hardest game out there. I’d put it around the same weight class as World’s Fair 1893, and fairly similar in terms of the available decisions/complexity of those decisions. It shares the same ratio of thinky decisions to time that I loved so much about World’s Fair, as well.
Overall, Agility is a great two player game that gives you a lot to think about and work through in under an hour. It’s easy to learn and the theme helps with the learning because the actions make sense when viewed through the lens of agility competition. If you’re looking to add another (or a first) couples/two-player game to your portfolio that offers thinky gameplay in a weeknight-sized package, I don’t think you can go wrong with Agility. (Unless you’re a cat person.)