I don't have extensive exposure to Uwe Rosenberg's impressive collection of games; I've got Patchwork, Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, and Bohnanza. I have played Agricola and Caverna, but I don't believe I've ever played any of his games solo before. As I've started to branch out into solitaire gaming, Fields of Arle seemed like a natural next step in my gaming experience. I know that this game is a pretty well-established cornerstone of low-player-count-board-gaming, but I wanted to present some brief thoughts on how the game works, particularly from a solo-player-only perspective. So, with that, let's dive right in!
If you don't know ANYTHING about the game, the most important thing to know is that it's a worker placement game where you have 15 "summer" actions and 15 "winter" actions to choose from. You start the game in the summer, and for the solo version of the game, you can ONLY choose from those 15 summer actions. (This works differently with the two-player version, but I've only played the solo version, so I'll keep my comments to just that version.) You place your four workers, and you start doing typical Rosenberg-ian things; you're working on an enormous system of resource conversion, trying to get an engine together that can do a truly staggering number of things: you want animals, you want buildings, you want goods, you want carts, you want trips to other cities, you want resources, you want upgraded versions of those resources... the game nicely exemplifies the difference between depth and complexity. But more on that in a moment!
Once you've done your four summer actions, you will do some post-summer-action-specific things (like gathering some food and resources based on your animals and tiles on the board, and then feeding your people), and you then move on to the winter of that year, where you have 15 new, winter actions available to choose from. Once you have done 5 summer and 4 winter phases (meaning the game consists of 36 worker placement actions), the game is over. You're trying to score the highest score that you can with all of the different resources, tools, animals, buildings, deliveries, etc. you've been working with throughout the game.
Fields of Arle burns your brain not because it has a hefty number of fiddly little rules to keep track of, but instead because the decision trees are just so overwhelmingly open (especially at the beginning of the game). Aside from the special buildings that you randomly select at the setup of the game (and there are 18 buildings you can choose from each game), there is no randomness in the solo version of the game. Moreover, there is no gradual discovery of future options and actions as the game progresses (like Caverna or Agricola). Everything is known to you right after the game is set up, which gives you the sinking suspicion that you could be doing SO MUCH BETTER if you were just a LITTLE SMARTER. (Insert "you" with "me" in that last sentence... I'm projecting my shortcomings onto you.)
But I find the rules to be really intuitive and elegant, especially for people who are familiar with Rosenberg's games already. The game also does an absolutely outstanding job dealing with one of the most tedious parts of heavy solo gaming for me: the setup. There is an absolutely outstanding player aid that tells you how the game works (and what resources you start with), and the player board comes with little icons that show you where everything needs to go with the setup. I would think with an experienced player would be able to get the game going in less than 10 minutes (maybe 15? 10 sounds right-ish...), especially with the aid of a good storage solution. This is a big-box game in every sense of the word: there are a massive amount of animeeples, resource tokens, buildings, etc. that come with the game. But, again, it's almost like these pieces are more overwhelming than the rules of the game: it's a crunchy game, but it's not scary.
Maybe You'll Like Arle If...
- You like synergy. Like many Rosenberg games, this is largely an optimization puzzle, and when you start to see how different actions click together over time, the game can be immensely rewarding and satisfying.
-You like exploring different strategies. Because the game has so many different places that you can go, you can essentially decide at the start of each game what type of strategy you'd like to try and refine with your next playthrough. This can be affected by the random buildings that come up, but really, if the game this next time makes you think, "Hey, you know what? This time I want to raise a bunch of animals. Let's see if I can get 12 of each kind by the end of the game..." then go for it!
- You're looking for something on the less punishing side of Rosenberg's games. While Agricola popularized the idea that feeding your people should be a massive, driving, urgent force behind your gameplay, Arle is MUCH more forgiving than other harvest games. It's pretty easy to get the food you need for your people, and you can go entire rounds without worrying about it if you have a good round or two where you really focus on maximizing your food.
Maybe You'll Dislike Arle If...
- You prefer tactics to strategy. If you prefer the short-term responsiveness in your gameplay, where you need to figure out what the best thing is for you RIGHT NOW (i.e., tactics), you won't really see too much of that itch scratched with this game. Instead, you're doing almost all longitudinal calculations with the end-game in mind, worrying about the strategic implications of whether a particular move you've just made is optimal or not.
- You dislike the feeling of analysis paralysis, even when playing by yourself. I know that AP is more of a person-based issue than a game-based one, but this is a game that could certainly induce AP in the right kind of gamer. I haven't really pushed to play Arle with my wife, partly because I think she would be annoyed with my AP when we played. I have taken over 5 minutes deciding what to do with just a single worker at times when playing solo, and I'm sure I'm not the only person who's done that. The basic fact of lengthy turns isn't a natural negative for the game, though; you'll know whether that's something you'd dislike in a game for you.
- You would like the game to provide you some natural direction for where to specialize. Games with asymmetric player abilities often give you a nudge in which direction you should work on: if your race is good at combat, maybe you'll fight a bunch this game! And a lot of people really like the game making some of those decisions for them, so that they don't have the weight of understanding the entire game on their shoulders before they decide what they want to do (especially at early, critical junctures in the game). Well... Arle is pretty much the opposite of this. Sure, the buildings can give you some different ways to work on things, but it can be difficult to grasp how to even work towards getting some of those buildings in your first few playthroughs. Arle is more like Uwe Rosenberg is your dad, and he drops you off at a sandbox and says, "Everything you need is here. I'll see you in 90 minutes. I look forward to seeing what you have built." There's not much more direction than that, and that feeling is definitely not something that everyone is looking for in a game.
I absolutely adore Arle. I think it is an incredibly smart design that is willing to ask its players to be incredibly smart, too. The mechanics all make sense, the graphic design is top notch, the components are great, the choices are tough without being unforgiving, and it's one of the most engaging and delightful experiences I've had as a solo gamer recently. It's not for everyone, but it is, at the very least, very decidedly for me.
You summed up my thoughts exactly
AP can be an issue for two player, hence I prefer solo for this game.
It's great fun trying different approaches - e.g. focus on fields, or buildings, workbench stuff etc..
Arle is more like Uwe Rosenberg is your dad, and he drops you off at a sandbox and says, "Everything you need is here. I'll see you in 90 minutes. I look forward to seeing what you have built."
Man, this made me laugh out loud.
(... And also, excellent review! This is one of the next games I'm looking at buying, and this review told me everything I needed to know about it. Seems like it most definitely won't work 2p with my partner -- I think the AP would drive us crazy -- but if I do end up getting it for solo play, it promises to be quite different from all of the other farming-things games I already own.)
Great review - the way you summed it up is exactly how I explained the sense of the game to my wife before our first play through. I think the game rewards several plays of "hey- pick an idea or two and run with it" then spend the rest of the game figuring out how to get there.
Cheers and happy gaming!