Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, and Me: Part 3

Part 1

Back in 2010, when I was just getting into games, a friend of mine who was also getting into games picked up Agricola. The game sort of blew my mind, because it generated a ton of interesting decisions about how to run the farm. Was I going to spend time planting crops, or raising animals. Time was represented by the rounds. Energy was represented by workers. Money was spent as food and gained as points. And of course the board gave a little bit of that arrangement puzzle, because you had wood for fences, fields and houses that set boundaries, and you had to decide what to prioritize to place anything.

Agricola tells much less of a story than Harvest Moon, but was incredibly enthralling. I have tried to make some farming games. 10 Acres tried to capture that balance and puzzle, but didn’t work. Perhaps surprisingly, New Bedford draws a lot on the influence of farming, too. I’ve made no secret of the fact that it was influenced by Agricola. But I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the whaling mechanic was originally an abstraction for a “harvest”, where players determined their own timing.

There are some other features of Harvest Moon that I would really like to implement (or see implemented) in a boardgame.
Boardgames still struggle with capturing a mood, particularly quiet moods. How do you capture the quiet of a rainy day compared to a busy summer afternoon? Or the cold stillness of the last night of the year? Fishing under the moon on a simmer’s night. Or even the entire premise of leaving city life behind to find a simpler life in the country. To me, those things are integral to the experience of Harvest Moon. Those moments—along with festivals and events—tell a story. But it’s not a “hero’s journey”; it’s more of a history, like a photo album, and you’re only playing a single part in it.

The older Harvest Moon games required you to ship your crops by the 5pm delivery time. You didn’t earn any money for items added after that. That makes an important difference, because most stores also close at 5, so you have to give up time harvesting your crops in order to visit any of the stores. It’s another simple change that adds a level of depth to the decisions. New Bedford (and the worker placement mechanic in general) kind of simulate that by making earlier actions more valuable, so you have to choose which actions to do early and which late. But you can get even closer by having actions that are only available during specific times in the round.

You didn’t have to specialize in the old Harvest Moon games. There was enough time in the day that you could raise animals, have a huge field, and usually do all the foraging you needed to. I think that’s much easier to do in a single game you’ll place once or twice for forty or more hours. But in a boardgame, like Agricola, that specialization is key. Having the choices of which parts to focus on makes the decisions more interesting. And forcing a balanced strategy can also take away from the game. You can’t completely ignore the mines in Stardew Valley, or you’ll never be able to upgrade your tools and build some buildings. You have to work on everything in order to unlock some parts of the game. You’re not, strictly speaking, forced down a single path, but you miss out on a lot of it if you don’t follow it. A game should do the opposite, where the more you stray from the path, the more you experience.

There are ways to do this organically, too. If the game scales well, players will naturally be motivated to take the less expensive routes rather than stay on a single path. This relies on the value being scaled well to the added effort. If I can follow a strategy that gains me a little benefit, or another that has 5 times the benefit but is 5 times harder, that’s going to create interesting decisions. Especially if it has multiple dimensions. This is sort of the cost to upgrade tools in Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley. Is it better to use 5 ore to upgrade your watering can to save time and energy now, or upgrade your hammer/pickaxe to collect ore for upgrades faster?

I am still on a quest to create a farming game, and there are still struggles . One challenge is that Harvest Moon is inherently solo play. [Co-op play is planned for Stardew Valley, but cooperative multiplayer is closely related to solo play, while competitive play is significantly different.] I have several different attempts that take the idea in different directions. I am on the third revision of a game idea that is strongly influenced by the daily grind aspect of Harvest Moon. It turns out it’s really difficult to make that work without the game itself becoming a 3 hour grind. I have another game idea that follows the town life aspect, aiming for something that captures the feel of country life, but abstracts away more of the micromanagement of the farm. And there are a half dozen half-formed ideas that play off of farming one way or another.

Stardew Valley has made me realize how important the balance of priorities is. That was such an interesting part of Harvest Moon, and I think that’s going to be key to making a game that brings back what I loved about Harvest Moon. Another part of it is keeping that excitement to find out what each new day brings, giving players to look forward to something on every turn.

I think farming is a great theme to build a game around. It’s accessible because you don’t need to know anything special to understand a farm. Farming comes in so many varieties and touches so many different parts of life, it’s practically universal. But it also gives you a lot of flexibility. There’s something appealing and rewarding about building something from scratch, starting with soil and making something grow. Farming represents hard work, growth, and celebrates life. And so, I continue my quest for a great farming game. Not because they don’t exist, but because there’s always something more that can be done. Sometimes, all it takes is a little energy and time.

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