Saying that I am a big fan of Stardew Valley is an understatement. I have been playing it since its release, and I do not get tired of studying its different aspects, especially how to get rich faster. However, while exploring the different game options to enrich, I got more and more aware of how much each strategy is very dependent on luck. And even more interesting, as this fact allows multiple strategies to be just as valid as the others.
For those not aware of the game, Stardew Valley is a Harvest Moon-like farming RPG. Your main objective is to take care of your late grandfather farm by growing crops, tending animals, fishing, mining, and the list goes on and on.
Although there are multiple strategies to play the game, and it is even discussed that there is no "correct way" of playing it, I have decided to take a closer look at the crop mechanics to better grasp the luck factor and its impact on your profits. More specifically, I took 3 crops (Cauliflowers, Potatoes, and Rhubarb) and some of the gameplay mechanics around them to analyze how different the outcomes can be to validate any of them as valid options. All values and mechanics used are based either on the official wiki page or by browsing the internet. Here we go!
Every crop harvested as a price that is determined by the quality of the crop. It seems that in regular circumstances, the crops have a 50% chance of being of regular quality, 30% of being silver quality, and about 20% of being gold quality. As you can see, luck already influences all the statistics from the beginning.
Starting with the raw values for Cauliflowers, Potatoes, and Rhubarbs, and using the percentages as mentioned earlier, we achieve the following return in gold based on a 54 crop field (9 x 9):
If you are familiar with the game, you might have thought that "Hey, but those crops have different growth times! By the time a cauliflower is ready to be harvested, you could have planted twice the amount of potatoes!", and you are right on that remark. However, if we double the potatoes' value, we are still under the other two competitors (10200g). It turns out that potatoes have a luck mechanic! When harvesting one potato, there is a 20% chance of yielding one extra potato. Let's check our numbers now, assuming we can do twice the amount of potatoes, and each of them has a 20% chance of yielding extra potatoes.
Just like that, potatoes are likely to be more profitable than cauliflowers. By stretching the scenario (and your luck) a bit, if you were to get about a 44% chance of extra yields, you could get the same amount of gold you would get by planting rhubarbs. According to its wiki page, this mechanic can yield an average of 25% more potatoes, while it can also be potentially doubled depending on the Daily Luck. Thus, it is possible to outperform other crops. For this calculi, I am assuming that extra yields are of regular quality, as I could not verify that extra returns can be of higher quality.
On the other hand, cauliflowers, as well as melons and pumpkins, can spawn Giant Crops: every 3x3 adjacent fully grown cauliflowers can transform into a giant crop that harvest yields from 15 to 21 crops (also based on luck). At the start of every in-game day, every possible 3x3 cauliflower (including overlaps) has a 1% chance of transforming into a giant crop. It also means that your cauliflowers can eventually turn into a giant crop over a matter of days if you simply do not harvest them. Cauliflowers are back on the game! Let's see the values we have assuming 1 giant crop:
One giant crop is enough to outperform the potatoes but still fall short behind the rhubarb. That is assuming one giant crop yields 18 extra cauliflowers (the average from 15 to 21), and again, this is for one giant crop. As you leave your cauliflowers fully grown and alone, they can still generate more giant crops. And if you get a second one in those same conditions, you are bound to outperform everyone with staggering 15863g.
I have left rhubarbs for the last because they do not have any specific mechanic, besides only being available once the player unlocks the Calico Desert and buys their seeds from Sandy. Thus, it is not an early game option and can come into your options when other mechanics are into play. For instance, Preserve Jars and Kegs.
Crops can be stored in Preserve Jars and Kegs to be transformed into jams, pickles, wines, and juices. The process takes a few in-game days, and the result maximizes the profit from the original crops by specific formulae. However, this process ignores the item quality, assuming it was initially from regular quality.
The game uses the following formulae to calculate for cauliflowers, potatoes, and rhubarb since all of them are vegetables: Preserve Jars transform one vegetable into pickles by multiplying its regular value by 2 and adding 50g; Keg transforms one vegetable into juice by multiplying its regular value by 2.25. Given this information, let's see how the crops perform:
Potatoes win in preserve jars, but Rhubarbs take the prize in kegs. It is interesting to see how the formulae, although very similar, can influence the final result by a big margin depending on the regular crop price. While cauliflowers and potatoes are more worthy in a preserve jar, rhubarbs are worth more in kegs (by a slow margin, but still). Also, it is worth mentioning that this requires an average of 60 preserve jars and kegs to produce all these products at once, which can be quite a challenge in terms of resources for some players.
Preserve jars and kegs are not luck-based, but gathering the resources to make them is. For instance, preserve jars require 8 units of coal, among other ingredients, which are very much luck-based (unless you start burning wood). Beyond this discussion, the fact that preserve jars and kegs ignore the crop quality can also be used as a strategic decision that is very much luck-based. For instance, some players might only turn regular crops into pickles and juices, while the silver and gold quality ones are immediately sold.
Another fact that I have ignored on purpose in this analysis is that players can use fertilizers to improve the chances of gathering higher quality props, which can completely change the approach of using preserve jars and kegs.
Finally, there is the matter of actual profit. Crops grow from seeds that need to be bought or created. Most of the players opt for the first option since creating seeds requires spending a crop into a seed maker to have a chance of getting from 1 to 3 seeds back (luck-based again). Cauliflowers, potatoes, and rhubarb seeds cost, respectively, 80g, 50g, and 100g. Then, let's see the actual profit (gain minus seeds cost) for the different approaches:
The highest profits are marked in yellow. For a matter of comparison, a double giant crop in the cauliflower field would outperform all other alternatives, especially because it is more seed-efficient (more crops per seed) than the other alternatives. Thus, all three alternatives are valid, given that you are lucky enough or willing to invest your time in them. And this analysis focuses only on 3 crops from the Spring Season, which has about 12 regular crops as well as the Spring wild seeds. Imagine the possibilities!
Besides figuring out where to invest your time and effort, the interesting part is that you can pretty much mix strategies and geek out on excel (like I do) to figure out how to outperform. Still, the luck factor plays a huge role in all aspects, and playing with it, as using fertilizers or eating food that increases your farming stats, can also be part of the strategy. It seems that there is no "perfect strategy" when you take into account a few aspects of the luck influence in Stardew Valley.
One could argue that all games have some sort of random factor to break down its monotony. Still, the main takeaway of this article is how Stardew Valley brilliantly leverages randomness to provide a compelling gameplay experience despite the route a user chooses to take. This design is praise-worthy as it breathes life into the otherwise predictable world of RPGs and farming simulators.
I used the term "mechanic" quite a lot during the text, but remember that the core game mechanics of harvesting are pretty much the same regardless of what is being planted. Most of the cited mechanics are not playable — they are part of the game structure and propel gameplay variety. You can, for instance, change the layout of your plots to maximize the number of 3x3 adjacent crops and further increase the chances of yielding a giant crop, or you could plot smaller groups to facilitate the placing of sprinklers and do not waste a minute watering crops manually.
All of those options are based on the same core mechanics: you walk, plow, sow, water, and wait. But those core mechanics and the clever usage of randomness (and neat mathematical formulae) allow for hours and hours of varied gameplay. For Yoba's sake, you can even ignore all this math and plant whatever you want, in a chaotic farm mess, and have a lot of fun. As said before, no one will have the right to say, "you are doing it wrong".
As a contrasting point, a lot of RPGs and Strategy games use randomness as a fundamental aspect of some of its mechanics. A critical hit chance or a stealing mechanic, for instance. It is widespread, though, to find “perfect builds” and “how to maximize your stats” guides. Some games might try to open up the opportunities by creating a variety of gameplay mechanics, so each option is different in terms of “how you play”. Take Hearthstone or DotA as examples, in which you cannot pinpoint a “best” option (a “best” deck or “best” hero, respectively) because the options are different on how you play and players will choose based on which one entertain them the most. But even in those cases, there are still metagames and statistical analyses that propel players into a small subset of options. On the other hand, Stardew Valley opens up the discussion and, even with crop calculators and average profit per day math, all options are pretty much still on the table. You certainly can't say the same for other games like the ones mentioned before.
As a reminder, I am not arguing which game uses randomness better. Every game, ideally, does what suits its mechanics and gameplay the most, but it is fascinating to see how more variety of gameplay can be achieved without resorting to more gameplay mechanics and complex interactions and rules. Ultimately, it seems to be the case, especially due to the non-aggressive gameplay approach of Stardew Valley. No one is clearing competing, and the game emphasizes through its dialogues and mechanics a sense of cooperation and acceptance. Since you do not need to "win", you can safely try different options and even define yourself what it is to "win" in the game. Is it to buy every possible item, including the Golden Clock, that costs 10 million g? Is it to share the experience with friends braving through the Skull Mine? Or is it to enjoy having a beautiful farm that is profitable? The choice is yours and, interesting enough, all choices are valid.
Thanks for reading :)