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Caverna

Reviewed by: Greg J. Schloesser

(Lookout Games/Mayfair Games, 1-7 players, ages 12 and up, 30 minutes per player; $89.99)

cavernaboxHave you played Agricola, the game many consider to be designer Uwe Rosenberg’s masterpiece? If you have, then Caverna will seem very familiar. There are mouths to feed, crops to grow, animals to raise and structures to build. All of this must be done with limited resources and in competition with your fellow villagers. It is an intricate, highly challenging game that can border on the overwhelming.

In cinema circles, Caverna would be referred to as a sequel. In Hollywood, while often extremely profitable, sequels do not have a stellar reputation. Most times, critics consider them inferior to the original, often produced just as an effort to capitalize on the popularity and success of its predecessor. While expansions to the base game are common and popular in the boardgame industry, sequels—standalone games using similar mechanisms and theme—are rarer. Caverna certainly fits this definition of a boardgame sequel, prompting the debate: is it better than the original?

Before answering this question, let’s look at the game. Each player guides a young dwarf family as they expand their cave-sweet-cave to not only accommodate new bundles of dwarven joy, but also to provide room for various workshops and, of course, mines. The family is not confined to the cave, however, as they also have a farm to tend. They can cultivate fields to grow crops and raise sheep, cattle, boars and donkeys, all to help feed a growing family. But dwarves also have a sense of adventure, so they can forge weapons in order to go on daring quests to gain even more wealth and resources.

It warrants mentioning that the game could easily be designated as a lethal weapon. The large box is jam-packed with an abundance of wood and cardboard, weighing a hefty five pounds after punching the components! Drop this on your foot and you will be wearing a cast for quite some time.

Each player receives a board depicting both a cave system and fields, each divided into twelve squares, upon which will be placed tunnels, mines, rooms and pastures. Players each begin with a young dwarf couple and a bit of food. They will alternate placing their dwarves onto spaces on the main board, each of which provides a specific benefit. Benefits include a wide variety of items, including landscape, tunnel and/or cavern tiles, various resources (ore, wood, stone, rubies, wheat, vegetables and/or animals), furnishings / workshops, weapons, quests, new births and more. The number of spaces available expands each turn as new cards are revealed.

There are two central boards. The basic game board provides space for all of the available actions. Each turn a new card (action space) is revealed and added to this board. The cards are the same each game, but they do appear in a somewhat random order. The second board is a holding board for the abundance of furnishings and workshops that are available for purchase and construction inside the caves. Some provide additional living space for a growing family, while others are workshops that provide various benefits, including converting resources into other items, reduction of food costs, etc. Many provide victory points at game’s end.

cavernaboardGame play is actually rather straightforward and uncomplicated; it is the decisions to be made that are difficult. A complete game is played over the course of 12 rounds, which begin quickly but tend to slow down as more dwarves and cards enter play. A round consists of five phases:

Add a new Action space. This involves revealing a new action card and placing it onto the board. This gives players another option when placing their dwarves.

Replenish Accumulating spaces. Many spaces provide resources that need to be replenished each turn. These are clearly marked on the board and cards.

Work Phase. This is where the majority of the action (and time) takes place. Players alternate placing their dwarves onto the various action spaces / cards on the main board, carrying out the actions as they are placed. Each action space may only be occupied by one dwarf, which can cause significant frustration when a desired action is scooped by an opponent. However, unlike Agricola, there are often numerous other desirable actions, so one is usually not completely stymied when this occurs. There is also one “Imitation” space that allows a player to use a space occupied by an opponent’s dwarf.

As mentioned earlier, the action spaces allow players to acquire tiles, furnishings, resources and/or animals, undertake quests, birth bouncing baby dwarfs and more. There is even a space for claiming “start player” status, which can be a vital position, allowing the player to have the first opportunity to claim a highly desired action space. As the game progresses, more actions are available, presenting the players with more options and choices. As with Agricola and other Rosenberg games of similar ilk, choosing the right actions and formulating a long-term strategy are vital to success. The large quantity of actions, furnishings and options border on the overwhelming, often causing significant delays as players contemplate their options. It can also cause a “deer in the headlights” reaction in folks new to this type of game as they feel lost, not knowing which path(s) to pursue. This is not a game for those new to the board gaming hobby.

Return home. After all dwarves have been placed and actions conducted, they are returned to their dwellings. Players must have sufficient habitat in their caves to accommodate all of their dwarfs, so occasionally an action will be spent constructing new rooms to house the growing family. There is little sadder than a homeless dwarf.

Harvest time. Dwarves like to eat. Often. Harvest / feeding time occurs frequently, forcing players to pay constant attention to their food supply. Early in the game players often feel that all they are doing is acquiring food to feed the ravenous dwarves. Fortunately there are numerous food sources, including wheat, vegetables and animals. Rubies and money can even be converted into food. Mercifully, dwarves do exercise some restraint and won’t eat the family dog.

When a harvest arrives–and it occurs about 2/3 of the time–players can harvest wheat and vegetables and slaughter animals to feed their dwarves, with each dwarf (except newborns) requiring two food. Only after feeding do remaining animals reproduce, provided there are pairs of animals and enough fenced-in pastures to accommodate the new arrivals. Regardless of how many of one breed a player possesses, only one of each animal type will be born during a harvest.

Caverna does add a rather odd random harvest element to the final seven turns. Before the Harvest phase on each of these turns a token is revealed that may affect how the harvest is conducted. Four of these will result in a regular harvest, while three (indicated with a “?”) will alter the procedure. When the first “?” is revealed, there will be no harvest, while the second “?” reduces the food requirement to only one per dwarf. The final “?” has more severe effects, forcing players to either forgo harvesting crops or breeding their animals. The hungry dwarves, of course, still must be fed. While this does introduce some angst and uncertainty into the planning process, I am not sure it fits well with the flow of the game.

Victory points (in terms of gold) are tallied at the conclusion of the 12th and final round, making it sometimes difficult to ascertain just who is winning during the course of the game. Gold is earned from numerous sources, including animals, grain, vegetables, rubies, dwarves, furnishing tiles, pastures, mines and meeting the conditions of various special buildings. Points are lost for empty spaces in the fields and cave, as well as for missing types of farm animals. A handy score pad helps in tallying these points.

The estimate on the box states that the game takes about 30 minutes per player. As with the estimates on the vast majority of games, I find this far too conservative. Yes, our group does tend to play a bit slow, but unless playing with a group of experienced players, I cannot see playing a 4-player game in anything less than three hours. That is OK for me, though, as the game is challenging and engaging.

The challenges facing a player are immense. Food is of primary concern, especially in the early stages, so many actions will be spent building an ongoing source. Expanding one’s family is important so as to gain more actions each turn, but this, too, requires more food, as well as the construction of a suitable habitat inside the cave. Since the game is only 12 turns in length, one cannot procrastinate in beginning to acquire furnishings, fields, pastures and animals. Resources are vital to acquire these, so actions must be taken regularly to acquire them. Developing a plan and acquiring the necessary items to fulfill that plan is important, but the actions of one’s opponents and the ceaseless need for food can often sidetrack and even upset those plans.

Fortunately, Caverna is more forgiving than Agricola. One of the most frustrating things about Agricola was that each turn–particularly in the early stages–there was one action that you desperately needed. If someone occupied that space before your turn, you were often devastated. Often the remaining options were not very beneficial and there was little, if anything, you could do to recover. I found this very distasteful. As a result, I was never amongst the game’s legions of fans. Caverna seems to satisfy that issue quite nicely, offering a wide variety of useful option from which to choose. So, even if your top priority gets occupied, there are numerous other actions that are very beneficial and useful. Further, there seems to be more ways in which to feed your hungry dwarves. Animals can be slaughtered for food at just about any time (except immediately after birth; even the dwarves cannot kill those cute little baby animals!) and more items can be used to provide sustenance. So while providing food is still an ongoing issue, it is easier to do.

Another plus for me is the absence of cards that players can collect. To me, it was difficult tracking all of these cards and employing the myriad of benefits they conveyed. This added to the decision making and, thus, the time. The only cards here are the ones that appear on the action board. It is cleaner and faster.

I also like the addition of quests. Players can forge weapons, then send those dwarves on quests, whereby they can gain valuable resources, tiles and other items. A dwarf’s experience and strength increases with each quest, allowing him to obtain even better items. The only disappointment is that the quests are automatic and not very thematic. Each bears a unique name, but otherwise they are all the same. It would have been more atmospheric to give them some variety and challenge.

So, back to the question: is the sequel better than the original? Is Caverna better than Agricola? Now the disappointing answer: that is a matter of personal taste. For me, the answer is “yes”. As mentioned, I have never been a fan of Agricola. I found it frustrating to play, and frustration is not a feeling I want to experience regularly when playing board games. For me, Caverna has all of the positives present in Agricola without the negatives that vexed me. It is a very deep, involved and strategic game, one that seemingly has numerous viable paths to explore and pursue. The options are plentiful and the choices meaningful. It isn’t perfect. It is long, difficult to formulate a cohesive strategy, formidable for inexperienced players and has perhaps a bit too many options and choices for my tastes. Still, it is a solid design that is sure to entice and enamor experienced gamers. Fans of the systems Rosenberg has created with such designs as Agricola, Le Havre and Ora et Labora should be well pleased with this latest offering, proving that sometimes a sequel can be better than the original.


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