Reviewed by Herb Levy
CARAVAN (Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 45 minutes; $49.95)
Trade is the lifeblood of civilization and that was certainly true for the inhabitants of Western Africa in 1300 AD as they developed trade routes to convey needed and desired goods across the desert. Carving out these routes and linking destination to destination by using their stable of camels is what this new game from designer (and frequent Gamers Alliance Report contributor) Joe Huber is all about: Caravan.
Caravan comes in a large box that holds a large board, four smaller player boards, 48 goods (represented by cubes in 8 different colors and a bag to hold them), camel pieces, 4 “Theft” markers and “Demand” markers. Each player chooses a color of camels, taking five of them (six for a less “demanding” game) and the matching player board. Players also receive one Theft marker.
The board depicts a 7 x 7 area with four markets in the center and four found at the outer reaches of the board. Each market is of a specific color and only cubes of that color may be delivered there. There are eight numbered spaces on the board and, with all of the cubes placed in the bag, 8 goods (cubes) are drawn, one randomly put on each of the numbered spaces. A Demand marker is also placed in spaces 1, 2, 7 and 8. Getting those goods to market is the goal of Caravan.
On a turn, a player has four actions to spend. (Going first is an advantage so, when the game starts, the first player only gets 1 action, the second 2 actions, the third 3 before the fourth player gets the full complement of 4. From that point on, ALL players have four actions per turn.)
At the cost of 1 action, a player may place a camel ANYWHERE on the board. Camels need not be adjacent nor touching. (Placing a camel in a space already occupied by 1 or more camels costs TWO actions). Picking up a good (cube) at a location also costs 1 action. (Any Demand markers found at that location get picked up for free!) Goods/cubes fit neatly on the camel’s hump. When a good is delivered to its matching colored location, that cube comes off the main board and onto that player’s board. Goods will score 3 or 6 points (depending on color). Since camels with goods may NOT move, getting goods to where they need to go requires a bit of maneuvering to form a caravan.
Transporting a good requires that a player’s camels be orthogonally arranged, ideally so they end at the targeted destination. Diagonal connections are NOT considered linked. Goods may move from camel to camel (and may stop at another camel if it cannot reach the destination) at the cost of 1 action. Goods may “pass through” another camel carrying another good but may not end there as camels have a carry limit of 1 good. Of course, there is always the possibility of theft!
If a player has a camel with a good on its back and the camel of another player is in the same space, the “cube-less” player may play his/her Theft token (at the cost of 1 action), removing the good and placing it between his/her camel’s legs! (Actually, this is a very clever and simple way to show that the good has been stolen and prevents the victimized player from playing a Theft token to swipe it back. Goods underneath the camel are protected from theft. However, if goods are moved, they return to the top of the camel and are vulnerable to theft.). In exchange for the good, the attacker gives the target his/her Theft token. This prevents any player from going on attacking “binges” and keeps the focus on route planning which is the heart of the game.
Whenever four or fewer goods are unclaimed on the board, a Demand token is added to their spaces while empty spaces are refilled with cubes from the bag. (There is a small square on the numbered tiles for cube placement, an excellent design touch as it enables players to see at a glance just how many cubes have not, as of yet, been picked up.) When all cubes in the bag have been transferred to the board, the game is poised to end. The very next delivery of any good by any player ends the game immediately. This quick conclusion can be a little surprising so plan accordingly.
When the game ends, players total up their goods (6 point and 3 point varieties). Demand markers are worth 1 point each. Undelivered goods remaining with camels (either on their backs or underneath) may cost points: none if you are left with 0 or 1, 1 point if left holding 2 goods, 3 points if left with 3 and 6 points if your camels end up laden with four or more goods. The player with the highest score wins! (Tie? Then the player who delivered the most goods earns the victory.)
Camels are carefully crafted to hold cubes well, on top AND at the bottom. Against the earth tones of the board, the crisscrossing of those colorful camels makes for an eye pleasing tableau too. Player boards are a welcome bonus as they not only list the menu of actions available but also clearly show the values of the goods (with spaces to place them as they accumulate) and Demand tokens. (Be aware that pink and purple cubes can be a bit too similar at first glance. Good lighting is a plus.) Holdings are not hidden; you can have a pretty good idea who is in the lead so you can determine to what extent you wish to hamper the leader.
Euro games, as a genre, tend to shy away from direct conflict and so it is here. Confrontation is much more subtle. Theft (which is bloodless “hijacking”) is limited as you need a Theft token to do it and they are given away when you take that action so, on the whole, does not figure too much in the games we have played. A better strategy is a “roadblock” approach. Transporting a camel into a space critical to a player’s plans (such as occupying a goods destination) will cost the targeted player actions. As you only have four on a turn, having to spend one to enter a critical space reduces your “power” by 25%! It won’t stop opponents but it will slow them down. As scores tend to be close, subtlety such as this can make the difference. Although listed for 2 to 4 players, Caravan is, without question, at its best with 4. More players means more camels on the board which breeds more competition and interaction.
The game’s appeal lies in the intriguing position shifts from turn to turn as camels are always on the move! Caravan is essentially an abstract game with a pick up and deliver mechanism but the colorful camels help get you immersed into the world it creates. When it comes to picking up a game easy to teach, accessible to gamers of all levels and still fun to play, Caravan delivers. . – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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