Monday, December 9, 2013

DuckiCon Impressions - Caverna ( Game 1 of 6 )

The first game I managed to play at DuckiCon was Caverna.
Eric commented: "You are actually playing Caverna !", when he saw me preparing to dive in.
The reason for this - in case you are not aware - is that I absolutely abhor Agricola. It's one of those games where I would rather search out something else to play or do than to sit through a session with that monstrosity.

Anyway, Caverna is the spiritual successor of Agricola, and touted by many as a much better version of the game that came before it. With that in mind, I decided that it would be worth a go to see if it indeed improves on what was a game I really dislike.

Caverna plays out very similarly to Agricola mechanics wise that once you know how to play the original, jumping into Caverna shouldn't be much of a problem. I won't be explaining the gameplay in full detail but I will try my best to highlight what is important.

game board mid-game

In Caverna, players are dwarfs that own both a farmland and a mining cave that they hope to turn into some efficient factory line that churns out animals, vegetables, and gems which can subsequently be converted into victory points.
Each round, players will send their dwarfs out (one at a time, worker placement style) to accomplish certain tasks for their household. These tasks range from collection of basic resources (wood, stone, ore, food), to herding of animals, to cave expeditions, to family growth, and to building actions that consume resources. The action spaces that are present in Caverna gradually increases as the game goes on, so the game slowly grows from simple resource collection to multiple ways to utilize the previously collected resources. Some of the action spaces also become more powerful such as the cave expedition spaces and the mining spaces.
After each round, players check if there is a harvest or/and feeding phase. If there is, crops will get harvested, animals will breed, and finally all the dwarfs in your family will have to be fed. Failure to do so means a loss in victory points.

There are multiple things you can choose to focus on in Caverna.

For starters, there is the farming aspect of the game. If the farm life is what you have always dreamed of, you may choose to develop your farm into a super huge animal parking lot. You may rear animals such as sheep, cows, donkeys, and pigs. You may even have multiple dogs that help you to herd the sheep so that you can worry about the other higher maintenance animals. Farming also involves the growing of crops. When farming, everything you do likely gets multiplied during a harvest season. Crops get harvested and animals will breed, and that also means your family will probably never go hungry ever again. At the end of the game, each crop and animal will score you victory points.

my player board one third through

Another route to go is being a dwarf miner. As a miner, you are expanding the reaches of your mine and thus enabling you to build more and more rooms which grant you end game bonuses or all sorts of in-game benefits such as additional resource collection or dwelling spaces for new family members. Most of the buildings also reward you with points just for building it. Its also through mining that you can build ore or/and gem mines which give you more points and also helps you to collect more ore or/and gems when you take the actions associated with it.

The last and maybe most interesting aspect of Caverna is the ability to go on cave expeditions.
To go on an expedition, you would have to first equip your dwarf with a weapon (this is done by exchanging ore at one of the action spaces). Once you have an equipped dwarf, that dwarf may be sent on an expedition to recover different types of benefits based on how level-upped the dwarf is. These rewards don't fit the game thematically but are very useful throughout the game as it allows you to collect resources without having to fight for the related action spaces. For example, when a high level dwarf goes on an expedition, it may receive rewards such as a certain type of animal, or immediate victory points, or allow the player to build a stable or a room, and if possible, to plant fields/paths on their farmland/mine. After the expedition is over, the dwarf will immediately level up. So it becomes even more lucrative to go on another expedition in the following round.

During the game, you will find yourself combining certain aspects from above so as to map out the best way to victory. And its this competition for the various benefits that will have you locking horns with your opponents time and time again and inadvertently getting into each others' way.

my player board two thirds through

For those who have played Agricola, you will find that the occupation cards have been completely removed from the game. Personally for me, that's quite a sad thing as it was the occupation cards that made the game vastly different each time. Without the occupation cards, Caverna is very likely to suffer from replayability issues as nothing really changes game to game. All the buildings are laid out in plain sight right from the beginning, and there are no additional cards that help to change up the action spaces each game. Only the order of the action spaces will change, but the type of action available will not.

Caverna can also be quite overwhelming on your very first play unless you have the patience to go through every single room tile one by one. There are a ton of rooms in the game and that really increases the barrier of entry into the game. The rooms don't rely on iconography for the most part, so you will have to spend the time looking at each one to see how they may benefit you and under what circumstance.

I played a 4 player game (2 who played before and 2 new to the game) of Caverna and it does indeed fall within the 30 minutes per player mark.
The game didn't feel like it was 2 hours long and I certainly enjoyed it much more than I did Agricola as the problems I had with Agricola were mostly corrected in Caverna.

In Agricola, I constantly felt like I was spending my time feeding my workers and doing nothing really rewarding. In Caverna, feeding your dwarfs isn't as taxing a task as in Agricola, this made the gameplay stand out instead of the constant threat of losing points.
I also didn't like how you had to do everything in Agricola. You had to plant and harvest, herd and breed, plant fields, build fences, basically everything that everyone wants to do also and thus it became an artificially tight worker placement game. Caverna is not like that. You still lose points for not having all the animal types, and not covering all your farmland and cave with tiles, but the penalty is smaller and thus you may choose to forgo that, take the penalty, and instead do something you really wanted to do. That is a huge improvement over Agricola. I want to play a game where I can do what I want to do and not be told what I have to do.

game board end game

So - apart from comparing it to Agricola - how does Caverna stand on its own merits ?

Well, I actually found Caverna to be a pretty good game (Oh my ! Shocking !!)
I will admit, when I was done with the game, my initial impression was that it was OK. It felt like Agricola, it just felt better that's all. But better than a game I dislike doesn't mean much really.
It was only when I thought about it again the following day did I realize why I wasn't as impressed as I was right after my play of it. And the reason was that I was playing it as if I was playing Agricola. I focused on feeding a little too much, I diversified too much, and thus I didn't fully enjoy the scope that the game offered. On hindsight, I think there is so much more I can explore with future plays that I will certainly not turn down a 2nd or even a 3rd play of the game.

I like that I can choose to focus on certain aspects on the game and completely ignore the other aspects of it. I like the multiple rooms that are on offer (although that means a lot of reading and re-reading) and I like how the farm and mine tiles can be upgraded for points and improved effects. The look and feel of the game is also very appealing due to the tremendous amount of pieces and colors that are blasting into your sight.

It is of course not without its faults. As mentioned earlier, the replayability of the game is a major issue for now. Without new action cards or variability in the room tiles, each game will always have the same items on offer and can quickly feel samey with repeated plays.
The game is also a monster to set up and take down. That may not be a factor for a lot of people but it is something that I consider in my games. I hate fiddly-ness and Caverna has quite a bit of it. Having to top up bits each round and differentiating all the different resources when putting the game away is truly a mess. It doesn't help that the wood and the cows look almost the same.

Caverna also suffers from some decision making letdown (for no better term to call it).
There are multiple paths to pursue in Caverna, but because a few of the actions have chains or paths for them to work (or are too specialized), the multiple options thus get shrunk to a few basic actions. For example, in order to herd animals, you need stables and fences, or to go for an expedition you need an equipped dwarf. So when you satisfy neither of the criteria (or if your strategy doesn't follow that path), your options for actions shrink quite a bit as some of them just become useless to you. This may result solely from poor planning, but that's not always the case as there are so few meaningful (non-specialized) options to choose from that players may find themselves taking resources for the lack of another better option. Its a minor gripe but its something that I have noticed that happens quite often in a few rounds. 

So, that's Caverna for me in a nutshell.
I enjoyed my play of it to a certain extent, but I think I didn't fully explore the game enough due to the play style I adopted going in. It's certainly a game that I feel I must try again and will gladly be in for another round anytime soon, but, I will be very hesitant to play this with more than 4 players just because of the time factor.

my player board end game

** For those who are concerned with the infinite loop problem in Caverna, we were aware of it going in, but we had forgotten the names of the rooms in question. After glancing through the rooms for awhile, I couldn't actually find the infinite loop rooms (i was looking at them upside down if that matters to anyone)

Should a game have an infinite loop problem ? Absolutely not. Totally Unacceptable.
Was it easy to find in Caverna ? Absolutely not. Unless you are looking really hard for it
Should it tarnish the game for you ? That really depends on you.



  1. Comprehensive review ....... It's very interesting to know what you like and don't like in Agri ......... Tks.

  2. you're welcome !
    glad you like the review !

  3. The problems with this game, as you say, it appears to be a sandbox but in reality the chaining of paths needed, it cuts your opinions down, heavily. The size of this thing, looking at those small room tiles requires a lot of getting out of your seat to see them given your seating postion. There are just too many catchup mechanisms in it, as I recall food can get you an action already taken, rubies are wild currency, buys you a lot of things, sigh. Some odd warning in book about not letting one player do expeditions alone, or they will win? Very, very little randomness, mostly totally info, solo, 2 player games suck because of this, 4 players best, 5-7 players would take a school lunch room table, the downtime awful. This game gets staled in less then 20 plays, people already whining for an expansion, hope it comes with a second lunch room table.

    For the money, a basically 4 player only game, for that $100?

    Basically a bad game that tried to fix too many warts of Agricola, where, "You paid too much for that whistle".

    In a nut shell, "The people who like this sort of thing will find this to be the sort of thing that they like" and vote it to a the top, 3, on BGG.