Mary Dimercurio Prasad: Review of Caverna

  • MFG3501-clPublisher: Mayfair Games
  • Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
  • Artwork: Klemens Franz
  • Players: 1-7
  • Ages: 12+
  • Playing Time: 30-210 min (est. 30 min per player)
  • Languages: English
  • MSRP $89.99
  • Reviewed by: Mary Dimercurio Prasad
  • Game Played: Review Copy
  • Number of Plays: 1 – 3 player, 2 – 2 player

Introduction

Caverna is a development strategy game for 1 to 7 players aged 12 and up… In this game, you take the roles of adventurous dwarfs living reclusively in caves where you dig for ore and rubies and furnish caverns to become living and working areas. You need ore to craft weapons to undertake expeditions in search of adventure and loot. Rubies are a valuable and highly flexible good: you can trade them for other goods and landscape tiles at any time. Outside your caves, you will look after your sustenance by felling trees, raising farm animals and doing some agriculture. At the end of the game, the wealthiest dwarf will win. (From the rules intro.)

Rules Summary

If you have played Agricola, you’ll find Caverna to be quite similar, although this version of the classic worker placement has been much streamlined and simplified. It is so similar that the rules state that players who have played Agricola only need to read the brown sentences (up to a point) – the other rules are the same, making it much faster to learn. This summary assumes the reader is already familiar with Agricola. If not, see the rules for it on BGG.  The goal of the game is to make the most money (gold), which is basically points; many items convert to gold at the end. For example, 1 gold for each farm animal and dog, ½ gold for each grain, 1 gold for each vegetable, 1 gold per ruby, 1 gold per dwarf. Sort of like Agricola but simplified, each unused space on your player board is negative 1 and each missing type of farm animal is negative 2. You also earn gold for furnishings and particular landscapes.

The game is played over 12 rounds (rather than 14), each with five phases. The phases are: add a new action space (i.e. flip over a new action card and place it on the main game board where designated), replenish goods on spaces that accumulate them (as designated by an arrow), worker phase (done in clockwise order; players take turns placing their dwarves and taking actions), return dwarves to players (“return home”), and harvest. Note: the harvest phase may or may not contain an actual harvest, depending on the round, as described further on.

Players start with their own player board (“home board”), two overview cards, 5 dwarf disks (initially only two will be available to each player), 3 stables (unavailable until built), and a starting amount of food depending on turn order. The main game board (made up of smaller boards for flexibility, e.g. differing for number of players) is placed in the center of the table as usual. The main game board contains action cards spaces (some cards are already printed on the board, others will be flipped and added once per round) and furnishing tiles.

In addition to what we’ve seen in Agricola (adding living spaces, expanding the clan, change start player, farming, collecting food and resources, etc.), the newest actions allow players to build mines, collect rubies or ore, create weapons, and go on expeditions. Furnishings allow players to expand their cave dwellings in various ways. Here is one of the biggest departures from Agricola: tiles are used to enhance dwellings (rather than cards) and all tiles are available to players during the game. Of course there is only one copy of most of the tiles and once taken by a player, that tile is no longer available to the others.

Gold was added to the game. It may be acquired through actions or on expeditions. It may be exchanged for food or used to go to market (action). Gold is synonymous with points at the end of the game.

Rubies and ore are the new resources. Rubies are like wild cards in the game, giving players a lot of flexibility. Players may exchange rubies at any time during the game according to the chart on one of their player overview cards. One ruby can be exchanged for one of: dog, sheep, donkey, wild boar, grain, vegetable, ore, wood, stone, or a single field/meadow/tunnel tile. One ruby plus one food may be exchanged for one cattle. Two rubies may be exchanged for one cavern (caverns may be furnished; tunnels are for mines only). One ruby may also be used to play an armed dwarf out of order (described below).

Ore is used to build a few of the furnishings and possibly score points (if you own the appropriate bonus furnishing tile) or be exchanged for food and gold (Ore Trader action card), but probably the most common use of ore is for forging weapons. Weapons may be bought using an action space, one ore per strength up to 8. A chit is placed on your dwarf showing its weapon strength. Dwarves armed with weapons must go last during the worker action phase, and dwarves with lower strength go before those with higher. A ruby may be used to play a dwarf out of order. Once armed, dwarves go on expeditions in certain worker action spaces. These spaces have a shield icon on them with a number showing how much loot a dwarf may gain on that expedition (one to four). The dwarf’s armor strength determines what types of loot she may choose. This is summarized on one of the player overview cards. A player may only choose one of each type per expedition. After each expedition, the dwarf gains experience, i.e. goes up one in armor strength to a max of 14.

Loot may include goods, animals, gold, furnishing a cavern (must pay the costs), build a stable, buy a cheap dwelling, sew, breed, or gain a mine, field, meadow, cavern or pasture (pay wood). Alternatively, you may choose to have your dwarf go up one in strength, in addition to the experience strength automatically gained at the end of the expedition.

For the first two rounds there is no harvest. In rounds 3 and 5 there is a standard harvest, i.e. field phase (gain grain/vegetables), feeding phase (pay 2 food per dwarf/1 per baby), and breeding phase (2 or more of the same animal produce an additional animal of that type if you have room). In round 4 players pay just 1 food per dwarf (no field/breeding phase). For rounds 6 through 12, during setup, 7 harvest markers are randomly placed below these last 7 action spaces. There are two possibilities for these markers. Four markers have a regular harvest on them; these are played as usual. The other three markers have a red question mark on them. There is a card associated with these markers, with space on them to place the markers in order as they are drawn. The first time a red question mark is drawn it is put on the top space – no harvest this round. The second is put on the middle space – pay one food per dwarf instead of harvest. The third is put on the last space – skip the field phase or the breeding phase (player’s choice). Goods may be converted to food at any time, according to the chart at the bottom of each player’s home board.

Note: for complete rules and player aids visit BGG and scroll down to the files section.

Thoughts

As already noted, this game is very similar to Agricola. It could possibly have been released as an expansion but I can easily understand why it wasn’t. With the addition of two more players plus other elements of the game (e.g. wild card exchanges with rubies), the number of overlapping wooden pieces had to be increased. For example, Agricola came with 36 food, 18 stone, 27 grain, 18 vegetable, 21 sheep, 18 wild boar, and 15 cattle; Caverna comes with 88 food, 25 stone, 40 grain, 35 vegetable, 35 sheep, 30 wild boar, and 30 cattle. It also adds 20 dog, 30 donkey, 45 ore, and 20 ruby. The following tiles were added as well: cavern tiles, tunnel tiles, mine tiles, meadow tiles (the starting player boards are all forest rather than meadows), and double tiles in various combinations. Of course the dwarf dwellings are very different looking than the original farmer dwellings, seeing as they live in caves instead of huts. Pasture fences are now printed on tiles, so no more wooden fence pieces. Adding to existing pieces/tiles may have proved problematic, e.g. color matching, if not impossible (original games were released with cubes rather than “animeeples”).

With all these components, as well as new game boards, player boards, furnishing tokens, and gold, the game is HEAVY. You really get a lot of bang for your buck! The components are very high quality. All cardboard is heavy stock, with a linen textured surface. Pieces are either wood or acrylic (ore and rubies). The board iconography/cues and overview cards are easy to understand and very helpful. A lot of thought went into designing the game.

I really like the changes over Agricola. Having all furnishing tokens available remedies the luck factor from card draws of the original game. Your first game may run a little long – there are a lot of new tiles/action cards to read and digest – but things will speed up after that. Harvest doesn’t feel as bogged down either; in Agricola I felt like I was spending a lot of time just figuring out how to feed my people. Although there are more harvests, Caverna offers clear options and easy conversions for food. About the only things dwarves won’t eat are dogs, building materials, and each other.

Rubies as wild cards is one of my favorite additions. Be sure to keep a couple of rubies on hand in case of emergency! If another player stole… I mean, built the furnishing you were saving up for, having a couple rubies on hand to exchange for other resources means you can build something else in that newly renovated cavern. Run out of food? A ruby will buy food for one dwarf (assuming dwarves don’t actually eat the rubies themselves). One ruby can also mean getting to an expedition first by allowing you to play your best armed dwarf out of order.

Speaking of expeditions – love them! They allow dwarves to get some great loot; the higher the strength, the better the loot. At level 14, a dwarf on an expedition of 2 or more could both place a cavern and furnish it if he had the right resources.

Although scoring still requires a tally sheet, it is more streamlined than Agricola. You no longer have to figure out how many fields/stabled fields score. Points are printed on those that do. Just count the unused spaces – those are negative 1 point each. Grain and vegetable no longer lose a player points; they score a straight ½ point or 1 point each respectively rather than 1/2/3/4 for 1/4/6/8+ for grain and 1 point per vegetable up to 4. Missing farm animals cost 2 points per type; otherwise they (and dogs) score 1 point each rather, than the per animal type nightmare scoring of Agricola.

One possible advantage Agricola has over Caverna is that there are so many more cards and possible combinations, providing much more diversity. In every game of Caverna you see all the tiles, which may make it less interesting the more it’s played. Maybe there will be expansions, although they will likely cost more than the deck of card expansions for Agricola since they will be tiles, likely with a matching board if they stick with the same design.

If you want a somewhat lighter worker placement game than Agricola but with much the same feel, I highly recommend Caverna. I do enjoy both games but if I don’t want so much brain-burnery goodness, I will be reaching for Caverna.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Dale Yu: I have enjoyed this re-do of Agricola.  For me, I like the fact that it has a lot of similar mechanics but adds a bit more choices to keep people from being stopped in their tracks by a single unfortunate event.  There are more ways to make food, build things, make babies, etc in Caverna than in Agricola.  Admittedly, some paths are still more efficient than others, but hey, that’s life.  The two things which help most (in my opinions) are 1) not needing a specialized improvement to convert animals to food, and 2) having wild cards in the game that help prevent actions from being blocked.

In my first few games, I missed the individual occupation and improvement cards found in Agricola, but I have since come around to appreciate the communal supply of tiles in Caverna.  Not only is everything in front of you when you play, but there is also a bit of timing pressure as everyone can vie for the same tiles.  The game is certainly simpler than full Agricola, but it also is a bit meatier than the Family Game in Agricola – and makes this game a nice addition to the family.

One thing that has come up which bears mentioning is that there is the possibility of an infinite loop in the game.  Initially mentioned on BGG by itsaratio:

“The Spare Part Storage allows you to sell Wood+Stone+Ore for 2 gold at any time

The Trader allows you to buy Wood+Stone+Ore for 2 gold at any time

The Seam gives you one Ore from the general supply on top each stone you get regardless of how you got the stone

With these three furnishings you can sell a set of resources and buy new ones repeatedly, each time generating a “new” stone which provides you with another ore.

You can now buy the Ore Storage for unlimited points, and thus the solo game is solved. If you’re looking for a new solo challenge you can presume that you are forced to make the combo and then try to see how many points you can make in addition to the ore storage, giving scores such as Infinity+80.”

The designer of the game, Uwe Rosenberg, eventually weighed in with his recommended correction:

“Ok, now my decision should be:

A player who has already built the Trader and decides to build the Spare part storage as well must place the Spare part storage on top of the Trader, thus overbuilding the Trader. He cannot use the Trader any longer and does not get any points at the end of the game for it. The same applies if a player has already built the Spare part storage and decides to build the Trader.

the main point is: when i make one of the alternative rules, then the seam is not good enough any longer. i want to built trader and seam both. i enjoyed a game, in whitch i done this (it is one year ago). my second reason: in the 5-player-game i want to buy 1 stone + 1 ore for only 1 gold. that is fun, too.”

Thus far, the infinite loop issue has become a non-issue with the ruling from Uwe.  Having been a tester for Agricola and a developer for Dominion, I know first hand that it’s unbelievably hard to catch all the possible interactions between so many cards.  While it is unfortunate that one slipped through the cracks in Caverna, the proposed fix is elegant and non-disruptive to the overall game, and fixes any problems in my eyes.

Melissa Rogerson: I have to admit, I was more than a little lost the first time I played Caverna, but we realised later that it was because I just couldn’t see the building tiles at the other end of the table. Our friend’s solution is to place the tiles directly on the table, and use the boards that are meant to hold them as reference sheets which can then be passed around the table. This also means you don’t need quite such an industrial-sized table to play on (we seriously talked about extending our dining table for a 4p game, admittedly with snacks).  I still lost our second and third games, but at least I didn’t have the excuse of blindness. I do like the fact that all buildings are available to everyone until built, rather than each player holding a secret hand. I also like the progressive building – the depth of caverns, the need to clear forests before building pastures. As a group, we feel that Caverna is generally more forgiving than Agricola – there are so many ways to keep your dwarves fed and happy – with the bonus food and pigs and the partial harvests helping as well.

Ben McJunkin: I’ve played Caverna three times.  After the first play, I thought it might be good enough to replace Agricola (one of my first loves, but a game I rarely bring out these days).  However, my appreciation of Caverna dissipated quickly – after my third play, I was perfectly content to sell my copy.  Caverna certainly makes several improvements upon Agricola: the chunky wooden pieces, the use of clear scoring iconography (fenced pastures, for example, have their end-game points value printed directly on the tile), the additional strategies involved with tunnelling rather than farming.  These are all great.  My issue is that Caverna loses much of Agricola’s focused tension.  Nearly everything in the game converts to food without additional steps (no more cooking animals or baking bread), so the need to feed one’s workers is significantly diminished.  The harvests become a minor nuisance, rather than a driver of play.  The new “expedition” actions likewise drag down the game.  First, they are time-consuming (by the time one player got done selecting their loot, it was often their turn again).  Second, the mix-and-match rewards contribute to the general sense of openness and flexibility that I simply don’t enjoy.  One of my favorite reviews on BGG described Agricola as an obstacle course and Le Havre as a sandbox – one throws up impediments for you to surmount and one gives you tools and the freedom for you to play with them as you wish.  Caverna certainly falls closer to the sandbox end of this spectrum, which is simply not what I am looking for in a Eurogame of this sort.

Jonathan Franklin (1 play): I admire the desire and motivation of Samsung to offer a suite of products, from phones to phablets to tablets.  Different people will prefer different items in the product line.  Taken in that spirit, Caverna is part of a product line that I really like, but not the product in that line that I want.  At the same time, I understand why those who like it like and even prefer it to others in the line.

My sweet spots are the base game, Agricola, and the 2p game with the first expansion.  Both of these games have some variability, but a strong skeleton on which the game hangs.  I’ll be the first to say that some cards in the base game lack balance and that I don’t really enjoy the scoring telling me exactly what I need to be a success (some of everything, with a specialization in some things, but not too much).  At the same time, Caverna felt like a supersized Agricola with the fixed tiles of the 2p game before the expansion.  I guess that looseness in the game and lack of variability in the buildings is not what I am looking for.  At the same time, spending the money to get Caverna just to know an expansion is coming that will add more buildings does not make me thrilled.  I appreciate the comments above about a sandbox game, but sandboxes are meant to be played in lots – to buy a $100 sandbox to play it six times when I already like the smaller sandbox I already own seems unnecessary.  At the same time, if someone suggests it, I’d be fine playing it.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:

  • I love it! Mary Prasad, Luke Hedgren, Dale Yu, Mark Jackson, Karen Miller, Fraser McHarg, Melissa Rogerson
  • I like it:
  • Neutral: Tom Rosen, Ben McJunkin, Lorna, Rick Thornquist, Jonathan Franklin
  • Not for me…
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About Mary Prasad

More about me at: http://artbymdp.blogspot.com
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2 Responses to Mary Dimercurio Prasad: Review of Caverna

  1. huzonfirst says:

    Wow, talk about a polarizing title! 7 Love its, 5 Neutrals, with nothing in between!

    Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to play this yet, although I suspect I’ll get my chance in a few weeks. But I was surprised to see several people categorize Caverna as a “simplified” version of Agricola. With all the additional options, it certainly looks more difficult to learn! And while it may be more forgiving, I would think it would be harder to play well, particularly with all those building tiles you have available to you. Guess I’ll have to see what I think when I finally get to play it.

    • Melissa says:

      Larry, as I said, I found Caverna much more confusing than Agricola the first time I played it (see above re buildings, wrong end of table). There’s a lot going on and even more different ways to do it; breeding animals and growing veg are just one of the many things that need to happen, but there are freebies along the way. After four plays, we’re still finding our way to a “good” score though.

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