Hameln Cave

Designer: Akiyama Koryo and Kozu Yusei
Artist: Gonke Kengo (ごんけ 賢吾), Onodera (オノデラ)
Publisher: YUTRIO
Players: 2
Ages: 10+
Times Played: 9 on a purchased copy

I’m writing this as a “review” of Hameln Cave, but there are a few things you should know before we get started.  It is scheduled today because I helped license the game for Allplay (boardgametables.com) and they are launching it on Kickstarter on Tuesday, under the new name and theme, Sail.  I will financially benefit if you back it.

This is my favorite 2 player trick-taking game.

YUTRIO decloaked suddenly in the Tokyo board game scene a few years ago, with their releases TWO ROOMS in Fall 2020 and CARTA MARINA in Spring 2021 – with both inaugural titles being highlighted by the Arclight Game Award in 2021, Carta Marina a finalist, and Two Rooms an honorable mention.  HAMELN CAVE, a two-player only cooperative trick-taking game, was their third release, from Fall 2021.

In theme, the game continues from Carta Marina, with the two players working together to navigate their ship out of a ghost filled cave. 

It’s a game of balancing your priorities. You must move your ship forward – that’s the only way to win.  There’s a “goal” space down yonder where you can exit the cave. But there’s an onslaught of ghosts boarding the ship – when certain actions happen and more when the turn ends.  Like all good cooperative games, the designers present you with a singular way to win and a buffet of options for losing. 

If you need to add ghosts and cannot? Lose. 

If you’ve added ghosts too many times? Lose.

If you don’t make it past certain milestones in time? Lose.

The levers the game gives you to operate are the “must-follow” rules of the trick-taking piece and the symbols on the cards (which match their rank.) One player leads a card and the other player follows.  Then, compare the symbols on the cards you’ve played.  Most symbols will help advance the boat – but in the direction of whomever won the trick.  (Some of those “most symbols” which advance the boat will also let a ghost aboard.) Other symbols let you stab a ghost with your sabre. 

We’re ready to talk about the next set of priorities you must balance. When you move the boat forward, well, it (largely) only moves diagonally – in the direction of whomever won the trick causing it to advance. But in a game of 9-card hands, the rules dictate that each player can win at most 4 tricks before the hand immediately ends! How best to balance getting in productive actions while not short-circuiting the hand too much.

And how will you know what your partner has in their hand?  You do exchange one card at the start of the hand, but a few cards are also undealt.  As the game progresses, and ghosts board the ship, your hand stays the same 9-cards.  The corollary here is that the cards which are present in the deck, but undealt, grow as the game progresses. You need to balance the ghost slaughter and the full steam ahead for all of the reasons we’ve covered – but also to know what your partner may have in their hand! The more you allow the ship to be haunted, the more uncertainty around what you can rely on your partner for. 

The game plays over 5 rounds, with the start player alternating each round. Sail to the goal.

(If you don’t make it to the goal by the end of round 5? Lose.)

As is often the cause with the trick-taking games I go after signing the rights to, it was instant infatuation from the first hand. In this case, a short-lived, poorly Captained cruise, in which we most certainly did not make it out of the cave! It is a hard game. (Perhaps too much so – but that’s one of the areas Allplay’s developers worked on.)  The original game included 5 levels of difficulty, and even beating the first is a challenge!

Strategy tip: stab more ghosts. Get ahead on ghost management and don’t fall behind.

In contrast to most cooperative trick-taking games which are ultimately similarly mission based, Hameln Cave does something unique. You have a singular goal – to reach a certain space by the end of the 5th round (though you’re welcome to try to do it earlier!) But it doesn’t prescribe you any goals to meet on certain tricks or by the end of a hand. 

It gives you just enough information – if you let it. The card passing is big, but if you let too many ghosts board the ship, you’ll be too busy fighting them just to stay alive.  No one will have capacity to run up to the wheelhouse and everyone’s vision will be slimed over.

Some spaces on the board show rocks – which don’t wreck your boat or make you lose, but they exert some influence on how you attempt to control the leading and losing of the trick play.  Some spaces on the board show ghosts.  You can probably guess what they do.

Its design presents you with one of those mental illusions where both players are supremely confident that this round 1 decision to advance the boat is worth it – but it most certainly wasn’t. It’s all there in the rules, but the butterfly effects of opting for the risky play, hoping to advance just one more space, over being a premature ghost-stabber have written many pirate obituaries in the Hameln Cave Picayune. 

Both players will also assume certain pirate roles.  In this game, you may get to look at the card your partner passes you before you pass one back.  Your partner may be permitted to win 5 tricks before the end of the hand is triggered.  If the original game had a weak point, it was probably around these roles, as some were more useful than others. (This was the other focus of Allplay’s development, and I look forward to seeing what the new abilities are.)

The mix of the strategic, as you balance navigation and combat, and the tactical, as you choose the cards to pass and play, stabs me right in the heart.  In what is for me the eternal flame of a great game, Hameln Cave often ends with a “wait…can we play that again?” 

I hope you like it. 💛


Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it! James Nathan
I like it. John P
Not for me…

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1 Response to Hameln Cave

  1. lornadune says:

    Finally got a chance to play and we loved it. A terrific addition to my favorite 2 player trick taking games.

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