I’ve been enjoying solitaire games more lately. It started during the pandemic with the four-game solo campaign version of Lost Ruins of Arnak: The Search for Professor Kutil. I was impressed with how the designers altered the underlying structure of the game to make for a compelling solo experience. Then I enjoyed the solitaire versions of Dune: Imperium and Ark Nova, not as much as Arnak, but as a decent way to get more familiar with the rules and experience a shadow of the “real” game experience. And most recently, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of trying to enact the 19th Amendment in the solo version of Votes for Women. So I jumped at the opportunity to receive a review copy of Michael Erceg’s new solitaire game Cave-In.
I don’t write many reviews, and when I do they tend to be a little bit odd, like this comparative review for Clash of Cultures, or this rambling “review” of Living Forest. So forgive my comparative and rambling discursion on push-your-luck games and solitaire gaming.
When I hear push-your-luck, I immediately think of Sid Sackson’s 1980 classic Can’t Stop and the Alan Moon and Bruno Faidutti spiritual successor Diamant (now known by some as Incan Gold). There are of course plenty of other games with push-your-luck elements (Knizia’s Ra comes to mind and even the aforementioned Living Forest in a manner of speaking), but these two games strike me as the purest distillation of the mechanism with the entirety of the game revolving around players deciding whether to play it safe or risk it all. Upon reflection though, the real joy of Can’t Stop and Diamant for me is largely in the player interaction. The kibitzing and cajoling seem like a core feature with players encouraging each other to keep going and attempting to shame each other into going for broke. The peer pressure of rolling those dice just one more time is what makes Can’t Stop so memorable. And the chanting of “Ra! Ra! Ra!” when your opponent elects to pull another tile from the bag in Knizia’s classic auction game is real joy.
Having enjoyed various solitaire gaming experiences recently and having fond memories of various push-your-luck games over the years, I eagerly opened Cave-In when it arrived a few days ago. I read through the rules, which were well-written and clear, and I punched the components, which are slick and professional. I then played the game three times in a row.
I think this is the part where I’m supposed to summarize the rules for you, but I’m not so good at that. I suppose I’ll tell you that the game starts you with 50 pounds (hereafter referred to as $50) and challenges you to reach $200 within 12 rounds (and never go below $0, which I didn’t pay much mind until it happened to me right near the beginning of my first play). Each round is divided into 4 phases (Upkeep, Drilling, Excavation, and Market). First, you set up the round by laying out the dig site tiles randomly facedown (some of which have valuable metals and others of which trigger a titular and dreaded cave-in). Then you have the option to pay some of your precious coin to “drill,” which lets you peek at a few of the dig site tiles. Based on my limited experience, this seems very much worth it based on the ratio of the cost to the value of the potential information. The third step – Excavation – is the heart of the game where you pay to “excavate” tiles to receive their rewards or penalties. This is where you can get valuable metal that will help you win or you can trigger a “cave-in” that will cost you dearly (and in my case cause you to immediately lose if you cannot pay the penalty). The final step is the Market where you can sell the metals you’ve collected for money.
The game is billed as a 30-minute game, which seems about right if you take the full 12 rounds, but it can be significantly shorter if you get unlucky (and lose prematurely) or if you get lucky (and win in an earlier round). My three games lasted 1 round, 3 rounds, and 10 rounds, so all of them were less than 30 minutes (and the first one was closer to 5 minutes due to my own shortcomings). I actually enjoyed losing unexpectedly in the first round when I failed to realize that I’d already spent $35 drilling and excavating, so did not have the $20 needed to cover a cave-in penalty. This caused me to be a bit more cautious in my second play, but clearly not cautious enough because I pushed my luck too far in the “poor weather” third round and managed to lose it all again after just 10-15 minutes. I learned to play it safe in my third game since the game was punishing me more than I was used to experiencing in Can’t Stop where you just lose the round’s progress rather than the game itself. I also got lucky in my third game finding the precious tin, rather than just piles of low-value copper.
Cave-In is a lot simpler than the solitaire games that I’m used to playing (such as Lost Ruins of Arnak, Dune: Imperium, Ark Nova, Votes for Women), but that made it reasonable to play several times in a row. I don’t think the simplicity is my cup of tea, but I’m sure others would prefer how much easier it is to breeze through the brief and clear rules. More salient for me than the simplicity was what the game revealed to me about the nature of classic push-your-luck games. I hadn’t previously stopped to consider what makes Can’t Stop, Diamant, and Ra so fun and memorable, but now I think it’s all about the social interactions, reveling in each other’s triumphs and tribulations. That element is obviously missing from a solitaire game, but I think that’s more noticeable in a push-your-luck game like Cave-In than in a worker placement deck-building game like Lost Ruins of Arnak. This makes me wonder what it would be like to have two copies of Cave-In, and play side-by-side with a friend, playing each round simultaneously with the challenge being to reach $200 before your opponent.
This thought process reminds me of when I suggested that Richard Garfield’s KeyForge is best as a drafting game… sacrilege I know! The game was designed from the ground up to not have any deck-building, and here I am creating a home brew method for adding deck-building to KeyForge. And obviously Cave-In is intended as a solitaire experience; it says so right on the box! But I can’t stop thinking about what it would be like to make it a head-to-head experience with your opponent taunting you about how much more money they have right up until they hit that dreaded cave-in and you both start laughing together at their unforgettable Icarus moment.