Cardboard Children – Caverna: Game Of The Year 2013

By Robert Florence on February 18th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

As I continue my build-up to the announcement of my Game of the Year 2013, I think-

No, actually. Let’s just do it now. Let’s just state my Game of the Year 2013 right now. I feel like there’s been enough build-up. I was going to wait another five or six months, but maybe you’ll forgive me for stating it this early. I’m excited, you see.

I am excited about Caverna.

CAVERNA

Okay. You’ve probably all heard about Agricola. Agricola is this really great farming game, where you raise a family and grow crops and keep animals. It sounds blissful, right? It’s actually a hardcore, stressful, panic attack of a game. People call it “Misery Farm”. You will grow a little family, and then you will watch that little family starve to death. It’s brilliant, don’t get me wrong. It feels so good when you are building your little farm on your little player board and placing your little sheep and pulling your little carrots. But you will soon be desperate and pleading for mercy from god above as your child claws at your feet saying “Why is there no food this season, daddy? Why do you want me to die?”

From the same designer comes “Caverna”. A game about cave farmers. Yeah, I have no idea what a cave farmer is either. On your player board you can see a forest and a cave. Your cave has only a couple of rooms carved out at first, enough room for two dwarves. Yeah, dwarves. I dunno – just go with it. The game is very similar to Agricola, except it doesn’t feel like it was designed by Satan. You will use your little dwarves to take actions, and you will grow your farm and chip away into new area of your cave.

Oh boy. This game.

Where Agricola is a knife fight, Caverna is a choose-you-own-adventure farming/mining/development game. There will always be cool actions available for you to take. You will be able to specialise, experiment with different strategies, or just fuck around and hope for the best.

Let me try to explain how the game works. There is a big board that shows available actions. You place your dwarf onto one of these spaces and execute the action. That action might allow you to hack out a new area in your cave, or it might let you chop down some trees for wood. It might let you put a fence around a field, or it might let you bring a sheep back to your farm. It might let you mine some rubies, and grab extra rubies if you have a ruby mine. It might let you plant grain and vegetables in your field, or forge a weapon for your dwarf. It might let you-

WAIT, WHAT?!

Yes, here’s somewhere where Caverna deviates wildly from Agricola. You can tool up your dwarves with weapons, and then take actions that send them on expeditions. These expeditions will allow your dwarves to bring home all sorts of good stuff, more stuff than you can usually find on a normal action. With each expedition the dwarf weapons level up, meaning that even better stuff can be found next time. Expeditions are great. “GO, DWARF. BRING ME HOME A COW AND SOME FOOD OH AND FURNISH A CAVERN WHILE YOU ARE AT IT.”

That’s another action you can take – furnishing a cavern. And, oh shit, here we go. Here we GO.

There is another big board on the table, and it displays all the available caverns you can build. About 40 or so of them. You can build new dwellings for new dwarves, allowing you to take that “Wish For A Family” action – more mouths to feed, sure, but more actions to take with every turn. You might, in one game, choose to build a Treasure Chamber which gives you a point bonus at the end of the game for all the rubies you’ve stored. Or you might build a Fodder Chamber, which awards points for keeping lots of farm animals. Or maybe a Wood Supplier, who will provide wood every turn? Or a Cuddle Room, where you can keep sheep to cuddle? Just to cuddle.

Oh my GOD. The variety, the scope, the potential approaches.

Oh my GOD.

Let’s talk about rubies for a moment. Rubies come from action spaces, and you get more rubies if you’ve managed to build some ruby mines. And rubies are so sweet. They act as a “wild card” resource that you can trade in for lots of different stuff. You need to feed your family? Got rubies? No sweat. You need to quickly find a sheep for your farm before the breeding phase? Got rubies? No problem. They make up a large part of the more relaxed feel that Caverna has, separating it from old Misery Farm Agricola, keeping the focus on fun. Did you miss something? Do you need something to execute some part of your strategy? Got rubies? No problem.

You still need to feed your family though, when that harvest comes around. You will pull some crops from your field, feed your dwarves, and then all your paired animals will breed. But that phase is no longer something you dread. I’ve never seen a player let a family member starve. There’s usually some way of doing it, even if it kicks you off your grand strategy for a bit.

So, that’s Caverna. Develop a farm, develop a cave, fields, mines, go on expeditions, build rooms that set you apart from the other players, do anything anything anything anything anything.

Oh my golly gosh, this game.

I can’t actually properly put into words how exciting it is. Yes. A farming/mining game. EXCITING. Looking at that board when it is fresh? All those trees unchopped? That cave unexplored? And the potential to take ANY path? It’s ridiculous. When you know the game, you start playing with a huge grin. It’s cosy and comfy and “OH THIS TIME I MIGHT FOCUS ON ORE AND BUILD AN ORE STORAGE AND SEE IF I CAN REALLY-” and you are like a pig in shit. This is no Misery Farm.

The game isn’t hugely difficult to learn either. It’s just deep. So deep. Play after play you’ll be saying “Oh, riiiiight” as you notice new little synergies between rooms and actions. You’ll discuss each play with your opponents, trying to pinpoint where you went wrong. “Oh, I knew it had all gone pear-shaped when I had to slaughter that cow. If I’d just built a Cooking Cave, then maybe–”

Oh man. This game. Such fun. SO MUCH FUN.

Does it replace Agricola? That’s what everyone is asking. It’s a silly question. It’s actually nothing like Agricola. It doesn’t feel like the same game at all. Agricola is tighter and uglier and more stressful, but sometimes that is a good thing. Sometimes you want that stress. Hey, I love “In The Year Of The Dragon”, and that’s pretty much a WORST LIFE EVER simulator. If you love Agricola, hang onto it.

Is Caverna better than Agricola? For me, yes. Easily. And easily the best game of 2013. It is a staggering achievement, a big proud punch of “HERE IS WHAT A BOARD GAME CAN DELIVER”. It’s an expensive game, full of wooden components and lots of cardboard. But there is something else in the box – a refinement of one of the greatest game designs ever. And how do you even put a price on that?

WHAT ALMOST WON GAME OF THE YEAR 2013?

Coup became widely available in 2013. Coup almost won it. It is certainly best “small game” of the year. The Duke came close. Robinson Crusoe almost won it too, but it’s arguably a 2012 game. We’ll probably talk about that next week. It’s absolutely brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that you can take this column as a recommendation for that too.

(By the way – take a look at my favourite board game reviewer Tom Vasel’s review of Caverna. I think he likes it too. Although we disagree on the Agricola front.)

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33 Comments »

  1. Angel Dust says:

    Yeah, I’m very much looking to getting my hands on this one. My wife and I really liked Agricola but this looks even better and the fact that it’s a smoother, less stressful experience, means it will probably be hitting the table quite regularly.

    Robinson Crusoe does indeed looks brilliant. In fact, it’s been looking brilliant for a couple of years now because it is also ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE TO GET A HOLD OF! At least for a New Zealander like myself.

    • kodjeff1 says:

      My wife gifted me Robinson Crusoe for this past Valentine’s Day, and so far, I have been very impressed. I’ve played it 5 times in 5 days – thrice solo and twice with my dear wife.

      We have not yet even ventured past the first scenario, and have yet to gain any sense of it’s replay-ability waning thin.

      It’s a great solo game, and a great coop game. Though, if you are playing coop, you should enforce a house rule that mandates drawing and resolving event cards in-character.

    • One Pigeon says:

      Robinson Crusoe is certainly available on Amazon, although that may only be in Europe of course.

      I requested this for my birthday which is tomorrow and I’m desperately hoping (nay praying!) that the boardgame shaped present sitting on my dining room table is a copy.

      Sorry… this probably isn’t helping you.

  2. JB says:

    I just played Coup at the weekend (finally, I’ve had it since Christmas). Awesome stuff.

    I played a couple of 2 player games, it’s like a knife fight in a phone box. Then I played several 5 player games. It’s crazy stuff. Yes, it has player elimination but the game is so fast that no-one seems to mind.

    Great game, great price, tiny box. Highly recommended.

  3. Will Tomas says:

    Obligatory Shut Up & Sit Down link to their review… They were very split on it. Paul loved it, Quinns… less so.

  4. Shadow says:

    I haven’t finished reading the article yet, but I feel the urge to communicate my thoughts after the first few paragraphs: DWARF FORTRESS THE BOARDGAME!

    EDIT: I’ve finished reading. Where’s the goblins? Where’s the dragons? I am disappoint.

    • King in Winter says:

      My thoughts exactly.

      Dwarf Fortress: the Boardgame (kind of).

    • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      If you have a cat, the horror and destruction of monster raids is represented by the cat attempting to eat the board and steal the pieces.

      • The Random One says:

        Wait, are you suggesting we stop cats from messing with our games by building a contraption to launch them high in the air?

  5. Syphus says:

    Great, now I want this game, its sold out just about everywhere, and expensive.

  6. Scurra says:

    For me, the analogy is Agricola : Cavena = Carcasonne : Hunters & Gatherers.
    What it does is to “fix” a lot of the issues that Agricola has (and boy, does Agricola have issues) but at the cost of creating a game that has nowhere near the ludicrous flexibility or sheer perversity of the original. Whilst there will doubtless be expansions to the game, I will be very, very surprised if it turns out to have the same sort of space that Agricola has proved to have.
    I have played it a few times, and enjoyed it, but not to the extent of craving more. Whereas I play Agricola with a continual sense of “what ridiculous thing can I try this session?” I will grant you that if you don’t get the opportunity to try something weird in Agricola then it is the game from hell, and you will definitely wish you were playing Caverna though.

  7. BarryAllen says:

    Unrelated but is there any way to delete my RPS account?

    • Wisq says:

      I imagine you could probably email them and ask them to do so. But I would question the value of doing so, since they don’t really store much data on it, as far as I know. Unless it’s to make a statement, at which point email really is the best way.

      • BarryAllen says:

        Naw, I’m still going to visit the site I just don’t want to have the temptation of commenting.

  8. Wisq says:

    Oh god, watching Tom pour the contents of the box out like that felt like I was watching a perverse crime against boardgaming in progress.

    • Agnosticus says:

      If you are offended by that, I suggest you watched the intro to his “boardgame breakfast” videos ;)

  9. jarowdowsky says:

    Oh man, Robinson Crusoe is an absolute blast. Can’t wait to try Caverna when I can find a copy but…

    Well lets just say that Voyage of the Beagle might be my favourite expansion of all time, takes the great base game of Robinson and turns it into something even more magnificent.

  10. Wytefang says:

    Unfortunately the theme for this and Agricola are brutally dry. I also find that there’s just way too much going on. If you want to play a truly enjoyable and fairly interesting Euro, try the Lords of Waterdeep game and expansion. Fantastic game.

    • Lorewin says:

      Never played Agricola (I know, I know, it’s a gaping whole in a modern boardgamer’s resumé), but I’ll agree on Waterdeep.

      As far as theme goes however I find it’s generally at least as much about who you’re playing with as the game itself. Some people play for mechanics (“Oh, yes, this is another worker-placement with a touch of hidden agenda, I see”), whereas my personal preference is to play in the schoolground sense of engaging the imagination. (Ideally more Mr Ben than Lord of The Flies!).

      Waterdeep is a case in point – I was introduced to it by someone who explained that the theme was totally irrelevant to the gameplay. We played a fairly enjoyable introductory session, but it was only afterwards that I realised that the coloured cubes represented recruits, and the concepts really clicked.

      Playing again, I’ll always read out (and ask others to read out) the flavour text on the cards, and refer to the pieces as classes as well as colours. When I play Kings of Tokyo I’ll give each of the marauding critters a different voice or theme. That’s not in the game rules, but it’s how I roll.

    • Deano2099 says:

      ‘Dry’ is an odd word to use. The theme of Agricola is arguably more dull: farming rather than recruiting guys and sending them on missions to fight monsters, but the thing is, Waterdeep doesn’t feel anything like that. It feels like you’re collecting coloured cubes and spending them for points. Don’t get me wrong, I like Waterdeep, but while on paper the them is interesting, it’s barely there.

      While with Agricola… the idea of being a subsistence farmer trying to feed your family from season to season is, I’ll grant you, pretty dull. But when I’m playing Agricola, it feels like that’s what I’m doing. In Agricola you’ll be on the last action before a harvest, having just built a new room in your house and grown your family, suddenly casting around desperate to find some way to get a bit more food to feed the new baby.

      In Waterdeep you’re after a white cube to score that last quest for points. You’re never thinking “Is there any way I can track down the last Cleric in the city so finally I have a safe team of adventurers to send to slay the beholder”.

  11. Hastur says:

    Is Caverna more interactive than Agricola? Like, can I go send my dwarves to rustle my neighbors’ cattle?

  12. Shadowcat says:

    Woo hoo!!

  13. _Nocturnal says:

    That’s all well and good, Rab, but when will you write about your *real* Game of the Year 2013?

    And on a more serious note: I got Mascarade last year, see. And I know Coup is pretty similar. But surely Mascarade is the better one, yeah? Surely I don’t need to buy Coup too, just because of the small differences? And I probably don’t need Love Letter, either. I mean, it’s not like I’d be able to arrange their boxes together like they’re all parts of a set and stare at them with a huge grin and have my group choose between them each time we want to play a small bluffing game, right?

    • Kefren says:

      I have Coup and Love Letter. Both good games, both popular with friends, both easy to transport. I’d say no-one needs both. It all depends on how often you play. If you play a lot then it is nice to have more than one game that is vaguely similar, since it gives you more variety; but if you play rarely then you only want one or the other.

    • _Nocturnal says:

      That’s the thing. I know I don’t really need more than one, but I’m a sucker for different variations on an interesting theme. What’s more, I got Mascarade even though I also have Citadels and having Citadels is also stopping me from getting Libertalia, and basically I want all the games but have neither enough money nor friends with enough time to play them properly. Thanks, Rab and SU&SD! :D

      • Kefren says:

        Citadels and Libertalia are quite different. Citadels seems a bit simpler, and maybe has some similarities to Love Letter (at least I remember something to do with guessing what role the other player had picked? Going off memory, I don’t own it!) Libertalia has a lot more of the unexpected going on, based on which cards people have (a game uses about 2/3 of the possible cards), which don’t get used in a round, how they interact etc. I really like Libertalia. :-) Citadels was fun the one time I played it too, but in my mind they feel very distinct.

  14. Ergates_Antius says:

    I bought this as soon as it came out (literally – I orded it from Essen) but I’ve still not gotten around to playing it! Really must do something about that.

  15. Tony M says:

    How does the scoring work? It was the arcane scoring system that turned me off Agricola.

    • jingies says:

      The scoring in Agricola is very dry, possibly even anti-climatic, but it’s one of few games I can think of where losing is just as enjoyable as winning. It’s about the journey, not the destination…

  16. mavis says:

    I played Caverna and it went straight on my “It must be mine!” list but it was heavily delayed getting to the UK shops.

    Before it arrived I played “Glass Road” also by Uwe Rosenberg -and Caverna was replaced by Glass Road.

    It has none of the bits of Caverna and (in my opinion) is really expensive for what you get in the box. However it’s a masterpeice of game design.

    It’s a quick resource game – that has removed all of the fiddling around with bits of wood due to a really clever resourve wheel concept and has plenty of player interaction via the role choosing.

    It is as dry as a ships biscuit and utterly lacking in opertunity to burn peoples houses down – but if you don’t care about that it’s glorious.

    • Deano2099 says:

      Yeah Glass Road is stunning. And no you can’t burn other people’s houses down, but you can screw them over entirely by picking the right cards.