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.
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-
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.)