Down Under – Caverna: The Cave Farmers review

Caverna COVER

The Judge and I have many things in common, especially a passion for wrestling and a love of board games – including a certain Agricola. Now designer Uwe Rosenberg has returned with a sequel of sorts to one of the most highly rated games available. Caverna: The Cave Farmers takes the original and adds a little and takes a little away, meaning that you end up with something familiar but still oh so fresh. Here’s what he reckons… 

Agricola for wimps. This is how I found myself describing Caverna to an assembled mass of experienced ‘Gric-a-holics.’ Now, that could be seen as a negative – and for one member of our group who missed the tight, cut-throat nature that is so much a part of the Agricola experience, this was a disappointment. Not for me though. As much as I LOVE Agricola, it always feels like work. Hard work. “Pushing a large spikey boulder up a sharp incline” hard work. Misery Farm, they call it. Caverna is different beast entirely – Jolly Cave perhaps?
Caverna is a worker placement game where players adopt the roles of a family of Dwarves who, through tunnelling, mining, cultivating crops and animals will build a farm to be envied for fun and profit. They may even take up arms and go questing to retrieve glory and fame – or at least a stable and a dog.

Each family of dwarves begins in a small hollowed out cavern in the side of a mountain, with dense woodland outside, and only a mouthful of food between them. Much like Agricola, players will take turns to claim spaces on the communal board to gather resources and expand their own personal empire. This is achieved by clearing the woodland and ploughing fields, whilst digging through the rock to make room for mines, extra dwellings and a huge selection of available furnishings that offer ongoing boosts and end game scoring bonuses. You can even partake in a little ‘Wishing for Children’ to increase your clan’ and therefore available workers. Possible the most PG rated treatment of procreation I’ve seen.

The rub for this expansion is the near constant demand to feed the little blighters… Unlike Agricola where this is always a struggle until you have a tightly focussed food engine, here there’s always a way to muddle through – even if it means devouring your pet sheep or precious rubies. And if you need to take a begging token (-3 Victory Points at game end) for being one food short, then so be it. It isn’t ideal, but it also doesn’t mean you will automatically lose – as is often the case in ‘Gric.

The biggest addition to the game is the opportunity to arm your Dwarves with increasingly large axes and send them out on quests to recover loot and gain experience to level up. Sounds thematic? Not so much. In practice, this feels like sending your guys out on shopping trips for more farming stuff. The twist where the most experienced Dwarf / the one with the largest chopper gets to ‘lie-in’ and activate last is a lovely wrinkle in the plan – though in-keeping with the laid back nature of Caverna, you can always spend a ruby to break this rule.

It is impossible to discuss this without referring to its predecessor. Rosenberg has himself described Caverna as Agricola 2.0 and it does very much feel like an evolution rather than a brand new game. More so even than last years’ Ora et Labora which was a few baby steps forward in his oeuvre, this game is a distinctly a streamlining and tweaking of his masterwork – answering many of the complaints that people have about Agricola:

“The occupation / improvement cards are too swingy and random! I’m always getting screwed by a bad draw!” The building tiles in Caverna are static and available to all from the start of the game.

“Feeding your family is too hard!” So let’s remove the extra step of converting goods to food – you are free to make dinner from pretty much any of the resources whenever you need it – including munching on a donkey. Mmmmmmm delicious pack animal….

“I want to take action X but forgot to do Y first!” Rubies. Just one wood short for that building? Desperate for a cow? Simply spend a ruby to fix your mistake or give you extra options.

“You ALWAYS take the space I want!” The imitation spaces allow players to copy actions already ‘blocked’ by other Dwarves.

“I have to get 5 family members, all the animals, grain and vegetables or I will lose! All of our farms look the same!” The scoring is much less prescriptive in Caverna – and you can genuinely take very different approaches and be competitive. Agricola can sometimes feel like a race with different paths, but ultimately leading to the same goal – this is not the case here.

So much stuff!

So much stuff!

For all its similarities – and those who know Rosenberg’s games will get to grips with Caverna’s mechanisms very quickly – it FEELS very, very different and fixes all the things that stop me playing Agricola more often. That pressure – particularly when playing with good / experienced players is enough to dissuade me from sitting down for a game that has every chance of being an exercise in futility and frustration and Caverna – whilst still being a highly competitive experience – removes the sense that a single sub-optimal move will end any chance of bothering the scorers after a couple of hours’ play.

The production of Caverna is spectacular. The attractive, whimsical art is everywhere – on the front and backs of cards, tiles and playmats. The game comes with wooden meeples for the pigs, donkeys, dogs, sheep, grain, wood and ore – plus shiny plastic crystals for the ore and ruby resources. The quality of the bits (or Goober- TM The Spiel podcast) increases the play experience and makes a great game sublime – as good components should do.

When pressed into a corner and asked for my favourite game I often say ‘Gric, alongside Terra Mystica and my favourite Feld of the moment. This is now replaced by Caverna and if offered a game of the former, I would now suggest the latter. Agricola for wimps? If so, I’m glad to be a wimp. Misery Farm is dead! Long live Caverna!

I’m inclined to agree with The Judge on this one. Caverna is an excellent game, taking Agricola as its starting base and mixing it up enough to warrant owning it in addition to the original. Now, it *is* expensive – you’re looking at £75 for the set (or £62 through Gameslore) – but it really is a packed out box. Give it a shot – you will not regret it in the least.

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