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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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Little Metal Television looks at e-raptor’s catalogue!

Another day, and another venture into the world of Little Metal Television! This time around I take a look at some of the rather splendid stuff being made by a Polish company called e-raptor. These guys don’t actually publish games – instead, they look to enhance your playing experience with their laser cut wooden and plastic items of loveliness. Whether you’re on the lookout for a box to hold counters and tokens, card deck holders or specially designed player aids for games such as Agricola, Merchants and Marauders, Talisman and Game of Thrones, I heartily suggest paying a visit to their site: e-raptor.pl

Oh, and it’s not in the video, but have a look at the player board for Game of Thrones – it’s very lovely indeed!GoT2

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Digital Love – A Quick Look at Agricola iOS

So, being the kind of lucky chap who occasionally gets emails from companies asking if I’d like to try out their new games, I recently had a message from the folks over at Playdek. You know them, of course, as the people behind the rather splendid iOS ports of titles such as Summoner Wars, Ascension as well as plenty of others including a certain game that has long been in the works: Agricola. I seem to recall seeing it first announced well over eighteen months ago – there were certainly logos plastered over the Playdek booth at Essen 2011 – and since then gamers have been clamouring for it. There have been complaints aplenty about the amount of time it’s taken for the game to come out, about the apparent lack of communication from the company about the progress of development but now – finally – it’s here.

And bugger me sideways, it’s bloody good.

Hanno Girke of Lookout Games, the original publishers of the analogue version of Agricola,has said that they’d “rather see the game late and great than early and crappy” – and in all honesty, it’s been worth the wait. My only experience so far is of playing it on an iPhone 5 though the game is universal, meaning it’ll play on any iOS device. I reckon it’ll be a little easier to play on an iPad or a Mini – after all, the screens are larger, but it works very well indeed even on a machine with a smaller amount of space to work with. Menus are clear and easy to navigate, and everything oozes the graphic style of Agricola.

You’re presented with options for both offline and online play. Of course, as the game is only just out there’s not a huge amount of people playing online but you know that the numbers are going to go through the roof in the next twenty-four hours. Because of that, most of my experience has been in offline play against AI players (who offer a decent challenge, especially on the highest of the three levels) but I think I’ll probably get the most out of the Solo Series game mode. This one sets you up against the system as you attempt to score more and more points game after game – complete seven games in a row and you’ll rightfully claim the title of King or Queen of Agricola, fail to hit the required target and the series ends immediately. I love a score attack mode and having it in the digital version of one of my favourite games ever is a truly great thing. No more setting up for a quick blast – just fire up the iPhone and away you go.

(Holy crap… that means I can play this on the bus! This gets better and better!)

Actually playing the game is super simple – there are excellent full tutorials to run you through the game if you’re a newbie, while a quicker one gets you to grips with the control system. You use a drag and drop method to claim spaces on the board (as well as cook up animals, build fences… all the usual farm-related stuff you’d expect) and everything you collect is represented across the bottom of your screen via a row of icons. One thing I’d like to have seen in the game is the ability to switch permanently between the (admittedly cute) graphics and spaces like you get in the regular version (you know, the written word ones) – you can tap the question mark icon in the top left corner to bring up the labelled spaces so it’s far from a massive pain. There’s probably something in the options that I haven’t stumbled across yet – or if not, can we have that in an update please?

iOS Agricola comes bundled with the E-deck occupation and minor improvement cards with plans laid in for new decks including I and K (the ones you get in the base set) to come later in the year for 69p / 99c each. Though a few people have expressed discontent with this – seriously, they have, but some people will bitch about anything – there is a HUGE amount of gameplay in this app. Whether you’re a long-time fan of the game or completely new to it, Playdek’s take on this modern classic is well worth adding to your collection. If you’ve only got an iPhone, sure, it can be a bit fiddly but I still wholeheartedly recommend it. If you’ve got anything bigger, this should be sitting on your front page until the battery no longer holds a charge.

Agricola is available on all iOS platforms and will set you back £3.99 in the UK and $6.99 if you’re in the US. Playdek provided me with a promo code in advance, but seriously – I’d have bought it anyway. And if you fancy a game, add me – I’m idlemichael, and I will farm you into oblivion.

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Best of You – Agricola review

 

There’s a reason that Agricola has sat high in the BGG rankings since its release back in 2007 – the reason being that it is pretty bloody awesome. I initially avoided Uwe Rosenberg’s game of farming in the Middle Ages like the plague (ho ho) – what would I, a modern gamer with a love of plastic and dice, want to do with this… this… Euro?

Man, what I fool I was. Because, like I mentioned above, Agricola is pretty bloody awesome.

Essentially a point scoring affair, players start off with a limited amount of actions available to them and only a couple of discs (representing the farmer and his wife) to use in each round. As the game progresses, more and more options are opened up in a kind of random order – you’ll know roughly when certain things will happen, but can never guarantee exactly when in the game they’ll occur.

By collecting up plenty of resources (wood, clay, reed and stone), you’ll be able to increase your little farm in size and status. Building extra rooms on your house will allow you to increase the size of your family. Fields can be either ploughed and sown or fenced off to hold livestock. Everything you do in Agricola will require actions, and only by pulling off that magical balance of doing the right stuff at the right time will you manage a win.

Even though this is a pretty poor example, this is what you’re aiming to do – fill your farm board to capacity and score yourself plenty of points.

While that simple paragraph essentially sums up what’s in the heart of Agricola, it only takes a couple of rounds of your first play to realise two things. Number one is that you will never have enough time or resources to do exactly what you want to do. Even with only two players (and it handles up to five) there’s a constant scrabble for resources, an endless tirade of “Dammit, I wanted that space” – and it’s marvellous. Sure, you can try and nab the First Player token and hopefully get on with your plans for a short while, but sooner or later you’ll have to give that spot up and rethink everything all over again.

Number two is that the game actively hates you. Initial plays will see you confused by the sheer wealth of options that there are, and then you’ll spot the bit on the board that says ‘Harvest’. “What’s that?” you’ll ask. “Oh,” will come the reply, “that’s when you have to feed your family.”

Yes, every once in a while you’ll have to ensure that you’ve got enough food stashed away to keep your little family discs nourished. Food can be collected straight from the board or you could even buy an oven to bake bread and cook your animals. Either way, you need to stock up – no food means you have to take begging cards which lose you points, and in a game where every single point counts, that’s not something you want to do…

Oh yes. Cards. Agricola comes with a LOT of cards. The most basic game uses only a few of them, listed as Major Improvements. These include the aforementioned ovens, but there’s also stuff like a Well and the ability to indulge in Basket Making (thrilling, I know, but come on, it’s the Middle Ages). These will generally give you little boosts to your points and can actually be pretty hard to come by while you’re focusing on building up those resources to expand your holding. However, they’re well worth going for if you can afford to do so.

The base game also includes special decks, each consisting of Minor Improvements and Occupations. These are little tweaks that could potentially swing the game in your favour while also hopefully scoring you a few more precious points, split into three separate piles that can be mixed and matched however you please. For newbies, it’s suggested you play without them for a while to get a feel for the mechanisms of the game, then move on to the (Basic) E-Deck as an introduction to the slightly trickier elements of how Agricola works. There’s also the Interactive I-Deck and Complex K-Deck in the box which add further complexity, as well as loads of other ones available either separately or in expansions – Agricola is the perfect game for those who like to set things up just so…

Despite the fact that there’s a lot to keep track of throughout the game, once you’ve got a couple of plays under your belt you’ll never feel out of your depth. Focus only on what’s available to you at that moment in time and you shouldn’t go too far wrong – you’ll start building strategies before you know it. Of course, then you’ll start throwing in the extra decks, drafting cards and all, and it’ll feel like you’re learning from scratch again. And it will feel brilliant.

The depth of play in Agricola will see you return again and again, always trying out new plans to see if they’ll come off. When everything falls into place and you manage to pull off a perfect couple of rounds, it’s one of the best feelings you can get in gaming. Of course this is balanced by the desperation you feel when everything tumbles around your head, leaving your family starved in a crappy house with only a pig for company that you’ll probably have to eat at the end of the next round. Yet you’ll never feel that you’ve been cheated out of victory by the game – any mistakes are entirely down to the decisions you yourself have made, and you’ll have learned for next time. Because there will always be a next time.

Cool extra bits are cool. You will crave them like nothing else, then succumb like a fool.

The production throughout is excellent – boards and tokens are thick, the cardstock is easy to shuffle, and the resource cubes and discs are satisfyingly chunky. Things get even nicer when you decide to splash out on upgrading your animals and resources with the veggiemeeple and animeeple kits that are currently available that really add to the charm of the game. It just looks so damn pretty when you’ve got pastures filled with wee wooden cattle and sheep and stacks of stone and wood to play with…

Agricola is a game that just keeps giving. You can even play it solo in a score attack mode (which is a great way of learning how to play as well as hone your skills). Sure, what with all the bits and bobs involved, setup and breakdown can take a little while, but you’ll soon see that it’s worth the effort. For a game based on farming, there’s a lot of humour in there – check out some of the house tiles and you’ll see a game of Bohnanza in progress, for example – and it’s this, combined with some of the most solid gameplay I have ever experienced that makes Agricola a worthy contender for one of The Best Games I’ve Ever Played.

Agricola is published by many companies around the world, but English language copies are produced by Z-Man. If you’re after a copy, you can get one for £42.99 from the fine folks at Gameslore. Between 1 and 5 players can get involved, games take around 60-90 minutes and if you don’t own a copy you don’t know what you’re missing. GO AND BUY IT NOW.

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Me and The Farmer – Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small review

I have to admit being a relatively recent convert to the world of Agricola but it’s already taken its deserved position as one of my favourite games. I’ve only picked up my copy a while ago (pimped out with animeeples, veggiemeeples and resourceeples) and will do a proper review sometime in the near future, but rest assured… it’ll be somewhat positive. As it is pretty bloomin’ excellent.

For now though, I want to talk about All Creatures Big And Small, the all new two-player only Agricola release designed again by Uwe Rosenberg and available now through Lookout Games and Z-Man. While initially appearing to be a stripped down version of its big brother, a few plays will reveal it to be very much a different little beast. Sure, there are a fair few similarities between the two releases, but they’re more like two awesome pies with equally excellent fillings.

The game focuses on breeding animals on your farm and completely removes the ploughing fields, reaping crops and family growth of regular Agricola. Played out over eight turns, each player will always have three actions which they use to collect the necessary resources that will help them build up their farm. By collecting wood, stone and reed, buildings and fences will be erected that will hopefully house your animals… assuming the other player doesn’t get them first.

Each turn will see various spaces filled and refilled with resources and animals which can be claimed by placing one of your workers on the board grabbing them for yourself. Other spaces allow you to construct fences and troughs (to make pastures for your animals to live in) as well as special buildings that grant bonuses and points. If you’re looking for more space, you can also expand your tiny farm and you’ll need to for once you start getting animals, they breed. More animals means you need more space because if you don’t have it, they must be set free – not exactly what you need when you’re trying to get as many as possible.

And it comes with actual animeeples! Winnah!

However, victory in Agricola: ACBAS isn’t about just grabbing loads of one animal – spreading your acquisitions out and getting a little of everything is the best path to claiming the win. Management of your ridiculously limited space is paramount, as is making sure that you get at least three of every animal as if you were some slightly greedy Noah.

The production quality throughout is excellent. The resources are the same discs you find in standard Agricola, but you’ll invariably be delighted to know that the animals aren’t represented by boring little cubes… no, you get little wooden sheep, pigs, cattle and horses too. The artwork is charming, rules are straightforward and tight as anything… it’s an incredibly high standard showing exactly how well a game can be made.

For such a small box, there’s an incredible amount of play in there. While you’re both trying to do the same thing, your approaches will be tempered by what your opponent chooses for their actions. It’s a game of never having enough stuff to do the things you want, of constantly fighting for the meagre supplies available and hoping that you’ll somehow manage to do better than the other person. While your options may initially seem quite daunting, you’ll soon work out how to build an engine and what must be done to maximise your resources.

This isn’t a simple game to win, but it’s certainly easy to understand and get into. A couple of plays will see you understand the rules, then everything’s up to you to see who the better farmer is. An excellent addition to the family, it’s a fun and brain-burning way to pass half an hour or so. Have we found the two-player game of the year already? I wouldn’t bet against it…

Agricola: All Creatures Big And Small was designed by Uwe Rosenberg and was released through Lookout Games and Z-Man in 2012. Strictly for two players, it’s currently available for around £23. Well worth it!

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