Many of the games I get to play these days are played with the family or with my casual gamer crew, which can mean that the more complex titles tend to languish on the shelf as time and willingness to play and teach those bigger games can be hard to find during the hecticness of the year. However, every now and then I get to pull out one of my more complex games and sit down for an enjoyable few hours of crunchy decision making and point scoring. And this year, that game was Caverna.
Caverna replaces Agricola, the progenitor of the farming games. In Agricola you were a family of struggling farmers, barely scraping by, doing your best to raise your livestock and cultivate your crops. Agricola took the world by storm with this gruelling game of trying to survive and it reigned supreme for a while in the ranking tables of the board game world.
Now however it has been supplanted by this young upstart, Caverna, The Cave Farmers. In Caverna you are in control of a small household of Dwarves, eking out a meagre living in a cave deep in a lush green forest. The Dwarves must manage both sides of their board, burrowing deeper into the mountain to expand their home and mine for stone, ore and rubies. And clear the forest to build pastures and plough fields to house livestock and grow crops.
At the end of most rounds the players must harvest their crops, feed their Dwarves and breed new animals. In Agricola, feeding your people was a chore that often got in the way of expanding your farming empire. In Caverna the feeding phase is much more forgiving as your Dwarves can subsist on a diet of raw donkey, gold pieces or even nice crunchy rubies. Of course, subsuming your livestock or gold stash also cuts into your profit margin so finding ways to make more food is probably a better alternative.
Each round players will dispatch their Dwarves to seek out riches and rewards by placing them on to action spaces, which allow them to gather resources, clear forests or tunnel through the mountain. As the rounds go by the number of action spaces will increase bringing new options, like being able to “Wish for Children”, giving you more workers to use on future rounds.
As well as all the traditional worker placement, resource gathering actions, Caverna also allows you to forge a weapon. What would a dwarf be without an axe? And with their weapons you can send them on adventures. This is one of the ways that your Dwarves will be able to gather resources and animals not normally available via other means, such as Cattle and Wild Boar. As your Dwarves adventure they also grow in power, meaning the next time they adventure they will be able to go further and find even better rewards.
Caverna is no easier to teach than it’s older brother Agricola, in fact it’s harder. Agricola had plenty of rules to be sure and once you added in the occupations and minor improvements it had even more. However Caverna has a lot of small, but thematic rules but together they add up to a ton of information to hold in your brain.
For example, a pasture can’t hold any animals unless it is fenced at which point it can hold two, unless it’s a double field, then it can hold four, or it has a stable in which case it can hold one, or if it has a fence and a stable then it can hold double the number it can normally hold and, actually, if you have just sheep in a field you don’t need a fence at all as long as you have as many dogs as you have sheep minus 1. And if it were just the sheepdog rule it might be okay but there’s ore mines and ruby mines and there’s donkeys and there’s the stables you can build in forest spaces to house truffle hunting pigs. There’s so much more going on in Caverna than Agricola that the box is almost twice the size and it’s a squeeze getting everything back in it!
But it’s also great. Once you have all the information down Caverna is a smoother experience. It’s less gruelling, less punishing, you can play and explore the game the way you want to. Don’t want to go outside and just want to spend the whole game developing your cave network and building whatever a “cuddle room” is? Go for it! Want to build an empire of cattle and donkeys, go for your life my animal loving pal. There are no bad choices in Caverna, you’ll always get something when you place your workers and with more players the boards expand to offer even more action spaces, so that you can all do exciting things.
The additional mechanics like weapons, mines, family and animals, all come out in sequential steps allowing you to teach the new elements as they arrive, rather than having to completely teach everything up front. However it’s all still a lot to take in and then we have the furnishing tiles each of which have special end game scoring. It can all be overwhelming.
However it is also incredibly rewarding as you take your cave from a simple dwelling to a thriving metropolis over the course of just 12 rounds. I might only get it to the table once a year, but when I do I have a blast!
On the Eighth Day of Christmas, Santa gave to me... Eight Sheep a Grazing