Caverna: A four-sided game review

Caverna: The Cave Farmers, to give its slightly pointless full name, is a one-to-seven player worker placement euro game. Game length very much changes due to player count, but tends to work out at around 30 minutes per player. I’d tend to agree with the 12+ age range too, as the game’s choices mushroom as the game goes on.

The game was released in 2013 and is still easily available for around £55. This may sound quite expensive, but you get a mass of wood and cardboard in the box: 16 game boards, 30 cards, 60+ plastic pieces, 300+ wooden pieces and 400+ cardboard pieces. Yes, really.

Caverna is very much the spiritual successor to designer Uwe Rosenberg’s award-winning classic Agricola, and I’ll talk about the comparisons later. In terms of theme though, Caverna is still a farming game but adds a slight fantasy theme. You’ll be building a cave rather than a house, while also mining in caves alongside raising cattle and planting crops – all in the name of victory points.

Teaching Caverna

Anyone who has played Agricola will find learning Caverna a breeze, as it has the same turn flow and structure. A game is usually played over 12 rounds, with each player starting with two workers (or ‘dwarves’, theme fans) and being able to increase that to a maximum of five before the end of the game (each worker you have gets to do an action each round).

There a number of worker placement spaces available on the central boards (varying due to player count) and each space can be occupied by a single worker, including a space that lets you become start player. Each round a new worker placement space is revealed, opening up stronger actions as the game moves towards its conclusion.

Each player has their own board, depicting a mountain ready to be dug into to create caves and a forest ready to be flattened to graze cattle or plant crops. Cave spaces can be turned into dwellings (to house more workers), rooms (giving various benefits) or mines (giving resources). Everything from gathering/trading resources; furnishing rooms or clearing areas; planting crops; gaining animals or extra workers, and going on expeditions is achieved by using your workers.

On a round, the start player places one of their workers on an available space and does the associated action. The player to their left then does the same with one of their workers, continuing clockwise until all workers have been used (if a player has more workers than everyone else, they may end up placing several workers in a row at the end of the round). Once this is completed, the round is over: all players retrieve their workers from the board, the next worker space is revealed, and the next round begins.

Between rounds, the main board will tell you whether there will be a harvest. If there is, all players get to gain food and additional animals if they have crops planted or pairs of particular animals. Certain buildings will also give you bonus resources each round. But it’s not all good news, because those workers need to eat. Harvests also mean you need to feed your workers, so you need to ensure you’ve left aside enough money/food/resources to keep them happy – or pay a hefty victory point consequence.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: The addition of adventuring spaces in Caverna is a clever one. When you send a dwarf adventuring, they can gather a certain number of resources (one to three) depending on the action space used – and these are chosen from a list that is adventuring level dependent. Each time you adventure with the same dwarf they improve by a level, giving them better options to choose from next time – so ultimately letting you bypass popular worker spaces by adventuring instead.
  • The thinker: Personally I’ll happily play Caverna, but prefer Agricola. Caverna is a more tactical game, allowing you to easily switch paths turn-by-turn with many ways to achieve your goals. In Agricola you live and die by those early decisions to keep certain cards, also allowing a certain level of mystery as players slowly play more powerful cards into their tableau as the game goes on. I find this much more satisfying, but this is still a very enjoyable if more chaotic game.
  • The trasher: I really didn’t click with Agricola: there was too much going on all at once, the theme was boring (farming? Yay!) and I’d often feel like I’d lost 10 minutes into a three hour game. Here the theme is slightly better, the adventuring is fun, it feels generally less punishing and also more cohesive somehow. There’s not much interaction, but taking spots at the right times can make a big difference. Overall still not really for me, but I’ll play it on occasion.
  • The dabbler: While I didn’t struggle as much with this as I did with Agricola, there’s still too much going on for me. I actually think the game looks nice, especially with the wooden animals and individual building art, but there’s just so much to remember and take into consideration. It’s a pleasant enough experience, but it’s the kind of game I’m pretty sure I’ll never win – so wouldn’t choose it.

Key observations

While rather ambitiously listed as a one-to-seven player game, for me it is a two-to-four player game – potentially raising to five if you’re all happy to play a game with quite a lot of downtime that will probably last at least three hours. I’ll talk about the solo game below, but with more the game just becomes unpleasantly and pointlessly long.

The game does play in a very similar way to Agricola, and I think only Rosenberg’s biggest fans will find the need to own both games. That said, I do think it is different enough to merit its existence and I don’t feel, as some do, that this was the designer ‘phoning in’ a new version to make extra cash. I’ll talk about which is my preference below, but I don’t feel the need to have both (despite both being great games).

Criticisms of the game being overwhelming are a fair warning to the feint of euro heart, and only the hardier of gamers should apply. Yes there’s an awful lot going on here, but I still find Rosenberg’s ‘Le Havre’ a more taxing game (the decision space by the end of that baffles me). But I don’t buy it as being bloated or convoluted: quite the opposite, in fact. The things you do make sense and the game runs long enough to get any of the various strategies going in a satisfying way.

Is the game multi-player solitaire? I suppose that depends on how you interpret what really constitutes the game here.

While it’s fair to say you can’t mess with other people’s player boards, that’s only half the battle: the real interaction is in gaining, or denying, particular worker spaces at the right moments to perfectly execute your strategy. I know I have lost games because someone has spotted what I needed to do, jumped in before me quite deliberately, and beaten me long term. That for me is not a solitaire game.

And I suppose I should address the people who played it and didn’t like it who didn’t do their homework (sigh). Yes, it’s a resource gathering game where you turn some things into other things to get points. Thing is, giving it 1 out of 10 for being exactly what it sets out to be is childish. Caverna is a great example of this genre – so it’s your fault for playing a game in a genre you don’t like, not the game’s.

Caverna: Solo play

Sadly I can’t recommend Caverna as a solo experience – but it might work for you. Here, I think Agricola is king because of the random card set up at the start. Each time you play Agricola solo you have a unique set of cards to try and combine to get a great score. This makes each game different and its own challenge.

In Caverna, all the rooms are available to build in every game, taking that random element away. Some players I’m sure will be able to work out a way of doing this to limit themselves in some way, or just try to get the best score without using certain types of building etc. But having to fudge things in like this isn’t at all appealing to me.

Caverna vs Agricola: My opinion

I just wanted to tough on what I see as the key differences between the two games. Each of these I see as Caverna pluses over Agricola, but for other players this is very much the other way around – so don’t take my opinion as gospel!

In Agricola, you start the game with a number of cards you can later play that give your player tableau a unique feel. This front-loads a lot of difficult decisions and can make it feel like you’ve lost before you’ve even begun if you get a poor blend of cards – while often forcing you down a particular path for that game.

Caverna takes the functions of these card and puts them on buildings that are available for all players to buy. This means you can choose to add them as they begin to support your strategy, spreading the decision space further through the game – while also allowing competition for them to add a little more player interaction and tension.

‘Feeding your people’ is a common bugbear for Agricola haters, and with some good reason. While there are a couple of ways to do it, getting a food engine going early in Agricola is pretty much essential. While Caverna also has the need to feed, it is far less punishing in both what you can feed them (dwarves clearly have stronger stomachs than those puny humans) and how easy it is to gather resources. Feeding still feels like a burden, in a good way, but there’s a far wider range of ways to get it done.

Finally, the biggest addition in Caverna is adventuring. While just an alternative way to gather resources, it adds a very different path to victory while also creating some extra challenges in terms of your worker placement (your adventurers are marked and have to be placed last – leaving other players the chance to take the good adventuring spots before you do). It’s a small addition in terms of rules and game space, but adds some genuinely interesting decisions to an already thinky game.

Conclusion

While I can’t go into a game lightly, meaning I don’t end up playing it that often, I always thoroughly enjoy my plays if Caverna. It sits alongside Through the Ages and Terra Mystica as my favourite heavier euro games and I can’t ever see it leaving my collection.

Every game feels like a fun, puzzley challenge and while the decision space opens up a little each round in literal terms, it never feels as if it gets out of hand. For me, it is a true classic of euro games from one of modern gaming’s finest designers.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.