Designed by Uwe Rosenberg
Published by Mayfair Games
30 minutes per player
Coke vs. Pepsi, Puma vs. Adidas, Aang vs. Korra; these are bitter rivalries that have raged on for centuries. Today, in the board game industry, there are similar feuds that divide gamers into separate camps, ending friendship, distancing lovers, and causing tables to be flipped worldwide. Chief among these warring idols are Agricola and Caverna. Like Romulus and Remus, the two games were brothers who complemented each other, who made each other stronger by covering the other’s weaknesses; and yet through minor ideological differences, a rift began to grow between them, and soon all of gamedom was taking sides. I remain an objective critic, merely reviewing each game on their own merits. Someday I may do a comparison, perhaps once I’ve secured a high tower and armed thugs, but for now, each will have it’s turn in the spotlight. Today, we start with the younger of the brothers, Caverna.
Caverna is a worker placement game where each player controls a family of dwarven farmers, competing to be the most prosperous family at the end of 12 rounds. There are two boards to focus on, the central action board and your personal tableau* , which you will develop and customize as the game goes on. You raise livestock, sew fields, send your workers on adventures, build buildings, and expand your family, hopefully achieving a self sustaining eco system that provides resources in abundance by the end of the game. Finally, points are awarded based on the animals, vegetables, and various buildings in your cavern.
If you were to buy Caverna, the first thing you’d notice is it’s huge, heavy box. The cover art is welcoming enough, but the sheer heft of the game as you drop it on your table makes it feel like an ancient grimoire stuffed with complex mysteries and dark secrets. As you unpack the box you will notice hundreds of tokens, tiles, cards, meeples, sheeples, and even donkeeples. One of the reasons this game is so dense is it’s designed to seat up to 7 players; there are different action boards based on the number of players, there are 7 sets of player tokens, and there are enough resources, tiles, and tableaus to accommodate such a huge number of players. Don’t panic, but it is imperative that you spend some time and sort out the pieces and develop a system to pack and unpack the box if you want to play the game with any regulatory.Once you’ve taken that all in, the number of components you’ll use in your average 2-4 player game is less than half of what has been provided, and the rulebook and rules of the game are both pretty simple and easy to follow if you have any familiarity with worker placement games.
Caverna, like most of Rosenberg’s games, is a very tight operation. Every action you take must be meaningful to your progress or you will suffer. Fortunately, it is forgiving enough that you have many paths to go, so almost always there are good actions to take; even if the one you really wanted was already taken by your smarmy traitor of a spouse. You have to play with deliberation to get enjoyment out of Caverna, or else the game can and will penalize you. At the end of several of the rounds, there will be a “harvest phase” where players grow crops and new animals are born, but you must also pay food for each of your workers or suffer starvation, which subtracts from your points at the end of the game. There are many ways to efficiently obtain or produce food throughout the game, but you have to account for it or you will always feel like you are chasing food at the last moment, scraping the leavings that no one wanted, or worse, eating all of your vegetables or animals before they have a chance to be planted or reproduce.
The game is aesthetically charming. I enjoy watching my herds of tiny wooden sheep grow, imagining my dogs shepherding them around the field, and to see my recently planted pumpkins and wheat stack, showcasing the crops they will yield in a few short rounds. The mechanics also feel very thematic, it is very easy to understand why certain steps must be taken and why you receive the rewards for doing so. The components themselves reinforce the theme well, though the artwork isn’t something that I particularly love. It’s not without it’s charm, it just feels vacant and it lacks style. This is the same artist who has worked on many other Rosenberg games, so if you’ve played Le Havre, Agricola, or At The Gates of Loyang, you know what you are getting into. That said, I applaud the effort throughout all of the components to maintain a cohesive theme, something many euro style games don’t even try for.
The smartest bit of design about Caverna, and what separates it from many other games that occupy the same space, is that it presents all of it’s options at the beginning of the game. While certain action spaces will appear in different orders in later rounds, the game is predictable, and all of the paths to victory are laid out for you from the moment you start the game. Without this, there would be no need for Caverna to exist, it’d be just another medium-heavy weight euro game about dwarf farming (and lord knows we don’t need another dwarf farming game…). There are no asymmetric powers, no ability cards in hand; you have the same opportunities as each other player, but then you begin investing and branching out in various directions through the developments, adventures, and buildings you choose.
Fortunately, the game feels balanced enough so that you feel like you can explore creative strategies. It wants to reward you for the aspects of the game you like the most. Do you like sheep? Get the cuddle room and build some stables! Do you want to farm? There are buildings that make your produce worth more points or yield more food when eaten. Occasionally there will be times where you broaden your focus, either an action space as accrued so many resources that it’s too valuable to pass up, or you want to invest in a secondary strategy. The unfortunate side effect of this is that occasionally you will also see an action space that is too valuable to your opponent to pass up, and you will consider taking it to prevent them from succeeding. This doesn’t feel good, and it’s the one aspect of the game that I really dislike. Not that I avoid conflict in games, but everything else about Caverna wants you to feel empowered, and I feel like I’m taking away from the most fun and enjoyable aspect of playing if I intentionally throw a cog in another player’s plan if it doesn’t provide my own farm some benefit.
I like Caverna. I find it fun to play, though it can sometimes be hard to predict how fruitful the path you are going down is; but that’s not why I play. The game is most fulfilling when set your mind on a strategy and focus on it. At the end of the game, you look down at your empire of dogs and sheep, your home is furnished with wool shops and cuddling rooms, and you feel satisfied knowing that you accomplished what you set out to do. I should say that I prefer to play Caverna as a two to three player game, and find that it drags a bit at four; the idea of playing a seven player game is ludicrous. By making the game accomodate so many, it is significantly more expensive and the amount of components in the box makes it tough to set up and take down if you don’t have a good storage system in place. But, if you want a sandbox to play in where you experiment with various strategies, and the farming theme is appealing to you, this game may be perfect for you.