Caverna: Cave Vs Cave

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4 Chits, 1 Giggle

Since working in a board game cafe, the realisation occurred that finding a perfect two player game can as difficult as finding a good dexterity game. That is to say it’s possible, but certainly not an easy task. Not because there aren’t options, heck no; there are literally thousands of games out there, but when it comes to two players, not only must it be perfectly balanced and also fun to play, but it has to cater to your personal preferences more so than usual, because if you aren’t enjoying it, well, that’s half the games audience lost. Knowing how difficult a task it is then, how will this, one of the latest entries into the crowded market fare against so much competition? Enter Caverna: Cave Vs Cave.

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This isn’t the first time that Uwe Rosenberg, the games designer, has condensed one of his popular titles into a shorter form. Agricola, Bohnanza and Le Havre have received such treatment, so it was only a matter of time before one for Caverna came to be. Your goal then is to make your cave the most liveable after eight rounds, as you build, tidy up and gather gold and resources using your expanding Dwarf (worker) family to do so. The game is simple enough; you’ll take a certain number of turns each round selecting action tiles from a central row, which give you actions and/or resources, and at the end of the round these tiles reset and you’ll reveal a new one that will be available from the next turn, giving you more choice for the remainder of the game. You’ll continue this fairly simple format for eight rounds gaining a couple of new workers (and thus more turns each round) along the way, then total up your gold and victory points from your rooms at the end. The winner is the one with the highest total.

Each player has a board that represents his or her cave, with a chart on the side that tracks their various resources. In this game you are limited to nine of each, except for gold which you can collect nineteen. This forces you to think about how to use and collect them effectively, as any you can’t store are simply not gained. Covering most of each cave are face down tiles, representing piles of junk that must be removed before you can build there. Once cleared, these tiles are flipped over and reveal new room tiles which either player can choose to build later on, so long as they have the right resources as well as the correct configuration of walls. This is a very interesting mechanic as certain rooms can only be built with the right number and placement of walls around them, so building additional walls is an essential strategy here. Without doing this, you’ll be incredibly restricted with what you can build in the game, and with so many points stemming from furnishing out your cave, you’ll struggle to score highly without.

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There are two types of rooms to deck your cave out with; blue ones with passive bonuses, and orange ones that depict bonus actions that fit the rooms name. For example, the Bakehouse converts emmer (that’s wheat to normal folk) into food and gold, and the Digging Cave lets you excavate other face down room tiles. To use these room abilities, you must choose particular action tiles that let you activate them, but often at the cost of other more limited actions. Therefore combining these different rooms and their bonuses is what mostly determines your strategy, so thinking on your feet based on whats available to you will determine how successful you will be at the end of the game. It’s a careful balance, and one that rewards multiple plays of the game due to knowing the various rooms and their advantages.

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One of the things Uwe does well in his games is to give experienced players something to aim for after mastering the game. With Patchwork, it was filling up the entire quilt board with patches, and in Agricola it is filling up your field with the maximum number of animals, rooms etc. Here, your ultimate goal is to furnish every room in your cave (with a little bonus space if you’re the first player to do so). It’s a subtly effective way of encouraging you to play efficiently. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Uwe purposely considers how to work that element into every one of his games. 

It’s certainly not an exciting looking game, though fans of Uwe will certainly notice and appreciate him sticking to his famed style, but for newcomers this game doesn’t really give them a reason to take a closer look. It’s good at what it does, and the component quality is very good as you might expect from such a famed designer, but take a look at the recent Cottage Garden, another title by him but released by a different publisher, for why you should never skimp on production. Post release, the game received a hasty rule correction on a sticker which you had to stick in the rule book yourself. A good thing then that Mayfair bring their experience and presumably great relationships with manufacturers to the table. If you can bring yourself to overlook the lack of theme, which most experienced gamers probably can, then you’ll find a good and balanced game inside.

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As far as two player games go, this one sits above a lot of others out there, but that’s down to the experience behind the games designer and the publisher. It’s balanced, it’s quick and it’s thoroughly designed, but it won’t excite the newer generation of gamers. Is that a bad thing? Well, it depends on your taste, and that of your partner too.

Review by Russell Chapman