Caverna is the new big game by famous game designer Uwe Rosenberg that already hit 4th rank on Boardgamegeek. It is a worker placement game that is very similar to the farming game Agricola. It is for 1-7 players and lasts about 120 minutes. Thematically it adds dwarfs and mining.
Caverna comes in a huge box with a lot of material, no wonder it weighs around 3 kg. The components are very nice. My only complaint about the material is that the workers are just round tiles rather than more thematic dwarf tokens. The farming is about harvesting wheat and vegetables, having animals and using these resources to feed your family, to put it in a nutshell.
Caverna is often compared to the game Agricola by the same designer. It is indeed very similar, learning Caverna was very easy for me despite its complexity because I already knew Agricola.
Three main differences are:
1. Feeding your workers is easier. The difficulty to feed your family in Agricola can be frustrating so this change contributes to a more positive game experience.
2. In addition to the farming aspect the player boards have a cave area. Through mining one can gain rubies that can buy any resource.
3. Through armed expeditions players can gain bonus resources and actions.
Interaction: 3 out of 10
I am not a fan of worker placement games because the interaction is usually very low. This game is no exception. Players have their own boards that other players can’t interact with.
The only interaction happens on the actions that one can take. One can try to take actions that are useful for oneself and that other players would like to use as well. So table talk will be a very rare guest in a Caverna session.
Fun: 5 out of 10
The farming theme is fun as it was in Agricola. Building up your farm, growing your family and feeding its members is enjoyable. Most mechanics and furnishing tiles are quite thematic. The components are awesome and convey the theme very well.
However, I find the game too much of a multiplayer solitaire experience. There is so little interaction that I think it may be even more fun to play alone. In contrast to Agricola all 48 furnishing tiles are available for purchase to all players. This means that players must be familiar with them or read many if they want to purchase one. Among players who are not very experienced this leads to AP and considerable downtime. The armed expeditions are not very thematic, they don’t have any conflict element whatsoever. I personally don’t even find the game to be innovative, the game Glass Road by the same designer is a lot more interactive and innovative. The cards of the phases are in random order which hardly increases replayability but adds some element of chance that does not fit a highly complex strategy game. There are so many tokens, tiles etc., so setup is very tedious.
Replayability: 5 out of 10
The game has a lot of mechanics and 48 furnishing tiles. So obviously one can try many different strategies. However, in all games the very same 48 furnishing tiles are available so one can actually strive for the same strategy in each game. Other players can interfere a bit but the interaction is not that high and just taking an action that another player wants that is not so useful for oneself is rarely the best option in games with 3 or more players (2 player sessions are more interactive especially in worker placement games because harming the opponent is as good as gains for oneself). Compare this with Terra Mystica, where 14 different factions with different skills, new combinations of round bonuses and bonus tiles are available in each game and where harming other players on the map by aggressive expansions pays off in order to secure own terrain. Sure the game has a lot of mechanics but once one found a prefered strategy one is tempted to implement it as much as other players allow. Other strategy games may have less mechanics, tiles etc. but their replayability does not stem from the mere number of options but from the interaction with other players.
To be honest I can not understand the popularity of Caverna (and Agricola) at all. It is often argued that its fairly expensive price is justified by the awesome and plentiful components. I think gamers buy games to facilitate a certain game experience and not to simply own tokens. So does the game provide for so much more fun and replayability than other strategy games as suggested by its steep price? I certainly don’t think so. With this regard I can’t understand the publishers’s decision to include components for up to 7 players that certainly increased the price. I doubt that more than 3% of all Caverna sessions are played with 7 players as it would also lead to considerable downtime (one also needs a very huge table for it).
In strategy games one can find good and bad complexity. The best examples for good complexity are chess or go. Despite very simple rules these game are complex and allow for deep strategy. Bad complexity is overburdened by fiddly rules. The ratio of complexity by rules rather than strategic options is worse than in the case of good complexity. Sure most eurogames have much more complex rules than chess because they are not abstract but create a more thematic game experience (even if the theme remains thin). Nonetheless I personally think that neither the price-fun ratio n0r the price-replayability ratio nor the complexity-replayability ratio in Caverna are top-notch. Other strategy games can be challenging with a lot less rules or different tiles because the interaction between players provides for challenging complexity.
I think 3 things would improve Caverna for me a lot:
1. I think having just a random fraction of the 48 buildings available would increase the replayability because one would have to to adapt one’s strategy to the available tiles.
2. Also I’d prefer to have the random event tokens visible from the very beginning so I can take it into account when developing my strategy (like in Terra Mystica where the random setup of round bonuses is visible from the very beginning).
3. Adding an element of a bit more direct interaction would add fun and replayability. Having a common game board where players’ farms interact with each other would be more fun in my opinion. Or the expeditions could be more aggressive/interactive.
Uwe Rosenberg is one of the most talented and successful game designers in Germany. It’s a pitty his worker placement games in the recent years are not my cup of tea at all.