The PLAYlist 11: Caverna Cave vs Cave

Aug 31, 2017 By Austin Trunick Bookmark and Share


The board game we’ll be looking at in today's column comes from Uwe Rosenberg, a German designer we’ve previously described as gaming’s Stuart Murdoch. Rosenberg is known for cookilng up lovely, pastoral games like Agricola, Ora et Labora, and Fields of Arle, often set in quaint, European locales some centuries ago. It's not unusual in these games for you to play as farmers tending to flocks of adorable, wooden livestock. (This isn't always the case, though; some of his games feature fishermen, Vikings, or dwarves… well, dwarven farmers.) If you’ve played a board game where you’ve spent any amount of time arranging cows and counting carrot tokens, chances are likely that you were playing one of Rosenberg's game.

Even though his works can occasionally conjure images of the mud-caked peasants along the road to Bedevere's castle, Rosenberg is one of my favorite designers. Part of that is because these are among some of the finer examples of worker placement games. The other reason is that they do an outstanding job of hiding their complexity. Most of the decisions you’re asked to make in a Rosenberg game make logical, real-world sense. Do you spend your turn collecting wood so that you can build a fence around your pasture, or do you bake bread to feed your family? Rosenberg is one of the best at tying his mechanics into a game’s theme – it always feels like you’re doing more than mental math and managing resources. This can trick you into thinking these games are less heavy than they actually are, and because they’re so oddly relatable, new gamers don’t seem quite as averse to sitting down with them. Hey, who doesn’t want to play with a bunch of tiny, wooden cattle?

If there’s one complaint I would lodge with Rosenberg’s designs, it’s that they have soooooo many pieces. (No joke: Rosenberg’s latest opus, A Feast For Odin, lists more than 700 parts on the back of its box.) This can make setup/cleanup a bear, and gamers have spent tens and tens of dollars on Plano storage boxes just to keep everything organized once it’s all back in the box. In the unlikely event that a crack in the space-time continuum triggers a second Ice Age, burning all of the wood and cardboard bits packed into a copy of Caverna could keep an entire family warm for three whole months. (True fact!) Not to mention, his bigger releases – like Caverna and Odin – are nearly the same size and weight as a microwave. (Actually a smidge smaller, but you get the idea.) This makes them unwieldy to transport if you’re not driving somewhere, or don’t have rolling luggage.

I would venture to guess that this is at least part of the reason why Rosenberg’s now revisiting some of his greatest hits with significantly more compact, faster-paced, 2-player versions. The first was Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, which by most accounts rather successfully replicated everyone’s favorite, two-hour-long farming simulator in an easy-to-carry, half hour game. Next came Le Havre: Inland Port, which did the same for his game of turn-of-the-century French fishmongery. His newest one, Mayfair Games’ Caverna Cave vs Cave, is an attempt to boil down his massive game of fantasy farming and dwarven interior decorating, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, which holds a distinguished spot amongst Boardgamegeek.com’s top ten games of all time.

Before I get into my thoughts on the game, here’s one (large-ish) disclosure: I haven’t personally played the original Caverna. (That’s a big gap in my Uwe fandom, I know.) But, I am a big fan of some of Rosenberg’s other games – particularly Agricola, which carries many similarities – and I have watched parts of other people’s Caverna sessions. Thus, my review here won’t go into how well this lean, mean little 2-player game adapts it bigger, more sophisticated older sibling. Instead, I’ll be judging how the game fares purely as its own thing. (I’m sure Eli Manning doesn’t really appreciate people comparing him to Peyton all the time, either.)

When you begin a game of Cave vs Cave, you and your opponent will each have a rectangular board covered up with rocky-looking tiles. This is your cave, where you’ll spend the next 20 – 30 minutes digging new tunnels, erecting walls, and adding new rooms. All of this is done via a neutral action board, where you’ll take turns selecting from the available abilities. (Once an action tile has been “used” by one player or the other, it can’t be picked again.) You’ll do this a few times per round, and then this board will be reset. After 8 rounds, the game ends, and the players whose rooms are worth the most points wins. That’s it very much in a nutshell, and so we’ll look at each element of this game a little bit closer.

At the start, your personal player board isn’t very much to look at. You and your dwarf family – think of Thorin Oakenshield’s extended family, whom Bilbo accompanies on an adventure in The Hobbit – have found a little cave to call your home, but it’s what most would call a fixer-upper cave. It’s cramped, dirty. There’s barely enough room to swing an axe in. And so, you’re going to set about turning this place into a proper Casa de Dwarf. One of your first courses of action will probably be to start digging out those rock walls and giving yourself some room to breathe.

When you select one of the actions that lets you excavate, you’ll pick up one of the rocky tiles that’s on your personal board and flip it over. On the back of each is a unique room – like, say, a treasury, a dungeon, or a plain, ol’ spinning wheel – which you’ll add to a market in the center of the table. These rooms are where you get your points, which is how you’ll win the game. (Gold is also worth a point per nugget, but that's another matter.) Each room also grants a unique bonus which could make your future actions more profitable, or grant you a special ability that your opponent won’t be able to use. (Many allow you to convert resources into something more practical; the Bakehouse, for example, lets you turn inedible wheat into scrumptious dwarf food.) You’ll probably want to add some of these valuable rooms to your cave before your opponent snatches them up, but that’s going to cost you resources such as wood and stone.

One of the things I love most about Cave vs Cave is how it handles keeping count of how many of each resource you have. Alongside your board there’s a ladder-like track; you’re given one wooden token representing each type of resource, which you’ll move up and down the rungs as you earn or spend them. In many other Rosenberg games, you spend a lot of time counting and passing around tiny wooden vegetables, or pulling them in and out of baggies. The way Cave vs Cave does it is just so clever, and helps keep the game tidy. (Not to mention, it significantly reduces setup/cleanup time.) As much as I love tossing about fistfuls of wooden bits, I think I much prefer the way they've handled things here.

Once you have the required resources for that cave room of your dreams, you can select a “furnish” tile, and grab that room from the market. Many rooms have a layout restriction, meaning they’ll need to be configured inside a designated arrangement of walls. Those can be natural cavern walls, or you might need to build them through yet another action. This little spatial puzzle adds a nice, extra layer of complication to the game, giving you more reason to try and plan ahead when you’re cozying up your little cave home.

This planning, though, is where things will often go awry – and where the game gets competitive. Because an action can only be selected once per round, it’s easy to block – or get blocked by – your opponent. You’ll always be looking across the table and trying to guess what your opponent might want to pick this turn; if it’s something you also want to do this round, you’ll either have to get there first or figure out a Plan B. This is the meat of the game’s player interaction. Because options are relatively limited throughout the game, you’ll be tripping all over each other on a regular basis. At the beginning of each round, a new action tile is flipped over and becomes available to use.

When you set up Cave vs Cave, you’ll shuffle up the action tiles and room tiles face-down, arranging them at random along the action board and on your player boards, respectively. This is how the game keeps replayability high, as you’ll never know what rooms you’ll have available to you, or for certain when each action will open up for use. It’s a good way to keep players from getting stuck using the same strategies again and again, particularly if you’re someone who does most of your gaming with only one other person.

I like Cave vs Cave. I really do.  It moves fast, and plays in under half an hour – you’d barely have one of Rosenberg’s bigger games set up by the time you finished a session of this one. It’s an easy game to reset, too, making it one that you’re likely to play multiple times back-to-back. While it certainly doesn’t replicate it in scope, I feel that like this scratches a lot of the same itch that a game like Agricola does, but won’t necessitate setting aside several hours. (Cave vs Cave also comes with solitaire rules, in case you want to play it by yourself. Always a nice bonus.) The biggest potential roadblock is that it’s designed for only two players – if your group is normally bigger than that, this won’t do you any good. But, if you’re someone who usually plays one-on-one games – against a spouse, a buddy, a child – then this is fantastic. The price of entry makes it easy to recommend, too: it has an MSRP just under $30, while the original, fully-leaded edition of Caverna retails at nearly $100. If you wind up loving this version, then maybe you’ll want to invest for the bigger one down the road.

Before we move on to the music, I also have to mention just how funny your caves often look by the game’s end. Most of the rooms make sense, like a parlor or storeroom, but some hilariously don’t, such as the humorously out-of-place sacrificial altar tile. Imagine trying to explain that one to a realtor…

For this column’s playlist, I’ll need you to forgive me for taking an overly literal approach. However, when you say the word “cave,” my brain doesn’t automatically jump to spelunking. The first thing I’m going to think of is Nick Cave, Australia’s #1 supplier of macabre ballads, raucous goth-punk, and gospel-tinted blues. This playlist is a sort of chronological sampler from all four decades of Cave’s career, starting with his days as lead singer of The Birthday Party, through his many albums with the Bad Seeds and into latter-day side projects, such as Grinderman and film scoring. (We’ve limited ourselves to just one song from each album, which took a lot of self-control.) There’s two hours of music here – more than enough for three rounds of Cave vs Cave, if not more – yet it’s still barely a drop in the Nick Cave bucket. If you’re new to his music and find yourself Cave-curious, we’d recommending starting with Let Love In, his early ‘90s magnum opus with a high volume of hits, or Murder Ballads, a collection of, well, murder ballads, which shows off Cave’s unique talent for gloomy, musical storytelling. 

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Previous PLAYlist columns: Twilight StruggleHonshuBärenpark, Notre Dame & In the Year of the DragonYokohamaClank! A Deck-Building AdventureVillages of ValeriaNew York SliceWatson & HolmesHanamikoji.



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