A man sits on a couch, sobbing lightly to himself. Two psychologists glance at each other with concern.
“Which stage has he got to?”
“Stage four. The second stone accumulator.”
Suddenly, their patient is no longer able to contain his feelings:
“They were like animals. But I had to kill them, there was no other choice. I cooked them in a simple fireplace. And that was enough to survive, for a while. For a while it was alright. But then they brought my family into it – said they wouldn’t have enough food unless I did what they wanted. And in the end I did it, and I begged. Everybody begs, in the end.”
While I’m sure there are people who have been traumatised by the experience of playing Agricola, that is not in fact the subject of this post. Instead, this post is about what happens when Agricola goes underground: Caverna.
Given that Caverna is a game about dwarves I shall endeavour to keep things short. Caverna is basically Agricola but in a cave with dwarves. It is a heavy worker placement game in which you build a farm, grow and maintain your family and ultimately win or lose based on victory points. It being in a cave you can also build mines, which is a new feature. Another thematic difference is that the usual farmyard animals are supplemented by the appearance of dogs, who can be used to store sheep without building fences or stables. Oddly though dogs are not considered a “farmyard animal” and can’t be converted to food. Contrary to the experience of ankles the world over, they also apparently have no interest in breeding.
The main difference in the gameplay is that instead of everyone having a unique hand of occupations and improvements there is a communal pool of cavern tiles that all players can build and which grant their owners unique special abilities. This makes the game fairer, but the way it is implemented has two flaws: there are balance issues with some of the individual tiles and the same set of tiles is available every game. The second of these concerns is the more serious, and in my opinion makes Caverna much less replayable than Agricola. If more tiles were provided then a random set could be drawn for each game, thus providing both fairness and variability. I suggest that players house rule these aspects of the game, perhaps slightly twerking the costs of some of the tiles, and maybe making up their own cavern tiles to enlarge the available set and then randomly drawing some fraction of them for use in each game. Be careful however, for only the truly wise man should twerk the Dog School.
How to win the game…
- Build the Trader. This tile is highly overpowered – I have played a fair few games of Caverna and every single time I have got the Trader I have won. In reality it needs to be balanced by a house rule, or just removed altogether. An interesting point to note for would-be game designers is that the Trader is the only real problem tile, despite other tiles such as the Food Chamber and Broom Chamber being equally powerful. This is because these other tiles are useful only for the endgame. They can therefore exploit the auto-balancing mechanism in which, in order to get them before their opponents, players are forced to build them earlier than they really want to, thus reducing how good they are.
- Don’t just grab the shiny things. Rubies are a special extra-versatile resource that can be instantly converted into a range of other things. Don’t get me wrong, rubies are good and can get you out of a tight spot, but they just tend to be overvalued. If you plan properly then a ruby isn’t worth much more than whatever you think you’re most likely to convert it into. Many players will jump at a chance to pick up two rubies, which they might go on to convert into two stone, but not be particularly interested by the prospect of picking up three stone directly.
- Use the night time side of the board. It looks cool and you can trick your opponents by hiding your ore and/or wild boar against the darker regions.
- Be realistic. Don’t try so hard to do everything in the most efficient order that by the time you get to the key part of what you are doing one of your opponents has blocked you. Sometimes you have to make small sacrifices in order to avoid catastrophe. This is particularly important in Caverna, where a lot of the game is about the unique cavern tiles, with only one copy of each and every player having equal access to them… This also makes it particularly important to build versatility into your strategy.
- Get an axe. Your opponents will probably concede. No, ok, an in-game axe. It is important to get at least one weaponised dwarf, not only because the rewards for adventuring are generally good but also because without this you will really struggle to furnish caverns. It is extremely painful to have to spend a whole action every time you want a new cavern tile, and as there is only one space that allows you to furnish non-dwelling caverns it also gets quite crowded. This means that the crucial value of weapon strength you have to reach is seven. I personally find that the best way is often to get to five ore in your supply, then smith a weapon and take “All weapons +1” as one of your rewards, since getting to six or seven ore would often necessitate taking a whole extra action picking up ore.
- Remember to score. Because there is only one of each tile and some of the endgame tiles are much more lucrative than others you need to start thinking about endgame scoring a bit earlier than in some similar games. Start planning your endgame scoring from about round 6 onwards – you don’t necessarily have to be building the tiles for it yet, but it’s still good to have it in mind when making decisions. No matter how productive your resource engine is, you will have to find a way to turn it into points if you want to win.