During the week in which I was teaching people to play Dan Cassar's Caveman: The Quest for Fire at the World Boardgaming Championships (July 29 to Aug. 3), I became aware of one of its mechanics that annoyed the hell out of me. When you hunt in the game, you are required to initiate a 'Casualty' process which can kill one of the people in your tribe. Nothing wrong with the idea, mind you. Hunting is risky business, and as a caveman, if you send folk out to get the mastodon meat, you're going to have to live with the occasional, fatal casualty. What bugged me, though, was that the process selected to make that happen in the game took some of the game's best cards out of play, at least temporarily.
You're drawing from a deck to create an array of cards that you'll acquire, and as it turns out, there are a few of these cards that are very valuable, particularly the one that allows you to avoid the aforementioned casualties when you hunt. But, when you opt to hunt, you have to draw a card from the deck to determine an icon-related match between the drawn card and cavemen in your tribe. Once you've drawn the card and determined whether or not there's a match (and you experience a Casualty if there is), you toss the card you've drawn into a discard pile, never to be seen again until you go through the deck and re-shuffle, by which time, often, the game is over.
It seemed like a colossal waste of perfectly good cards in the game. I jumped onto BoardGameGeek to get some basic info about the game and peruse the forums about game play. In one of them, Cassar himself was responding to questions, so I put it to him.
"Why do this?" I asked. Why not use a single die, let a "6" roll be a much-appreciated 'mulligan' (the match icons are 1 through 5) and save the good cards for game play?
He responded almost immediately, but with one thing and another, including spotty Internet access in Cafe Jay where I was teaching the game, I didn't see the response. The next day, I came back from a short break I'd taken, to find Dan Cassar himself in the Cafe, chatting with folks about Cavemen, his very first game design. One of those folks was Mike Fitzgerald, designer of (among others) Wyatt Earp and the Mystery Rummy series of card games.
"Can you show us this?" Fitzgerald asked Cassar. "Somebody told me that there's something going on here, something beyond super-light, so let's see what you got."
The "Cassar teaches Fitzgerald" scene drew a bit of an audience, and afterwards, I got to discuss this 'Casualty' issue with him, directly. He informed me that he'd answered the question on the Geek, but would be happy to reiterate. Basically, I was told that the 'Casualty' process was designed, precisely, to take cards out of play, randomly. This, Cassar explained, would offset the best laid plans of anyone who was familiar enough with the game (and card deck) to depend on the emergence of certain high-valued cards. It would, in effect, assure the application of some flexibility in whatever path to victory you might be contemplating. In other words, like the game itself, the strategy would have to evolve, dependent on the emerging facts of life.
Okay, so I bought that, and decided that, personal whining about certain cards that bit the dust in a random draw for casualties, the designer's method for determining those casualties was better than my suggested alternative.
And we went on to talk.
He's a software development manager, originally from New York, currently residing in Philadelphia, who entered a nationwide, Jay Tummelson (Rio Grande Games) design contest out of which, Cavemen: The Quest for Fire was selected (along with Spin Monkeys) for publication.
"I'd been doing game design, informally, and had a bunch of false starts," he said, adding that he'd met and been working with an "amazing group of designers," who were part of the New York Board Game Designers Group. "Then, I hit on this idea, and it had some 'legs."
Originally, having been reading a lot of work by Richard Dawkins, the English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author, Cassar wanted to create a game about evolution, and when the design that would eventually become Cavemen: The Quest for Fire began, it featured cards with body parts.
"I wanted to see creatures evolve over time," he said.
This didn't pan out quite the way he expected and his idea evolved, from general evolution to human evolution. This, he said, changed everything and the pieces started to come together.
"The (evolutionary) traits became the technologies," he said of his emerging game, "and everything came together pretty quickly after that."
The invention (discovery?) of fire (which is the goal of the game) became something of a metaphor for that spark of evolutionary humanity. His cavemen had to hunt, and dinosaurs became the beasts.
"Dinosaurs aren't historically accurate, and people have a hard time with that," he said, noting varied comments reminding him of how historically inaccurate those dinosaurs were. "It was meant to be kind of a fantasy Stone Age world; Cave punk. Nobody complains that there weren't dinosaurs in the Middle Ages, and yet that seems to work."
Cavemen: The Quest for Fire was far and away the most popular game at the Rio Grande demonstration tables (just ahead of Friedmann Friese's Copycat, and the deck-building game, Arctic Scavengers). While it was clear that its quick learning curve was part of the attraction, Cassar pointed out that it isn't as simple as it looks or plays the first couple of times around.
"I think it's the kind of game that you have to play two or three times to get," he said. "It's accessible, but the subtleties of it don't come out right away.
"It has a shallow learning curve," he added, "but the strategies for winning are not immediately apparent."
He's been working on an App for the game ("in my spare time," he said), as he prepares another game for publication; a more traditional type of card game, called Arboretum. He brought a prototype copy of Arboretum with him to the WBC, and alternated teaching sessions of Caveman with introductions to the new game, currently in development with Z-Man Games, for publication sometime next year.
As noted, Caveman: The Quest for Fire is a relatively simple game, but as its popularity at the WBC, and any exposure to it at all will attest, it is not without its complex charms. It found a 'sweet spot' with the gamers at the WBC, appealing to both casual and die-hard gamers that spread the word, like the fire at the heart of its gameplay.