It's time to talk about Cavemen: The Quest for Fire, designed by Dan Cassar. Touched on it in a couple of previous posts, previewing the World Boardgaming Championships, and reporting on an interview with the designer, but never really took a literate look at the game itself in either of those posts. It certainly deserves such a look.
There's something about this game that elevates it a notch or two above a lot of its card-drafting contemporaries; Ticket to Ride comes to mind, although it's not 'like' that game at all. Maybe it's the underlying sense that when you're playing this game, you're not, with Ticket to Ride as the example, optimizing the position of rail lines. With Cavemen: The Quest for Fire, you are making daily (turn) decisions that affect the outcome of your attempts to keep a tribe together, to stay alive. You gotta hunt, you gotta forage for food to keep the family fed, and most importantly, you need to do some thinking.
You get to feeling a little protective about this goofy-looking bunch on the game's cards; artwork by Claus Stephan and Mirko Suzuki. The elders, the thinkers (they're all holding an egg in their right hand), your little (usually) band of hunters, out there against the mastodons putting their lives on the line. And you're always looking for an advantage, trying to invent things to improve your extended family's fortunes, like coming up with the idea for a Tribal Council; a card which will earn you a reward for every Elder in your tribe. You get a tooth per Elder, and teeth, you'll learn are very important in this game.
In a four-player tournament game at the World Boardgaming Championships, a friend of mine, Rob Kilroy, decided that he wasn't going to clutter up his tribe's caves with people sitting around thinking all day. He wanted hunters, because his plan was to go out there, and attack every beast, in every array of cards in which they appeared (randomly) and stockpile the hunting rewards of food and teeth. He won the game and was proud to note that he had chosen to take on only one invention card (these are a card option you can exercise that generally improves your tribe's environment in some way, like the Tribal Council, rewarding you for holding meetings by granting you some of the game's currency, teeth). The invention card he did select when it became available in the array of eight that are laid out at the start of each round of play was the game-winning invention of Fire.
He had to have had some thinkers in there somewhere, 'cause he had to have a certain number to be eligible to select Fire from the array. It's not actually the number of physical thinkers (cards) you have, but the number of intelligence points they bear; some bear 2 intelligence points, others, only one. You need 7 intelligence points to be able to pick up the Fire card (four-player), and win the game. Three thinkers with 2 points each, and one, with one was all he needed. That's four people in his tribe. He had to have had a couple of hunters in the tribe, 'cause he was battling dinosaurs all the time, and just stocking up on food and teeth.
I wasn't really paying attention to his hand all that much, and at the end, the cards got gathered up quickly and I didn't get to look at what he'd used. Didn't think it was all that important, anyway. He won.
The object of the game is to be the first (and only) player to invent Fire; to have carefully chosen the proper resources (intelligence) necessary to make you eligible when the card appears out of the deck and onto the display of them at the beginning of a new turn. You must also, and this is the 'kicker,' be in possession of the Start token (the Conch Shell) to select the Fire card, and it goes up for bid at the start of each round. The currency for the Conch Shell auction is teeth and if there's one thing my friend Rob Kilroy had, in addition to the 7 intelligence necessary, was a stockpile of teeth that made bidding a pointless exercise.
Every player starts with a cave (that will accommodate four tribespeople), two tribesman (a leader and a hunter; they come in male and female characterizations) and a card-sized player aid. Forget the card-sized player aid. Things fall into place well enough so that consulting the card becomes unnecessary, quickly. Each player starts with a player-dependent number of food and teeth, as well. After choosing a starting player by a method that would take longer to explain than do, somebody lays out cards from the deck of 86, equal to the number of players, plus five; so, maximum, nine. Somebody gets the Conch Shell, and has to pay one food for each member of his tribe. Everybody else has to pay a single food, no matter how many people are in their tribe. Conch Shell owner selects a card from the display; his or her choice. Turn goes clockwise. When everyone has selected a card, the owner of the Conch Shell gets a second turn. Card display is replenished, the Conch Shell is passed, bidding ensues and then, more card selection.
Familiarity with the deck is key in this game. After two or three plays, you'll remember that there's a card in the deck that makes you immune from casualties when you send folk out to hunt. Inventing the Bow and Arrow (selecting it from the array, requiring that your tribe show 6 intelligence points) allows you not to 'draw for casualties.' Each time you hunt, a card is drawn randomly from the deck. Amidst an array of information on each card is a number of dots, between one and five. After a hunt, you draw a card and compare the number of dots on the card with the dots on the people in your tribe. If there's a match, one of your tribesmen has died, and has to be removed from your display. Not necessarily the one that matched. You get to choose.
Designer Dan Cassar and I had a discussion about this during our interview, because I found the random removal of cards from the game with the casualty process to be a waste of good game cards. His valid point was that with familiarity of the deck, savvy players would be lying in wait for certain strong cards to appear. The Bow and Arrow card is very strong. It allows you to hunt without fear of consequences, because you have a distance weapon. There are those who would argue that it is overpowered; that having it assures victory.
Well, it doesn't, but it sure helps, and Cassar's way of potentially taking that card out of the game with a degree of randomness will keep those savvy players on their toes, figuring out an alternative path to victory.
There are some other good Inventions, too, like the Spirit World card, requiring you to have four intelligence points to acquire, allowing you to be the one at the end of a round, who chooses which cards from the remaining display will be discarded, prior to replenishment. Gives a player a big 'say' in determining the pace of his/her game, because he can keep cards out there that he wants to strive for.
The Feast card is an odd little invention; possession of the card allows you, after a Feeding phase in which you did not suffer Starvation, to trade six food for three teeth. I don't think in the dozen or so times I've played this game to date, that I've ever seen anybody in possession of so much food that they could readily trade that much for three teeth.
Possession of the Conch Shell when the Fire card makes its appearance is critical. It's an element of long-term planning in this game to make sure that you can outbid everybody for possession of that Conch Shell when you've got the intelligence you need to pick the Fire card (selecting it from the display) and win the game. Now in some cases, nobody else will be able to select the Fire card, because they haven't amassed enough intelligence to be eligible to do so, but everybody's more or less moving at the same pace in this game, and more often than not, there are a couple, or three, that are ready to pick it up. The final auction for that shell will rarely be done, because once players look at the teeth that everybody has (by rule, resources are open information), they'll know who's winning the auction and the game.
I think this is a terrific game. I approach it each time with a sense of excitement. I know the things I need, how to go about getting them, and recognize that I'm going to have to deal with changing circumstances every time I sit down to play. Some days I might load up my tribe with thinkers and just invent a whole lot of stuff to make my life in the cave easier. Other days, I'll be in dire straits for a food supply and have to send my hunters out, always dreading the Casualty process and its potential to kill one of my people.
And it doesn't take long, this process. Regularly played it in less than an hour and a half. Had a couple that went longer, but it was those changing circumstances; there weren't a lot of beasts to fight in the early part of the deck, or not enough hunters to add to your tribe, or every time you hunted, you lost somebody. And the game would drag a bit, but hey, nobody said it was going to be easy. Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.
Cavemen: The Quest for Fire, designed by Dan Cassar, with artwork by Claus Stephan and Mirko Suzuzki, is published by Rio Grande Games. It accommodates two to five players and is actually quite good with any of those numbers; caveat with five, things get a little chaotic and time-consuming. The age range starts at 13, although it could be played by younger folk with an interest and the patience to follow through on plans. There are no concepts or tasks that would restrict it, necessarily, to teenagers. It's been rated 123 times, to date, on BoardGameGeek and has an average rating of 6.64. I strongly suspect that this number will rise, as veteran players become familiar with the deck, and newcomers get captivated by the process.