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Caverna: The Cave Farmers; a new and improved Agricola

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Caverna: The Cave Farmers

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Add me to the growing list of Caverna: The Cave Farmers fans. I lost my first game of it, until I realized that I had scored my own board incorrectly, and discovered that I'd actually won. Allowances had to be made. We were unable to complete the requisite 12 rounds of play, because one of our four had to go to work. We'd been at it for nearly three and half hours. That said, with two rounds to go, the scores were tight enough to make it anybody's game at that point. No telling what would have happened had we been able to play the final two rounds, and all but one of us was experiencing the game for the first time.

I could tell just from opening the box and perusing the rules that it was more complicated than its stylistic predecessor, Agricola (same designer, Uwe Rosenberg). This had a way of making me skeptical. I had never warmed to Agricola, finding its process to be tedious without a balancing payoff in fun. Too much work; agonizing over food, trying to decide which farmer to put where and inevitably discovering the space you wanted, to be occupied by an opponent, settling for a less than optimum choice, and just in general, not having a lot of fun. When I reviewed Agricola here, almost five years ago, I asked the question whether all of the complexity was in service to a good game, and answered the question with a qualified 'Yes.' I noted that "in many ways, (the game) is almost too complex to be appreciated by all but the most ardent board game fans. . It is not a game that your basic family unit (Mom, Dad and two kids old enough to play) is going to bring out onto a table for a relaxed evening of fun."

How, I asked myself this time, perusing Caverna's list of hundreds and hundreds of components, is this game going to be more complicated without being the same sort of tedious exercise as its predecessor?

Well, Rosenberg did it, and upon examination and play, and as odd as it may seem, the increased complexity actually aids the process. Your choices are less limited with Caverna; there are a lot of things you can do on your turn, and even when opponents seem to develop the knack for going just where you want to go, you can find things to do that will benefit you on the game's multiple paths to victory. Food is not as difficult to obtain, the overall objectives are easier, but for all of that, there's a pleasing layer of complexity to it that should (but doesn't always) satisfy those ardent strategy/tactics folks.

If you've ever played Agricola, to the point of understanding its core concepts, learning Caverna will be much easier. All four of us in the group that broke it out for play the other night had played Agricola, and all of us were not fans. If you're new to the whole concept, the worker placement function (dwarves, actually) is fairly easy to grasp, while the length and breadth of what you can do with your initial two dwarves can be a bit intimidating. There's tile placement, with familiar Agricola-like fields and pastures, but with Caverna, you'll be improving your caves and tunnels, instead of fixing up your house. You'll be looking to develop both areas of your personal board, and also like Agricola, your goals are probably best understood by the consequences of failure.

At the end of 12 rounds of play, you'll get a point for every farm animal and dog you have in your possession, but you lose two points for every type that you don't have. There are wild boars, donkeys, cattle, sheep, and dogs, so you have to be thinking right out of the gate how you're going to collect this menagerie. You'll get points for possession of grain (1/2 point each, rounded up), and one point each for every vegetable, ruby and dwarf in your little community. You'll also collect appropriate points for things like Furnishing tiles, Pastures, and Mines, along with bonuses, associated with Parlors, Storages and Chambers (all part of a collection of items you can add to your home cave). You'll also score points, one for one, for money, and lose three points for every time during the game that you were unable to feed your family. You'll also lose a point for every space of your 24 that you failed to fill. With 12 turns to accomplish this objective, you have to figure on filling two spaces per turn. Nobody in our little foursome filled up their spaces, although bearing in mind that we had two turns to go, we might have. Two of us took deductions of four points, while the other two took deductions of seven points.

Sounds just like Agricola, doesn't it?

Well, it is like Agricola, but different enough, in my opinion, and that of a lot of folk commenting on BoardGameGeek, to make it a preferable choice. Caverna is listed in a Geek Forum, entitled "Games that FIRED other Games." Tom Vasel, long-time reviewer on the Dice Tower podcasts, went so far as to dramatically have his daughter remove Agricola from his game shelf, swearing he would never play it again. Mr. Vasel has been around board games longer than I have, although I've been on earth a little longer, and though I've been watching him, on and off, for years, I do not remember the last time I saw him get that excited, on-camera, about a game. He's praising it before he's even gone through his 'spill the components on to a table and watch them bounce' routine, which, believe me, with Caverna, is a sight to see.

Caverna has rocketed up to #25 on the Geek's Strategy Game ranking list, and to #67 in the overall board game category. My suspicions about the 'cult of the new' phenomenon aside, I think it's earned its popularity. Over 1,000 people have ranked it, and it maintains (or did when I checked last) a decent 8.51 average. At the lower end of its popularity spectrum, you will find folks who are far less enthused than the general populace commenting on this game. You'll hear things like "doesn't distinguish itself from Agricola enough to make it a justifiable purchase," or "Hoooooorible game. . " You'll find more insightful analysis at the mid-range numbers, as they edge into 8 and above; one person (Eevil, by name) commenting that "they've partially addressed the (people can have uneven numbers of workers) problem, in that it's easier to build rooms for extra people and there are more action spaces that will grow your family." This is true, but not very helpful if you're coming at Caverna with no understanding of Agricola.

If you're already a die-hard Agricola fan, you owe it to yourself to give Caverna the chance to retire that game. How you play each game is exactly the same. The differences are in the quantity and quality of choices you get to make on your turn. Some folk like the limited choices, higher tension of Agricola. I've already become more of a fan of the wider choices, less anxiety of Caverna, and I've just gotten started. If, like me, you start from being lukewarm about Agricola, I wouldn't hesitate to give Caverna at least of shot at heating up that impression you have. Even if you downright hated Agricola, I'd give Caverna a look, because it pretty much took all the things many people didn't like about Agricola, and altered them; re-invented itself, so to speak, and the transformation is very noticeable.

Now, the bad news. It retails for around $90. You'll find it for less, here and there, but you'll find it for more, too. It's hard to imagine a lifestyle that would allow for a $90 game expenditure, but I'm a writer, what do I know? I think in a life where games are valued, it's probably easy enough to justify a $90 expenditure which you might enjoy, repeatedly, to the point where each game played cost you $1. I do think that for those who appreciate its design and enjoy the experience, Caverna: The Cave Farmers could achieve that long-term goal.

Hint: Test drive, before you buy. . .

Caverna, designed by Uwe Rosenberg, with artwork by Klemens Franz, is published by Lookout Games, being distributed by Mayfair Games. It is capable of being played by up to 7 players, although even from short experience, I'd avoid this number. At 30 minutes per player, you'd better start early, and prepare for some analysis-paralysis. This might improve over time with a regular crowd of seven, but as a first-time experience, it is not recommended; even the rules recommend you don't start with more than five. Age group starts at 12, which feels about right. Prices, as noted, range from $80 into the $100s.

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