Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Caverna plus expansion

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Caverna is a reimplementation of Agricola. They share many similarities, but are also different in many ways. You are farmers developing your own farms on your individual player boards. You expand your farm, plant crops, harvest them, rear animals, slaughter them for food, and so on. The core game mechanism is worker placement. The main board shows the various actions you may take. You place your worker on a spot to claim it for the round and take the corresponding action, blocking others. Every round a new action space is added, increasing your options. You may get more workers by having babies. This lets you do more per round. The number of rounds is fixed. Every few rounds you do harvesting, which involves harvesting crops, breeding animals, and most importantly feeding your family. If you are unable to provide enough food, you take a stiff penalty. At game end, you score points for many aspects of your farm, and highest scorer wins.

This summarises the similarities between Caverna and Agricola. Now let's look at the differences.

The first difference you'll see is the player board. There are two halves. The left half is a forest. You need to clear trees to make meadows and fields, meadows for animal husbandry and fields for crops. The right half is a mountain. You dig caves and tunnels to expand your dwelling, to create mines, and to install furnishings. Furnishings give you various special abilities and some help you score points. There are many types available, but only one unit per type, so you have to fight for them.

Some spaces have yellow round icons. These are food icons. When you develop a space with food icons, you collect food. Some forest spaces have black boars. Similarly when developing these spaces you claim the boars.

This is the main board. The top part are the furnishings, 48 types in all their glory, which is intimidating for newcomers. Furnishings come in three categories. (1) Orange dwellings are living spaces you need to create before you can have children, i.e. more workers. (2) Green furnishings are resource-type furnishings. They usually help you produce resources, convert resources, or save resources when doing something. (3) Yellow furnishings are scoring-type furnishings. They usually score points based on specific criteria. The bottom part are the action spaces. The actions on the left half are available right from the beginning. The actions on the right half are made available bit by bit, one new action per round.

On the furnishing tiles, the cost to build is at the top left, and the number in the yellow shield is the point value.

These are some of the action spaces. You add resources to some of them at the start of every round. When you pick an action space with resources on it, you claim all the resources.

One mechanism that doesn't exist in Agricola is adventuring. Iron ore can be used to make and upgrade weapons, and your workers can be armed and sent on adventures. In this photo you can see that many workers (coloured discs) are armed and dangerous - wearing helmets with numbers. If you look at the action spaces of the level-9 and level-8 workers, you will see shield-and-axe icons with numbers. These are adventuring icons. When you go adventuring, you get to pick a number of benefits from a list. How many you get to pick depends on the number on the adventuring icon. How many choices you can pick from depends on the weapon level of your worker. The benefits vary. Some are simply claiming a resource. Some let you develop a forest or mountain space. They may not sound like much, but adventuring actually gives you much flexibility. Often the competition is fierce on the main board for what you need to do. Adventuring is like a safety net. You can use it to help you with the area you are most lacking in.

The second card lists your choices when you go adventuring. Let's say your worker is at level 6, and your adventuring value is 2. You will get to pick two different things between 1 to 6. This card is double-sided. This side shows your choices up to level 8. The other side shows the additional choices up to level 14.

The reason I had the opportunity to play Caverna was my fellow gamers wanted to play the expansion The Forgotten Folk, which was released last year. I missed the boat when Caverna was first released. The Forgotten Folk introduces fantasy races. Every player now plays a unique race with its own strengths, weaknesses and quirks. Depending on the races in play, some furnishings are swapped out with race-specific furnishings. Such special furnishings are not restricted to be built by their corresponding races. Anyone can build them, just that generally they will jive better with their corresponding races. The large card on the right was the race I played - the Silicoids. Instead of food, my people ate rocks. I didn't care about food much. I had to worry about rocks instead.

These two cards are elements from the expansion too. Depending on the races in play, new resource types may come into play, like these two.

When developing forest spaces, you usually do two at a time, covering them with a 2x1 tile, one square being a field for crops, and the other square being a meadow. The meadow can later be upgraded to a pasture (i.e. meadow with fences) by flipping the tile over. A pasture holds two animals. A pasture with a stable (the little house) holds four. A stable on a meadow holds one animal. In Caverna you get to keep dogs (but not cats unfortunately). You don't need to worry about living space for dogs. They sleep anywhere and don't run away. In fact, they actually help you with managing sheep. A team of dogs on a meadow guards the same number of sheep plus one. One dog guards two sheep, two dogs guard three sheep, etc. At game end, every animal including dogs score 1VP. This is simpler than Agricola where you need to look up a table to see how many animals of which species score how many VP.

The green leaf icon means harvesting (and feeding your family). From Round 6 to 12, harvesting is not predetermined. You don't harvest every round, and sometimes the harvest works differently. You only get to know whether there is a harvest at the start of the round. There will be one easier harvest, where your family eats less. There will also be one harder harvest, where you must forgo either harvesting crops or breeding animals.

Rubies is a type of resource, and they are worth 1VP each at game end. At any time you can convert rubies to other resources or spend them to develop a space on your board. Normally you can only get cows by trading in one ruby and one food. At game end, you are penalised 2VP for each animal type you don't have. The difference between having no cow (-2VP) and having one (1VP) is 3VP.

The Play

The core game mechanism in Caverna is worker placement. There are many aspects of your farm you need to improve. Many things to do, and many opponents fighting with you over them. When you play Caverna, the difficult choice is always between things you are keen to do, knowing that by picking one, the other will likely be claimed by someone else. Players may pursue different strategies, so eventually actions spaces will have different values to different people. If there is something you need to do, and it's not important to others, you can probably afford to defer claiming the action space.

Broadly speaking, the aspects of your farm you need to manage are crops, animals, mines, expanding your dwellings in order to have more workers, adventuring, and installing furnishings. Occupations cards and Improvements cards in Agricola have become furnishings in Caverna. Unlike the cards in Agricola which are dealt out to players, where everyone can only play from his hand, in Caverna the whole pool of furnishings is accessible to everyone. There is no luck of the draw and you have freedom to decide what to install, but you may have competitors going for the same strategy and the same furnishings. In base Caverna players start on equal footing. Only in the Forgotten Folk expansion you get different starting positions, abilities and handicaps due to the races.

Caverna is a mid to heavy weight game, not something I'd recommend for people new to the hobby. I think it will be overwhelming, especially the furnishings.

Allen, Kareem, Dennis. This copy of Caverna is Kareem's. He has custom storage trays which save some space when playing and also help a lot in packing the game away. This game has a ton of components.

One furnishing I installed gave me free wood for the next seven rounds, thus these wood pieces placed this way on the main board to remind me to collect them in upcoming rounds.

I had many dogs. Two were idle now and were playing in the forest by themselves. One was guarding two sheep. My pasture with a stable could actually keep four sheep. I just hadn't reorganised my sheep yet. The starting dwelling can keep one pair of animals, and I had a boar in my bedroom now (hmm... that doesn't sound right...).

This was Allen's player board. That grey animal is a donkey. You can keep one donkey at each mine.

In the late game, I managed to completely develop every space on my board. On the right I have three tunnel and cave spaces not yet furnished. Caves can be furnished, and tunnels can become mines. Now I had 7 dogs and 9 sheep. My animal husbandry went very well, due to lack of competition. Both Allen and Kareem's races were poor at developing the forest, so they focused their efforts on the mountain side of their boards. Dennis wanted to build the archery range, which needed empty meadows, i.e. no pastures and no animals. I more or less had free rein.

This was the second last round. On the main board, only one last action card was not yet revealed, the one for the final round. Caverna has more harvests than Agricola, 8 harvests over 12 rounds, compared to Agricola's 6 harvests over 14 rounds. However the harvests in Agricola are more difficult. It is not easy to prepare enough food. In Caverna making food is more convenient, and harvests less daunting.

This was Allen's player board. His race was poor at developing the forest, so he mostly worked on the mountain. At this point he had three iron ore mines and two ruby mines. Mines are worth VP. He had only developed three forest spaces.

Furnishings are printed on the furnishing boards so that you know where to place which one. They are organised by category so that it's easier to analyse and compare.

This was Kareem's player board. Some of the tiles on the mountain half were overhanging. This was due to a special ability of his race. He scored points for doing this. The yellow pawn on the right is the start player marker.

This was Dennis' player board. He had three consecutive empty meadows, arranged as such so that he could build the Archery Range and score the full 10VP for it. 10VP is a big deal. Dennis also planned up front to have many children. He built the Couple Dwelling, which could fit two workers. There was only one Couple Dwelling in the whole game and he beat everyone to it. He also built the Additional Dwelling (also unique) which let him have a sixth worker. Normally a player can only have at most five workers.

This was my player board at game end. I won at 99VP. Kareem and Allen's races were conflicting, which made the game tough for both of them, and I became the indirect beneficiary. Not just in animal husbandry but also in crops. At this point I had much fewer dogs and sheep, because I had converted many of them to money. The Sheep Market let me cash in sets of 1 dog and 2 sheep at $4 per set. Normally 1 dog and 2 sheep would be worth 3VP at game end. $4 is 4VP. My $20 was all earned from selling dogs and sheep. The Food Chamber (top right) also helped me tremendously. Every grain + pumpkin pair gave me 2VP. This furnishing gave me 18VP!

The Thoughts

Caverna is a different Agricola. Many things are similar, but there are many differences too. The differences are not superficial. The underlying economy and balance are different. I find it more forgiving. Harvests are not as suffocating. Adventuring is a backup plan you can fall back to if you are acutely short of something. Some things are simplified, like animal husbandry scoring. Also baking bread and cooking meat is easier - fewer steps. Compared with Ora et Labora and Le Havre, Caverna is still the most similar to Agricola. It's not an improved version, nor is it an inferior and gentler version. It's just different.

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