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Review: Caverna: Cave vs. Cave

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Dwarves get a bad rap. It’s always “greed” this, and “anger” that. Then there are the beard stereotypes. But dwarves like to make nice, cosy environments just like any other fantasy race.

Except when they nest, they like to make it a competition. Because it’s not enough just to have a nice cave. It needs to be the best.

How It Works

Caverna: Cave vs. Cave is a resource conversion action selection game for two players. Players are dwarves who are furnishing their caverns and competing to be the best. The player with the most victory points is the winner.

Caverna: Cave vs. Cave set up for two players.

To begin, each player receives a cave board and covers all the spaces except the cave entrance and the indicated space with excavation tiles. Players begin with one of each resource. The action track is set up with the starting actions revealed and the 2, 3, and 4 action tiles face-down and randomized by type. The six basic cavern tiles are placed in the center of the table. One player is the starting player and begins.

On a turn, a player will choose one action tile from the board and execute it. Actions include things like gaining resources, excavating tiles (turning them into caverns that players can build), furnishing caverns (adding them to your cave), or activating orange-banner caverns in a player’s own cave (most orange-banner caverns offer resource conversion of some kind). If one player chooses an action tile, it may not be chosen again this round.

Each cavern has to have the right wall configuration. This cavern needs a wall on each side (as most of the best caverns do).

When players furnish caverns, the caverns they place on their board have to have the proper wall configuration, which can limit which caverns are allowed on a player’s board. (Some actions allow players to put up walls.)

The game is played over eight rounds, and players get three rounds with two actions, four rounds with three actions, and one round with four actions, with the first player token moving to the other player each round. At the end of eight rounds, players count up their points. Each cavern furnished provides points, and each gold a player has is worth 1 point. Whoever has the most points wins.

The backs of the player boards form a larger version of the cover tableau.

The Dwarfs Are for the Dwarfs

I’ll begin by stating a few caveats. First, while I like Uwe Rosenberg’s designs, I rarely like them as much as other people do. I think Agricola is a great game, but it’s one I’m rarely itching to play, and most of his big-box games look so daunting that, as the games buyer for my group, I rarely bother. Second, I haven’t played the two games that most people who care about Caverna: Cave vs. Cave will want to see compared to it: the full Caverna and Agricola: All Creatures Big & Small. (I’ve played the latter, but only once and in less-than-ideal circumstances.) I suppose there are plenty of other people who will review Cave vs. Cave through these other lenses; I’m approaching it, more or less, in a vacuum.

That being said, I really like Caverna: Cave vs. Cave.

Each round players have limited actions, equal to the number of dwarves pictured below the line–at least two and at most four. This makes it tough to accomplish everything.

Cave vs. Cave is a fun optimization puzzle that works because of economy of actions. That is, there are always twenty more things that you want to do than you can do, so players have to make some difficult choices about what they will prioritize. This is especially apparent in the two-player game, where another player can mess with your best-laid plans, but the solitaire game also does an excellent job of this. With just eight (or seven in solitaire) rounds in which to maximize your score, every action selection is momentous, and choosing the wrong thing now could impact you down the line. I like this because your choices clearly matter, and there’s no “junk” actions in the mix: yes, there are some selections that are more popular than others, but players are rarely stuck with an “obvious” best choice.

The starting caverns. These same six are out each game with two players. (Only three random caverns are out in a solitaire game.)

The competition over actions in Cave vs. Cave is one of the best aspects of it. This is a hard balance to strike in worker placement games: in some games, there are so many ways to get what you want that your opponents’ choices don’t seem to matter much; in others, the tension is wound so tight that playing the game will give you an ulcer. If player interaction and choices are a spectrum between fluffy clouds and ulcer-inducing, I’d place Cave vs. Cave definitely closer to ulcer-inducing, although not quite as close to the pole as, say, Agricola. There are enough alternate means to reach your ends that you won’t be utterly frustrated if the opponent chooses what you want, yet you will definitely feel annoyed as your strategic GPS has to recalculate your route.

The player board at the start of the game. Each player board is covered in excavation spaces, waiting to become caverns. The same caverns are in every game.

I like that Cave vs. Cave, while not ranking super high on the variety scale, still feels different from game to game. There are several reasons why this is. For starters, the caves that are available have to be discovered, so the order in which tiles are added to the common supply is different, and this matters. Cave tiles have either blue banners or orange banners (either permanent abilities or conversion actions), and when these are furnished on a player’s board can make a big difference in strategic direction. Maybe you discover rooms that will allow you to trade flax for gold or a room that gives you one more flax every time you collect it. These can be the backbone of a good strategy–at the right time. There is also the variety of when different actions come available. While all actions are revealed within the same phase of the game from game to game, their order is randomized. A juicy action might be available right from the start of a phase, or it might come out at the end of that phase. There are new situations to adapt to. And finally, like many other Uwe Rosenberg games, the way your opponent plays has huge repercussions on the game, and with the other changing variables, your opponent isn’t likely to do the exact same things each game. So while out-of-the-box variety isn’t huge, there’s enough that’s different from game to game to keep this interesting. I’ve played nearly ten times and haven’t gotten bored yet.

Tiles with orange banners require actions to activate (provided by action tiles). Blue-bannered tiles have abilities that activate automatically when triggered.

The reason I haven’t gotten bored is because the puzzle in the game is so interesting, and this is the case regardless of whether I play solo or against a human opponent. Unlike some other engine/optimization games, in Cave vs. Cave, players are not allowed to make conversions whenever they feel like it. Rather, in order to operate most of the rooms in their cave, players have to choose actions that allow them to use their rooms. Players are pulled in multiple directions because the actions that allow them to use their rooms often have less powerful other abilities, and the tiles with powerful abilities don’t let players use their rooms. Players are pushed and pulled to optimize their actions, but it’s not always clear what the best path to this is. And again, what the other player chooses will sometimes dictate your own choice. There is always so much to do and so few actions to do it in that the game leaves players wanting more–in a good way. At the end of the game, I always feel like there’s some avenue I haven’t explored, and maybe next game I’ll try it. Finding ways to get your rooms to work together is satisfying, and it keeps me wanting to play.

The resource track is an ingenious way to track resources…it also does very little to disguise the “spreadsheety” nature of the game.

The biggest downside of Caverna: Cave vs. Cave is that it can feel very mechanical. It’s easy to lose the thread of why you’re doing what you’re doing and simply slide into scoring victory points. Now, those of you who follow my reviews probably know that this isn’t a huge issue for me. I like games with wooden cubes, and trading in the Mediterranean is not anathema to me. But here, the fact that resources are tracked rather than collected, the fact that there’s very little illustration in the game outside of icons, the fact that the wall rules are fairly arbitrary, and the fact that you’re already cave dwarves, so there’s little tie to reality to begin with: all of this takes me out of the experience, making this feel more spreadsheet-like than other Euro games, and even other Uwe Rosenberg resource-conversion games. (Agricola, for example, is one of the most thematic Euros I’ve played.) Now, the puzzle is interesting enough that I’m engaged anyway, but if your eyes start to glass over when people talk about resource conversion, run to the hills rather than furnishing your cave.

The full line-up of blue-banner abilities.

For whatever reason, the other players I’ve introduced this game to haven’t been as enamored of it as I am. There are a few factors at work here. First, the spreadsheet-like quality I mentioned already. Also, Cave vs. Cave is the kind of game that you can get better at. This is a huge advantage–you want a strategy game to reward better play–but if you play more than your opponents, it’s going to be easier for you to find a path to victory because the game is so opaque, allowing players to choose several different options. Finally, Cave vs. Cave is a game of efficiencies and resource conversion, and some people really don’t like that sort of thing. So keep your audience in mind when bringing this one out.

The solitaire rules for this game don’t involve many novelties, and the game is fun to play.

Thankfully, the solitaire game here is great. There aren’t many rules changes (there’s one fewer round, there are fewer starting caverns available, and when you excavate on your board just once in a turn, you are allowed to reveal some of the excess caverns not on your board), and the game works much the same. True, you aren’t working against an opponent who will snatch the actions you want, but finding a way to optimize the few rounds in the game is tough. The rules suggest that 50 points is a good score, and while I’ve come close to this number (my best game is 49), I haven’t passed it yet. Still, with the carrot of surpassing that point total dangling, I’m eager to keep trying. I’m not sure how much replay value this will have for solo play–how interested will you be to beat your best score?–but for now, after five or so solo plays, I’m not bored with it.

The game includes alternate resource track markers that fit on the track better than the wooden resources.

The components here are adequate. There are lots of high-quality cardboard pieces, although, again, these are sparsely illustrated. The cave boards are nice, and when you flip them over, they even form a large reproduction of the box image. Wooden bits are included to track most of the resources in the game, but these can be unwieldy, so the game comes with cardboard chits as well, which fit better on the player boards. I like that this option is present, although I’ll stick to the unwieldy wood. Nothing here is shoddy, but nothing here will make spectators stop by and ask what you’re playing. The components are serviceable, but they aren’t likely to excite players.

The action tiles are clearly distinguished by phase.

Caverna: Cave vs. Cave should be a win for players who like Uwe Rosenberg’s games, and even for players like me who have a casual affinity for what his games offer. Cave vs. Cave can feel a little abstract at times, but the efficiency puzzle at its heart–how do I squeeze the most points out of limited actions?–is difficult and satisfying, and the components, while spartan, do have a certain charm about them. There isn’t a ton of variety in the box, and when you play with two players, every tile is in every game, but that doesn’t mean replayability is low: player actions and timing drive replayability here, and I don’t think the game is worse for that. (That being said, having more caverns would be a welcome addition.) All told, I think Caverna: Cave vs. Cave is a solid choice for both two-player and solitaire gaming. You’ll need to know your audience, but with the right opponent, this is a game you can delve into.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Mayfair Games for providing us with a copy of Caverna: Cave vs. Cave for review.

  • Rating: 8.5
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Summary

Pros:

Challenging and satisfying efficiency puzzle
Grueling choices leave players wanting more in a good way
Replayability is a result of timing and player choices
Good for both solitaire and two-player play

Cons:

Can feel very mechanical and spreadsheety
Not a lot of in-box room variety

8.5 Delve Greedily, Deep

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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