A Bloated Evening with Caverna

June 01, 2014

caverna Admittedly, Spider-Man 2 is not the greatest movie ever made, but it's pretty dang good. Some true, un-hacky character development, a great foil in Dr. Octopus, great action sequences, J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, Bruce Campbell being Bruce Campbell ... it's at least one of the best superhero movies and certainly the best Spider-Man movie. And then along came Spider-Man 3. It had a lot of the same elements, plus a bunch more cool stuff, but yet, it was somehow ... worse. A lot worse. There was too much going on - too many villians, too many plot points to hit - everything felt rushed and unauthentic. I mean, we can all agree that emo Peter Parker was just plain silly. So why am I talking about this 7 years after the fact? Because I think it's really the best way to sum up Caverna, Uwe Rosenberg's spiritual sequel to Agricola. Caverna is Spiderman 3 to Agricola's Spiderman 2: bloated and chaotic. It's still technically sound and fun to play, but something just feels off. It tries to be too much of a crowd-pleaser and ends up just being busy. I don't know. It is possible I am being too harsh. Admittedly, the game I played of it was almost engineered for me to not like it. It was a 7-player game of all new players, and over half the table had never even played Agricola before. Yeah, that wasn't a typo. 7. In fact, let's talk about that first, because, what? A list of games in which a player count of 7 is cool:
  • social games where everyone is involved in the action no matter whose turn it is (i.e. The Resistance, Mascarade)
  • games that feature simultaneous play so that everyone gets to take their turn at the same time (i.e. 7 Wonders)
A list of games in which a player count of 7 is not cool
  • overly complex worker placement games with a selection of 48 types of buildings that can be built from the very first turn
Sure, in principle, everyone drops their workers on the table one after the other and play gets back around to you in a minute, but in reality even the most experienced players are going to need some time to think through the myriad of complex actions. This game never should have tried to accommodate 7 players. It just doesn't work. I have played Agricola countless times, and not once have I ever thought, "Gee, what this game needs is a 7-player variant." It appeals to a ridiculously small percentage of gamers, but makes the game more expensive for everyone and produces horrific situations like the following: 5 guys around a table: "All right, let's play 5-player Caverna! This is going to be great!" 6th guy walks up: "Hey, sorry I'm late. Is it too late to join a game?" 5 guys: "Well, you can play this game with 6, but it's not recommended for first-time players..." 6th guy: "Cool, sign me up! Certainly better than my other option of sitting around doing nothing!" 7th guy walks up: "Hey, sorry I'm late. Can I...?" 6 guys: "Well..." 7th guy: "Awesome! Let's go! Caverna! Woo!" Me: "All right guys, I want to warn you that this is not recommended. And after a brief explanation of the rules, you can see how complicated this will be. Maybe we can split up into to 2 groups, and 3 or 4 of you can play something else. Does anybody not want to play this and play something else?" Blank stares. Me: "All right, I guess we're playing 7-player Caverna..." It's silly because, far more than in Agricola, actions in Caverna fundamentally take a long time to perform. Take this gem of an example: Let's say I take my level 14 dwarf and go to the "4" expedition action. Now I get to pick 4 things from a list of over 20 options. Okay, so let's pick "breed 2 types of animals." Great, now I get a cow and a donkey, and where am I going to put them? I guess I have an empty mine space for my donkey, and if I move my sheep out to a meadow with my dogs, then I can put the cow in my fenced pasture...no, wait, I don't have an open meadow! Okay, I guess one of the other 4 things I'll pick will be a free meadow space, so I'll put that down to store my sheep with my dogs and then the cow is fine. Oh, but putting down that meadow space also gave me a free boar. Well, I guess I can put him with my other boar in my initial dwelling. Phew! Okay, 2 things left! Let's use one of those to build a building! Okay, hmm, now I'll just peruse these 48 available buildings and see which one I want. It's late in the game, so I should probably go for a point building, but which one is going to be worth the most to me? *Deep thought* Okay, I guess this one is good. So I'll pay for that and then put it down on my board. Now I've got one more thing to do, so let's plant crops. I've got 3 open fields, 3 vegetables and 2 grain. I can only plant a maximum of 2 of any one crop, and vegetables are worth more, so let's do 2 veggies and 1 grain. Yay! I'm finally done! To reiterate, that was a single turn. One worker. It's just ... it's just, in what world is 7 players not completely and totally insane? But anyway, let's move on and talk about the mechanics. If you've played Agricola, you've already got the basics: worker placement to gather resources and build up your farm to increase your family size and your stockpile of animals and crops. One of the new elements I've already touched upon above is the idea of expeditions. In addition to bevy of other actions you can take, you can also build weapons for your workers, and once they have a weapon, they can go on an expedition any time their action space includes a little shield symbol on it. Expeditions are just an efficient way to do more stuff. As you can see in the example above, depending on the level of your weapon, you can do just about anything. Which, to me at least, begs the thematic question of, "How exactly does going on an expedition allow you to plant crops, breed your animals or build fences? And only a dwarf with the highest weapon possible is able to breed animals on his expedition? Is he bringing back, like, the Red Bull or something to inseminate his cows?" red bull Despite Uwe's best attempts to explain it in the instruction manual, it really just makes no sense. I get the feeling that initially the mechanic was something like just doing extra work on the farm, and the level was just the experience of the farm worker, but then they decided to punch it up to make it more exciting. Adventuring, heck yeah! Dwarves with weapons! Awesome! And then we've got the communal supply of 48 buildings, which I've already harped on. And, look, okay, I know this review has already gone super-negative, but in terms of differences between Caverna and Agricola, this is by far the WORST THING. Because what they've done here is remove the variable, player-specific hand of minor improvements and occupations, for a static, communal pool of buildings. The name of the game is variable setup, and Caverna has exactly zero. You're playing the exact same game every single time, and I can't imagine that would be all that interesting after 5 or more plays. After playing the game once, I can see maybe 3 or 4 different strategies I would like to pursue in future games (based on what buildings you would buy and whether you would go heavy into the expeditions), but after that, I don't know. Every review of Agricola I have ever watched or read (including ones that I write) has extolled the virtues of how your starting hand of minor improvements and occupations makes the game completely different every time - your own little private puzzle to solve. I just have no earthly idea why they would get rid of that mechanic. I've heard complaints that it adds too much randomness, but just do a draft. A draft may be a little cumbersome for new players, but is it any less cumbersome that a giant array of buildings? It makes no sense... Anyway, we've talked about the expeditions and the buildings. The other major difference, which was also kind of touched upon above, is just how much stuff you get to do on your turn. Each action space is either a huge pile of resources or lets you do 2 or 3 different things, or both. Honestly, it feels a little excessive. It basically allows you to get a lot more stuff done than you would normally get to do in Agricola, which can be nice and a definite positive for some people, but I rather like the scraping and scrabbling you have to do in Agricola to succeed. Feeding your family is a huge thing in Agricola, and you've gotta make your plan work, or it's gonna spell doom for you. In Caverna, it very much feels like an afterthought - a minor annoyance - "Let's do all this awesome stuff! ...and then I guess I should spend an action or 2 making sure I have enough food..." Everything in the game just feels ... flashy, like too much of a good thing. There's too much stuff going on. So many things to think about, that it all becomes loose and disjointed. It's entertaining, and I'd love to play it again at a lower player count, but it's no Spider-Man 2. jameson

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