Number of Players: 1-7
Honest Playtime: 30+ minutes per player
Number of playthroughs: 2, with 4 players each game
Overview- Caverna is the 2013 follow up to legendary game designer Uwe Rosenberg’s 2007 Agricola. Caverna is a worker-placement game set in an idyllic fantasy world. As a player, you will raise a family of dwarves, clear forests, plant crops, raise livestock, mine the earth for ore and rubies, forge weapons, and go on adventures for loot and glory.
Gameplay- Caverna is a worker placement game. Players take turns placing their dwarves on available actions like ore mining, wood gathering, and weaponsmithing. As the game progresses more and more actions will become available to players–the order of these new actions is slightly randomized, so no game will unfold in exactly the same manner. Almost all of the actions are appealing, and I enjoyed agonizing over my choices throughout the game.
Players use resources gathered from their actions to outfit their dwarves with weapons, feed their dwarven families, and purchase furnishings for their caverns like additional dwellings, storage units, and animal-specific rooms that all give different bonuses or scoring opportunities. I really enjoyed poring over the different furnishings and trying to decide which ones I wanted to purchase as the game progressed.
Adventures allow players to earn rewards through nontraditional means. A dwarf may, for example, come home with vegetables or grain ready to be eaten or planted. Likewise, he may bring home a dairy cow or even the ability to clear tunnels or caverns. Adventures provided an interesting dualistic dynamic: do you focus on tilling the land and clearing the earth, or do you spend most of your time trying to equip and train your adventurers?
Players do not interact directly with one another; there is no trading, bartering, or combat between players. However, players can block others from taking action tiles, purchase limited furnishings to prevent others from buying them, and adjust their own strategies based on those of the other players. This leads to less hurt feelings and conflicts, but also to a somewhat less inherently social experience.
The game continues over 12 rounds of actions and at the end victory points are tallied up based on resources, furnishings, and farm animals. With a group of experienced gamers and at least one player knowing the rules ahead of time, the suggested playtime of 30 minutes per player is definitely doable. However, a first playthrough, or a playthrough of a group that is newer to more complicated board games, could easily take much longer. All 6 different players that I played Caverna with enjoyed their time with it and expressed interest in playing again.
Art and Pieces- The art on tiles, actions, and in the rulebook is charming if a bit simple and cartoony for my taste.
The tiles are sturdy and plentiful.
The wooden pieces that come with the game are wonderful. Dogs, sheep, stone, rubies, cows, ore, boars, and more are all represented by individual pieces that, for the most part, do a great job distinguishing themselves from one another. A few pieces, however, can be a little easy to mix up. More than once I found myself accidentally having a piece of lumber guard my sheep or having purchased a dwelling with dogs and stone. A couple of the dwarven token colors are also a little too similar. In a dim room, the blue and teal pieces can be extremely difficult to tell apart.
A warning: there are A LOT of individual pieces in this game. While enough baggies are provided to sort things out, cleanup can be a bit of a hassle. If you plan on playing this game many times, purchasing some sort of organizational system is not a bad idea.
Conclusion- Caverna offers a deep experience where luck plays little part. There are always many choices to make and making these choices often becomes an almost agonizing experience. Do I grow my family? Purchase the dairy room before another player can? Build the ruby shipment to set my later turns up for success? There’s a constant tug-of-war between planning for later turn success and implementing strategies that pay off more immediately. Seeing a long-term strategy–like hoarding cows and furnishing a cavern with the dairy room–payoff is immensely satisfying.
The depth and possible branching decision paths offers a great deal of replayability. Competitive gaming groups will find plenty of different ways to attempt to min-max their way to victory, while more casual groups will be happy to build up their idyllic dwarven community.
At times games can feel like they start to drag a bit, especially if multiple players in a row have difficulty making up their mind on which action to choose. And it can also be difficult to tell where players are score-wise at a glance; quite a bit of basic math is required to calculated scores at the end of the game.
As a gamer who has never played Agricola, I can definitely recommend Caverna wholeheartedly to others who fall in the same (probably limited) uninitiated category as myself. However, with an MSRP of nearly 100$, the price isn’t exactly cheap. I purchased my copy new on Amazon–where it also qualified for free shipping–for 75$ and have no regrets.
Overall Score: 8.5/10