You can usually rely on Uwe Rosenberg for a big box of gaming goodness, and his reputation rests largely on his heavy hitters, but that is to undersell his ability to pack plenty of punch in smaller packages. Both Bohnanza and Patchwork are very well regarded while still being substantially smaller than the big box games such as Agricola and Le Havre, but we need to remember that Rosenberg has also trodden a third way. This middle option takes the big box game and recasts it as a pared down version designed for head to head play. Agricola and Le Havre have already been the recipients of this treatment, and Caverna: Cave vs Cave is the latest release in this line, taking Caverna and rethinking it as a smaller and leaner proposition.
Sophisticated Cave Building? Count me in!
Big or small? Crate or box?
In the spirit of utmost clarity I should state now that in the oh-so-uninteresting discussion of which of the two big box games of Agricola or Caverna is better I am an ardent Agricophile. Agricola hit so many of my sweet spots that I neither required nor wanted a rejigged and easier-going version when I enjoy the punishing atmosphere of the original so much, so that was Caverna more or less sunk for me. Agricola: All Creatures Big And Small left me underwhelmed but intrigued when I came to play it, so I met Caverna: Cave vs Cave with interest, and also keen to judge it purely on its own merits.
Caverna: Cave vs Cave comes in one of those small 2-player boxes that will sit happily on your shelf next to its kith and kin, and contains the kinds of tiles that players will recognise from its bigger brother and little ickle version of Agricola (or should that be Agr-ickl-a). It also contains two player boards, various tokens to keep track of resources, cardboard walls and a central display to keep track of the rounds and the actions.
Your resources are tracked on your individual board.
First player? Control yourself!
It also contains a first player marker. Normally I would not draw attention to the first player marker on its own, but it you are a fan of bawdy knockabout 70s British comedy then you should get your chuckles ready now because said marker depicts what can only be described as a helmeted cock, and I fear that this may well go into gaming lore alongside wood-for-sheep and the like. You don’t believe me? It took my other half less than a second to realise what it was and start laughing. Still not convinced? Ok, here’s a photo. *Sigh*
The erm…oh dear…
Finished? Ok, then let’s carry on. To play Caverna: Cave vs Cave the central board is first set up with the actions which will gradually become available as the game progresses, most of which begin the game face down, players place unexcavated (also face down) rooms on their boards, and then they take turns to choose from the available actions until all the tiles on the central board have been revealed. In the earlier rounds players get to take two actions each per round, working their way up to four on the final turn.
Actions and more actions! Think carefully!
These actions all feel comfy and familiar. There are tiles that allow you to convert resources into other resources, those that allow players to excavate, and those that allow players to place newly revealed tiles onto their boards. Not only do these tiles need to be paid for, but the arrangement of walls around them also has to be correct. According to the diagram on each tile, some walls must be in place, some may be in place, while some cannot be present. It sounds a little convoluted, but in reality is easy to pick up and occasionally presents some thematic niceties – the Treasury must be surrounded by walls on all four sides, for example, while the Tunnel (have a guess!) needs them only on opposite sides. Once tiles are in place on a player’s board they can also be activated via the central actions, and some of these also provide a kind of bonus based on the choices made.
The arrangement of walls is important.
The decisions in Caverna: Cave vs Cave fan out in a decisive way from the beginning of the game. From the opening round, when only two actions each are taken and all tiles on a player’s board are covered, it is a precipitous and possibly overwhelming journey to the final turn when you will need to chain together your four choices across a possibly bewildering selection of abilities. All this means that the game begins easily enough, but gets tougher and more demanding as it progresses and those little grey cells are given a thorough workout.
It also means that the pace of the game can slow down to a crawl, especially when your pesky competitor keeps taking the tile that you wanted to use, and while it is certainly possible to play Caverna: Cave vs Cave in a light and frothy manner, like kittens having a pillow fight, if you are up against somebody who is out for gaming blood (as tends to happen to me) then it all can get very ploddy indeed, occasionally too close to work to be fun.
The timing of actions is critical to success.
The outlook? Decidedly unvariable!
Caverna: Cave vs Cave also comes with that elephant in the box that scuppered Agricola: All Creatures Big And Small, and that particular pachyderm is this – there are not enough tiles in the game to keep it fresh for more than a few plays. There, I have said it. All the actions come out in all the games, some of them admittedly in a very slightly different order. What is more, all the room tiles are also in play in all the games. While this means that a new player can get up to speed fairly quickly, it does mean that they will have to do so at light speed to compete with the veteran who is already getting tired of the whole thing. While this paucity of tiles does not ruin the game, and the restriction on action tiles can be accepted easily enough, I do think that it severely curtails its half-life.
Food, glorious food! Note the mushrooms on the board!
So, as a two-player game it is enjoyable, can be very intense, has a tendency to slow down significantly, and lacks variability. It was a pretty simple decision for me to think about sticking Caverna: Cave vs Cave onto the trade pile almost immediately…and then something strange happened.
Two bad for you? Try it solo!
Playing the solo variant for the sake of complete discovery, I began to realise that I actually preferred Caverna: Cave vs Cave as a solo game, fighting against the tiles and the game’s engine to try to break the designer’s imposed target of 50 points. The scores in my first games traced an upward arc – 41, 42, 49 – and I genuinely did feel that I was getting better, so it would seem that even a dullard like me can improve through repeated effort. On my lonesome ownsome I could easily get through a game in twenty minutes or so, but would push half and hour if I was really looking to squeeze out every last point. Strangely, though, it felt far less dry and a little more thematic because the icons and tokens were not merely means to the end of scoring extra points, but instead elements in the story of my very own speleological society.
Solo game makes for a refreshing change.
Also, in this solo version three of the starting rooms (admittedly not many) are removed before the game, and while that is a small number, at least it adds a degree of variability to Caverna: Cave vs Cave, the veneer of a different challenge every time. In fact, I came to realise that I would almost always prefer to play this on my own, and thereby to circumvent all the ailments I found in the two-player game.
Even so, it is hard for me to classify Caverna: Cave vs Cave as a keeper. It does what it does well, and it surely encapsulates some of the atmosphere of its progenitor, but it is a strange and quirky beast, and the lack of variability in a game is, for me, one of the hardest things to forgive in modern gaming design, especially when many cheaper games achieve so much more with so much less in the way of raw material.
Resources and conversions and excavations – so many choices!
Where is it on the gaming menu? Starter or main?
So does Caverna: Cave vs Cave work, either on its own merits or as an amuse-bouche for Caverna proper? The answer to that is a definitive…maybe. Jump Drive does so much better in terms of offering a leg up into Race For The Galaxy, and there are just so many better two player games out there that even with Uwe and Caverna’s names on the box this is going to find it hard to connect with a regular audience. It is too heavy to be light and frothy fodder, and that probably means that people would rather gravitate to the bigger box, or even to something else, and for the solo experience, I think I would rather play Caverna or Agricola instead.
Perhaps more seriously, it actually competes with the game it aspires to complement. Given that Caverna has a playing time of around thirty minutes per player it is pretty easy to work out, even with my inability to count how many resources I’ll need by the end of any given round, that you could get in a hearty face-to-face gaming feast within an hour. Cave vs Cave has an advertised play time of forty minutes, which I have found to be pretty accurate, but it only takes a few lengthy chin-rubs to push it up towards an hour, which is easily done. There is more setting up to do in the bigger game, but for those extra twenty minutes there is an awful lot more meat in the larger game. Comparing Twilight Struggle with 13 Days (just to pluck a similar example out of the ether) gives a much clearer perspective of either/or.
Subterranean homesick blues…
Do you need it? Definitely maybe!
In other words, if you love Caverna but hanker after something for two players with all its qualities then you are likely just to opt to play Caverna with two players. However, if you only ever play solo or head-to-head and do not already own a copy of Caverna then you may well feel that the lower price of Cave vs Cave and its focus on that eyes-across-the-table experience offers a valid point of entry to this subterranean world.
Caverna: Cave vs Cave in itself is a commendably solid game, dry as the rock it depicts and hard on the grey cells, but resolutely robust. However, it has a serious lack of variability as supplied and will probably play itself out in many players’ collections in fairly short order unless some expansions appear on the horizon very soon. The solo variant has saved it a little for me, and represents an enjoyable way to play, but it has not proven itself to the required extent to mark itself either as different enough to recommend wholeheartedly to others nor essential enough to keep for myself. Agricola is and will probably always remain one of my desert island games, but Caverna: Cave vs Cave is like a slightly precocious nephew alongside that particular leader of the pack. Players will get some enjoyment out of this, and it is an engaging challenge while it lasts, but do not expect anything to, ahem, rock your world – 7 out of 10.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.