Friday, 22 November 2013

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go

Seventeen people turned up this week to partake of board game goodness. But what they played, I can't entirely be certain. Dean had Lords of Waterdeep with the new expansion at one table. And another table threatened to play Powergrid, but I think they opted for something else.

My attention was wholly taken up by the new and eurotastic Caverna. Caverna is the latest outing from Uwe Rosenberg - he of Le Havre, Ora and Labora and Agricola type things - and bears a very strong resemblance to those past works. In fact it's probably fair to say that Caverna is just a riff on Agricola where even the rulebook is set out to let you skip tracts if you are an Agric veteran.

This is no bad thing however as Agricola is one of the, if not The, most respected Euro game out there, having earned its reputation from years of solid play. So, another Agricola variant is a good thing, right ?

Right. Caverna plays in a very similar way to Agricola, you will be sending out your family members ( dwarves ) to clear fields, plant grain and vegetables, pick up resources and build dwellings, and as such it shares the same core mechanics of struggling to feed your family, never quite having enough actions to do everything, and having other players take actions from under your nose.

But around this familiar framework, a few things have changed and been added. Your player board now has a cave section which you can dig out in a not dis-similar fashion to clearing/plowing fields. Within these caves you will expand your home, allowing you to field more dwarves, dig mines and furnish special buildings. The cards that were in Agricola, Major and Minor improvements and occupations have disappeared in Caverna, to be replaced instead by a range of room furnishings.

Your family members can also now arm themselves and go on expeditions. What this basically amounts to is that some action spaces have additional expedition actions that you can take - which allows you to pick up extra resources and or perform extra actions. Sending an armed dwarf to an action space will get you the action, plus a range of extra goodies. Cool ! The downside to this party is that to arm the dwarf you need to go through a series of preparation actions - picking up the ore required, then sending the dwarf off to the forge. The more ore you have the better the weapon, and the better the weapon, the better the expedition rewards you can pick up.

Weapons add an increased range of choices and complexity to choosing which action space to send your dwarf. This creates a good deal more choice depth to Caverna than you get in Agricola, which is not exactly something that's lacking in Agric to start with.

Everything else in the game, if you squint, is pretty much Agricola.

The game plays really nicely - if you like Agricola then this game is an absolute no brainer like. It's sophisticated, balanced and satisfying. It's plenty different enough to Agricola to present a completely new challenge, it has a very strongly integrated theme and leaves a very strong impression of quality.

So a big thumbs up. For me, this game is probably the strongest game I have played since... well... tricky... probably Agricola itself. And arguably, it's better than Agricola.

So all is wonder and amazement in the new land of Caverna.

Not quite.

For me there are a couple of reservations to Caverna. The first is the fiddliness of it. There are a crap ton of bits with the game. Fourteen different resource / animal types and an explosion of tiles. The upkeep for each round invariably ends up missing something as you replenish this that and the other. You also then end up with a stack of crap on your home board, teetering in piles that avoid mixing with the other piles of crap that you don't yet own. But it's a fairly minor gripe and by and large you will get a deal of satisfaction from owning big piles of crap.

The second more serious reservation is replayability. Caverna has a static setup - everytime you play you are presented with just about the exact same set of variables. This is different to Agricola where your hand of cards will give you a variable set of opening possibilities. The problem here then is that certainly the opening third of Caverna could start to devolve into Chess like openings once you really get the hang of it. But there's quite a bit of depth to get through here. And certainly by the middle of the game the mix of players taking actions and developing their boards will mean that any fixed kind of plan has probably met with an untimely demise.

Is it a real problem ? Difficult to say. Plenty of games have static setups, and perhaps the real issue here is that because Caverna is so close to Agricola you can't help comparing what one has that the other doesn't. And it's quite possible that by the time you get your Grand Master Chess Caverna opening down pat, an expansion will have come along to screw with your head.

Pete won Caverna with an outrageously populous animal farm going on, and Rich came in a close second - eschewing any weaponry at all and going for a peaceful homestead.

The evening ended with the customary game of Resistance Avalon, Pete, Rich and Richard playing the evil doers. Despite hauling in the first two rounds for the bad guys, the good guys rallied, and with Matt doing a good job as Percival, the evil doers were put to the sword, with the assassin picking out Percival as the suspected Merlin. Huzzah.

There were some lovely moments in the game, including Fletch contemptously telling Pete to "go away" in the face of desperate lies, and Rich's rabbit in headlights reaction to being accused ( rightly ) of being a spy.

A good game, well played to all the valiant knights, boo ya sux to the evil doers.

There are now ominous soundings that the game has become Too Easy for the good guys, and the bad guys need a helping hand. Ha ! What a difference a few months make...


Alfonso said...

We did play Power Grid on the middle table. We used an expansion deck which contains really efficient power plants. This apparently changed the game completely but as it was my first time playing I didn't know the difference. Matt won.

I'm disappointed that I arrived late and didn't get to play Caverna because Agricola is one of my favourites. The same goes for Lords of Waterdeep which now comes in ipad format too.

Once again the resistance was a great end to the night with a solid win for the good guys.

Minitrue said...

Ah cool, powergrid is very groovy. You'll have to give Caverna a go another week then, if and when everyone is somewhat familiar with it, it should be possible to fit up to a 7 handed game in down the Ribs. 5 with a rules session certainly finished in good time.

I'd be interested in the 7 players just from a bonkers how does this play point of view. I can only imagine its a hellish duel of elbowing people away from their chosen action space.