Friday, March 21, 2014

Caverna

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Agricola hasn’t come off the shelf in ages in my game groups. Interestingly, it seems like the game feature that gave it its initially high replayability (the vast array of occupation and improvement cards) is also the feature that eventually killed it, aided and abetted by PlayDek’s excellent iOS implementation. Playing quick games on the iPad – especially the solo challenges – by removing all the physical hassles of setup, moving bits around, and idly waiting for other players, makes it really apparent just how big a deal getting a good hand of cards is and how completely screwed you are by a mediocre hand. There is just no way to get the points you need to advance in the solo challenges if you didn’t get good cards. Using a draft to build your initial hand can help amongst highly experienced, similarly-skilled players, but it’s not a panacea.
Still, even though Agricola was always about a 7-rated game for me, I still had  fun with it for a while and it’s easy to understand why most gamers enjoy it. Building a farm is fun. The game understands the rules of Hamlet’s Hit Points and does a good job of maintaing tension throughout. The large number of cards do provide a lot of exploration fun. For several years it was a constant table presence. So I was onboard for Caverna when it came out.
If you’ve played Agricola, you basically know how to play Caverna: use your family members to plow fields, fence pastures, and get animals. Now, though, half your player board dedicated to mining and tunneling, which work how you would expect. There are action spaces for digging tunnels and caverns, furnishing rooms, and mining ore and rubies. Since we’re representing a family of dwarves now, there are also spaces for turning the ore you mine into weapons and going on adventures to pillage stuff (uneventful adventures admittedly, as they are completely risk-free, but still).
Although the decoration of both the physical components and the game systems are quite different between the two games, there are really just two big, fundamental differences.
Firstly, the harvest/feeding cycle has been both accelerated and made slightly more forgiving. You now will have to feed your family after most turns, so that’s tricky. On the other hand, most of the mechanics for turning stuff into food have either been eliminated or greatly simplified. Vegetables and animals just turn into food without the need to acquire fancy stoves. There is no “bake” action; if you want a better food exchange rate you just build a room in your cave (say the Brewery) that helps and it just does its thing without having to take an action. So there is substantially less time and fewer resources spent with the mechanics of producing food, which leaves more time for other things (mining and adventuring mainly).
Secondly, the hand of 14 cards you were dealt at the start of Agricola are gone. Replacing them are a tableau of 47 distinct furnishing tiles, rooms you can build in your cave. These all give either special powers (improving food production, animal husbandry, or mining operations; making weapons or other furnishings cheaper; and so on) or endgame victory points.
On the good side, the game feels more open, like the players have more flexibility to follow interesting and varied strategies without always being under the hammer of food pressure. In Agricola traditionally the first third to half (or more) of the game is mostly about establishing a food engine, which is mostly about playing the hand you’ve been dealt and/or trying to find an underexploited niche in the strategy space and is honestly not all that interesting. If you can do this you get to be a meaningful participant in the later portion of the game, where you try to diversify. Because you aren’t quite so constrained by food (although food pressure is still considerable), and the mechanics of food production are less involved, Caverna lets you spend more time on development, from an earlier point. With a number of additional ways to go now (adventuring, tunneling, mining for rubies and ore), as a player you feel more in control of your destiny. It’s also possible to do well, or even possibly to win, with a relatively small family.
Unfortunately, for me these good things are more than outweighed by the negatives. The main thing of course is the gargantuan level of up-front complexity. In Agricola you had to figure out what to do with 14 cards, a good number of which could be easily eliminated as impractical or only useful with synergies you didn’t have. Even this is not particularly easy. Caverna has 47 distinct furnishings on the table from the outset, very few of which can be easily dismissed. It’s extremely daunting, and possible to fully process only through repeated play (which creates the problem of making it exceptionally difficult for less experienced players to compete with veterans, to a  significantly greater degree even than Agricola). It’s also problematic that these small furnishing tiles have their text in small, low-contrast fonts that are unreadable at a distance and so there is no really good way for most of the players to access this vital game information. Imagine the 10 major improvements from Agricola, but now there are 47 of them and they’re printed on small tiles.
The other major issue is that Caverna, unlike Agricola, is a 100% open-information, completely symmetric worker placement game with limited randomness (and what randomness there is, is global, not individual). This raises all sorts of red flags. With every action space worth the same to everyone (because positions are symmetric), it becomes about system exploits – finding the under-costed or overpowered furnishings or combination of furnishings and figuring out which strategic paths (mining, farming, animal husbandry, adventuring) enjoy the most system support. While it’s true that there are other players playing the game and it may be better to follow a weaker path than compete with everyone else for a stronger one, and since all buildings are unique it’s possible for others to block you by snagging the key combo furnishing you need even if it doesn’t help them, nonetheless this adds up to puzzling, not gaming. Puzzling with insane analysis paralysis potential.
While it’s true that Agricola could be viewed the same way – as more about figuring out the puzzle of the 14 cards you’ve been dealt – it had the saving grace of being asymmetrical and having hidden information. So it was possible to have to guess about other players’ motivations, and be surprised from time to time. Likewise with everyone pursuing at least slightly different strategic paths as suggested (or dictated) by their cards, the worker-placement game of evaluating each space’s comparative “hotness” could be interesting. By contrast, in Caverna everyone is staring at the same options and the same board state and the only way to be surprised by what anyone else does is if you aren’t really paying attention (or can’t be bothered).
Because Caverna is complex, and because it does share many appealing features with Agricola (vicarious enterprise building, the constant pressure of feeding your family, exploration of a complex game environment), I did enjoy it for a few games. I burned out very quickly though, and after fewer than 5 games I don’t really have much desire to play it again.

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