“How many Uwe Rosenberg games are enough?”, it’s a question that seems as old as board gaming itself. I’ve heard many answers from “All of them” to “Agricola, everything else is just worse Agricola”. A reasonable approach would be somewhere in the middle. I was personally of the mindset that as long as a game still filled its own Niche then there was room on the shelf. Agricola was the first board game I bought and the game that pulled me into gaming, it’s on the shelf. Feast for Odin was considered the “best” by most and seemed the heaviest with interesting polyomino placement, it got a spot. Lowlands? Part of a newly formed “Uwe Rosenberg Derivative” line, it offered a level of player interaction worker placement rarely sees, it’s proudly on the shelf. Caverna? It just seemed like Agricola Bloat, too expensive, not different enough, it didn’t deserve a place on the shelf. Then I played it and, despite not wanting to, I had to admit to myself that I needed at least one more Uwe Rosenberg Game. Of all of them, Caverna just might be my favorite.
At its core Caverna is “More Agricola” and I will move forward with this review assuming a basic understanding of Uwe Rosenberg worker placement games. The box itself is arguably too much “more” with components for seven players that I never want to use.
Any player count over five would probably send the timeframe into Twilight Imperium territory. Components aside, Caverna shines in the details of the extra choices offered. It’s more options, more spaces, more resources, more forgiving, and most importantly more customizable. That may not seem like a resounding refutation of the idea Caverna is ‘just’ more Agricola, but two things change Caverna into its own unique experience. The easing of tension through easier food access and removal of point maximums, as well as the impressive array of unique rooms that allow each game to unfold with the creation of a farm that feels unique to that session and to you as a person.
Agricola was famous for its brutality on multiple levels. Food was hard to come by and the scoring system had a lot of negatives along with strict caps on where your points came from. Mistakes were punished harshly and the games seemed to revolve like a dance where players took turns grabbing spots no longer useful by other players.
Caverna eases back on the requirement to feed your family making the game less frustrating, in doing so it allows more of your mental power to focus on an engine that will give points, something that’s necessary with how many paths to victory Caverna gives you.
Some people consider this a negative, I personally think it’s a lateral and it’s probably the aspect that will divide people the most on which version they prefer. It’s a change that is made for the purpose of allowing the game to be what it wants to be; it’s not trying to be a strictly better version of Agricola. While Caverna keeps many of the negative point rules it removes the caps on point maximum. This causes those negatives to feel much less harsh since they can be offset much more easy. In Agricola there were many times that additional animals would be worth no victory points, while in Caverna more sheep is always more victory points no matter how many you have. Stressing over how you’re going to get that cow is no longer as worrying since that neglected heard of sheep you can scoop up with a single action will gain you more victory points than a missing animal will lose you. Caverna definitely feels like the shackles are off and you won’t be beat down at scoring time for wanting to develop your farm in your own way.
Now we come to the big one, the central feature of our cave farm and the reason for having half of the board dedicated to caves: the rooms. This is Caverna’s most unique feature. There are 48 unique rooms that look incredibly daunting when laid out and the space it takes up makes it clear that this room board is meant to be a part of any strategy.
After the initial shock of options wears off it becomes apparent that Caverna does a fantastic job structuring ‘where’ the decision-making lies. The clever thing about this game’s design is that the staggering room possibilities should be at the back of your mind throughout the game, but they only need to be considered if you decide to build. It allows your mind to keep focused on what’s at hand by presenting a reasonable amount of choices up front, and only explodes IF you choose to build. I much prefer this to A Feast for Odin where the 60+ action spaces all frontload the decision making spectrum and there’s no getting around having to solve that problem.
The room choices are wonderfully specific in their benefits which leads to games that be satisfyingly creative and differ every time. It also allows play style to shift from a determined “optimal path” to one of organically filling niches. It also manages to do this without any randomness that sets out a path at the beginning of the game. If an ideal strategy is uncovered and every player starts the game playing that way, then the player who capitalizes on the unused resources will probably win. There’s only a few buildings that award points for equipping your workers with weapons, only one person will get the weapons storage and supplies storage to benefit from heavily armed workers. A wise person will see the flow of that game and possibly build vast fields of wheat to churn out endless beer with, or any other number of peaceful endeavors. The possibility spectrum is never binary and can result in any combinations of variables to take advantage of.
At the end of every game I find myself taking pictures of my farms and reflecting on their individuality. Sometimes there were impressive fields and herds of livestock, other times elaborate ore and ruby mining networks. A line of Weapons Storage, Supplies Storage and Treasure Chamber tells the tale of a clan that meant business; while the side by side breeding cave and slaughtering cave created a level of assembly line food generation that had perhaps gone too far with its cold efficiency.
It’s one of Cavernas greatest achievements that this process can unfold in such a fun way regardless of the end level of success. Playing with veteran players will still afford you the same number of actions and opportunities as any other player. As you fall behind in points and board presence you will not have your gameplay experience hampered, you can still continue to make decisions and build up your farm. Other players may beat you to the spaces you want but that is the core of any worker placement game. My first game was with two hard core Caverna experts and when it was over, I didn’t care that their experience allowed them to come out on top, I was content with my #3 spot and a gorgeous looking farm that I took pleasure in building.
It’s the combination of creativity and analytics that make Caverna special as a worker placement game. The core mechanics of choosing actions and making long term plans are as strong as ever and use modular boards based on player counts to keep the selection options tight and balanced. The theme and art exude a massive level of charm in a genre that so commonly can be criticized for being stereo-typically “German” in its sterile presentation. The decision space is wide enough that no player can lock it down and there’s always room to find your niche. At the end of the day it’s easy to get lost staring down at your personal board dreaming up stories about how your dwarven family lived with a smile on your face.