My first game of Caverna

Caverna is the latest game from Uwe Rosenberg and it follows very much in the tradition of his great success. It’s a worker placement game where more actions get revealed as the game progresses. You also start with a simple dwelling and then construct additional rooms for more workers, whilst expanding the farm outside. Unlike Agricola, there are also caves, which you mine ore and rubies from.

The biggest difference is that you control a clan of dwarves, and you can send those dwarves off to get loot. To do that, you need to forge weapons. You never attack other players, instead the “weapon level” of your dwarves determines which type of loot you get, and the action space determines how much. Due to the way the game works, players tend to either be on a looting path or on a peaceful part. The game advises that letting one player dominate one path is the way for everyone else to lose.

What we didn’t realise is how much you have to invest into raiding and looting to properly be considered to be a raider. It’s significant!

This is the action board after the first turn. We played this game with five players, going around the table from who had the first turn it was Sam (blue), Sarah (red), Jon (yellow), John (purple) and me (green).

Sam chose to grab a grain and clear forest to make a pasture and a field with one action, and to take stone and place two caverns. Sarah took ore and then forged weapons and went adventuring. Jon took a bunch of stuff (wood, ore, rocks, food and gold) before grabbing the start player marker, a food and a ruby. John went to market and also mined one ruby. I chopped down some forest: taking wood and placing the field/pasture tile, and then took a dog and placed my first furnishing tile: the Stone Carver, who would reduce my cost of playing stables and furnishings by one stone.

As you can see, most of the action spaces actually allow you to do two things. With five players, there are a lot of action spaces available. The game actually goes up to seven players, though I don’t know if I would ever be game to play it with that many – it’d be a long game!

By the end of the third turn, I’d cleared four squares worth of forest, planted grain and fenced in a double-space pasture, built a stable and set a dog to watch over my three sheep. I hadn’t excavated in my mountain at all, with the stonecutter being the furnishing purchased.

John had placed a single tunnel piece and the Ruby Supplier furnishing piece. Jon had spent a lot of ore getting a weapon, and thus had a level 10 dwarf. He also had a wood supplier giving him wood every turn (for 7 turns), and had built an Ore Mine. Sam had cleared six squares of forest and had a sheep and a dog, two planted grain fields, and a double cavern tile. Sarah had one empty field and pasture, but a lot of caves and tunnels underground including an ore mine.

This set the pattern for the next few turns: Sam and I concentrated on the outdoors, Jon and Sarah competed for adventuring, and John tried to get rubies.

Along the way, Sarah discovered that she wasn’t keeping up to Jon in terms of raiding parties. There’s an interesting mechanic coming into play here: you need to use your lower-level dwarves before the higher-level ones. If you have four dwarves, only one with a weapon, then it has to be played last. Because Jon started dominating the Weaponforging space, he had many dwarves with weapons and Sarah only had one – thus, Sarah couldn’t go on adventures until later in the turn, and Jon was getting all the best spaces. The gap grew more and more as the game went on and as Sarah abandoned raiding for a peaceful life of farming.

And then Jon got his dwarves up to the highest levels… and the rewards he was getting were really, really good. We now realised why someone had to compete, but neither Sam nor I were ever in the hunt, and both Sarah and John had just flirted with the idea of being raiders.

Like Agricola, you need to feed your family. This wasn’t too hard… until it suddenly was! I’d built a Slaughtering Cave, which gave me extra food every time I killed an animal. So things were fine.

And then I grew my family to four dwarves, and food was tight again! I had to kill my animals rather than let them breed normally… not good! My animal count was holding steady rather than increasing.

The final set of turns was pretty good from my perspective: I grew my family, I fenced a lot of my property, planted crops, and finished digging out the mountain. I also accumulated a lot of stone, which would get me quite a few victory points through the Stone Storage furnishing.

Here’s how my place looked at the end of the game:

Meanwhile, John struggled – he had lots of rubies, but little else. He’s new to these sorts of game and ended up losing a lot of points to unfilled spaces on his board. Sam didn’t have great buildings down below, but at least he was able to negate the negative points for empty spaces with a furnishing tile.

Jon, on the other hand, had an incredible board:

Yes, he hadn’t filled everything in, but his raiding had filled his pastures to overflowing. His Weapon Storage was also going to give him 12 VPs at the end of the game; likewise the Milking Parlor was worth 12 VPs!

Sarah had a lot of ore. No, I mean she had a LOT of ore – over 40 of it! And that combined with the Ore Storage to give her a large bonus in VPs.

So, how did the end-game scoring go?

Per Farm Animal and Dog: Jon 27, Sam 18, Merric 17, Sarah 15, John 7
Per Missing Type of Farm Animal: John -6
Per Grain: Sarah 4, Merric 2, John 1
Per Vegetable: Merric 4, Sarah 2, Jon 1
Per Ruby: John 10, Merric 2, Jon 1
Per Dwarf: Sarah 5, Jon 4, Merric 4, Sam 3, John 3
Per unused space: John -13, Jon -7, Sam (-4, cancelled)
Furnishing tiles, Pastures, Mines: Jon 29, Merric 25, Sarah 24, John 18, Sam 12
For Parlors, Storages and Chambers: Jon 12+12, Sarah 21, Merric 12, John 12 ,Sam 4+6
Gold Coins and Begging Markers: John 4, Merric 2, Jon 2

Final Scores: Jon 81, Sarah 71, Merric 68, Sam 43, John 34.

Further play will reveal better strategies – and all the rules we probably got wrong. What I can say is that we all enjoyed the game greatly. We’ll certainly have more games of it – although actually getting to the table on Thursday nights will depend greatly on the number of players who turn up!

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