Battle of the Underground: Caverna Cave vs. Cave review

I covered the best 2-player board games a while back, and tweeted it out.  Mountaintop Games in Madison, WI (@mtntopgames) replied with “Caverna: Cave vs. Cave!” and I finally got a chance to give this one a try.  Now that I’ve played it, I can review it, and it belongs right in there with all the other great 2-player games I covered.  Of course, this is Uwe Rosenberg of Agricola fame we’re talking about, so you’d expect nothing less than the best!  It is published by Mayfair Games here in the U.S. so it will fall under the Asmodee umbrella.  Those of you following the game business know that Asmodee, the French board game company with offices in the U.S., is supposedly going to be bought out by another company.

Anyways, Cave vs. Cave was a great suggestion and it’s a great game.  Full disclosure, I have never played the original Caverna, so at least I’m giving this one a fresh look.

Overall Feeling

Caverna: Cave vs. Cave creates the feeling of building with a touch of claustrophobia and the unique mechanism of excavation, plus the building (and sometimes, removal) of walls.  It feels more like a building-and-scoring game in the vein of The Castles of Mad King Ludwig.  There’s nothing wrong with that, though, who doesn’t like building and scoring?


I really like the way the movement track progresses the game.  It makes you feel like things are moving and time is running out, and the game is paced very well.  The 8 turns it takes to play are just enough to give each game its own arc.

Setup Highlights

It’s so simple yet so effective:  By using a track and sliding your stone, wood, grain, etc. up and down the track, you don’t have to keep track of a bunch of little chits lying around, gaining and losing.  Those, along with 3 large playing cards, and some fairly simple and standard-sized room cards that need shuffling, constitute a fairly quick and easy setup.  This is really essential for a 2-player game since you generally want to get up and running quickly and get into your game as other people start to show up for the greater game that you’ll all play.

Theme and components

The components don’t really stand out, but come with well done art and nice graphics for everything they’re trying to convey.  They are both sturdy and glossy and feel good to play with.  There is a general feeling of caves, some medieval types of rooms like a Grindstone and a Dungeon and that sort of thing, but this game isn’t really big on theme.  There’s just enough there to give it something, but as you’d expect from an Uwe Rosenberg game, it’s more about the game mechanics than the artwork.

Interesting mechanics and game play

As usual, Rosenberg sets the standard for mechanics and game play.  Even though it’s a fairly standard building game in many ways, Caverna: Cave vs. Cave brings together many unique and interesting elements, enough to be one of the best build-and-score types of games around, definitely so for a 2-player game.

Similar to Agricola, this is a worker placement game of sorts.  Players choose from various actions, and there’s competition to get the most useful one before the other player does.  Of course, your strategy can make some actions more valuable to you than others, so it’s not like there’s always a “best” action.  Also like Agricola, more actions open up as the game goes on, giving increased options to both players.  The order in which actions reveal has some randomness to it, making each game a little different than the one before.

A unique element of Caverna is that you have to dig out open space to place your rooms, through what is called the “Excavation” action.  That gives Caverna a unique feeling, and gives the game a unique mechanic.  Each time you open up a space, it adds another possible room that you or your opponent could build.

I have 6 spaces dug, with 5 to go. Of those 6 spaces, 5 have a room built, the other is walled off with 3 walls, so I can place my dungeon, which requires 4 walls.

Building rooms is probably the most fun part, as each has rules on where it can, can’t, or might have walls around it.  It reminds me of the Castles of the Mad King in this way, as you’re trying to figure out how to maximize the points you score through the rooms you build.  At one point, I built a dungeon that actually needed 4 walls around it, but it was a big scorer that added gold every time I put down a wall.

Walls are another interesting element of Caverna.  Adding them to your space allows you to build different types of rooms.  In my case, having a dungeon meant that I could also collect 2 gold.  Gold is one of several resources that you have to balance.  Some, like stone and wood and gold, are used to build new rooms.  Others, like grain and vegetables, are used to eat.  All can be used with various room effects.  Gold has the added benefit of having value in end game points.

The game marches along a track, adding available actions, through 8 turns.  The actions are mixed up randomly and can appear in a different order for different games, just like Agricola.  As the game gets later, you can take more actions per turn, but also have to pay more food to build new rooms.  You should also have more and more rooms, each with its own special ability, so you can synthesize their effects into a strategy.

Do-something-ability

You build your cave out with a satisfying set of rooms that hopefully, work together.  You manage actions and resources so you can excavate, put down walls, and build rooms.  It’s a game of intrigue against your opponent, but also a game of building on your own.  So yeah, that’s doing something, doing quite a lot for a 2-player game.

Replay Ability

Excavating and building out your cave is fun, and the combinations of walls and rooms would be worth revisiting again and again.  There are varying strategies that you can weave together.  I do think you’d run into a limit eventually, as there are only so many rooms and actions, and even the major strategies aren’t all that differentiated.  If there’s one knock I have on the game, it’s that 2-player games are generally most fun when they’re quick.  This one can take a while to go through your 8 turns, I mean, it’s not going to be less than 30 minutes and probably more than that.  I also think Agricola has more going on a as a 2-player game, with all its Improvements and Occupations.

Verdict

Caverna: Cave vs. Cave is a great 2-player game, even if it runs a little longer than I’d generally want out of a 2-player game.  It’s got great mechanics and strategic depth, supported by quality art that brings enough theme to make it feel like I’m delving into a cave and carving out my little kingdom.

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