Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola is a classic boardgame for many reasons. It’s easy to learn, yet it’s wildly varied. It’s charming enough to play with your family, yet it’s brutal enough to play with your buddies. It’s a beautiful piece of work, with solid pieces, hearty boards, cute cards, and a distinct autumnal palette. Quick, what color is Agricola? You know you said orange.
However, Agricola has worked its way to the back of my closet with the rest of my infrequently played games. And I know precisely why. It suffers from what I call “the reed problem”. Caverna, the latest game from Rosenberg and an obvious follow-up to Agricola, handily sidesteps the reed problem, and furthermore fixes a lot of Agricola’s shortcomings. I fear that my copy of Agricola will never make its way to the front of the closet.
After the jump, a much needed de-reeding.
If you’ve played Agricola, you’ll know the reed problem. You’re developing your farm, planting crops, breeding animals, bringing into play your occupations and improvements, and generally getting things done one turn at a time. But at some point, you need to make a bigger house to get more workers so you can take more actions and get more things done. That’s just a given. You’re never going to finish Agricola with only the two workers you started with, unless you really suck at Agricola. So you have to expand your house by building a room for a new family member.
Which means you need two reed for the thatch roof.
Let’s talk about reed. Unless you’ve got some weird card like a Reed Eater or a Reed Shop or a Flute Maker or whatever, reed is only useful for thatch roofs. And you’re going to need it in pairs because a thatch roof takes two reed, natch. Later, you might need one reed to upgrade to a clay house and then another reed to upgrade to a stone house, but who can plan that far ahead? Hopefully you. Otherwise, you’re going to waste precious turns at the boring-ass reed cart where the only thing you’re doing is getting boring-ass reed. This is about the dullest thing you will ever do in a boardgame. Place your worker. Take the two reed, because there’s only ever two because everyone else needed reed, too. Now wait to spend your reed when it’s your turn again.
That’s the reed problem. In the game flow of Agricola, reed is a uniquely frustrating bottleneck. It’s absolutely necessary, it’s only useful for one thing, and you will almost never get as much as you need, so you’ll likely spend later turns putting your grand plans on hold while you crawl through the reed bottleneck. Getting reed in Agricola is like having to go to the DMV in real life: you’re going to have to do it sooner or later, it is never fun, and your life would invariably be better if you didn’t have to do it.
Caverna has no reed. It has no equivalent to reed. It knows that reed sucks. It is merrily reedless. “Begone, reed!” it bellows proudly, as befits a dwarf who doesn’t need a thatch roof over his head because he lives in a cave. Caverna, a game populated by dwarfs, has solved the reed problem. It does this two ways.
1) There are very few actions in Caverna that are only “do this one thing and then you’re done, ha ha!” Most of the actions let you do a couple of things. When you dig more caves, you also get stone. When you clear a field in the woods, you can also plant crops. When you collect donkeys, you can also build stables and corrals. When you go on an adventure, you can choose multiple things from a menu of rewards. “I believe I’ll have the donkey and the plowed field and two gold. No, wait, strike the plowed field and bring me some ore!” Caverna knows it might be a while before your next turn, so it stuffs more stuff into your turn. It’s a simple and elegant approach to Agricola’s pacing problems.
2) Caverna — a worker placement game from the creator of the brutally difficult Agricola and Le Havre, which might be better described as worker blocking games — has very little blocking. This is because there are multiple ways to get what you need. There is no equivalent to Agricola’s reed bottleneck because bottlenecks don’t exist when there are so many ways to get what you need.
For instance, there are multiple spaces that let you develop your cave and forest. Do you need to raze the forest to create a field to plant crops? Oops, so does another player and he got to that space first. But in a three player game of Caverna — which scales meticulously — there are three actions to raze the forest to create a field to plant crops. You are almost always guaranteed your turn at razing forest. In addition, there is a new adventuring concept, in which you equip your dwarves with weapons so they can go on an adventure, bringing back your choice of spoils from a generous menu of goodies. The adventuring concept actually bifurcates Caverna into two resource pools. Some players will get their resources from the board, fair and square. Other players will adventure out into the wider world to bring home their resources. This almost makes Caverna — which I guess I should say scales meticulously as long as there are at least three people — useless as a two-player game, because players can just play right past each other. You play the board, I’ll play the adventures.
Another way Caverna sidesteps bottlenecks is with rubies. They are a unique resource because they’re wild cards. At any time, you can cash in a ruby in for pretty much anything you need. A player with rubies is a player with anything and therefore a player with everything. Rubies are a dwarf’s best friend. There is nothing in Agricola that busts the economy wide open like rubies in Caverna.
Not to say there isn’t any blocking. You might win or lose a game based on swiping a mess of resources or a particular room from an opponent. But there’s considerably less blocking, which means considerably less frustration. In this regard, it reminds me a bit of the almost entirely block-less Euphoria [LINK], a breezy worker placement game with minimal built-in frustration and maximum pacing.
Caverna also solves a few more issues. The scoring in Agricola is a convoluted matrix of resources and quantities that will plunge even the most cavalier player into analysis paralysis. Different resources are worth different amounts of victory points in different quantities, so the last few turns of Agricola consist of everyone intently studying scoring charts, doing math, trying to figure out how to sacrifice the fewest victory points to feed their families. Caverna uses a very simple scoring system. All your stuff is worth one point. That’s pretty much it. Okay, there are a few exceptions. Grain is worth half a point because, hey, it’s just grain. You don’t get points for hoarding construction materials like wood and stone. Otherwise, it comes down to one point per resource, plus whatever cool infrastructure you’ve built.
Here, too, Caverna handily replaces Agricola’s system of improvements and occupations you stack up alongside your board with rooms that exist on the board. The caverns in your mountain can be developed into rooms, all on offer from the beginning, much like the bread oven and cooking pots and whatnot in Agricola. But the theming and functionality of these different rooms is where Caverna gets its flavor. A dog school means your dogs all come with lumber (“Fetch!”). A cuddle room means you can keep sheep indoors. A prayer chamber benefits peaceable dwarves without weapons. A treasure chamber encourages ruby hoarding. A cooking cave makes crops go further. There are storerooms for amassing different goods, so one lucky player can turn all that extra stone into victory points. That’s right, one lucky player. There is only one instance of each room available. This is where Uwe Rosenberg can’t resist a touch of ruthless blocking in his game.
And this is where each game of Caverna can be distinct. In Agricola, players started with a hand of cards they could put into play over the course of the game. The cards mixed up the economy, but they did it from a hidden place. You never knew what cards your opponents had. But in Caverna, with all the rooms on display, everything is above board. This means players spend less time with their noses in a hand of cards and more time studying the same board, watching other players study the same board, watching who’s doing what with which resources. Caverna, like Agricola, is still very much a tableau game where each player develops his or her own board (some call this “multiplayer solitaire”). But since there is no privacy, since there’s no hidden information, it’s much easier to watch and learn and draw conclusions from what other players are doing.
Finally, Caverna is simply less brutal than Agricola. The rules for feeding your dwarves, for instance, are as forgiving as they can possibly be. When it comes time for dwarves to eat, they eat whatever’s available in whatever form it’s available. There is none of this punishing Agricola nonsense where you’ve got more than enough grain, but you have no way to bake bread, so your family ends up begging to survive. If you’ve got it in Caverna, you can eat it. Again, rubies are useful here! You can’t eat a ruby, but since it’s a wildcard, you can cash it in for a wild boar at any time and eat the boar for two food. No trading post or stew pot needed! You can even cash in extra animals at (almost) any time to store the amount of food they’d provide. Or just buy food with your gold. Caverna is a friendly and relatively fast-paced game. It wants you to play, to advance, to make things happen, to amass food, wealth, and unique rooms in your mountain enclave. It wants your clan of dwarves to succeed and even flourish and it’s not going to make you wait around at the reed DMV to do it.
...you are the bearded leader of a small dwarf family which [sic] lives in a little cave in the mountains. Together, you cultivate the forest in front of your cave and dig deeper into the mountain. You furnish the caves as dwellings for your offspring as well as working spaces for small enterprises. It's up to you how much ore you want to mine. You will need it to forge weapons, that allow you to go on expeditions to gain bonus items and actions. While digging through the mountain, you may come across water sources and find ore and ruby mines that help you increase your wealth. Right in front of your cave, you can increase your wealth even further with agriculture: you can cut down the forest to sow fields and fence in pastures to hold your animals. In the end, the player with the most efficiently developed home board will win the game. Yay!