Caverna: Cave versus Cave review

Caverna: Cave versus Cave (2017)

Game Details
NameCaverna: Cave vs Cave (2017)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [2.55]
BGG Rank816 [7.11]
Player Count1-2
Designer(s)Uwe Rosenberg
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's basically okay!

I own Caverna, but I have never played it. The first time I opened the box I spent so much time popping cardboard and bagging things that I stood up from the table and said ‘That’s enough game time for one night’. I haven’t opened it since except as a kind of dire warning to people in my house. ‘Sure, I know you think this game looks complicated’, I rant as I wave a ten-page manual in their face. I pick up Caverna, a box as heavy as a couple of overweight beagles, ‘But I could be making you play this’. I open the box to reveal a densely layered mess of wood and cardboard that, with enough time, will gradually ossify into enough coal to run a small power plant. Caverna is, at least for me, and at least for now, little more than a reserve of fossil fuels in potentia.

So let’s talk about Caverna: Cave vs Cave!

Cave versus Cave box

Cave vs Cave is a two-player game in which each of you take control of a small mountainside full of dwarfs. Each of you begin with a ‘cave entrance’, an empty cavern, and a whole pile of rock that’s going to need to be excavated over the course of the game’s eight rounds. You each share a kind of command console of interior decoration, possessed of a number of options that permit you to make your dank hobbit hole a little more habitable for its unfortunate denizens. When one action has been taken it can’t be reused in that round and you’ll constantly have more actions you want to take than turns available to take them. Early on you get two turns per round to make things happen – later you get three, and finally you’ll have a round where you get four turns of frantic and last-minute DIY. As the number of your options increase, so too do the strength and sophistication of the actions you can take.

Caverna console board

The problem you have is that the availability of key actions is strictly rationed by the board, and there’s so much to do to your cave that you’re never in the position of simply sitting with your feet up enjoying your home. You’re living in the subterranean equivalent of the Money Pit and everywhere is a disaster – everything costs more than you can afford and time is ever ticking onwards. You’re juggling resources, clearing out rock, and picking out the new rooms you can shove into the grim holes you’ve carved out of the bedrock. And you’re doing all that while your obstreperous neighbour is snatching up all the opportunities you need just because their own cave is collapsing around them. The nerve of some people, right?

Caverna resources

The core gameplay loop of Cave vs Cave is in the clearing of rock, which makes available rooms for purchase. Each of those rooms has a cost in resources, a placement restriction that determines where they can go, and a number of victory points they produce. Most rooms also come with their own unique action to which only you get access, and some of the actions on the main console will permit you to trigger these in varying numbers. They might give you raw resources, or resources on a conditional basis. They might permit processing of resources into other resources, or any combination of these. Other rooms will have passive bonuses that will confer ongoing advantage to the lucky architect. The key thing is that you need space to place a room, but you need space of the right configuration. There’s no point having a treasure room with a great big hole in the wall. There’s no point having a food corner if nobody can get into it. Part of your job as a Caverna dwarf is carving out caverns and putting up partition walls to really bring out the utilitarian merits of your dwelling… even if it makes zero sense from the perspective of Feng Shui or domestic charm.

Placement rules for a tile

Those excavation and wall-building opportunities don’t come along as freely as you’d hope and since you only have eight rounds in which to do the best job you can it’s often a case of triage rather than triumph. You build whatever shoddy and nonsensical domicile you can from the erratic and unworthy tools you have available. You then try pass off the resultant mess as a mountainside McMansion. There are some set rooms available at the start of the game but every other one enters play erratically on the basis of excavation – on the face-down side of each lump of rock is a new room that anyone can build if they have the opportunity, the resources, and a place for it to go.

As you might expect from something by veteran game-smith Uwe Rosenberg it’s a very competent game. It’s quick to play and reasonably fun. It runs out of novelty though during your first session – you see pretty much everything in that first exposure to the game. You do get a considerable amount of longevity through the random shuffling of tiles though. When you begin play, everything gets shuffled up and the rooms available to you emerge only occasionally in the order that might be advantageous to you or your opponent.

The stochastic setup keeps things from becoming stale because it basically destroys any attempt to build a consistently winnable strategy. Every game is emergent because the intersection of opportunity and action is only coupled in the loosest sense. Strategies as a result are situational – your aim is optimisation but you rarely have the necessary big-picture of performance that permits you to take a rote approach to its implementation. Don’t get me wrong – there are certain tiles you will always see before other tiles. There is though a lot more bespoke problem solving associated with playing well than you might think from the relatively small number of moving parts in the design.

Walls in Cave versus Cave

So, why the chilly rating?

There’s a lot of talk, at the time of writing, about Marie Kondo and her KonMari approach to clutter and consumerism. Choose joy – get rid of those things that don’t genuinely make you happy. As an inveterate hoarder or books and games myself I recoil from this kind of thinking like a vampire exposed to direct sunlight. I’d rather get rid of a limb than a bookshelf. Individual books often don’t spark joy in me but my collection does. I occasionally run my fingers over my shelves, enjoying the thrill that comes from having a library of books that would have put that of any renaissance intellectual to shame. I have similar affections for my games – they spark joy as a collection. When we start drilling down into the level of individual game titles though it becomes increasingly difficult to justify why I keep a lot of specific games. Cave versus Cave is one of them. It doesn’t spark joy. If anything, it gives me a profound sense of indifference. I have it in my collection because it’s a relatively small box and there’s nothing else that needs its space on the shelf. That though is a grim assessment and the more games I review the harder it is to be indulgent about mediocre competence. Yes, Caverna: Cave versus Cave is a perfectly good game – but where’s the joy?

Games can be joyful for many reasons, and the best games we look at on Meeple Like Us offer joy in spades. This one though – it feels a bit too much like something designed to fit a brand identity than an attempt to bring out a game that absolutely needed to exist. Rosenberg is known now for his family of polyomino pushers like Patchwork, Cottage Garden, Indian Summer and more. Historically he’s been known for the heavier, thinkier games like Agricola, Le Havre, a Feast for Odin, and Caverna. Agricola got a sharper, tighter two-player variant for those that liked the idea but couldn’t face the expectations of playing the full fat experience. Le Havre got the same. Now Caverna has one. I’m sure before much more time has passed we’ll find out about a two-player version of Feast for Odin aimed at the same oddly specific niche. In that I mean ‘I don’t know if Feast for Odin needs a smaller variant but I think it’ll be released regardless of the necessity’. It’s a bit like Friedemann Friese and his insistence on naming his games with alliterative Fs and distributing them in aggressively ugly green boxes. It’s a designer-driven affectation that is adorkably self-indulgent right up until you need to make a serious decision as to whether that whimsey is worth your hard-earned money.

As outlined above, I’ve never played Caverna and perhaps that’s why Cave versus Cave leaves me comparatively cold. I don’t know if this is great as a two-player Caverna but I do know it’s easily forgettable as a game in its own rights and I think that’s how it has to be assessed. This, like my own bookshelves, is a game that seems driven by a kind of completionist mindset – that a game needs to exist because it completes a series rather than because it’s a compelling offering in its own rights.

Here’s the thing. Every game needs a ‘because’ behind it. ‘I want us to play Scrabble because it’s the finest war game I own’. ‘I want to play Chinatown because you’ll never have a more profound negotiation experience at the tabletop’. ‘I want to play Imhotep because it’s the closest thing you’ll ever get to Tetris in a board game’. Give this little thought experiment a try – for your favourite games you’ll always have a because. I don’t have a because for Cave versus Cave, neither as an argument to play it or as a reason to not. It’s just a decent game.

There’s a robustness here that is borne of a game designer that seems incapable of putting a foot seriously wrong. It’s absolutely solid, which given the theme is entirely fitting. It does not however spark joy or even any substantive feeling at all. It slips my mind on a constant basis, requiring active consideration to even summon its existence to conscious thought. When I was working my way through my monthly list of games to review I had a nagging feeling there was one I was forgetting. I had to scour my shelves until my eyes alighted on Cave versus Cave. ‘Ah yes, that one’, I said, and left it to the last because I didn’t have any particularly interesting thoughts about what I got in the box. In the end that’s the most damning criticism I can muster – Cave versus Cave didn’t give me any damn thing to actually critique.