Last week I was able to get together with the gaming group I found via the Geek and Meetup.com for my first game of Caverna: The Cave Farmers. I knew it was a re-imagining of Agricola, but since I hadn't played that one either, I figured I was in trouble! I prepped for the game by watching the Dice Tower review of the game as well as downloading the rule book. Sadly I have a very hard time going through rules unless I have the components in front of me, so I didn't get very far there. I knew the basics though, so that was a start.
Caverna is a worker placement game in which you take turns placing dwarves from your cave home in order to claim actions. These actions let you clear your land, plant crops, raise animals, explore your caves, build mines, furnish rooms, and expand your family. You can take any approach you like towards victory and at the end of the game, nearly everything counts towards your victory points. However, some things also count against your victory points. These include if you have any spaces on your board which haven't been developed in some way (trees in the outdoors and unexplored caves inside), as well as any animals that you don't have, and any "negative point" tiles that you have taken for not being able to feed your family. The one with the most victory points at the end wins, of course.
Everything happens in steps, so if you want to raise animals, then you have to clear your land, and then you have to fence in the cleared land, after which you can raise some animals, but of course there are exceptions (i.e. you can keep 2 sheep on an open pasture if you have a dog with them). Another example is that you have to make rooms for your family before you can expand the family.
As I understand it there are two major differences between Caverna and Agricola. First there are cards in Agricola which have been replaced by the “furnishings” tiles in Caverna which you use to turn your caves into functional rooms. Second, Caverna adds the ability to go on adventures by furnishing your dwarves with weapons.
Our game was a five-player game where the other four players had all played once before. After setting up and learning the rules, the game started and it ended up lasting close to 4.5 hours, much more than the ½ hour per player advertised by the game. The early game went fast, but as the turns wound down towards the end, people took more and more time choosing their actions for the turn, trying to eek out as many points as they could. For my part I took a relatively well balanced approach. I capped at three dwarves and had them all armed, able to take up adventures as they were able. I made sure to dig out my entire cave structure and was able to clear the final field gaps right at the end of the game. I had one clear space for which I lost points at the end of the game. I focused on ore and ruby mines, having a total of three ore mines and two ruby mines at the end of the game. I also had the tile which gave me an extra VP for each ruby I had at the end of the game. I didn’t start saving/collecting those quite early enough so I had just 9 at the end of the game (as opposed to one of my opponents who had the same tile for ore, and had in the range of 60 ore at the end of the game). I also had every animal and had been able to feed all of my dwarves every turn, so I didn’t have any negative points except the one missing space. My final score was 91, which was about 15 greater than second place.
Later, I found that we had played the game somewhat incorrectly, and had been leveling up our armed dwarves at a much higher rate than we should have been (all three of my dwarves were at level 14 at the end of the game). This, of course, impacted the points in the game and favored all those who chose to go after an adventuring strategy. Next time we will play it right of course.
After the game I found it to be very fun. It was a little fiddly in that you have to refill/add resources to the action board every turn, and there are just a lot of pieces to deal with, but other than that the worker placement/action tiles concept is a great one, and the ability to have a different timeline of actions each game (by placing cards randomly at the beginning of the game) means that each game will favor a different strategy, which means you have to be adaptable and able to recognize how the order of actions will affect the strategy you are going for. And while you are really just building your own farm/cave, the fact that someone else can take that action that you really wanted or needed on a particular turn provides a pretty decent amount of player interaction, while not making it possible for any one player to greatly affect the others.
In the end I am excited to play the game again, and I may even be on the lookout for obtaining my own copy at some point (though it is quite expensive)!
Must say, you got a pretty good score for a first playthrough, congrats! I remember my first game, I also went pretty deep into mining. At the end of the game I did not think I'd win, but the mines generated a lot of points!
The 30 minutes per player is a bit optimistic imo, more like 45+ I'd say. Maybe if everyone has a set strategy and are real veterans 30 minutes is easy peasy.
Gotta agree on the refilling part, it can be a bit fiddly and we've found it quite easy to miss something, especially if there already are a tonne of components on a space. Worst is if several people are helping to refill which leads to the same situation every time: "Have you refilled this space? I don't remember..."
Not sure if the order of the action spaces affects your overall strategy that much. They're mostly displaced two turns, however, other players blocking your preferred space is way worse if you can not afford the imitation food price. A bit unsure what I think about the imitation space, in the early game it is really expensive and in the late game the cost is probably negligible. Further playthroughs will tell.