Anatomy of a Revision: Caverna

This blog has long focused on the design of games, investigating how and why they work (or don’t). Usually, it’s picked apart existing games. However, there’s one sort of work that can offer particularly interesting insights into design: the revision. A revision can allow you to delve into a game, see what was there before, what was there afterward, and thus see how a change in design made a change in the game.

That’s why I’m going to be looking at Caverna: The Cave Farmers (2013) this week. Though it’s essentially the same game as Agricola (2007) in the big picture, it’s been revised, polished, and expanded rather thoroughly — providing lots of insight into the design process.

Please note that this article doesn’t try to be a complete list of changes, but rather is a look at the ones that are the most interesting.

The Furnished Rooms

Caverna: Furnished RoomIn Agricola, each player gets a hand of occupation and improvement cards that he uses to specialize his farm. A very small set of just ten major improvements are available for all players. Conversely, in Caverna there are no individual cards. Instead furnishing tiles are available to all players, first come first serve.

Result: The change was probably a reaction to the randomness of the card draws in Agricola. If a player got lucky and got a nicely matched set of cards he could do very well, while an unlucky player with no synergy amidst his cards could lose the game before he even started to play. Obviously, having all the cards (tiles) available to everyone makes the game less lucky.

However, the Caverna setup has several downsides.

  1. Players no longer have an initial direction for their strategy, derived from the cards they were dealt.
  2. Players will have a lot of trouble knowing what all the tiles do, since they’re piled up on boards scattered all across the (huge) playing area. Unfortunately, the tiles and boards don’t do enough to help players quickly assess options from a distance.
  3. Players can easily work themselves into Analysis Paralysis (AP) trying to figure out what to do with dozens of options available.

Response: Mixed. Frankly, I usually don’t have a lot of concern about the randomness within a game. However, I can see why serious players would, and I’ll acknowledge that Caverna is a serious game, so I can see why reducing randomness would be considered beneficial. On the downside, the issues I note tend to make the furnishing tiles really new-player unfriendly, as they’ll be stuck figuring out what they should do and even what they can do.

The Cavern Board

Caverna: Cavern BoardIn Agricola the game board is entirely made up of a farmyard. In Caverna, that’s just half the story, as there’s also a cavern board. You can unearth cavern spaces, which you use to house your furnishing tiles, and you can also unearth tunnel spaces, which you eventually turn into ore mines and ruby mines.

Result: Sometimes it’s amazing what a difference a component can make. In Agricola you have a pile of household improvements that you place off to the side of your board. It doesn’t have any relation to your hut tiles on your board. Conversely in Caverna your furnishings go in caverns that you prepare, and as a result they feel like a much more integrated and organic part of the gameplay.

The cavern board is also the first of many changes from Agricola that allows players to specialize by each choosing their own strategy — orthogonal to what’s being done by the other players. In Agricola (in large part due to the scoring) each player did a bit of everything, but in Caverna players can try to excel in specific categories — such as focusing on mining instead of faming.

Response: Enthusiastic. I think that the cavern board introduces interesting new options for play without adding to the complexity of the game, and I love the better integration of the furnishings.

The Fields Board

Caverna: Fields BoardIn Agricola you have cleared grasslands that you either plow to create fields or else you build fences around (in a pretty freeform way) to pasture animals. In Caverna you have woodlands, and when you clear them you place domino tiles that have fields on one half and meadows on the other. You can then fence either one or two adjacent meadow-halves, which allows you to play a fenced meadow (“pasture”) tile atop the meadows.

Result: I’d always found the planting & harvest system in Agricola to be complex. That’s because it had three steps to generate food: plow + sow + bake. Caverna simplifies that dramatically, and the first step is here: though you still have two steps (place a domino tile, then sow), the tile placement is a much more organic part of the game because it’s useful for multiple things, so it doesn’t feel like a step in a long chain of growing actions that you’re trying to figure out.

Meanwhile, the freeform fencing system in Agricola, where you laid wood all around your grasslands, was needlessly complex. Just auto-fencing meadows is much simpler and cleaner without losing much in the way of strategy.

With that said, many players seem to find the domino tile components confusing. That’s in part because they’re double-sided (meadow + field on one side, pasture + field on the other, with the double-sized pasture appearing instead on the back of one of the cavern domino tiles) and in part because they don’t include some options that players think should exist (a double meadow or a double field).

Response: Satisfied. I think that one of the best things you can do in a major revision of an old game like this is to polish out all the complex rules systems that didn’t add enough to the game, and I feel like that’s exactly what was done here. I’m not convinced the domino tiles were the optimal component choice, but I feel like the result is much simpler.

Eating Rules

In Agricola feeding your family requires a complex supply chain supported by improvements. Grain and vegetables have to be cooked in ovens to be worth more than a minimal amount and if you want to eat animals at all, you again need some sort of improvement. In Caverna eating has been simplified and abstracted. Grain, vegetables, animals, and even money all have a specific food value, and you just remove the food stuff you choose to eat.

Caverna: Eating RulesResult: This change was probably made because people complained that Agricola was too food driven. You were constantly scrambling to figure out how to feed your family. In contrast, in Caverna if you do just a bit of work on your food production (usually either by getting some animals in pastures or grain and vegetables in fields), and then you can spend some attention on the other fun stuff that’s possible in the game.

The new eating rules also contribute greatly to the simplicity of the game by taking out one whole step (cooking) from the  food production cycle.

And, if players really want the opportunity to specialize their food production, they have some limited ability to do so with some of the furnished rooms, so not all is lost there.

Response: Happy. I think this is a pretty great improvement for its simplification and its easing up of the game’s tightness. I certainly note that there’s a loss in strategy since the food specialization is reduced, but when you’re figuring out how to simplify a game by removing less important systems, you’re usually giving up something. Rosenberg does a good job here of both making sure the simplification is worthwhile and giving a little back (with the limited food-related furnishings).

Harvest Rules

Caverna: HarvestIn Agricola there are six harvests, positioned at set points in the game. At each, people are fed, food is grown, and animals multiply. In Caverna there are six full harvests, one harvest where only half of your stuff grows (plants or animals), and two harvest-like events where less food is required, but nothing grows — for a total of nine different times when you have to worry about food. The later harvests also occur at semi-random times, depending on the draw of certain counters.

Result: The rules suggest that the increases in feeding requirements are offset by increased growth in animals and grain, but that’s not really true. The number of feeding events increases from 6 to seven-and-two-halves (8), but the number of growing events only increases from 6 to 6.5. However, you don’t feel as frantic as you’d expect with that much feeding, and that’s probably due to the new Eating Rules. The updated Harvest Rules are likely an intentional balance that keeps the game from going too far in the direction of food not being a danger.

Response: Ambivalent+. It’s hard to measure the success of a rule like this, which is primarily intended for balance. However, it nicely increases tension, which is almost always good — even if the actual danger is lower than in Agricola thanks to the updated eating rules. (If I had to guess, I’d say Rosenberg replaced frustration in Agricola concerning food preparation with tension in Caverna concerning increased food needs, and I’ll take tension over frustration in my games any day.)

Herding Rules

In Agricola players can place one animal in an unfenced stable, two animals in a fenced pasture, or four animals in a fenced pasture with a stable. In Caverna this is supplemented by a few special cases: boars can go in stables on woods; dogs can herd sheep in pastures; and donkeys can stay in mines.

Caverna: HerdingResult: The Caverna rules are definitely more evocative. The dogs, sheep, boars, and donkeys all feel somewhat like they should because of the rules. In addition, there’s more opportunity to strategically specialize in different animals by taking advantage of their specific attributes.

On the downside, no one is ever sure how all the herding rules work.

Response: Dissatisfied with components. I like the thematic & strategic advantages offered by the new herding rules. Players not understanding them is a big problem, but I lay that failure on the components. If each mine had a donkey icon, then you’d remember that a donkey could be placed in the mine. Similarly, if you had a special dogs and sheep area that reminded you of the rules for dog herding, using icons, that’d be easy to figure out.

Usability definitely could have improved how this rule system worked, but it doesn’t seem to have been even considered. Instead, the rules teacher has to dump out the huge set of complex rules and then remind players about them throughout the game.

Adventuring

Caverna: ExpeditionsThis was the most obvious large-scale addition to Caverna, even eclipsing the caverns themselves. In Agricola there’s nothing like this. In Caverna players can use ore to create weapons for their workers, and then can send those workers on adventures. The worker then gets to claim 1-4 advantage, which all tend to be resources or actions that they could get in the game via other means.

Result: Perhaps adventuring was put into the game because it was a neat thematic element to add to a fantasy-themed Agricola. And perhaps it was added to create another orthogonal set of strategy, besides the farming and caving that’s possible in Caverna. Certainly, the use of adventuring as a third type of strategy is quite successful.

However, it also creates serious downtime. The rules suggest that the game immediately move on, continuing with the next player while the adventurer is searching through his menu to figure out what to get, but I often find that you get back to the adventurer and he’s still deciding. Meanwhile, the system creates a real disconnect because the other players lose awareness of what the adventurer is doing. It turns a well-integrated multiplayer game into multiplayer solitaire for those adventuring players.

Adventuring also allows for sloppier play. (Or if you prefer: it provides an opportunity to catch up in a very tight game.) If you messed up your food or your animals or some other singular pathway in the game, you can recover by adventuring. Perhaps this is good for new players (though they’ll probably be intimidated by the huge menu of possible rewards), but this seems like a less worthy design goal for games played by more experienced players.

Response: Dissatisfied. I don’t like the downtime. I feel like it really stretches out the game, especially toward the end where more people are adventuring more often and getting more rewards. I also think the disconnect hurts the game, and my feelings about the sloppiness allowance are obvious.

Sadly, I think that adventuring was largely a thematic failure as well. Oh, sure, there’s a tiny bit of a feeling of going out and doing something, but if you’re a D&D roleplayer, you’re probably going to be disappointed because that theming doesn’t feel quite right. There’s no danger, there’s no randomness, and there are no surprise rewards — and those are all things I’d expect from a fantasy-based adventuring system.

(But based on comments, lots of people seem to love the system, so take my responses with a grain of salt, being aware that I’m very sensitive to downtime, and I’m a D&D player.)

Scoring

Caverna: ScoringIn Agricola scoring heavily rewards a middle of the road strategy. If you don’t focus on any one aspect of the game, you’re punished, and if you focus too much on any aspect you stop scoring it. In Caverna scoring still rewards a minimum of attention to many different categories (requiring you to have at least one of each animal and to have covered every space on your boards), but it’s a lower requirement than is found in many of the Agricola categories and you can now excel in any category to your continuing benefit.

Result: Specialization is better rewarded. The game’s complexity is also lowered a bit, because you’re no longer counting if you made the minimum or avoided the cap for various scoring categories.

Response: Satisfied. I’ve enjoyed the many ways that Caverna has pushed specialization, and this is another great example — and one that’s almost invisible to players because it’s just the point scoring at the end. Also, reduced complexity is almost always a good thing.

Conclusion

Caverna BoxCaverna is a fascinating example of a redeveloped game that changed lots and lots of rules from its predecessor. It’s intriguing to see both what the designer was interested in doing and what gameplay changes resulted from his changes to the rules.

I’m happiest to see the polishing of game mechanics. Sharp edges in the original rules were removed — things that didn’t benefit the game enough — and the result is a game that’s easier to play and (usually) more obvious. I also think the revision did a great job of offering alternate strategies, something that should improve its replayability by keeping it from feeling the same from game to game.

As I wrote, I’m not happy with quite all the changes. I think Caverna gets into the biggest troubles when it introduces new rules for the sake of theming. So the herding rules and the adventuring don’t work as well as much of the rest, perhaps because they’re first-generation rule sets, or perhaps because theming won out over mechanics.I’m saddest about the fact that the updated and polished game didn’t result in something that was more newbie friendly. This is obviously a case of conflicting goals.

But is Caverna overall a better game? Probably. (I’d say that more certainly, except I like farming more than cave farming as a theme!)

 

5 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Revision: Caverna

  1. I’ve missed reading your articles! This is a great one. I’ve owned both games since they were released, but I like Caverna slightly more. I’d say adventuring is my favourite new part of the game and the downtime only becomes significant near the end of the game. I will say I learned a rule from you: I did not know donkeys could be kept in your cavern! Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever read an assessment of any game that echoed my opinions so precisely. I could spend this comment echoing each of your points, but you might as well just reread your post instead to see what I would say. Thank you for writing this! 🙂

  3. Nice article, and some interesting points made. I especially concur with your bit on adventuring. It feels nice at first, but its downsides are pretty serious. I guess the goal of adventuring (+ the rules about adventurers that are placed last) was to allow for smaller families to compete with full-grown dwarf settlements.

    I came across your article because I was thinking of starting a design analysis of Caverna myself. Specifically, I wanted to take all the rules of the game, and analyze the purpose they serve, and the reasons they are present.

    Have you ever considered doing this kind of exercise? On the top of my head, rules that are not obvious at first and that are here for a reason:
    – Placing your strongest adventurers last
    – The adventure system itself
    – Ruby as jokers
    – Why can you only build on caves, and not on tunnel? Why the need for the distinction?
    – The scoring system. In worker placement games (and board games in general), victory points are taken for granted, but they come from a conscious decision. Why did Uwe decide to go with VP? What does it accomplish for the game? What does it detract to it?
    – And probably quite a few others 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for the article, and hoping to read again from you!

    • Sounds like an interesting article. I do sometimes look more specifically at the rules of a game, but not quite in that detail. Feel free to link from here when you write it!

  4. Theming won out over gaming. This game just leaves me wondering why am I just going thru some motions, changing each game slightly to one or two more points up my old score.

    The good tile combos seem clear real quick. The lack of hidden goals handed out, the very little, token, randomness, factor in even 2 tile combos, makes this thing just boring, 1-2 players is a joke, gee, anyone see all those tiles, all face up, all available at the start? There is just not enough getting into each other way with this thing, and when you do, major catchup mechanisms, example food trade ins will get you an already taken action, rubies buys you out of most problems, feeding the masses just a minor distraction, MEH.

    5-7 players was to just justify the artificial set selling price. The table space, the downtime, we stopped playing half way thru with 7. This is a game that might hit the table once per year. Vasel complains about cube pushing games, gee, this is just yet another rehash bloated get this, get that, now do this with this and that, repeat, resource management we have seen over and over again with this designer.

    Worst, he loves to pull out some subset mechanism, box it, sell it off as a 2 player game. One of his other games may have a wishful thinking it supports a range of players 1-5 but is just a 3 player game, can you say, Le Havre? You play this when you don’t have 4 players for Ora et Labora.

    People complaining they want an expansion? Wow, what will that cost, what size table are you going to need for that? But yet a 3 ranking a BGG. I wish people would post just how often this gets payed once the parts WoW wears off.

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