Agricola 2.0, Now With Added Caves! - Caverna: The Cave Farmers Review

Agricola has been a fan favourite among Euro gamers and I like to think of myself as a fairly well balanced gamer so I enjoy Euro's and Ameritrash alike. Agricola made its way into my collection based on the farming theme which I thought was interesting and due to the sheer amount of components in the box. I love the idea of seeing a progression in the game where you can see your endeavours build up in front of you and at the end you feel a sense of achievement. City building games are good for this and farms in this case are no exception.
Some people were not as taken in by Agricola due to it's tense worker placement and the emphasis on feeding your people rather than building the farm. The negative point scoring which forced you to balance your farm out rather than specialise was also a concern. Well now we have Caverna and it's essentially panned out as Agricola 2.0 with more streamlined rules, less tension, but a wealth of options. Does it have a place alongside Agricola, or does it replace it entirely?

"That donkey is there asking - have you seen my friend Ed, oh no you haven't!!"

Designer: Uwe Rosenberg (2013)
Publisher: Lookout Games
# of Players: 1-7
Ages: 12+
Play Time: 120+ minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #223/8.43
Dice Tower 2013 People’s Choice Rank: n/a
Category: Worker & Tile Placement Euro

I Got A Lovely New Combine Harvester

If you know how to play Agricola then a lot of this game will be instantly familiar to you. There are 12 rounds to the game and depending on the number of players there is a selection of action spaces that players can use and place their dwarf workers on. As each round elapses further action spaces become available. As with every Euro game, you're opting for the most victory points and to do so you have to excavate your cavern and furnish it as well as expand your farm outside to keep animals and grow food to feed your family - oh yes, feeding is back but it's not as bad as you think.

"Nice little details dotted about the board and a useful food conversion chart at the bottom right"

Each player takes it in turns to place a worker on a space collecting resources, building pastures, chopping forests, furnishing your cavern with rooms and mines, etc. If someone has taken your space, too bad, so sorry you'll have to adapt and go for something else. As time goes on you will breed more animals, expand your fields and produce more children.

"These are on separate boards depending on player count - but there's a lot to choose from"

At the end of several rounds in the game you will have to feed your family. You will need to cook animals or harvest your vegetables/grains and have enough to feed every Dwarf you have. Failure to do so results in negative points at the end of the game. Not all harvests are the same though. Occasionally there will either be no harvest, a "lesser" harvest or one where you have a choice of breeding animals or harvesting fields, but not both.

"Like in Agricola the round action spaces are randomised by stage but there's only 12 rounds, not 14"

As well as ploughing fields outside and building pastures, you can also furnish your cavern with mines and room tiles. There is a huge selection of rooms available, that grant resource benefits, victory point conditions and space for more Dwarf children and knowing which to go for forms a big part of your overall strategy.

A new addition to the game is the expeditions, which is essentially sending your Dwarf's off on missions. First you have to arm a Dwarf with a weapon using ore and a blacksmith action space. Then you use an Expedition action space to send him off. Depending on the strength of his weapon, he can bring back different kinds of resources and food and with every expedition, he levels up his weapon before eventually you're able to chop forests, excavate caves and even furnish rooms on these missions.

"Reference cards for each part of the game are extremely useful and easy to understand"

Do not however make the same silly rule mistake that I have made which is misinterpreting the breeding rule for animals. If you have AT LEAST two of the same animal you get ONE animal. It is NOT however "gain one animal for EVERY two animals". Believe me when I say, this has a dramatic effect on the game if you get it wrong when suddenly everything is spawning children like rabbits.

Play continues with more and more options being made available to you as time goes on with the victor being, you guessed it, the one with the most victory points.

Man V Food

Now one of the biggest complaints with Agricola was that feeding your family was so tense and tricky at times that it became your focal point of the whole game. That's completely changed here, well depending on your strategy anyway. Nearly everything can be converted into food at any time and there's a handy conversion chart that helps with this. Dogs are apparently not edible though in this game. . . hmm, yeah I'm going to avoid the obvious joke here.

"Gold, weapons and food tokens - I don't like food tokens so I use wooden chicken/fish/bread pieces"

It's no pushover mind you, but no longer are you so focused on feeding that you can't enjoy building up your farm and you don't have to acquire ovens in advance like with Agricola. In fact the only game where I struggled to feed my family and by that I mean literally scraping for every last bite was when I adopted the strategy of mass family planning. In the early game I had so many family members that I was neglecting my farming duties. It worked well, but boy was it a trickier one to go for.

Man V Points

And now the second biggest complaint of Agricola. The scoring points system in the original game required you to have a balanced farm otherwise the negative points for not doing so pretty much crippled your attempts at winning. Personally this was my biggest issue with the game, I didn't mind the feeding aspect. In Caverna there are still some negative points for unused land and lack of animal groups, but that's all.

However this is balanced by the removal of the "capping" feature from Agricola. You couldn't specialise in that game as when you reached a certain point, you gained no further credit for going further. Now you can specialise to your hearts content. If you want to do nothing but create the world's biggest vegetable patch you can do so. And you gain points for literally everything on the board. Grains, vegetables, dogs, cattle, donkeys, pastures, mines, rubies, gold, family members, in fact the only thing you don't gain points for is ore gained from mining, but there's plenty of chances to convert them and chances are you won't even go for ore unless it's part of your main strategy.

Relieving the Tension For Better Or Worse

The result of both of these major changes is to make the game less tense for players. Now this works or doesn't work depending on why you loved Agricola. If you enjoyed the tightness of Agricola, then this might seem like a downgrade for you. Also even though you are competing for action spaces, in much the same way as Le Havre from what I've heard (yet to play that game, it's high on my wish list) there's usually always a decent spot for you to go even if it wasn't your primary choice. You rarely feel like you're screwed over completely.

The rules in Caverna are easier to follow and more streamlined than in Agricola, but there's still no shortage of options to take into account during the game. In Agricola you had less action spaces, but with all of the improvement cards and occupations, there was plenty of choice to overwhelm new players with. Caverna is pretty much the same. You don't have the cards, but you've got way more action spaces and there's a LOT of furnishing tiles to read over. My best advice here is to ignore any completely that don't go with your intended strategy at the start of the game and just go with the flow. That way you don't get overwhelmed and it gives you something new to look at every game!

"Lots of tiles, now this is only two board's worth. I believe there are at least four"

OCD Overload

When we talk about components, we come to a big positive and a big negative to the game. The boards look great and the furnishing tiles are nicely done as well with colourful, clear artwork on all of them. The resource tokens  are all solid and chunky wooden pieces, larger even then Agricola's versions. But BOY is there a lot of them. I mean really, there is a lot. If you're wondering why the game costs around £60 to buy, this is the reason. You have got 7 player boards, a selection of boards to house the tiles with printed tile faces on them so you know where each one goes, a group of boards for action spaces depending on player count and then a million wooden resource tokens. Oh yeah and there's loads of tiles for fields, mines, pastures and caverns.

"There's a ton of each of these tiles - trust me, you need to have storage solutions in place"

It really is insane just how much is in this game box and you're definitely going to be glad they provide you with bags to house them all. I have a Deluxe Euro token box and I use that for everything, but the downside with that is trying to fish out all of the tokens each game. In fact the only component niggle is that Dwarf's are represented by discs again which look odd compared to everything else that's represented by a proper token. Oh well I've replaced those with Farmer Meeples! So you're definitely getting value for money if you're starting out fresh. I can't recall if Agricola only came with cubes as the version I bought had Animeeples and I replaced all the tokens with the deluxe versions. Here though, there isn't a cube in sight and for a Euro game with resource management that in itself deserves an award.

"My Deluxe Euro Token box - it's nice and works well, but big fingers do struggle with small pieces"

However a niggle with Agricola was having to replenish the action spaces with resources each turn. This didn't take too long eventually as you got used to it, but in Caverna the issue is compounded as 75% of the action spaces involve resources that replenish at various rates. So each round you are always having to put more tokens on the board and for me, getting them out of the Deluxe box is a pain. I'm tempted to ditch the box and resort to simple bags + ramekins for speed, but you are basically going to have to come up with your own methodology for mitigating this time-consuming issue.

"That's just a handful of tokens- there's loads of each and . . . come on, this is far better than cubes"

In terms of game length, it's not that bad providing you don't have too many players. I've played the game solo (which is actually quite good) and with 2, 3, 4 and 5 players. With 4 or less it's relatively easy to manage. At 5 however it was quite a hassle for table space and resource replenishment. Now I could improve on this with sorting out the tokens as above, but I warn you now, 5 players can be a long game. I will outright refuse to try this with 6 or 7 players as I don't know of a pub table that exists that could possibly house that many players, and the fiddly aspect with the tokens would just become unbearable.

Verdict . . . . . And The Question

Despite the niggles that have been mentioned, this is a fantastic game. There is so much you can do and so many paths to victory that every game is different and you really get a sense of progression. By the end of the game your board is populated with all sorts of farming and cavern tiles, animals and food and you really feel like it's unique from the other players. You can specialise in any way you like and it's no longer the end of the world if you don't grab the maximum amount of workers in your family - another common complaint with Agricola.

Turns run smoothly and you can't help but get into the theme of building a farm and cave system. This is about as far as a board game version of Harvest Moon can get. With too many players it can bog down however so I recommend no more than 5 players and you really need to invest in some storage solutions for the tokens for mid-game.

"Picture quality, yeah my bad! - But yeah you'll have to do some major management for space"

It is however fiddly to manage the resources and the sheer amount of options can be overwhelming for new players, however it is easier to learn the basic rules than Agricola due to the simplified rules for feeding the family and scoring. Veteran Agricola players may miss the cards, but the furnishing tiles I feel make up for them with so many options available to everyone without having to spend ages drafting the cards before the game starts. Do not be fooled by the easier rules though, this is still a heavy Euro game, just for different reasons than Agricola. One is tighter, the other gives you more to do.

But here is the question, much like Doctor Who I've wanted to avoid this question for as long as possible but eventually it catches up with me. And I've got to do the same for Eldritch Horror as well, so double trouble.

Is Caverna: Cave Farmers better than Agricola and if so, is Agricola now relegated from the collection?

There are many similarities between the two games, but also some key differences. Agricola is more tense and tight and has a greater emphasis on feeding and balance. Caverna has more options for each player but is a looser game and feeding is now a side issue rather than the main focal point. Expeditions are a good feature, but they're not unbalanced so think of it as another strategy to go for. Losing an action space to another player is no longer a crushing blow to your strategy and an early mistake won't completely screw up the late game forcing you to endure another 2+ hours for nothing.

The Occupation/Improvement cards are replaced by Furnishing Tiles and both ideas work fine and I like both versions. My one niggle with the cards however is that even with drafting you might end up with wasted cards or ones that don't benefit your strategy very well so there is a luck element. At least with the tiles, everyone has access to every one of them. However the cards particularly in the I & E decks from the base game have a little more interactivity between players and Agricola has a lot of room for expansion, but I'm sure Caverna will get the same treatment with more furnishing tiles.

I like both games for different reasons, but I'm going to put my hand up and say. . . . . Caverna is better than Agricola. The production is excellent, it's more streamlined and there are so many options available to players of which all are available from the start. If offered a game of Agricola, I would happily still play it though, but Caverna would always get the casting vote given a choice of the two. Yes it's daunting with all the tiles and the handling of the components is fiddly, but Agricola had similar issues and all Euro games have a learning curve.

Will I now be getting rid of Agricola? That's an even harder question. I enjoy the game but for many people the lack of stress in Caverna is a big factor and it is for me as well. Some say Agricola is more interactive, but personally that's highly dependant on the cards drawn and most of them simply involve passing the cards to other players after use. That's nice and all, but hardly a reason for keeping it. The cards also have a big power swing so luck can sometimes play too much of a part in their use.

My biggest issue with Agricola is the scoring. You HAVE to balance your farm, you can't specialise at all and that's a big killer for me. Caverna allows you to do whatever you like and even incurring some negative points no longer cripples your endgame. My first game I ever played with my friend, I tested this out by opting for sheep battery farming. I grabbed no other animals, but at least got some bits in the cavern to boost the points for sheep further and some fields for growing food. I only won by 3 points, but it was still a win.

For now I think it has a place, but with more games played I think I could actually be forced to make room for other games and Agricola will have to go sadly. It's not a bad game, I love Agricola and I'm not a subscriber of "Cult of the New", but Caverna addresses some key issues for me and it's easier to bring to the table for new players. Certainly if you haven't got either of them, go for Caverna as buying both outright from scratch doesn't seem worth it.

If you're unsure - give both a try and see what you think, that's what I say. You can't go wrong with buying Caverna without testing it first, it's brilliant. But at most games clubs you can bet someone owns one or both of these games so get involved and see which you prefer.