Tag Archives: Caverna: The Cave Farmers

Boardgames in the News: Mayfair Games – Is there a Future without Catan?

Mayfair Games began in 1981 as a small US games company based in Illinois. One of their first games was Empire Builder, their first and now the flagship of their “crayon-rails” series of games where players, using washable crayons, draw their train routes over a map of North America.  Building on this success, Mayfair then went on to play a pivotal role in bringing Euro games to the US and wider English speaking markets.

Empire Builder
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Billythehut

In 1996, Mayfair Games picked up the license to produce an English edition of Die Siedler von Catan, The Settlers of Catan (now known simply as “Catan”).  With the huge success of the game world-wide, over the next twenty years, Mayfair brought out multiple new editions of the base game modernising and updating it, English editions of all the expansions, variants and spin-offs.  Mayfair (with Kosmos) were also behind the release of Star Trek: Catan in 2012, the first Catan game with a licensed theme.  For many, Mayfair Games has become synonymous with Catan, in the English speaking world in any case.  As such, the news yesterday that Asmodee has acquired the rights to produce the English language version of everything “Catan”, has left a lot of people wondering where that now leaves Mayfair Games.

Star Trek Catan
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor henk.rolleman

With the shear quantity and popularity of the Catan games it was inevitable that Catan would dominate the catalogue of Mayfair, but is this the beginning of the end for Mayfair Games?  Well, it’s true that no company can take such a major amputation and come out unscathed, so the loss of this part of their portfolio has inevitably led to major restructuring.  The former CEO of Mayfair, Pete Fenlon left to become the CEO of the new Asmodee owned “Catan Studio” taking a bunch of other people with him including the Director of Marketing,.  This left a hole that will be filled by a the current President, Larry Roznai; the head of Acquisition & Development, Alex Yeager; and a lot of chair shuffling.  Aside from that, shareholders received healthy payouts and there’s been a major contraction in the size of the company, to something similar to where it was in 2007-2008.

The Settlers of Catan
– Image by boardGOATS

It may be that the fact that Asmodee only took the rights to the Catan empire rather than buying the company out wholesale is indicative, and could be viewed as asset-stripping.  In which case, there is probably little hope for what remains of Mayfair Games.  If the whole-sale purchase scenario had played out, it is almost certain that the rest of the Mayfair catalogue would have been shelved and the company would have de facto become “Studio Catan” by another name.  The fact that this has not come to pass suggests that the personnel remaining believe there is more to the Mayfair than just “Catan”.

1830: Railways & Robber Barons
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Zoroastro

So, what is Mayfair left with?  Well, there are a hundred odd games currently produced by Mayfair including some of the popular 18xx series, Martin Wallace’s Steam, the massive Caverna: The Cave Farmers and Nuns on the Run.  In 2013 Mayfair also acquired a controlling interest in the German company, Lookout Games, who historically have produced some fantastic games (including Agricola).  This partnership has already produced Grand Austria Hotel; Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King; and Patchwork.  This suggests that where the “Old Mayfair” had stagnated a little, becoming somewhat dependent on the Catan franchise, the New Mayfair might be forced to change direction for the better, forming a leaner, more innovative company producing exciting new games.  Perhaps the future is not so bleak for Mayfair after all, but only time will really tell.

Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor henk.rolleman

Boardgames in the News: What is a Meeple?

Reading our game reports, a fairly commonly used term is “Meeple”.  The word is used so widely amongst Euro gamers, that it was adopted for the name of the Oxford boardgame café, Thirsty Meeples, however, non-gamers are completely unfamiliar with it.  So, what does it mean and where does it come from?

Carcassonne!
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor wizardless

The term was allegedly coined in 2000 by Alison Hansel while paying the tile laying game, Carcassonne.  In Carcassonne, players draw a tile and then add it to a growing map before placing a wooden figure on the tile.   Thus, meeple was a conjunction of “my” and “people” and was used specifically to refer to the characteristic wooden people-shaped pieces used in Carcassonne and more recently, games like Keyflower.  Since then, the range of game pieces available has increased hugely and the term has been adapted and broadened.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

For example, Agricola has a wide range of resource tokens, including sheep, pigs and cows, which are often collectively referred to as “animeeples”.  Similarly, the wheat and vegetable resource tokens are often referred to as “vegimeeples” or even “vegeeples”.  So, the suffix “-eeple” has now come to mean game token, interestingly, usually one that is shaped.  Thus, people playing games like Ice Flow or Salmon Run might talk about “fish-eeples”, devotees of Caverna may discuss “dog-eeples” and “donkeeples”, and players of the Arctic Bounty expansion for Fleet might comment on “crab-eeples”, though they may also be collectively referred to, simply as meeples.

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small
– Image by boardGOATS

So, generically, a meeple is a game piece, usually made of wood, and often, but not necessarily with two arms, two legs and a head…

Meeples
– Image by boardGOATS

Boardgames in the News: Are Asmodée Taking Over the World?

Asmodée is the French translation for Asmodeus, and according to Binsfeld’s classification of demons, Asmodeus is the demon of lust and is therefore responsible for twisting people’s sexual desires.  In the boardgame world though, Asmodée (originally known as Siroz) are a small French game publishing and distribution company, specialising in the family market. For example, they are well known for Dobble, Dixit, Time’s Up! and Ca$h ‘n Guns, but they also publish some more challenging games including Snow Tails, Mr. Jack, Formula D, Takenoko and 7 Wonders.

Jungle Speed
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

Asmodée was started in 1995 by Marc Nunès, a self-trained entrepreneur developing role-playing games, but quickly became France’s foremost games publisher and distributor.  One of the big early successes was Jungle Speed, launched in 1998, which has since gone on to be one of the top-selling titles in France, rivalling Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Pay Day.  The real turning point came in 2003, however, when Asmodée obtained the French licence to distribute Pokémon collector cards, which opened up the mass retail sector.  This development led to an 18% investment from Naxicap in 2005.  Naxicap’s stake was bought out two years later by Montefiore who acquired 60% of the company as part of a deal with management worth €40-50 million.  Montefiore invested €120 million to finance Asmodée’s international growth, funding the acquisition of the Belgian game distributor Hodin in 2008, the Spanish games developer Cromola and the German Proludo in 2009, followed by the purchase of a 60% stake in the UK-based distributor, Esdevium Games in 2010.  Asmodée also strengthened it’s portfolio with the acquisition of Abalone and partnership with Libellud (leading to the distribution rights for Dixit) in 2010.

Abalone
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor msaari

In 2012, Asmodée branched out further, setting up a subsidiary in Shanghai, China,  with the intention of expanding “into a new market taking advantage of Asmodee’s extensive line-up of games and the existing relationships with partners, thus promoting the brand in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan”.  This ambition brought Asmodée to the attention of the Eurazeo, a European investment company and a deal was announced in November 2013 that valued Asmodée at €143 million.   In January, 2014, almost exactly a year ago now, Eurazeo bought 83.5% of Asmodée through an equity investment of €98 million while Asmodée’s management team and original founders reinvested €14 million of their own money.

Ticket to Ride
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor garyjames

With the backing Eurazeo provided, Asmodée then went big:  in August last year it was announced that Days of Wonder would be “merging into the Asmodée Group of game companies”.   Days of Wonder are one of the biggest names in modern boardgaming, and are often credited with the growth of the modern boardgame industry, thanks largely to their flagship Ticket to Ride games, which have sold well over two million copies to date.  This is not the only “big game” in their catalogue either, they are also responsible for Memoir ’44 and Small World, both of which are popular games, demonstrated by the number of expansions they support and which take Days of Wonder’s total number of games sold to over five million since their founding in 2002.

Small World
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor crosenkrantz

According to Forbes, Days of Wonder generates between $10 million and $20 million in revenue annually, not bad in such a niche market.  From Eurazeo/Asmodée’s point of view, such an acquisition makes sound financial sense, not just because of the commercial value, but because they already provided a lot of the distribution for Days of Wonder games.  This wasn’t enough for Asmodée however, and three months later, they acquired the U.S. publisher Fantasy Flight Games.

– Image used with permission of BGG contributor adamfeldner

This was a bit of a change of direction for Asmodée:  hitherto, all the acquisitions had been firmly in the family boardgame and distribution markets.  Fantasy Flight games are a very different animal and their headline games, Twilight Imperium and Arkham Horror are much less family friendly.   Even their X-Wing Miniatures Game which is very popular with fathers and sons, is a long way outside the normal scope of Asmodée, since it is essentially a two-player war game with a Star Wars theme.  However, there are considerable benefits for both parties, since the merger will enable Fantasy Flight to improve its distribution in Europe, while simultaneously giving the growing Asmodée Group access to Fantasy Flight’s North American sales and marketing teams.

Black Fleet
– Image used with permission BGG contributor Toynan

Asmodée weren’t stopping there, however, with Ystari Games, Asterion Press and Pearl Games also becoming “part of the Asmodée family” late last year.  The link with Ystari Games almost certainly comes from their mutual interest in Space Cowboys.  Space Cowboys is a game creation studio created in 2013 by Marc Nunès (who started Asmodée way back in 1995, remember?), Philippe Mouret and Croc (both of Asmodée), Cyril Demaegd (Ystari) and Sébastien Pauchon (GameWorks).  Space Cowboys is a very small outfit, but already has one Spiel des Jahres nomination under its belt in Splendor and looks to be trying for a second with Black Fleet, the gorgeous pirate game released at Essen last year.

Eurazeo
– Image from eurazeo.com

So, what are Asmodée up to?  The concern is that gamers generally like the current diversity in the market and fear that this succession of mergers and partnerships will mean a homogenisation of the games available.  The November 2014 Eurazeo “Investor Day” report spelled out the current state of Asmodée in detail and the good news is that this does not seem to be Eurazeo/Asmodée’s intention.  The report states, “Each studio has its own DNA,” and goes on to say, “Repeated success lies in the full independency granted to these studios, to keep innovating.”  So it seems the diversity is valued, however, by acquiring mid-sized publishers like Days of Wonder and Fantasy Flight, Asmodée is positioning itself to compete more effectively with multinational toy giants like Hasbro and Mattel, who publish top board game brands including Monopoly and Scrabble.

Eurazeo
– Image from eurazeo.com

So, is it a good thing that Asmodée are setting themselves up to rival the big boys?  Well, Asmodée is not the only company to engage in mergers:  in 2011 Filosofia purchased the U.S. publisher Z-Man Games, and U.S. publisher FRED Distribution (which releases games under the Eagle Games and Gryphon Games brands), acquired U.S. publisher Face2Face Games.  More recently, in late 2013, Mayfair Games (the U.S. partner for Catan) bought a controlling interest in Lookout Games (the company who first brought Agricola, Caverna, Le Havre and Ora et Labora to the market).

Asmodee
– Image from forbes.com

Clearly a large stable company provides security for designers, as well as providing support for the individual studios who know that one poor decision is no-longer likely to bring about the end of the company, both of which have to be A Good Thing.  However, companies like Eurazeo invest for only one reason:  financial return.  With an effective monopoly, Asmodée are now in a position to squeeze the market, indeed we may already be seeing the evidence of this in the price rises announced at the start of the year.  With this in mind, it will become clear in due course whether Asmodée is good for boargaming in the UK or whether it is genuinely the demon of lust responsible for twisting our gaming desires…

18th Movember 2014

Unusually, both Blue and Green were there early, so decided to get a in quick game.  After a bit of discussion, they decided on Blueprints, a cute little dice rolling and building game.  They had set up and Blue had just finished explaining the rules when Black and Purple walked in, so it quickly became a four player game.  The idea is quite simple:  each player has the blueprint of a building and on their turn, they take one die from the central pool, add it to their construction and then replenish the used die from a bag.  Dice must be placed within the two-by-six footprint and any stacked dice must have the same number or higher than the one below.

Blueprints

Each building is scored depending on the dice used and their position.  Thus, orange dice (wood) scores highly if surrounded by other dice, whereas black dice (stone) score for being higher in a stack.  In contrast, green (recycled material) scores well the more it is used, and clear colourless dice (glass) score the face value.  At the end of the round, each building is scored and points awarded for Bronze, Silver and Gold, scoring one, two and three victory points respectively. Prizes (worth two victory points) are given out for buildings that comprise all six numbers, buildings that have four or more of the same number, buildings that are five or more dice high, and buildings that have five or more dice of one colour (they are more aesthetically pleasing, obviously).  All ties are broken by two dice that are drawn out of the bag at the start of the round.

Blueprints

Blue was the only player familiar with the game, so unsurprisingly got off to a flying start, winning Gold for the highest scoring building and a prize for a building with four dice of the same number.  Purple picked up Silver and Black took the Bronze.  As is normal with this game, after the first round there was a pleasing “Ah! Moment” as everyone suddenly simultaneously realised how it all fitted together, what the point was, and how clever the game is.  Consequently, the second round was much more keenly fought and positions were completely reversed with Blue coming out with nothing and Green, Black and Purple winning the Gold, Silver and Bronze awards respectively.

Blueprints

So it was into the final round with all to play for, and this time it was very tight indeed.  Green and Black jointly top-scored, but Black took it on a tie-breaker.  Green lost out on a second tie-breaker with Blue for the award for four dice of the same number.  With an extra prize for using five “glass” dice, Blue finished in joint first place with Black, which necessitated a quick rules check find the tie-breaker in favour of the player with the most prizes, in this case, Blue.

Blueprints

Next, we decided to play our  “Feature Game”, which was Caverna: The Cave Farmers.  Caverna is by the same designer and is closely related to Agricola, which is a game we’ve all played quite a bit.  In fact, Caverna is often described as “Agricola 2.0”, so we’ve all been quite keen to give it a go and see how the two games compare.  In Agricola, players start with two people and a hut and have to build their small-holding with points awarded at the end of the game for the most balanced farm.  Caverna has a new skin, but is a similar game:  players start with two dwarves and are trying to develop their cavern in the hillside while chopping down the forest for use for farming.  There are a lot changes to the game play, some small and some larger.  One of the biggest differences is the absence of cards.  In the advanced version of Agricola, you can start with a hand of cards, which contain “improvements” that you can choose to build to enhance your small-holding.  These add variation to the game and force players to come up with different combinations of buildings and adapt their strategies to match.  In Caverna, these cards are replaced with tiles that are available to everyone to buy; as it was our first game, we chose to use the smaller set.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers

Another one of the key differences between the games is that dwarves can go on expeditions in Caverna.  These can be highly lucrative, but also introduce challenges of their own.  The idea is that players use ore at the Blacksmith’s to forge weapons for one (or more) of their dwarves.  Some of the actions also have an expedition associated with them, so when a dwarf with weapons carries out an action with an expedition, he can also go looting.  The loot he comes back with depends on two things, the level of the expedition and the level of the dwarf’s armoury.  The dwarf’s level dictates what he comes back with and the expedition level dictates how many items.  Thus, a well armed dwarf sent on the right mission can bring back a lot of loot, but more importantly, players can mix and match the loot to suit their purpose which makes them very versatile.  Added to that, every time a dwarf goes on an expedition, he gains experience, so on his return, his level increases by one.  The disadvantage of arming dwarves is that the better armed a dwarf is, the later it goes in the turn order.  This means that players have to choose whether to play a lower level dwarf on expeditions, or whether to take a chance and hope no-one else uses that action and wait until they can play a more experienced dwarf.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers

There are a lot of smaller differences too, for example, the game has two currencies, gold and rubies.  At the end of the game, everything is converted into gold and the player with the most wins.  However, during the game, rubies are more useful as they can be used to buy other resources at any time.  They can also be used for playing dwarves out of turn, but as they are worth one gold in their own right, they are quite valuable.  Rubies and ore can be obtained with certain actions, but players can also build mines in their caverns which not only enhance their supply, but are also worth gold at the end of the game.  There are also new and different animal, principally dogs and donkeys and with them, new animal husbandry rules which we never completely got our heads round (e.g. sheep can now be kept in an unfenced meadow looked after by dogs at a rate of one more sheep than there are dogs; donkeys can be kept in mines; only pigs can be kept in a shed in the forest, but any animal can be kept in sheds in pasture or meadow-land etc.).

Caverna: The Cave Farmers

Purple, who was still suffering with her post Essen lurgy, went first and began by collecting ore, while Green went into agriculture.  Blue meanwhile, started off with wood while Black, who was the only one with a very firm plan, began collecting rubies.  Blue and Black then began to build up a stock of ore and it was only a matter of time before Blue made her first visit to the Blacksmith and Green followed in the next round.  By this time, there were harvests at the end of most rounds and Purple was beginning to struggle to feed her people (good job she picked up the Writing Chamber!).  Green had built an agricultural empire and a Cooking Cave, and Blue was feeding her people on prime Aberdeen Angus, but without a reliable, continuous food supply, Purple had to use her grain to prevent starvation, which meant she didn’t have any to plan to provide a continuous food supply…

And all the while, Black just kept collecting rubies.

As the game drew to a close, Blue had managed to develop and fill her pastures, arm all three of her dwarves, and had managed to furnish her cave with a room for Weapons Storage when Green wasn’t looking (he went to build it in the final round only to be sorely disappointed).  Green had four dwarves, plenty of spare grain and had filled all available space and include mines and other improvements.  Purple had managed to complete her cavern and develop her woodland, but was missing a lot of animals.  Black was also missing some animals and had a lot of unused spaces, but he had managed to pick up both a Ruby Supplier and, in the last round, a Weaver to make the most of his sheep.  We had been really pushed for time, so people counted points individually as others packed up.  Despite initial appearances (namely Black’s HUGE pile of rubies that double scored), it turned out to be a really close game with only a handful of points separating the first three players.  In fact, after several recounts, the game finished in another draw between Blue and Black, and, after another hasty check of the rules, we declared both to be winners.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers

As we left, we had a quick discussion about what we thought of the game and how it measured up to Agricola.  We concluded that it felt longer, possibly because of the fiddling with the expeditions, though that could also be due to our lack of familiarity with the game.  Despite that, we felt that Caverna was probably less complex, though it felt like there were more options which meant there were more ways to do what you wanted.  This meant the game was less pressured than Agricola, which might not be a good thing, though it probably makes it more forgiving for new players.  On the other hand, the extra options also makes it very confusing for the first play.  The lack of cards and the fact the same tiles are available every time meant we felt it also didn’t have the variety that Agricola offered and therefore was less deep and, probably ultimately has less replay-ability.  However, we will have to try it again a few times before coming to any real conclusions.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers

Learning Outcome:  Tie-breakers can have a large impact on both the feel and the outcome of a game.