Tag Archives: Caverna: The Cave Farmers

15th May 2018

As Blue and Burgundy finished their dinner, everyone else arrived and we began the “Who wants to Play What” debate, and particularly, the “Who wants to play the “Feature Game” tonight” discussion.  The “Feature Game” was to be Caverna: The Cave Farmers, a game that is so similar to Agricola, that it is often referred to as “Agricola 2.0”.  In Agricola, the idea of the game is that players start with two farmers, a large field and a wooden hut and try to build a farm, by planting wheat and vegetables, buying and breeding animals, extending and upgrading their hut, and expanding their family.  It is a worker placement game which takes place over a set number of rounds and in each one, each family member takes one action.  The actions that are available are very limited at first, but more are added as the game progresses.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor MisterC

There are three main differences between the Caverna and Agricola, and the first (and most obvious) is the theme.  Instead for medieval farmers, players are dwarves living in the mountains, building a dwarfish community with dogs and donkeys.  This means players are developing their cave system (rather than their hut) and cultivating forest land rather than pasture.  The game play is very similar though with players taking it in turns to place one of the dwarves from their community on one of the action spaces and then carrying out that action.  Again during the game, the number of actions available increases.  Many of the actions are different though as players cultivate the forest in front of their cave and dig into the mountain, furnishing caves for their clan as well as mining for ore or ruby.  This leads to another obvious differences:  Expeditions.  In order to go on expeditions dwarves need ore to forge weapons, and the better armed the dwarf, the more exciting the adventures they can go on and the better the rewards.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor saksi

These features are largely cosmetic though, and the real differences are in the game play.  In the advanced game of Agricola, each player is dealt a hand of fourteen cards at the start, which are used to add variety and interest to the game.  There are hundreds of possible cards available and players can either choose from their starting hand, or to make the game fairer, they can be drafted.  The problem with this is that for players who are unfamiliar with the game, choosing which cards might be useful or will work together is a very painful process.  In Caverna, the depth is introduced by the addition of forty-eight different buildings tiles which laid out so players can see what the options are throughout the game.  Critically, there is one set of tiles and they are all used in the advanced game.  This means Caverna doesn’t have the infinite variety of Agricola, but the buildings deliver a more balanced game with a lot of options that are available every time.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor saksi

The games also feel very different:  with Agricola the game is always a struggle, with players fighting to balance feeding the family and developing the farm.  At the end of the game, a large proportion of players scores come from fulfilling a checklist of animals and vegetables.  This means that there are one or two main strategies and successful players are generally those who are most efficient in these. In Caverna, there is more variety in the strategies available, but without the feeding mechanism and associated peril of starvation, there is a lot less stress in the game.  All in all, it is generally a lot easier to build a productive engine and more difficult to make a total mess of it in Caverna, while still providing a lot of the same sort of challenges.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor haslo

Both Agricola and Caverna take up a lot of table space and a while to set up. As Ivory had never played it before, and even Burgundy, Magenta and Green had not played it in nearly four years, we decided to play the introductory game.  It turned out that this was just as well, as it still took the best part of three hours to play.  By random selection Burgundy got to go first and effectively choose his own strategy, while Green went last and was more or less forced to let his strategy be dictated by what was left over.  The first few turns were the inevitable resource grab—anything and everything that players could get hold of.  Being a cave based game, stone and ore were particularly popular to such an extent that Green found he was struggling to get any by the time his turn came round, which pushed him towards a more Agricola-style farming strategy.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor haslo

Although Magenta had played Caverna once before she had little recollection of it as it had been at 3am one Christmas Holiday.  As a result, the game was all a bit of a mystery at the start.  Nevertheless, she got into sheep farming early, but did not neglect her mountain either, regularly chipping away giving her ample opportunities for rooms and mines.  She was struggling outside though:  she managed to get some more animals, but couldn’t get the pastures to keep them in, and without crops she was constantly struggling for food.  She was able to build an oven, but this meant that as fast as her flock grew she had to slaughter them to keep her hungry dwarves fed.  With her lack of outdoor enclosures though, this might actually have been a help.  In the end, it was her mining and interiors that helped give her the best scores and she did eventually manage to cover her whole player board by the end of the game to avoid negative points.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor haslo

Ivory and Green were the first to grow their families and, fed up with being last in the turn order, Green used his larger family to good effect and nabbed the start player marker. So the very next turn he was able to grab a wheat and veg while planting a field and pasture at the same time.  Then, with his second dwarf he immediately planted another field and pasture to plant that self same wheat and veg, and thus started his crops growing. He then supplemented this with an improvement tile which enabled him to convert a wheat and a veg into five food which meant he was never short of food to feed his family and was free to expand whenever he was able to mine the mountain and build extra rooms. With crops aplenty, he then set about acquiring animals and fencing in fields, leaving his mining for the last few turns in a frantic dash to increase his final score.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor saksi

Burgundy and Ivory, both decided to bet heavily on arming their dwarves and sending them on expeditions to bring back lots of exciting goodies. Several times, Ivory exchanged a precious ruby to play his fighting dwarf out of turn and grab the four-goods expedition before Burgundy could. This strategy served them both well, especially as they were able to keep mining in order to locate more and more ore to help weaponise more dwarves.   Burgundy held on to his gems and managed to build a special room to help them score him more points. He also managed to also cover his whole area and “discovered” two ruby mines.  Ivory neglected his farming and failed to plant anything till right at the end of the game.  Ultimately, that counted against him as he was left him with empty spaces that lost him six points.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers
– Image by BGG contributor saksi

The last two harvests were both interrupted by the special tiles which caused everyone a few problems and in the end it was really quite close. It was Burgundy who took the glory though, a handful of points ahead of Green who was a single point ahead of Ivory.  It was a good game though and everyone enjoyed it—Burgundy professed to prefer it over Agricola too, a game where he reckons he always struggles to do well in.  Meanwhile, the next table started with a big debate about what to play.  Several games were considered, but Black made the mistake of mentioning Keyflower, which is one of Blue’s favourites and thereafter, there was only one game she wanted to play.  Other games were suggested, but for the most part, there was a good reason why these were not ideal, and, in the end, Black pointed out Blue’s interest in Keyflower, and everyone else agreed to play it.

Keyflower
– Image by boardGOATS

Everyone had played the game before, but it was a while ago and Pine had little recollection, so a rules run-through was necessary first.  The rules of the game are not terribly difficult to understand, but combine to make a complex game.  Played over four rounds (or Seasons), players bid on hexagonal tiles which are added to the winners’ village at the end of the round.  Bidding is carried out with coloured meeples (or Keyples as they are known in this game), and counter-bids must follow colour, usually red, blue or yellow.  Most tiles are action spaces, so as well as currency for bidding, Keyples can also be used to activate spaces.  Any space can be activated at any time by any player when they place one of their Keyples on a tile, any tile, one in their own village, one in someone else’s, one still being auctioned.  At the end of the round, Keyples used in winning bids are lost, while those involved in losing bids return to their owners and any used to activate tiles are adopted by the tile owners.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of
BGG contributor punkin312

Essentially, that is really all there is to the game, but there are lots of consequences of this simple mechanism and a lot of complexity underlies what players can do with the actions on the tiles.  In Spring, most of the tiles available provide resources of some description, in Summer there are more advanced resource and related tiles, while in Autumn the first of the scoring tiles arrive.  The majority of the scoring comes from the Winter tiles though, and these are selected by the players, who are dealt a small number at the start of the game and choose which to introduce at the start of the final round.  This is particularly clever as it provides players with possible strategies if they choose to follow them.  Invariably, though, the best laid plans go completely awry and players are left choosing which of their tiles will be the least useful to their opponents and hope that others will be forced to play something more helpful.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

Once we’d run through the rules, we laid out the Spring tiles and began.  Keyflower plays two to six players and unusually, it plays well acrioss the whole range, but is different at each number due to the fact that different numbers of tiles are used during the game.  With two players nearly half the possible tiles are removed from play, so the game becomes very tactical rewarding players who can keep their options open and change their plans like a politician changes policy, when they find the tiles they need are not available.  With six players, all the tiles are available, however, with so many opponents lots of competition is guaranteed.  Black pointed out that Keyflower is particurly good with four though as almost all tiles are in play, and there is lots of competition as well.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

There are other consequences of changes in player number.  For example, at the start of each Season, ships arrive delivering Keyples and Skill tiles; players bid to have first choice of these.  The number of arrivals is dependent on the number of players, however, no matter how many arrive it is never enough, worse, as the game year progresses the number of Keyples arriving steadily decreases.  This is because players are spending less on buying tiles and instead are reusing workers that have been activating tiles.  Regardless, having a means to get extra Keyples is invaluable and it was with this in mind that Black began bidding for the Ale House.  This tile generates another Keyple, each time it is activated, two once it has been upgraded.  Largely on the principle that if someone else wants something, they should not be allowed to have it, Blue started a bidding war.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

Unfortunately for her, Blue won, but at a cost.  This was very much counter to her usual strategy, as she usually avoids overpaying at all costs, often leaving her with the fewest tiles at the end of Spring, sometimes none at all.  Pine on the other hand, fancied the Pedlar, a tile that turned yellow Keyples into green ones, and green ones are Special.  Green Keyples behave in exactly the same way as red, yellow and blue Keyples, except there are none in the game at the start so their extreme scarcity means they are very powerful, especially when bidding. Pine also went for gold and Purple took the Keywood, which gave her substantial wood producing capability and the Workshop which allowed her to produce any resources she wanted.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

Summer and Autumn proceeded in a similar fashion, except that everyone started out much more careful with their Keyples, which meant everyone ended Summer with lots of stuff they didn’t want.  Black finally got his Keyple generating tile when he took the Brewer, however, that needed Skill Tiles and he didn’t have a source of them.  Blue was worse off finishing Summer with a random assortment of boat tiles she didn’t really need.  Pine and Purple did slightly better, taking tiles that convert Skills into resources and transport/upgrade tiles and adding to their gold producing ability.  Autumn saw the advent of round two of the bidding war when Blue started bidding for the Sculptor and Sawmill and Black decided to join in.  It ended with honours even, but there was more to follow.

Keyflower
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor punkin312

In the final round, some of the strategies became clearer, when the Jeweler, Craftsman’s Guild and the Windmill appeared.  Everyone was hustling for the tiles they wanted, trying to maximise their points for the end of the game.  It was then that Black finally finished the bidding war, taking the Sea Breese boat tile, which gave him only one point, but cost Blue nearly twenty points.  Pine who had struggled throughout the game suddenly found he had lots of points, sixty in total, just two behind Black who finished in first place, thanks largely to the vast number of Keyples he finished with.  On the next table, Caverna still had some way to go and there was still time for one more game, so Pine dipped into Burgundy’s back and brought out Splendor—at least with Burgundy occupied elsewhere, everyone else had a chance of winning for a change…

Splendor
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

We’ve played Splendor a lot within the group, an awful lot, and have just begun exploring the Cities of Splendor expansion, but after the last game, everyone wanted something they were very familiar with, so we stuck to the base game.  And it is a simple game of chip collecting and engine-building with a very loose gemstone theme. Basically, on their turn, players can take gemstone poker chips, or use chips to buy a card. Some cards have points on them and all can be used like the poker chips to buy cards (but without having to return them). The cards also give players access to “Noble tiles” which also give points. The winner is the player with the most points after someone reaches fifteen points.

Splendor
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

The game play was very unusual this time, because the black Opals came out very late, and on the odd occasion that they did appear Blue pounced on them and immediately reserved them.  This had two effects as it both prevented anyone else from getting them and also ensured that she had a plan each time she had to pick up gemstone poker chips.  The problem was made worse by the fact that three of the Nobles required Opals.  With the strangle-hold she had on the game, it was not surprising that she was the only one to get any Nobles and quickly brought the game to an end finishing with eighteen points, well clear of Pine in second place.

Splendor
– Image used with permission of boardgamephotos

Learning Outcome:  Sometimes winning a bid can be worse than losing.

Boardgames in the News: The Consequences of Losing Catan—The Demise of Mayfair

The dramatic growth of Asmodee has been the subject of much comment over the last few years, but more recently it appeared to have slowed a little.  It would seem that perhaps the consequences are now beginning to kick in though.  Nearly two years ago, Asmodee acquired the rights to the English Language edition of the Catan series of games from Mayfair Games.  At the time there was some speculation as to the effect this would have on Mayfair as the Catan range had dominated their catalogue and provided a high proportion of their revenue.  The loss of such a large part of their portfolio inevitably led to major restructuring particularly as the then 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.

The Settlers of Catan
– Image by boardGOATS

Thus, Mayfair not only lost the Catan franchise, but also their entire development team and graphics department. Essentially, they were left with Alex Yeager as lead developer, head of acquisitions, and marketing manager and a catalogue of about a hundred games including some of the popular 18xx series, Martin Wallace’s Steam, Caverna: The Cave Farmers, Lords of Vegas and Nuns on the Run.  Mayfair also had a controlling influence in the German company, Lookout Games which they had acquired back in 2013, and this partnership had produced games like Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, Costa Rica and Patchwork. The Mayfair strategy was primarily to focus on the partnership with Lookout while continuing to support their existing catalogue, and then, once that was stable, further develop the Mayfair-exclusive products.

Mayfair
– Image from twitter.com

Questions were first asked when Mayfair didn’t exhibit at PAX West or PAX Unplugged, despite featuring in the exhibitor list, though they did present as usual at BGG.CONAt the beginning of November, however, Alex Yeager announced that he had left Mayfair, and this, together with the earlier departure of Julie Yeager and Chuck Rice indicated that the chairs were being shifted on the deck of the Titanic, and there were rumours that Mayfair was in trouble.  Mayfair had not independently produced a new title since the loss of the Catan franchise, but they still had their controlling stake in Lookout Games and producing the English language version of the popular Lookout range of games seemed like the basis for a strong partnership.

Lookout Spiel
– Image from lookout-spiele.de

Lookout Spiele was a highly successful German company responsible for developing games like Agricola, and more recently Bärenpark and Grand Austria Hotel.  At Spiel in October, Mayfair and Lookout shared an extremely popular booth, and it seemed so successful that there were rumours that another merger was on the cards. Sadly however, this was not the case, and on Friday it was announced that Mayfair had sold its three remaining assets (their games inventory, the IP, and their 74% stake in Lookout GmbH) and was closing their doors after thirty-six years.  Simultaneously, Asmodee acquired the remaining 26% of Lookout from the original owner, Hanno Girk and on Friday announced their take-over of Lookout.  With that, one of the most productive and popular of the German board game companies joined the likes of Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, Space Cowboys, Z-man Games, Pearl Games, Ystari, Plaid Hat Games and of course Catan as yet another “Studio” in the great Asmodee Empire.

Asmodee
– Image from lookout-spiele.de

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.