Friday, June 6, 2014

Board Game Review: The Cave

The Cave is a game in which two-to-five players take the role of speleologists competing to earn the most prestige for exploring a newly-discovered cave system. The board begins with only a single tile at the cave's entrance and then progressively fills itself out as players explore beyond the starting point, laying new tiles for each section of the cave that they choose to explore. Along the way, players will face perilous drops, tight crevices, flooded chambers, and underground wonders. To get the credit for these discoveries, players will need to be well-prepared with the right gear for the job, and will have to use their limited actions and resources wisely before returning to base camp to resupply. Whoever manages their resources best and explores the most of the cave wins the game. 

I was drawn to The Cave for a lot of reasons, but the primary factor was that I liked the idea of an easy-going, tile-laying exploration game that I could play with a variety of people. Seeing your cave expand the longer you play, shaping itself into its own unique configuration each time you play is very appealing, and the theme of scientists exploring a cave is something that I think everyone can enjoy. More importantly, the rules are simple enough to learn that this game could be played by just about anyone. The Cave is therefore a pretty good game to play with friends and family members who aren't very big gamers, but I find it a little disappointing to play in any other context besides that. 

The biggest problem I have with The Cave is that there's virtually no player interaction in the gameplay. In the four games I've played, it's basically felt like a "multiplayer solitaire" where each player goes off in their own direction and does their own thing with zero regard for what everyone else is doing, because it doesn't really matter. There's no direct competition and no way to play off of one another, except to swoop in and claim something that someone else placed but didn't have enough actions or resources to explore. Otherwise, everyone is basically playing the game separately and there's no reason to care about what's happening on other players' turns.

The starting tile for a four-player game, with the five types of special tiles.

That characteristic works well in a casual family environment where a group might prefer a more peaceful scenario, but I've found it quite boring whenever I've played with my more serious gaming friends. When I play games, I like to be engaged in what's happening, but in The Cave, I don't have to pay attention to what happens when it's not my turn, and I usually feel kind of bored just sitting around waiting for my turn to come up again. Again, that works well in a more casual environment where you might not want such an intense game, so that you can just enjoy the conversation and company without being too distracted by the game, but that doesn't say very good things about the game itself if you're playing it specifically to not pay attention to it, because it's not one of the most engaging games out there.

The game presents the player with a lot of seemingly interesting choices in terms of how you want to pack your backpack, where you want to go in the cave, and how you want to orient tiles when you place them, but the element of choice often feels like an illusion to me. When exploring a new section of the cave, the decision of where to place the tile or how to orient it is sometimes completely arbitrary, and other times there's only one legal placement for it -- often times, it feels like your decision doesn't really matter, or the decision is made for you by the rules. You might place a new tile and think "I could explore that," but in reality you have to go back to base camp instead, because you're almost out food and don't want to spend the next four turns crawling back to base camp one tile at a time. One option is clearly a bad decision, while the other is the only reasonable choice you can make in that scenario, so there's often little thought or strategy influencing your decisions. 

When packing your backpack, you can go with the recommended "balanced loadout" that leaves you prepared for a little bit of everything -- ropes to climb down descent tiles, oxygen to explore underwater, an inflatable raft to cross underground lakes, a camera to take photographs, and food -- or you can choose to swap some equipment out in favor of other resources, thus taking a more specialized role in exploration. That sounds cool in theory, but I've found that you can't deviate too far from a balanced loadout without being punished heavily for it, because you never know what you're going to encounter up ahead. It seems like a fun case of "risk vs reward," but in my experience it's been "all risk, no reward."

A player board with inventory packed, and a reference guide on the right.

In one game, I decided I was going to forego ropes and oxygen in favor of extra food so that I could stay out in the cave longer before having to return to base camp. My plan was to be able to take photographs of any underground wonders I came across (since the camera has infinite uses) and to have enough action points (courtesy of my huge stock of food) to explore any squeeze points I encountered. I finished the game in first place for camera tokens and squeeze tokens earned, which granted me a nice chunk of bonus points, but I had so few points from rope tokens, water tokens, and depth reached tokens (I only had one or two of each by the end of the game) that I finished in last place overall -- by a huge margin -- while the people with balanced loadouts were only separated from one another by a few points.

In general, victory seems to reward luck of the draw more so than careful planning and strategy. Every player ultimately has the same basic strategy: have the right equipment for the tiles that you randomly happen to draw, and plan your actions so that you're not left stranded away from base camp without food. In most cases, the player who happens to get the best series of tiles drawn that just happen to match his current remaining equipment will be deemed the ultimate winner. If you specialize in cameras and squeeze tiles and draw nothing but water and descent tiles, then you're basically out of luck. If you consistently draw water tiles or descent tiles after you've just used your last rope or oxygen tank, then you're basically out of luck. 

The luck aspect works well in a casual family environment (are you seeing the pattern?) because inexperienced gamers have as much chance (in theory) to win the game as someone who's played it a dozen times, as long as you -- the person who owns the game -- are fair about advising them on their best options until they get the hang of things. There are some strategies you can employ to give yourself more of an edge, like trying to make tunnels link up with one another in a certain way, but it's ironically not a very deep game; for a more serious group of gamers, the luck aspect can make victory seem arbitrary and unrewarding. 

The end-of-game scoring system feels like kind of a buzzkill as well, because you have to sit there adding up your tokens and comparing them to determine who gets bonus points for what, and then add everything up to see who won. It's not like chess where victory comes as a direct result of a specific action, and you get to feel the satisfaction of victory immediately as the game ends; by the time a winner is determined in The Cave, the euphoria of exploring the cave has kind of worn off. But since the game is entirely non-confrontational, you don't have to worry about anyone feeling bitter about losing to another player, and since no can ever be eliminated from the game, everyone can feel like they have a genuine chance to win all the way until the very end, whereas in other games they might realize halfway through that they have no chance of catching up, and thus might lose interest.

This is what our cave looked like after a couple rounds.

That said, I take extreme issue with the written rules of having three turns to make it back to base camp after the final tile is placed, or else you lose everything and get zero points. For starters, it doesn't make a whole lot of thematic sense -- is the cave rigged with explosives all of a sudden? If someone doesn't quite make it back to base camp by the end of that third round (say they overlooked a squeeze tile while planning their route), then the whole game was a waste of time for them. On the flip side, if you're coincidentally already at base camp when the stack of remaining tiles is running low, then you might not have enough time to make it anywhere and back, or any chance to place one of those tiles for yourself, in which case you may as well just sit in base camp doing absolutely nothing for the last few rounds. 

I've therefore house ruled that you lose two points per tile based on how far away from base camp you are at the end of the game, rather than losing everything if you don't make it back in time. I figure this way you're still punished for not making it back in time, but it scales the punishment much more fairly. I think that's far more appropriate for this type of family-friendly game, because it's just no fun to have all of your work inexplicably undone on the very last turn. I can see people being bitterly disappointed if that happened to them, which should never be the case with a lighthearted, family-friendly game of this nature, the goal of which is usually for everyone to have fun even if there can be only one winner.

Despite these criticisms, I do like The Cave. The theme is great, and the artwork does a nice job of bringing the cave to life, especially in conjunction with the immersive soundtrack. That part is worth stressing -- how many board games actually come with their own soundtrack? That is cool, plain and simple. I kind of regret buying this game, however, because it's not quite the experience I was expecting. Unlike my previous two board game reviews for Eldritch Horror and Forbidden Desert, which I consider home runs and would love to play any time they're requested, The Cave feels more like a respectable base hit -- a game I'll play if it's requested, but one that I probably won't ask to play myself. 

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