Time: ~60 minutes
Times Played: 15+
I have mentioned this previously, but I love games that make me feel like I am fulfilling a role that I have never done or never will. Adam Kaluza has been able to provide that experience twice for me. First, with the more than excellent K2 and secondly with an adventure in the opposite direction, The Cave.
The Cave drops us below the crust of the Earth as we take on the role of a speleologist, which is someone who studies caves. It is not, caveology as I always suspected. Each player is attempting to contribute the most to the exploration by taking photos, scuba diving through flooded walkways, squeezing through condensed caverns, and descending into the abyss. Even though this is a “joint expedition”, this is in no way a cooperative affair. Each player is on their own.
Once in The Cave, there are no rock golemns. One player is not trying to sabotage the expedition by creating a cave-in. There is no treasure or tomb awaiting discovery. This is strictly two to five speleologists trying to do their job. But I don’t want you to scoff at that notion just because there are not legendary foes to topple or loot to be had does not mean the job is any less strenuous or stressful.
The Cave is a tile-laying game that grants players five actions per turn. These points can be used to explore undiscovered areas of the cave, pass through tight squeezes (which range in difficulty from a level-one squeeze to a level-three [which basically means how many action points you need to use to pass through]), explore or pass through a waterlogged passage, take photos of the spectacles below, pitch a tent and/or resupply, and descend via rope to the lower levels of the cavern.
Action points cannot be carried over so each turn, players only have five points to do whatever it is they want to do. As the tiles are randomly selected, it can be fairly difficult to plan ahead. As some of these tiles harbor additional costs (scuba equipment needed to explore the water, for example), the cost of what you want to do before your turn are not necessarily known when your turn begins.
The tiles are broken into four groups with a number ranging from ‘I’ to ‘IV’ on the back of each tile. As the higher numbered tiles are revealed, the voyage becomes a little more difficult. Each grouping has twenty tiles but depending on the number of players participating, some tiles may be randomly removed from each stack which cuts down on players trying to game the system and bet on a certain tile appearing.
As mentioned, tools are necessary to carryout the expedition and each takes a slot in a backpack that the player carries with them. The backpack is also the player aid, which is helpful in eliminating the need to refer to the rulebook at all. Each backpack has eight spaces for equipment and if you want to carry a tent, which can carry an additional four equipment, that tent will take up two spaces in your pack.
The backpack also is the source for all the iconography and symbols of the game, that let you know what does what and how much things are worth. It can be a little overwhelming at first but once you become familiar with the markings, it will help aid you in your journey.
But it’s not just equipment that needs to be carried forth into the dark void. Your people need to eat as well. At the beginning of each turn, a player needs to consume the food they have brought in their backpack to ensure they have the strength to move on. If they ever run out of food, they are whittled down to having one action point per turn until they can eat again.
The base camp, shared by all players, can be utilized to resupply and change the loadout of each individual backpack. Once every tile has been revealed, players have four turns to return to the base camp. The player that received the most points from the tokens awarded for exploring the cave (descending, photographing, diving, etc.) is deemed the most valuable speleologist and wins.
The Cave works brilliantly as it takes what is typically a negative of many games, randomness, and turns it into the basis of each turn. The complete randomness of what lies ahead replicates the actual exploration of caverns that have been kept sequestered to man prior to this endeavor…or so I presume. I’ve never gone spelunking or explored an uncharted cave before but the reveal of the tile is just as thrilling (if not infinitely more safe).
The randomness is the atmosphere and it basically splits the game into two halves. While exploring and laying tiles from the first two groupings, players are enjoying themselves and figuring out the lay of the land and how far they can travel safely. Table banter is light and there’s joking about players following one another. But once that third stack starts to dwindle, the game becomes tense.
Players realize there are only a finite number of actions available before the game ends and they do not want to be left behind in the depths and shadows. This can cause the last five or ten turns to become heavily math-based as players try to count and plan how far they can move and what they can do with the equipment they have or what equipment they need to grab.
Normally, I would be shouting Analysis Paralysis at this juncture but with The Cave, I’m not. It fits thematically. No one is just jumping into a cave blindly without taking the proper precautions and that’s what players are doing here. It also helps that if one player is counting their options, so are the others.
The Cave is just so thematic with every action and mechanic that it involves that if you value theme in a game, The Cave is a must-have. The randomness of choices, actions, and tiles creates a world of replayability as each and every game will be different. Even better, due to the heavy randomness, it allows players to be almost on a complete level playing field. Just because I have played this game over fifteen times does not mean I am going to be inherently better at it than say, my mom, who has never played before.
The Cave is home to a lot of chits that help keep track of what has been explored, what hasn’t been explored, who has scored what, what equipment is in what backpack, and more. It can be fiddly but the reasons for them, the artwork, and the mechanics of the game itself don’t make me mind them. We stationed everything into condiment containers so they’d be easier to sort and grab for, which cuts down on set-up and clean-up time. I cannot recommend this enough.
The Cave is interesting in how it scales regarding player count as at three players and under, everyone is pretty much doing their own thing and exploring this rich cavern independent of each other. With this independence, it really comes down to luck of the draw and hoping the tiles present you with opportunities to study the cave and that you brought the right gadgets with you. If you don’t enjoy randomness or solo experiences, then a two- or three-player game of The Cave will not be for you.
In games with four or more, there is infinitely more interaction as players share passages and some can even take advantage of the groundwork other players have laid. I personally enjoy both experiences as doing my own thing feels thematic and as such, more realistic whereas when the interaction is occurring, it feels much more like a game, which isn’t a bad thing. I feel like I’m more closely competing as opposed to the wonder of what thing I will find next. It basically boils down to how competitive of an experience do you want? If the answer is a little, reserve this for games of three or less. If you want a lot, play with four or more.
The game even has a different base camp for each player count, which I think is cool.
Teaching The Cave is relatively straight forward due to the amount of iconography attached to everything. Players will know if they need a rope or a raft or to suck in their stomach to squeeze through a passage easily. They might not know how much rope they immediately need but after one play-through, that will be simple (it’s every twenty-five feet equals one length of rope).
The Cave is a testament to what modern board gaming can do. For almost an hour, I can sit and immerse myself into the role of exploring this cave and think only about cave things. I’m not on my phone between turns. I’m not leaning over to pet my dogs (sorry Luna and Miles). I have a one-track mindset and that focus is on being the best damn speleologist that I can be. This is ideal for introducing people to a new experience that isn’t Monopoly or Candyland. I never felt like a slumlord in Monopoly or like a sugarplum fairy in Candyland but I have felt like an explorer, if only for a brief second, as my imagination takes hold as The Cave is constructed before me. That’s what gaming should be about. Expanding and incorporating one’s imagination.