Game review: Caverna, Bremerhaven offer worker placement fun

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 25 2014 4:30 p.m. MST

The game board from Caverna, from Mayfair Games, boasts spaces that can allow players to take special actions. There is a also room for randomly drawn cards to be added to the board.

Cody Carlson

Caverna and Bremerhaven are two new worker placement board games that have recently been released by Mayfair Games/Lookout Games. How do they play?

Caverna

Designed by prolific board game designer Uwe Rosenberg, Caverna is the spiritual successor to his earlier game, Agricola. In Caverna one to seven players take on the role of a dwarf family that must farm their land and excavate their caves in order to thrive. Each player has his or her own player board that contains farmland spaces and cave spaces which will need to be developed over the course of the game. There are also a few game boards that are fit together to create an action board, and supply boards.

Each turn random cards are drawn, adding actions to the board, and then each player takes turns placing one of his or her dwarfs (a colored wooden disc) on an action space. These actions allow players to do things like place a farm or cave tiles, gain animals, acquire specialized rooms for their cave from the supply boards, plant crops, mine for goods or acquire building materials. Players may create more dwarfs in their family through a special action. Once one player has placed his or her dwarf in one of the action spaces, however, no one else may place there.

One really cool action is to use mined ore to create weapons. The amount of ore spent creates stronger weapons, and armed dwarfs may then go on quests that can result in valuable bonuses. At the end of each round a token is revealed that may require a harvest phase. During the harvest phase crops may be reaped, animals may breed, but most importantly, players must feed their families. Different resources can be converted into food. If a player is a little short, then those resources can't be used for other actions.

At the end of 12 rounds the players tally up their scores that are based on a variety of factors. Whoever holds the most points at the end of the game wins.

The great appeal of Caverna is the myriad choices each player has each turn that slowly get whittled down over the course of the round as other players gobble up important spaces. What this means is that there are many avenues to victory and players can use very different strategies in order to win. It is a tense and thrilling mechanic that is a whole lot of fun. Also, there is a customization building mechanic that is also fun, watching a player's farm and cave evolve over the course of the game.

I would have undoubtedly included Caverna on my top 10 games of 2013 had I played it before it was written. It is just a stellar game through and through. Though there is a bit of a learning curve, the game really packs a punch and the box is overflowing with tiles, cards and wooden pieces. Recommended for ages 12 and up, plan on at least 30 minutes per player when playing Caverna.

Bremerhaven

Taking its name and theme from the German port city, Bremerhaven is a two to four player game where players attempt to construct the most efficient port and move the most goods from ships to the loading docks.

Each player has his or her own player board, a dockyard, while there is also a shipboard, a contract board and general game board. Players are initially given a deck of influence cards numbered one to five. Each turn, players will take turns bidding on actions to take with these cards, placing them face down before the action. The actions include getting one of four ships to dock in a player's port, gaining one of four contracts he or she hopes to fulfill, building new buildings in a player's dock to give he or she special advantages, improving his or her docks, gaining more powerful influence cards, or manipulating the price of goods.

Players may also attempt to bid on rank, which essentially is turn order. Players may either be the Captain, the First Mate, the Mate or the Cook. All cards set before the actions are revealed and the player who placed the greatest number gets to do that action for the round. Players may then move goods from ships to their dockyard, and move already unloaded goods to the loading dock for transport overland. Players may engage in several other individual actions at this point, and use the special abilities of their buildings. Additionally, a newspaper event deck introduces random elements like pirates and taxes — things that may benefit some players but spell disaster for others.

Players gain money and prestige by selling goods, fulfilling contracts and attracting the right ships. At the end of the game a player's prestige is multiplied by his or her money, giving him or her a victory point total. Whoever has the most victory points wins the game.

Bremerhaven is a bit of a mixed bag. First of all the bidding system is phenomenal and forces players to commit to those actions they really want to do. Conversely, other players can throw a monkey wrench into someone's plans by attempting to deny the coveted action to them.

It is a very fun mechanic for a worker placement game that breeds tension and excitement with every placed card. The subsequent individual player actions are decent, but lack the excitement of the bidding, and often get bogged down in bookkeeping. Additionally, the rulebook is not as well laid out as it could have been, leading to some confusion here and there, especially in matters of timing actions. There is a bit of a learning curve overall, as well.

Bremerhaven is generally a fun game, and die-hard fans of worker placement will eat up the bidding system. More casual players may get turned off by the bookkeeping and individual action phases, however. The game plays in about 1-2 hours, depending on if a player opts for the full game or the short game version, and is recommended for ages 12 and up.

Karnickel

Also from Mayfair Games/Lookout Games is Karnickel, a new game for kids that features rabbits, carrots and an angry train. One to four players take on the roll of a rabbit that is placed on a circular train track board with images of carrots on most spaces.

Each turn players take tuns rolling several dice with two different colors on each side, each color representing a rabbit, and black arrows for train movement. The rolling player can move any rabbit along the track he or she wants however many of that colored dice appear. Black arrows are removed and the remaining dice are passed to the next player, who repeats the process. Once all the dice have been eliminated, all seven are rolled to see how far the train moves. If the train moves into a space with a bunny it gets scared and runs off the track. If it stays on the track it gets the number of carrot tokens for that space. The first player to eight carrots wins.

Karnickel is a light game that small children will enjoy. The game does suffer from some less than stellar components, including a track that comes apart very easily and dice that require players to put stickers on them, but these are minor complaints in what is generally an engaging game for children.

Karnickel is recommended for ages 6 and up and plays in about 15 minutes.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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