Robert Frost was a sanctimonious idiot. When ‘two roads diverged in a yellow wood’, Frost took ‘The Road Less Travelled’, and claimed it made all the difference. I’m sure he felt he was an idealist and an explorer when he decided to follow a road that fewer feet had trod upon, but all he did was opt for an easy way to claim victory and stroke his ego. If Frost was a real explorer, he would have ignored both roads and walked straight into the treeline that opposed him, forging his own path.
It’s in this spirit that The Cave is set. You, and a group of fellow speleologists discover a hertofore unknown cavernous masterpiece. Your mission is to find out what’s inside. You’re not looking for ancient buried treasure. You aren’t hacking monsters to pieces that you aren’t running away from. You’re flipping over tiles, discovering the raw beauty of one of the world’s hidden wonders.
In The Cave, players have five actions per turn to explore new tiles, take pictures of rare sights, explore underwater lakes and plumb cavernous depths. Careful management of your supplies and a movable personal camp are your tools as you discover what you can before the last tile is revealed, and everyone returns to base camp. The game flows well between players, who often need to remind themselves that the point of the game is to gather points. Players have a tendency to get lost in the simple mechanics of the game and just do some scuba diving because there’s an underwater lake to the left, and they have their air tank with them. It’s true that it’s nice to play a game where the players are focused, but I’ve never been upset with a game that distracts players from itself.
Adam Kałuża could have built this game wrong, and turned it into a series of foregone events determined by randomly flipped tiles. But there’s a solid amount of decision making, backed with good design choices. For example, if a player can not line up his explored tile with all other tiles that would be adjacent to it, then the tile is set aside, and a four-way intersection tile with a pile of rubble at the center (which requires two movement to get through) replaces that tile. That choice may appear counter-intuitive on the surface. Why are we replacing one tile that doesn’t match its borders for a worse tile that may also not match borders? After playing the game for a while, though, the purpose of the rubble tiles becomes more apparent. Players naturally want to hover around the center of the board, since they can load up on supplies and don’t need to throw away resources at the base camp. Those player will often zig-zag their tiles back and forth, keeping their tiles in a close weave. The more they do that, though, the more their revealed tiles will border previously flipped tiles, the more likely those tiles won’t match each other, and the more likely they will be confronted with pile after pile of rubble. The rubble tiles convince players to step away from their comfort zone and explore further into the cave, stretching their resources to the limit.
The Cave delivers, even if I might squabble over a few flavor details. I’m miffed that player’s are encouraged to leave their trash everywhere. If we’re already awarding points for getting good pictures, and laying down ropes for other explorers, couldn’t we also grant a few points for picking up your camp on your way out? And while we’re talking about explorers leaving their trash everywhere, why are we granting points for redundant rope anchors? In my first game, it only lead to an ending full of players grabbing as much rope as possible and throwing it over nearby drops in an attempt to chip up a few more points.
But these quibbles are minor. Does it make sense that a player is rewarded for pushing himself through the most tight squeezes among all explorers? No, but if the game contained a better simulation of real life, then it would chunk up the rulebook with a list of unnecessary loopholes and contrived scenarios. Instead, Kałuża opted for fun and playability, and for that, I’m thankful. Normally, it’s a bad sign when I’m inspired to set a game aside and go for a walk. I can’t think of a better complement for The Cave.