Some of the best fantasy stories have started in pubs. Well, having said that the truth is that most fantasy stories that start in pubs are actually pretty bad and usually have something to do with a combination of tabletop role-playing and a game master who has stopped caring. In the end, most fantasy stories have at least 1 important scene that takes place in a pub or tavern, so the beer-soaked floors of a rough drinking establishment are well trodden ground for the fantasy genre.
Cavern Tavern is a competitive board game for 1 to 6 players and is set in a fantasy tavern deep in a hidden cave. The lands that surround this secret establishment are ravaged by constant war between the 5 countries, and so people come to the cavern tavern to try and forget about their worries in the outside world and to simply have a quiet drink, or more usually a loud one. These proceedings are all watched over by Nasty the Dwarf, the proprietor of the Cavern Tavern, who has well and truly earned his name by being a complete git to everyone he interacts with.
The players of the game take the role of the tavern’s staff members and have to fill orders, perform chores and generally try to stay on Nasty’s good side. You get points for every order you fill and each chore or kitchen task you perform, and the winner of the game is the person who manages to gain the most points by the end. You also have a secret task to perform given to you at the start of the game by Nasty. These tasks are all different and are kept hidden from the other players, so even if you think you’re coming out on top, you might just get a last minute surprise.
During the course of the game, as well as trying to gain points and fill out as many orders or tasks as you can, you also have to track your reputation in the tavern. This reputation falls into 3 different categories: Nasty, Kitchen and Chores. The Nasty track keeps a tally of how the bar’s owner feels about you, and every so often as you move down this line you have to take a ‘Nasty Says’ card, which gives you something “nasty” that you have to do and will often stop you from doing certain other tasks until you’ve gotten rid of it. On top of that, the further down the Nasty track you get, the more points you end up losing at the end of the game, so obviously this is something that you want to avoid. The ‘Nasty Says’ cards can be really frustrating at times, since they really do disable your ability to function like a normal player. While you have one of these cards, you can’t perform any kitchen or chore tasks, and on top of that, some of the cards even ban you from fulfilling orders until you’ve managed to complete their requirements. Obviously, these cards don’t unbalance the game too much because everyone has to deal with them the same as you, but there are a few things that can skew the odds in the favour of certain players.
The Chore and Kitchen tracks keep score of how many different tasks you’ve performed around the bar and kitchen, things like mopping the floors or making lunch for the boss. These tasks not only give you points but also provide you with the ingredients that you need to fill out orders, and they occasionally have added effects like stealing ingredients from other players or gaining yourself a new item to help you with your job.
Each player chooses a different character card when they start the game, and each character has their own set of abilities that they can use at any 2 points throughout the course of the game. One of the characters has the ability to use any ingredient in place of one of the listed ingredients when filling out an order, for example. However, one of the characters has the ability to not take a Nasty Says card twice during the course of the game, and considering that it’s only really possible to get a maximum of 3 Nasty Says cards during a game, these feel a little overpowered when compared to some of the other player abilities.
To fulfill an order, you have to collect the right ingredients as quickly as possible as you lose points the longer you take to complete it. To gain ingredients, you have to place your dice on the different cellar or task spaces on the board. Each space has a different number of dice required or a different dice total that must be met exactly before you can take the ingredients listed or gain the points. Each player starts the turn by rolling their dice and then taking it in turns to place their dice on the different spaces. Each space has only a certain number of slots available, so it’s a race against the other players to get the things you need before you manage to fill up all of the important spaces.
The board is filled with different options for ways to get ingredients, so if someone has taken up a spcae, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be able to get what you need. The cellar spaces are the easiest way to get what you need, needing only a single dice numbered 1 to 6 to get the right stuff. The Kitchen and Chore tracks also give you ingredients but cost way more, probably because they also give you points and advance your reputation tracks as well.
The game gets quite strategic at times. As well as placing dice to get the ingredients that you need, you also have to place dice to block other players from getting items to complete orders so they gain less points than you. You can also place a dice on the boss’s office to make your own Nasty reputation go back up by one and another player’s go down, so if you’re about to take a Nasty card, you can stave off doom for a little while, at least, and possibly cause a fistfight with the other players.
Something that might immediately stand out to board game players is that Cavern Tavern is a competitive game that comes with a single-player mode. The way this works is that when playing solo, you use the other player’s ‘auto-dice’. Basically, before you do anything in each round of single-player, you roll these dice and then put them on the space that each one corresponds to in order to simulate other players taking up spaces. This is a pretty neat idea to make a competitive game playable by only one player, and it really is an ingenious bit of design by the game’s designers.
The single-player mode comes in two forms, firstly, the standard mode which has the player just try to get to 80 points before the game ends, and secondly, a story mode which has you performing specific assignments given to you by the bar’s wizard. Of the two of them, the standard mode is much more appealing than the story mode. While it is nice to have an option for a story mode, it doesn’t actually give you a narrative to follow, and some of the requirements are far too difficult. For instance, most of the assignments require you to fulfill a certain number of orders for different races, but that relies on the right races being placed on the board and then on the orders themselves being short enough to complete quickly.
As well as the story mode and single-player, this edition of the game comes with a mini-expansion that features a super secret back room of the bar run by Nasty’s wife. This expansion helps a lot to mitigate the feeling of frustration when dealing with the Nasty Cards as you can receive tokens that you can use to get rid of the cards without having to actually complete them. It also gives you more opportunities to receive items and ingredients so that you don’t have to constantly rely on the permanent board spaces that other players will often be fighting over. This mini-expansion truly does make the game more fun, and most of the time you should not be playing the game without it if you can help it.
The board construction is pretty decent, and the artwork on both the board and the cards has been improved from the kickstarter edition. There’s also a lot of shorthand on the board which helps you to remember the rules without having to dive for the instructions too often, which is a really nice touch. The only slight bugbear is with some of the pieces. The tokens and characters are wooden and relatively well made, but the character designs come in the form of stickers instead of being printed or carved directly onto the pieces. The worst part is the dice, which not only feel quite cheap but also seem to have some production defects on the corners. They all roll well enough, however, so at the end of the day it doesn’t affect the game, but some better made pieces would have been much nicer.
Cavern Tavern is a really fun game to play, especially with the added expansions, and it’s great that the game includes a single-player mode for days when you can’t find anyone else to play with. The artwork and theme involved are great, and you really get the impression of the kind of place the Cavern Tavern actually is.
Designers: Vojkan Krstevski, Ivana Krstevski, Maja Matovska, Toni Toshevski
Artist: Mihajlo Dimitrievski, Vojkan Krstevski
Publisher: Final Frontier Games