Agricola versus Caverna

 
by Stephen Venters

Should I buy Agricola or Caverna?

I see this question posted a lot on vairious board game forums, so I thought I'd discuss both, their similarities and differences, and provide some guidance to which one you should buy.

Agricola Caverna

The Basics

Both games were designed by Uwe Rosenberg, though the publishers have varied. When Agricola came out in 2007, it was by no means the first worker placement game on the market, but it was the first that offered such a deep and complex game play and took the gaming world by storm. It owned the #1 spot on BGG for many years.

Both games' theme is farming, of course. In Agricola you are a 17th Century peasant trying to build your family and a farm to sustain them. In Caverna you are a cave-dwelling dwarf that not only needs to build a farm outside, but also to mine your cave. Technically, Caverna is a reimplantation (or sequel as some might say) of Agricola and their game play and mechanics are similar (especially Worker Placement), but have some important differences.

Agricola Caverna
Versions Agricola (original) (2007)
Agricola Revised Edition (2016)
Caverna: The Cave Farmers (2013)
Designer(s) Uwe Rosenberg Uwe Rosenberg
Publisher(s) Lookout Games, Z-Man Games, Mayfair Games Lookout Games
History The original version of Agricola was released in 2007 and, while not the first of its kind, was very popular in the Euro/Worker Placement genera. It sat as #1 on BGG's ranked list for many years. Even now, almost 15 years after its release, it still sits at a respectable 30-something.

In 2016 Mayfair (now owned by Asmodée Éditions) published the Revised Edition (or Second Edition). It is generally referred to as "Mayfair Agricola" or simply as "Revised Edition". If you purchase a copy of Agricola from a retailer such as Amazon, it will very likely be the Revised Edition.

Rosenberg, the game's designer, took the many Minors and Occupations from the original game (and its many expansions) and cherry-pick the best and/or most popular cards to create two tightly edited, streamlined sets. He also made sure they were edited / rewritten for clarity and balance. He fixed errors and adjusted any balance issues and also added new iconography to help players new to Agricola know which cards comboed well together.
The original version of Caverna came out in 2013 after which began many discussion about the the relationship between the two. Despite being viewed as a rethemed, reimplantation of Agricola, it had some important differences. There was a new round mechanic as well as several new action types that significantly effected the strategies used. So, if you knew Agricola, learning the rules of Caverna was not that hard, but you still had to learn Caverna's strategies. It also supported 7(!) players, where Agricola had only supported 5 (the Revised Edition stepped this up to 6).

A second edition / reprint was released not long after with minimal changes.

The Details

Because Agricola Revised Edition is the latest version, I will use it for the rest of the comparisons.

Agricola Revised Edition (2016) Caverna (2013)
Weight Medium with a weight rating of 3.51
(out of 5.0 on BGG)
Medium-Heavy with a weight rating of 3.79
(out of 5.0 on BGG)
Time to Play 30 - 120 minutes 30 – 210 minutes
Game Play Agricola is played over 14 rounds during which you use your family workers to take actions to build your farm. These actions include collecting resources, using them to build and do things, and playing cards that increase the efficiency of your future actions. However, failing to feed your family during the feeding phases results in major negative points. Ultimately, how full your farm is at the end of the game determines how may VPs it scores. Watch this brief overview (6:32) by Jack Eddy on BGG for a few more details. Caverna is played over 12 rounds, during which you use your family workers to take actions to build your cave and farm just outside of it. These actions include collecting resources, using them to build and do things, and procuring buildings that increase the efficiency of your future actions. Sound familiar? Feeding your family is easier as there are more ways to generate food. Ultimately, how well built your cave/farm is at the end of the game determines how may VPs it scores. Watch this glowing review (7:45) by Tom Vasel on BGG for a bit more details.
Mechanics Enclosure, Hand Management, Worker Placement, Advantage Token, Automatic Resource Growth, Drafting, Increase Value of Unchosen Resources, Turn Order: Claim Action, Variable Player Powers Automatic Resource Growth, Increase Value of Unchosen Resources, Tile Placement, Turn Order: Claim Action, Worker Placement
Randomness Beyond the initial setup of the game, there is nearly no randomness. During setup, actions are randomly laid out and are exposed as the game progresses. The order in which they become available drives many strategies of the game. More importantly, players are dealt a hand of Minor Improvements and a hand of Occupations. The hand you get dealt can largely determine your ability to win the game, so drafting mechanics are often used to balance out the hands as well as increase the combo-ability of the cards. Like Agricola, actions are set up and reveled during the game and, like Agricola, the order in which they are reveled drives the strategies of the game. Caverna doesn't use cards and hands, so that aspect of randomness during setup has been taken out.
BGG Rating 7.622 - 76th overall
(though the original is still rated 34th)
7.834 - 31st overall
Cost Agricola Revised Edition can be bought new on Amazon for $45-$50 and used but in very good condition for a bit less on the Geek Market. Caverna can be bought new on Amazon for about $65 and used but in very good condition for a bit less on the Geek Market.
Expansions Agricola has two may expansion types: additional cards and the Farmers of the Moor expansion. Navigating the deck expansions is confusing and you can read more about it here. The Farmers of the Moor expansion provides an additional layer of complexity to the game. Up until 2018, Caverna's expansions were just promos and the like. Then they released The Forgotten Folk (2018) which added new races beyond dwarves. Another expansion is scheduled for 2022 which adds hostile plunderers that wreck your plans.

The Differences

There are three major differences between Agricola and Caverna:

1. Agricola has Occupations and Minor/Major Improvements that are played to your tableau where Caverna has Buildings that you fill up your cave with. There are approximately twice as many Caverna Buildings as Agricola cards available to a player which means a Caverna player has more options available to him/her. Another difference is that all of the Buildings are available to you at the beginning of the game.

2. Agricola's engine building is difficult and tight. Of the 14 rounds, usually you get it up and running by about round 10, giving you 4 rounds to use it to collect points. Caverna gives you a lot more time to get your engine up and running, so it's much easier to use it to collect points.

3. Caverna added an additional element called Adventuring which is its own strategic path and reduces your need to grow your family.

My Thoughts

I first played Agricola in 2008 and it has been in my top 5 games ever since, so I'm a little biased. That said, I will keep this objective because both games are good.

Agricola is the godfather of many Euros and worker placement games. I personally like the tight, almost-stressful, feeling of having just barely having enough to get your engine started. And soon after you get it started, the game ends. It's balance and design are brilliantly dialed in. I almost always do a card-draft at the beginning of the game to reduce the chances of one player having a strong hand and another a weak hand.

While Caverna feels (to me) looser and easier, it still has the same depth of strategy. Feeding your family, which is a big focus in Agricola, is only a side thought in Caverna since there are more and easier ways to get food. So instead of the stress of building a food engine, you can focus more on building your VP engine. Further, there are a lot more types of actions to take. This reduces the demand for any given action, but it also adds to a sense of being overwhelmed during the first few rounds. Because there are a lot more strategic paths to win, it is harder to see where your competition is compared to your game.

Which Should You Buy?

My bias towards Agricola requires me to say that any respectable board game collection must include it, but I'll try to be more objective. Both are highly rated, about the same price and have similar mechanics. Realistically, I think your choice comes down to which type of nuanced game play you like.

If you like tight game play where every action counts and efficiency is crucial, then Agricola is your game. Further, if you enjoy the challenge of building an engine rather than using one to collect points, then Agricola is your game.

If you like looser, more forgiving games, and ones with more strategic options from the start, then Caverna is your game. Further, if you like less competition for actions, then Caverna is your game.

Either way, you'll add a great game to your collection.

Additional Reading

Here is a BGG article containing some excellent technical analysis of the two games' mechanics in more detail.

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