“So then I says to Seej – this guy over here thinks we could COOK our MEAT and stop dying from strange diseases…” and thus began the quest for fire. In Cavemen, you’ll take on the role of a struggling tribe of cavemen that include thinkers, explorers, hunters, and elders. In your quest for fire, you’ll need to feed your tribe, secure housing for them as you grow your tribe, and even invent some cool toys for them to play with along the way. Cavemen is the 2012 release from designer Dan Cassan and published by Rio Grande Games in the United States. Full disclosure, I was provided this game by Rio Grande Games for the purpose of this review and, by law, must disclose this up front for you. Cavemen is a quirky, light-hearted affair that can easily be played at a party and scales best with 3-4 players. I quite enjoyed Cavemen, but I will only recommend it with one caveat to others.
Players are competing to build a tribe capable of inventing fire. The deck of cards contains just one FIRE card and when it is revealed into the active card pool, players will need to have attained a cumulative invention score sufficient to invent FIRE AND hold the Conch shell that determines initiative. The first player to achieve this feat wins the game.
Each player begins the game with a cave, a hunter, and a tribal leader. Caves provide living space and generally come in sizes that can fit two, three, or four cavemen. Your tribe’s population cannot exceed the available space in your caves or one of the free-range dinosaurs will eat them…at least that’s the story I’m telling myself! Each tribe member brings a set of skills to the tribe:
- Hunters can hunt dinosaurs and a variety of other dangerous creatures to generate the currency of the game: food & teeth.
- Explorers can hunt, but they allow you to select a cave without having to pay the price in teeth for it when found.
- Thinkers are inventors at heart and only contribute to your quest for fire through their invention rating. These are the most expensive and rare of all the cavemen you can recruit.
- Elders are generalists that provide foraging ability and invention.
The game is played across a series of turns wherein players take turns making actions that allow them to benefit their tribe in some way based on the cards on the table. The cards in the active card pool include:
- Cavemen of the various types outlined above.
- Creatures that can be hunted which are typically dinosaurs who, if defeated, drop meat (food for your tribe & money) and teeth (money).
- Inventions that can be discovered and will provide your tribe with gameplay bonuses like being able to gain a tooth for every invention that gets discarded for the rest of the game or, my favorite, the weapon which eliminates the possibility of death when hunting.
There is minimal housekeeping and ultimately the focus of the gameplay is on the action phases which keeps players highly engaged even when it’s not their turn.
Let’s run through the sequence of play.
Cards are laid out in the middle of the players according to the number of players in the game. You’ll lay out the number of cards equal to the number of players and then add two more. So, if you have 4 players, you’ll make sure that there are 6 cards on the board at all times. The board is restocked at the end of each turn so that players can see what inventions, caves, cavemen, and creatures are present.
The player with the conch shell currently shifts the conch shell to the player to the right who may choose to bid earned teeth to keep the shell. The other players, in turn, have an opportunity to outbid the conch holder with an increasing number of teeth until it comes back around to the conch holder who can choose to make the highest bid or give up the conch to the player with the highest bid. There’s some good strategy here that shines with 3+ players, but ultimately loses its appeal in a 2 player game because in a 2 player game it’s far easier for one player to build successively upon holding the conch by selecting to hunt creatures that will give teeth as their first action.
Once the conch holder is determined, players must feed their tribes. The conch holder must pay one meat token for every caveman in his tribe while the other players only pay one meat token for their entire tribe. Again, the strategy of who gets the conch is important because the conch holder must pay the food necessary to feed his tribe or he has to kill off one of his cavemen to starvation. Even if the conch holder CAN pay for the tribe’s food needs, once you get six or more cavemen, feeding becomes a burden and reduces the flexibility of your actions for that turn. Again, I thought this was a very clever little gameplay mechanism to give someone a great ability by getting an extra action, but also penalizing that player in some way to make it a risk/reward kind of situation.
Players then take turns taking a single action. Play continues, in sequence, around the table until it comes back to the conch holder who gets an additional turn. This is a great advantage because, once the final action has been taken the player to the right of the conch holder gets to choose which cards are discarded down to just 3 remaining cards so that new active cards can be drawn from the deck to replenish the card pool. It’s an ingenious little system because it puts the power to pull things out of play for the time being and cycles through the deck so that a bad card pool doesn’t haunt the game.
During a player’s action they can recruit new cavemen to their tribe, hunt creatures for meat and teeth, explore new caves, invent new tools, or simply forage for food. The cavemen in each player’s tribes combine their relative scores for hunting, invention, and foraging. The exploration trait is binary and either you have it and can get a new cave for free or you don’t and you pay the cost of the cave in teeth. Balancing the growth of your tribe along with the needs of your tribe is the central tension in the game. You always have to be mindful of the cardpool, the teeth and meat that both you have and that your opponents have in their possession. I found it very cool that inventors were a scarce resource and they were expensive so you were not quick to discard them even though they really only help in the endgame and the occasional fun invention.
Inventions are an important accelerator for the game because you generally don’t lose them. They accelerate some aspect of the game by improving your economy mostly, but as I mentioned, the weapons invention means you can keep just enough hunters that you believe will keep your tribe fed which is a huge plus. That said, in games where inventions are scarce, it could make the game drag a bit which leads me to my one complaint about this game.
Cavemen looks like it’s going to be a relatively short filler game. The gameplay, however, lends itself to a game that’s about 60 minutes at a minimum and potentially longer. There shouldn’t be any analysis paralysis for players in this game, but everything is sort of time consuming and it takes A LOT of rounds to build up to the point where you can invent fire. If the fire card comes out too soon, you may not see it again for a while, or worse…if one player can buy the conch away from another player who can invent fire on that turn the game lingers even longer. This can lead to a situation in which play is effectively over and you’re just waiting for the fire card to pop up so the apparent winner and capitalize on it.
My first two player game took about 75 minutes. Adding players doesn’t seem to affect that playtime too much. The reason why is that the invention requirements for the endgame condition scale down with the players because of the scarce nature of the inventors in the deck. So, players are generally ready quicker and you’re cycling the deck faster, but there are more players trying to either stall or accelerate the endgame. The predictable nature of the game length is a blessing, but I think seeing the components and reading through the rules made me think that this game would be much shorter and would be an appropriate filler type game.
I loved the components for this game. The claymation style of the cavemen and dinosaurs is functional, funny, approachable, and has just the right amount of kitsch required to pull off a game where fire is represented by a cracked eggshell on a bone with a candle inside (also genius). The cards are pretty standard fare and definitely hold up to repeated bridge shuffling and retain their crisp edges and flatness. These are the two primary qualities I look for in cards so rest assured that you won’t need to sleeve these suckers to eek out some extra life from your copy of the game… because I assume that by now you’ve made the decision to purchase this game…
The other components are a series of cardboard chits representing meat and teeth in both one and five point increments. These are cleverly handled with the meat oozing either a green one or a bloody red and the teeth bearing either one score mark or five. The conch shell shows both a shell side and the opening which is a neat little touch as well.
If you go into this game expecting that it’s not some 30-45 minute filler game and that there is some subtlety to the strategy then you’re going to have a good time with it. The game is light fare, but it’s fun and everything about it demonstrates a careful attention to detail. Cavemen is accessible for games 7+, and is suitable for up to 5 players, but I’d suggest the sweet spot is probably 3 or 4 players. You can play this game with just 2 players, but amassing the 10 required invention points and the conch can be a bit of a chore without at least a third party acting as a spoiler. There didn’t appear to be much opportunity for kingmaking in this game and it’s easily learned and played by even novice gamers. If you like the theme, and enjoy card games, then I think this game should be in your collection and on your radar at the very least.