Sunday 17 June 2012

Review - Cave Troll

Due to other work commitments, I have not had the opportunity to put the time and effort into writing any new reviews this week. So, just to keep things ticking over, here is my review for Cave Troll. This review originally appeared on BoardGameGeek back in March 2009, but now you get the chance to see it with some pictures.

It should be noted that this game is not out of print (at the time of writing), so if you want to get a copy for yourself, you shouldn't have any problems.

Cave Troll board game box

Cave Troll
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
Designed by Tom Jolly
For 2 to 4, aged 10 to adult

Before I even get started, I'm just going to say right now that I love this game. I don't know why I love it as much as I do, but I do. It's by no means a perfect game, but I always have a lot of fun playing it. There, now I've got all the gushing out of the way, I can go ahead and give a balanced review. Probably...

First of all, I'll quickly go over the components. I love nice components in a game, and in my reviews I usually spend more time reviewing components than gameplay. Let's see if I can buck the trend...

The version of Cave Troll I own is the reissue with the little plastic pieces, so that's a good place to start. There are 68 plastic playing pieces representing heroes, monsters, and treasure chests. And they are tiny. Really tiny. Don't get me wrong, the playing pieces are really nicely sculpted, but they are small. Anyone expecting character pieces like those found in Descent or Runebound will be a little disappointed.

Each player gets 17 pieces (in green, yellow, red, or blue): Nine adventurers, one barbarian, one dwarf, one knight, one thief, one treasure chest, one orc, one wraith, and one cave troll.

Cave Troll board game blue playing pieces
Strangely enough, all the monsters and heroes of the same colour team up.

I think plastic figures are an improvement over the counters of earlier editions, because they are easier to pick up and move around, but they do cause a few problems. Most obviously, the knight, adventurer, and orc playing pieces all look very similar when viewed from a distance. Okay, the knight has a shield and the orc has a square base (because all monsters are on square bases to help them stand out); but even so, it isn't that easy to tell when the board is getting filled up, and an oversight can cause a mistake during play. This isn't a deal-breaker for me, I spend plenty of time studying the board anyway, but it is worth mentioning.

The other major problem with filling the box with plastic toys is it may give the wrong impression of what this game is all about. This is NOT a dungeon crawl. Each player gets 13 heroes and only three monsters! If this was a dungeon crawl, then the dungeon is in serious need of new Evil Inc management, because it is not well-prepared for an invasion of 52 gold-hungry heroes. This game is a very clever (very quick) area management game. People tempted to buy thinking it is some kind of adventure game might be disappointed.

Those issues aside, I like the playing pieces.

The game also comes with a small deck of item cards, four decks of player cards, a few variant cards for added replay value, four plastic score markers, and a beautifully illustrated game board representing the dungeon being raided.

Cave Troll board
The board - very large gold coins scattered neatly in tiny rooms.

The score track for the game runs around the edge of the board and is numbered 0-99. Special mention must go to the score markers, which are designed to stack on top of each other - very handy if several people have the same score.

All of this fits very snugly into a sturdy box the same size as the Drakon box with a simple card insert to stop bits moving around in transit. It's a very swish, professional package. (Note that there isn't a compartment in the box for each deck of cards, so you may want to make tuck boxes. However, as the decks are only small, it only takes a few seconds to sort them all out.)

The rules come on a single three-way-fold sheet (for a total of six printed pages) and are very easy to follow. You can literally start playing in minutes.

Cave Troll rule book
The rules are simple and well-illustrated.

I don't want to go through the rules in detail, but the general idea is to use your hero characters to gain control of rooms in the dungeon and win the most gold. Each room on the board has a number of gold coins printed on it, and at certain points a room (or the whole board) will be scored. If, at that time, you have the most hero pieces in a room then you are in control and will score points equal to the number of gold coins printed on that room. Obviously, you can pile lots of heroes into one room to try to make sure you win the gold; but there are lots of rooms, and if you want to stand any chance of winning, you will need to spread out your heroes to win as many rooms as you can.

Each player has four actions in each turn. These actions can be used to draw and play cards from his or her player deck (the cards represent which heroes and monsters can be brought into play, and also some special situations such as finding a magic item or scoring a room), move a hero or monster, play a magic item card, or use a hero or monster special ability (such as the orc's ability to kill hero playing pieces).

Cave Troll playing cards
The Cave Troll playing cards in four flavours, plus items.

So, the game is a very simple process of playing cards to bring heroes and monsters onto the board, and then moving those heroes and monsters around in a way that benefits you the most when it comes time to score the board. To add much-needed complexity to proceedings, many heroes and monsters have special powers. Orcs can kill some heroes, knights can kill orcs, dwarfs double the number of gold scored in a room (regardless of which player has the most heroes in the room), the treasure chest increases the score for one room by +4, and so on.

The game comes with some variant rules for some of the special characters, and this adds some replayability as well, although honestly it feels a bit unnecessary as there is plenty of enjoyment to be had from just the basic game. It's nice to have the option to play a different way if I want to, but as of yet I haven't bothered.

When I first saw this game, I did hesitate to buy it; the main reason for my hesitation was a concern that it wouldn't play well with two people. I play most of my games against my wife, and very rarely get to play games with more than three people; so being valid as a two-player game is an important consideration for me. As this game is about area control, I thought it might work out that with only two players there would not be enough need to interact with each other (i.e. there would be too many spaces on the board and not enough heroes to fight over them). Luckily, I was wrong. This game is definitely better with more people, as you have to really fight to get control of the high-scoring rooms, but even with two players there is a lot going on. It is slightly less cutthroat and a little less tactical, but still a lot of fun.

So, time for the science bit:

This is a really good little game. It's light enough that it can be taught to anyone (I taught my parents on Christmas Day after turkey and copious amounts of beer, and they usually max out their concentration playing dominoes), and it plays quickly. There is a small amount of luck involved in which cards you draw, but the game works by always giving you a choice of two cards to play at any time, so if you are careful you can always formulate a half-decent plan B for when luck fails you. There are plenty of decisions to make (do you stack your people in the best room, knowing there is a chance your opponent will wipe them out with a cave troll, or do you spread them out and run the risk of not scoring any rooms?) but the game isn't weighty enough for people to slip into analysis paralysis. Four-player games can get slightly aggressive, with orcs killing heroes and cave trolls killing everyone; but it is all done in a light-hearted way, and it is such fun that I don't think anyone will get too upset. Also, I have never seen a game where one player was so far ahead on points that there was no point carrying on (although I wouldn't like to say this couldn't happen if someone played well).

On the downside, this game does appear like an adventure game to the casual observer; and that might cause disappointment. There isn't a single dice in sight! The little cards and the similar-looking figures might also cause some concern. Also, I don't think the theme works very well because there are more heroes than monsters. I believe this game was originally about mining, and the fantasy theme was added afterwards; and that might explain why the theme doesn't seem to fit well. However, I don't think the theme is going to stop people having fun.

They are not special; they are not beautiful or unique snowflakes.

Cave Troll is definitely best with four players, so if you are looking for a game that you will normally only play with two players, you should probably look elsewhere.

Overall, I really enjoy this game (can you tell?). It has an excellent mix of thought, fun, and "gotcha" mechanics; and it can be nicely wrapped up within an hour, so can easily fit into a hectic gaming schedule. There is a concern that it is too much of a brain-burner for people looking for a light adventure game, and too light and fluffy to fulfil the itch of Eurogamers looking for something deep and mentally stimulating; but as a game that falls somewhere between the two extremes, I think it's just right.

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