Rebel Games of Poland created one of my playgroup’s most durable favorites with The Cave — a tile-laying game wherein you play a team of spelunkers competing to explore and notch scoring achievements in an ever-expanding and increasingly hazardous unmapped cave system.
I touched on the joys of tile-laying in my writeup of the classic Carcassonne; The Cave uses the same "build a landscape" device to other ends. In Carcassonne, the pastoral theme gets nudged out by the pure strategy of the game. In The Cave, the theme of exploration and risk comes vividly to the foreground: You have an allotment of action points you can use on every turn to discover new tiles — photography objectives, underground lakes, tight squeezes and steep drops — explore them, and rack up achievement tokens that get scored at the end to determine the victor.
Enjoy the fleeting buzz of optimism as you load up your supplies on the base camp tile with the other teams, because you’re about to have the screws put to you: With the limitations of both action points per turn and how much gear you can actually carry, there’s some tough going ahead.
Starting with the first turn out of camp, players burn food supplies every turn. Let yourself run out and you have to crawl back to camp while the other teams rack up points photographing rare stalagmites and rappelling down underground cliff faces.
Players also have to pick a mix equipment that enables them to navigate and explore as many kinds of terrain features as possible; you’ll understand this pain when you’re at the precipice of a 50-meter drop and didn’t pack enough rope.
Every new tile turned while plumbing the depths brings harder decisions the further you get from base camp. Players constantly have to gauge their supplies against the points it will take to explore new tiles and still make it to base to reload for another run.
Do I gamble that the new tile I place can reconnect me to a path back to camp or will I shiver and despair, food tins empty, in a dead end?
(Warning: Once you figure out how to spend action points and score exploration features, you’ve got most of the game nailed. But I’ve found that tracking drops in elevation across the cave system can quickly become confusing; the game comes with elevation markers, but your group can get tripped up if you don’t devise your own method for using them.)
The terrain tiles get more difficult (and the incentives for bagging them get bigger) as the game goes on, further electrifying your risk/reward calculus. And don’t dally when the final tile is drawn; at this point, every team has exactly three turns to get back to base camp or else you score zero points for the game. You heard me: Blow the final countdown and all the achievement tokens you worked for are worthless.
Every time we play The Cave, I always wonder why we don’t play it more. If you like the "exploration and risk in the outdoors" game concept, you might also look into K2 by the same designer, where you have to get a team up the titular mountain without dying in an avalanche or getting hypoxia.
While we’re on the tile-laying subject: Way back, I touched on Escape: Curse of the Temple, where careful planning and strategy is switched out for a timed, cooperative dash from an ancient death trap. We broke it out on New Year’s Eve and captured a brief slice of the action so you can see the frantic rolling and second-to-second collaboration required to make it out alive.
Here you can see the adventurers barking tactical instructions to each other as they try to unlock cursed dice, find new chambers and activate critical gem rooms: