Posted by: gschloesser | July 29, 2011

Cave Troll

Fantasy Flight Games
2 – 4 Players, 45 minutes
Designed by:  Tom Jolly
Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in Counter Magazine #21

I’ll admit – the theme of this new Tom Jolly & Fantasy Flight release didn’t grab me.  Yet another dungeon exploration game, filled with adventurers, dwarves, elves, monsters and treasures.  When, oh, when will this theme go out of vogue?  Apparently, no time soon as designers and companies keep cranking out titles with these mythical settings.  I’m guessing the theme must sit well with their target markets.  Sigh. 

My interest was piqued, however, when I read a few positive reports on the internet.  Plus, I knew that a few folks in our group were attracted to the ‘dungeon’ type games. The price was right, so I picked up a copy while at Gulf Games in Birmingham, where I had the opportunity to play it twice.  In spite of some rules gaffes in my first game, I found the experience pleasantly enjoyable and was pleased with my decision to purchase it. 

The board is comprised of four interlocking pieces, complete with nice artwork on the reverse by artist Thomas Denmark depicting a brave party of adventurers encountering a massive cave troll.  The same artwork adorns the cover of the box, which is eye-catching and certainly should appeal to fans of the genre.  Depicted on the board is a large dungeon (the cave troll’s lair), complete with dozens of rooms and several entrance stairways.  Each room depicts from 1 – 5 gold pieces, which is the base value of the room and is looted by the greedy adventurers.  Adventurers enter the lair at any of the entrance stairways, while monsters – with the exception of the cave trolls – entering from the central pit.  Encircling the board is a score track.  Each player’s scoring marker is a small, triangular piece that points to the appropriate score, as opposed to a cube or cylinder that would undoubtedly be repeatedly knocked over as players move their pieces on the board.  Still, these triangular pieces can get bunched together and crowded, so the seemingly perennial score track problem has yet to be solved. 

Each player has an identical set of counters representing adventurers and monsters, as well as three counters that provide an artifact, add a treasure to a room, or trigger an overall scoring of the board.  The artwork on the counters is nice, but the counters are so small that it can be difficult to differentiate between the various types of counters.  The majority of the counters are basic explorers, which possess no special powers.  Other counters, however, each have special abilities.  For example: 

Barbarian:  Counts as two adventurers when scoring the board. 

Thief (also known as the “buxom beauty”):  Can move from one room to any other room in the lair. 

Dwarf:  Doubles the base value of a room.

Knight:  Can slay orcs and once in a room, no opponent’s pieces may enter that room. 

The three types of monsters are: 

Wraith:  Pushes an adventurer out of a room, with the exception of a Barbarian or Knight. 

Orc:  Can slay adventurers. 

Cave Troll:  Flushes adventurers out of a room.  The room now occupied by the cave troll may not be entered for the remainder of the game. 

Each player mixes their counters face down or places them in a cup. 

On a player’s turn, he has four action points, which can be used to: 

1)      Draw a counter.  The player takes one of his face-down counters and either places it on the board (if it is a monster, adventurer or treasure), or takes an artifact or scores the board.  As mentioned, adventurers enter at one of the stairways, while monsters emerge from the central pit.  The only exception to this is the cave troll, which drops into any room, but may not be moved from that room. 

2)      Move a counter.  Adventurers and monsters (except the cave troll) may move from room to room via doorways at a cost of 1 action point per room.  A room may only contain up to five adventurers and/or monsters, and rooms occupied by an opponent’s knight or a cave troll may not be entered. 

3)      Play an artifact.  If the player draws his artifact token, he randomly takes one of the six artifacts.  He may use the artifact later in the game, exercising the special power it grants, or save it until the end of the game and earn its 2 – 4 point bonus.  Artifacts grant various powers, from claiming a room as your own to moving opponents tokens around the board.  

The object of the game is to grab control of as many rooms as possible, with a concentration on those rooms that are more valuable.  Controlling a room goes to the player who has the most adventurers in a room, with ties resulting in no points being scored for that room for either of the players.  When a scoring token is drawn, the entire board is analyzed room-by-room and points awarded to the controlling players.  A 4-point bonus is added to the value of a room if a treasure chest is present, and dwarves double the base value of a room.  Points are marked on the score track. 

The game ends when a player draws his final counter, with that player receiving a 3 point bonus to his final score.  The board is scored one final time and the player with the highest score (most gold looted) is the bravest adventurer and claims the victory. 

In a sense, the game is yet another ‘majority control’ affair, but it certainly doesn’t feel like the “same old, same old”.  Players scurry their adventurers into the various rooms, trying to get their valuable pieces (dwarf, knight and barbarian) into the most lucrative rooms and gain control of those areas.  These lucrative rooms are usually the sight of intense struggles, however, as players are greedy and attempt to be the one who grabs the loot from these treasure troves.  

Once the monsters begin appearing, a state of panic ensues.  Roaming orcs can quickly dispatch adventurers and only have to fear the all-powerful knights.  Pity the player who doesn’t get lucky and draw his knight early in the game for he will be easy prey for the players whose orcs are in the dungeon!  Even when a player’s knight does appear, however, the temptation is to move him to a lucrative room.  Once he takes us residence in that room, opponents may not move pieces into that room, with the exception of their own knight.  Usually, this means getting a knight into a room early guarantees control of that room.  However, the knight might be forced to vacate the room if rampaging orcs are slaying that player’s adventurers.  

The game contains a nice but no-where-near overwhelming mix of counters and special abilities.  Many games involving characters with special powers tend to overwhelm the player with a myriad of special rules and exceptions.  Not so here, as the relatively small number of powers are easy to remember.  Still, the mix of special abilities seems well balanced and provides ample opportunity for clever plays and interactions.  The six artifacts also add some spice, along with choices as to whether to use the artifacts’ power or save it for end-of-game bonus points.

One drawback present in the game is the scoring rounds, which can be a bit tedious and fiddly.  Each room much be examined and scored.  When rooms contain several tokens, it is easy for the gold value of the room to be covered.  So, tokens must be shifted around in order to tally each room.  This is a minor aggravation, though, and we devised the following method which helps prevent the accidental double-scoring of a room: 

During play, do not cover the gold coins indicating the value of the room with tokens.  When scoring a room, move the tokens so that they now cover the gold coins.  Once all rooms have been tallied, simply slide the tokens off the gold coins once again.  It is a bit tedious, but it works. 

Another potential problem is that it is possible for a scoring token to be drawn during the first round before all players have had the opportunity to take their initial turn.  This means the player or players who have taken their turns will be the only players with tokens in the dungeon and will therefore have a big advantage in the scoring.  We’ve instituted a house-rule wherein any scoring tokens drawn in the first round of play are not scored and simply returned to the players token supply. 

All of the games I’ve played have clocked in at around 45 minutes or so, which is about perfect for this type of game.  It certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome and the randomness as to when the board will be scored forces players to take advantage of every turn, maneuvering their pieces to gain majorities in as many rooms as possible.  Yes, there is certainly luck involved, primarily in the drawing of the tokens.  However, usually the planning, scheming and strategies of a player will overcome this luck factor.  Each game I’ve played has been fun and exciting.  So, for me, it has been $14 well spent!

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