[Tactics and Tactility is our column about the feelings, details and pleasures of tabletop gaming. This week Ava is looking at Caverna, and the gentle joys of piling up rocks.]
In front of me is a little board. Half of it is forest, half of it is mountain.
I do not understand the intricacies of the game I’m playing, Caverna, but I do understand that this tiny cardboard fiefdom is mine. Within the context of the rules, I can do what I want with it.
The game in Caverna comes from competition for the best spaces, picking the right order to do things in, making sure you can be as efficient as possible, and always having a back up plan. There’s a load of clever decisions to be made on the central board, and a few on your player board. Where you put things matters, but not as much as how quickly you got there, and just the simple binary question of whether you have enough space or not.
That’s the game. That’s the puzzle. That’s the beating heart of the design.
But that’s not what makes me love my time with it.
Caverna is a treasure trove of little wooden objects. Animals and resources all come in tiny wooden images. Rooms and fields are little cardboard tiles. You lay the tiles out, you find the right spaces for things, and then you’ve built a thing.
Caverna has a whole page full of rules for what animals can be kept where, and doesn’t really care about where you keep your raw materials.
I follow the rules to the letter, but then make my own rules for everything else. My rocks end up in a little stone circle deep in the forest. A pile of rubies sits in my cave. An entire forest of woods shoots up along the edges of my fields. The dogs can go anywhere, provided they aren’t looking after sheep, so they run free, along edges and corners, darting in between the strictures and structures that tie other animals down.
It’s a simple, physical joy. To take a break from the mental labour and lay out my pieces in a way that pleases me. Caverna knows this, and gives you lovely objects to play with. Pieces to pile up and places to put them. Your board fills up with rooms and fields and tunnels and caves and pastures. All of those fill up with the very specific pieces of wood that the rules permit.
We play games to feel clever, to compete, to tell stories, to win, to laugh, to be baffled, to talk trash and share joy.
But sometimes, I just want to make a big stack of rocks.
There’s a reason this column has tactility in the name.
Cosmic Encounter knows exactly how satisfying it is to clack those spaceships on top of each other. Games with weighted poker chips are just begging you to pile them up and tap them together. Even simple stacks become playful skyscrapers. I often put my money into piles of what I want to do with them, each a little monument to next turn’s hopes and dreams, a memento of my mathematical margins.
Playing Imhotep recently, as one person laid out the ships and the desert and prepared to teach, me and two other players got lost in the chunky wooden blocks of our quarry. I build a flattened pyramid, Will was more ambitious and stacked tall, while Jess made a little columnated temple. Nothing to do with the game, none of us had noticed the others until we were finished, and all of us, absolutely had to build a something. We were engrossed in our edifices. The teacher waited patiently for us to be ready to start.
A beautiful thing about board games is that we can touch them. They are objects we venerate, adding the ritual of rules to give them a meaning and purpose. But there’s a more profane wonder at play: grabbing for the pieces and stacking and piling and fiddling.
We build little buildings on the outskirts of the game, and slowly dismantle them as we play. It’s not the reason why anyone’s at the table, but it’s a lovely activity to excuse. How often do we get to just play with some little wooden blocks and build something? We jump back to our childhood, to tiny towns and wooden worlds spread out on carpets.
Humans like putting things on other things. We are builders. We are destroyers. We are rebuilders. Over and over again.
Maybe it’s just a thing we do to pass time from turn to turn. Maybe it’s a sign we’ve got distracted, that the game’s not thrilling enough.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s a part of the magic.
So folks, what’s the biggest thing you’ve ever built out of board game bits? What game has the most pleasing pieces to play with?