Boardgames are not like chocolates. They have very few things in common, however. However, much like that familiar Gumpism; with some boardgames, you never know what you’re going to get. Thus, a new boardgame term is coined: The Chocolate Box Game. Star Scrappers: Cave-In from Hexy Studios is my first Chocolate Box Game.
The box art features a surly looking sci-fi bloke reaching for a sci-fi glowing thing, while typical sci-fi looking robots are in the background doing sci-fi stuff. Flip the box over and you’ll see it’s a modular board and with cards, and the description will tell you that you’ll be mining crystals (the board) using mercenaries (the cards) and also that you’ll have to be mindful about being attacked/raided by other players. The premise of the game is very simple, in fact, the game itself is pretty straightforward. Your goal is to collect as many crystals and in as great an array as possible. You’ll do this by playing cards that colour match those crystals and where their combined total power equals or exceeds the value of the token you’re after.
This is much like the back of a chocolate box telling you that the ingredients are cocoa, milk and sugar.
As a Chocolate Box Game (look, I’m making it a thing ok, #ChocolateBoxGame) what you get inside the box is far more than this. Cave-In, on my first play, caused lots of the those “Oh that’s interesting” moments. There is a deck drafting element to this game, a set collection angle and a sort-of programming thing going on too. But, these are all just small parts of the bigger whole and it does each of these things just ever-so-slightly different to what is “normal” and to what I was expecting. For one thing, the crystals are really the reward, mining them is actually very easy, getting to the point where you can do that, well, that’s different.
“So how do we get new cards?” was the first question asked after player one had taken their turn. Well, there are two ways. The “Nice and Slow” or “Fast and Nasty”. One of the actions a player can take is to recruit just one mercenary from the docks, paying the cost by a card in hand that is one rank lower. But as you can only do this action once, and for the biggest crystals you’ll need to equal 10, this is a very arduous way of drafting your “deck”. The faster, more erratic way is to Raid your opponents. This method wins you all but the top card of their discard pile. But, it’s the only thing you can do that turn, and because you didn’t draft/choose the cards yourself, it means you are essentially playing out of someone else’s pocket.
The rulebook calls it a ‘Raid’, invariably, we were calling it ‘Attack’, but actually it’s more like ‘Head Hunting’. Why bother regaling you with this distinction, well, because there is an interesting (and slightly masochistic) twist in that you can ‘Raid’ yourself, re-circling those spent cards back into your hand, which sounds great if you’ve got loads of good cards, but, timing, or rather; the sequence, is everything. Cards played don’t go into your discard pile straight away. They go from hand to table, and then once everyone has taken their turn, they are then added to the discard pile. This is important because in the turn you play all your good cards, you are basically advertising your wares to your opponents: those cards will be in your discard pile next turn and be ripe for the picking. Turn order comes into play here, but so does the hand limit.
I’ve called it a deck drafting, but really it’s just a hand of seven cards, with up to another seven in your discard pile. Hardly a deck, by any stretch of the definition because of this re-circling aspect to the cards; Cave-In creates this “collective deck” between all players, which will be completely unique each game, even if the same factions are used, as it will depend upon how players recruit and interact with one another. The cascading cards means that the concept of ownership is smudged and muddied too. You can recruit the merc you know an opponent wants, but unless you plan on keeping it in your hand, they’ll be able to pinch it in a turn or two. This creates a sense of movement, of fleeting fluidity, that you’ll have to work with what you’ve got now because it could all change very quickly.
There is also something rather brilliant going on with the discard pile, the phase of a turn is to put all played cards in your discard pile, once you hit 7 cards, those on the bottom of the pile are removed from the game – which is a nice way of thinning out those starting weaker cards without having to spend an action or time doing it. The last card on the deck is your Leader, this means that their special ability kicks in at the start of your next turn. Low-level cards will let grab the appropriate coloured crystal, but the higher-ups, they can play a pivot role in your tactics. It feels like the natural order of board games has been subverted, “But, but, I’ve used it. I’ve discarded it. What do you mean I use it…again?” I know, I know, calm down, it’s okay. This double whammy of programming style card-play was a standout feature of the game for me, it really caused every player to stop and really think, not just about their short-term goal of this term, but their next, and the one after that. Weighing up the potential reactions of their opponents. The ability to plan ahead in any strategy game is vital to success but rarely does a game guide you on the process like this does.
You’ve mined, recruited and even picked up a useful artefact or two but now the mine rumbles its imminent collapse. In short, the endgame is brought about by the mine collapsing – hence the name of the game. You’ll advance along the Cave-In track each time any resource deck or pile is depleted, with some crystals adding to it too. This rather nicely pulls the game together, creating a funnel of action as, to begin with there seems no threat, but soon, that treat of collapse is all too real.
You’ll gain victory points in various ways; mostly through mining crystals but it feels a little more fiddly than it may need to be, especially given the flow of the game, the allocation of points seems jarring; each time I’ve played we’ve resorted to grabbing a piece of paper and pen to tally everything up. One of the best ways to score points though is by collecting crystals with symbols markings, collecting a full set of six will seriously bolster your score, if you are fortunate enough to get a few partial sets too and you are laughing. However, the scoring of these sets seems so big that it forces play in that direction and only that direction, to the point where it doesn’t seem to matter what else you have collected en-route to this finale, as long as you have a set or two, this also devalues the “normal” crystals somewhat too, making them feel more like an inconvenience that they are there instead of their higher point scoring kin.
This #ChocolateBoxGame surprised me when it first hit the table, the novel approach to the discard deck and the lingering power held within it, the cascading and collaborative pool of cards used really caught my attention and these aspects of the game that will still be there next time it comes down from the shelf. I love the way this game encourages you to think and plan, how you can play this game either defensively, aggressively or very fluidly and still get a lot out of each experience.
This review was based on a retail edition of the game provided by the publisher.