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Why Games Work: Agricola and Caverna

Many social scientists love to study aspects of human socialization and bonding. How we form the relationships we do with others and where our understanding of our world comes from are key to understanding how we perceive and shape our world. Across different societies and cultures, one of the crucial ways most children ingrain and process accepted behavior is through play. Repeating tasks that adults may take on in a safe imaginary scenario (playing doctor, playing house, building with LEGO™ bricks or sand) helps children understand at a basic level the responsibilities they will soon undertake.

Playing board games is no different. We experience our world through games that model it. The two selections for today’s “Why Games Work” article do just that, but with the added twist of adding competitive game elements to the play.

Designer Uwe Rosenberg has structured both of these games around a core family unit. Farmers take the spotlight in Agricola  while a budding family of dwarves mines out a living in Caverna. In both cases, the player takes the role of managing the family tasks through placing workers while trying to most efficiently gain points for building or acquiring resources. Building seemingly mundane buildings and raising livestock is the core of Agricola. Take this concept and add a slight fantasy twist and you have Caverna.

In both games, the player board is the central focus. It is the sandbox through which players build their environment. Watching your life and environment evolve over time is the tap into play that gamers seek. The more efficient and advantageous an environment you craft (according to the game’s standards) by game end results in more points.

Photo by Simon "that sci-fi guy"
Photo by Simon “that sci-fi guy”

Many other games take this direct approach to play with a million different play environments and scenarios to explore. Few are as basic but deep as Agricola and Caverna. When thinking of games that “work”, these come right to the top of the list. They reinforce hard work, creation over conflict, and efficiency, things which are prized as human societies develop.

Caverna in play | photo by Mathew Tate
Caverna in play | photo by Mathew Tate


Worker placement board | photo by Mathew Tate
Worker placement board | photo by Mathew Tate

As you’re perusing the game shelves at your friendly local game store or scouring lists of games through Board Game Geek, take a moment to think about what aspect of play a game reinforces. Chances are if it’s a core reflection of play that children normally pursue, it has a good game idea at heart. If a game’s theme runs counter to how we perform in simulations to understand our world, likely it’s not a very good game. This doesn’t mean that games with illegal or immoral activities are bad, just that most games will seek to reward players for running a simulation well and that simulation usually models some aspirational behavior, even if it is running the best Cthulhu cult.

If you’re evaluating games and trying to reflect on what you’re enjoy, remember what you played as a child and why you enjoyed it. Likely there’s a game out there that fits the psychological exploration your nascent mind was looking for.

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