The Caverna effect, or avoiding inflation in games

In D&D, specifically the 3rd edition I grew up on, there’s this sort of a treadmill of numbers: at level 1, your sword deals 5 damage to an 11hp Orc; at level 8, your +2 holy battleaxe deals 50 damage to an 110hp Fire Giant; at level 12, your +4 flaming magicbane greatsword deals 100 damage to an 220hp Purple Worm. The numbers get bigger, but they increase at the same pace, so it never feels like you’re making progress. Color swap the enemies and get on to the next dungeon. If all you saw was a health bar rather than the pure numbers, you couldn’t tell the difference. I guess at least you’re rolling more dice?

The same thing happens in many Euro games. A game where you do the same thing on turn 2 as you do on turn 18 gets boring quickly, so many designers use inflation to solve that problem: early on, an action nets me 2 wood, and building the inn costs 5 wood to get 8 points. Afterwards, by the time I get my engine going, I can get 6 wood as an action, but by then, there are no inns to build, only Castles, which cost 15 wood and give me 24 points. Same ol’ number treadmill as D&D. Inflation makes it feel like you’re doing more, but its a very thin illusion that doesn’t take very long to peel off.

Then, Caverna happened. I liked Caverna a whole lot, despite disliking Agricola. One of the big parts of it was how each action just gave you more stuff. Not “double every number”, but just more variety. You were sitting there, thinking “I need wood, let’s go here to get the 4 wood I’m missing… and a pig? Alright, sure.” Then, next turn, you’d have to choose: “do I try to do something with this pig, or use that wood I’ve accumulated?”

Pic by BGG user Chacki

If you’re working on a game with an engine building aspect to it, I’d strongly urge you to look into this. Giving your players more varied yields to their actions is a lot more interesting than just giving them a lot more of the same stuff. It opens up your options. It gives players ways to feel clever. It opens up your design room: Now you can have more than one actions which give you wood, each with their own kicker!

And just to be clear, this isn’t just true of worker placement games. To go back to D&D, one of the main switch after 3rd edition was to go from a magical sword that gave you +3 to your attacks, to one that allowed you to push your enemies around, or which could turn to fire, or allowed you to teleport, or heal your allies. It’s the difference between Pandemic’s “5 action” Generalist, and every other role with a special ability.

You might think “this is the exact same thing as your post about straight-up VPs“, and you’d be right. Wow, you saw right through my ruse. I think it is applying the same logic to a different problem. There’s a lot more stuff you could apply this to!

I think building those power curves is a necessary part of designing most games, but too often designers default to the boring answer that is inflation. Open your horizons, and your players’ options!