Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Tuesday 4 February 2020

The Game Shelf Reviews:- Cairn

Game: Cairn

Publisher: Matagot

Designer:  Christian Martinez

Year: 2019

Cairn is an abstract two player game that tries hard to have a theme. One player represents the sea shamen, whilst the other represents forest shamen. Your goal is to enchant the land by building megaliths. Perhaps the theme isn't there, but it tries hard with cute miniatures and art.

We don't play abstract 2-player games because we have a big mis-match in skill level. Amy is good at them, and I am not. But, we always like to give games a chance. In 2019, by favourite game was an abstract 2-player game (Moon Base), so perhaps there are a few special games out there that have a something that makes them different, gives me a chance to be competitive and the novelty of finding a game like this really makes them stand out. On the face of it, Cairn seems like the chess-like game I won't enjoy, but I've definitely been proven wrong.


In Cairn, each player has 5 shaman miniatures in their colour, but only three start on the board. There are three-double sided action tiles and on your turn, you pick and use one of the face up actions. The first tile is movement, either orthogonal or diagonal. The second is a jump - either over one of your own pieces or your opponents. The third is deploying another shaman in either the black or white zone. If you finish your turn and you've completed the pattern on the transformation tile, you eliminate an opponent's piece.

At the start of the game, two megaliths start on the board. When you land on a megalith tile, you perform the action of that tile as a bonus. There are 14 megalith tiles in the game and they have a huge variety of bonus actions - such as eliminating or adding shaman, getting a bonus movement, teleporting etc. Every tile that you achieve the transformation you add a megalith to the board, as well as if you ever get a shaman to the other side of the board and out through your opponent's village. As soon as you've added three megaliths to the board then you win.

Amy’s Final Thoughts

Cairn stands in a fairly unique place in the abstract genre. While each game includes the same basic movement and capturing tiles the introduction of the megaliths makes every game have some new manipulation available. Some games you may be able to teleport across the map, while others you can eliminate opponents pieces with ease (though with no reward). The two ways to earn points gain weight due to them spawning megaliths. Escaping off your opponents side is all well and good, but it puts a potentially useful power right on their doorstep. Destroying an enemies piece will likely result in the megalith being in the central area which puts it in a highly competitive area. The simple inclusion of up to 6 of these spaces as the game progresses not only means each game is unique, but that the way the game evolves is different each time you play.

I'm sure in a moment Fiona is going to gloat about Cairn being an abstract game in which she can actually beat me. This perhaps speaks to the game's credit as it maintains the base gameplay of a combative abstract, while introducing enough variability and ability to influence your opponent's options to keep things fresh. Or perhaps it's because we played this game while I was suffering from a tremendous cold and swimming in a drug haze. Either way, being an abstract game where the winner isn't a sure fire thing when we sit down makes Cairn stand out from the crowd. Even its nearest competitor, Onitama, is a touch more predictable. The movement options in Cairn are always surprising. When trying to think far ahead you have to consider not only what your opponent can do in their turn, but how that limits your action next turn. If they choose to jump a piece when you were expecting them to walk straight, your plan to move diagonally will fail as the diagonal movement tile won't be available!

The absolute joy of games like Cairn is their bite-sized gameplay. Perfect either as a filler or warm-up game while a group is assembling, or as a longer experience playing best of 3 or 5. The quick, but thoughtful gameplay has you desperate to play more. There are pleasing touches even in the sculpts. While all of the miniatures on one side are obviously made from the same base model, they all have a unique twist to them. This helps reinforce not only which team is which in shape as well as colour, but also that while all your units are the same in movement terms, they are all actually unique characters. Overall Cairn is a fantastic abstract game. The gameplay is simple to teach but difficult to master, it's thinky, yet brutal when you make a mistake. While this can mean the game feels one sided, I assure you that two-nil comebacks are very possible. I strongly recommend giving Cairn a try!

Fi’s Final Thoughts

Cairn is that elusive kind of game for me - a two-player abstract where I can be competitive and don't want to flip the table. The problem is, I'm not sure why. On face value, cairn has quite a bit in common with Onitama - another two-player chess-like abstract game that I really suck at! Much like Onitama, your available moves change each turn, but in Cairn the thing you're trying to achieve might also change throughout the game. I think there's two distinctions in Cairn. Firstly it does have more complexity and so it's harder to trace the long term repercussions of every move - since I play a more tactical game and Amy plays more strategic, it plays to my strengths that the game feels more tactical. Secondly, there's no elimination of pieces in Cairn. You might be on the back-foot when your pieces are removed from the board, but you can always put them back. In addition the point scoring move of getting one of your pieces out through the other side of the board levels the number of pieces each players has - more pieces in play often gives you a better chance of pulling off a move.

I'm genuinely really impressed with the mechanics in Cairn. I love how your options change every turn. You've really got to visualise how your opponent will have different opportunities to move once you've chosen your move for the turn. It can be pretty hard to push yourself to think of all of the eventualities, even on the small 5x5 grid and it's possible you'll make a mistake as a result. If you do make a mistake, you're probably going to lose in this game that is a case of first to three points wins. Somehow I still find it interesting to realise that I've been caught - it's amazing that you can spend most of the game thinking it's simply impossible to get into a winning position and suddenly, you just have to be impressed when your opponent lays up something that is really quite complex in the way it traps you.

I'm a little worried that over time and with familiarity, Amy will start to be able to play a more strategic game and wipe the floor with me, but right now Cairn is a pretty level playing field. Each game is really quick and we often have the urge to play again right away. My positivity about the game is definitely influenced by my level of surprise that I enjoy it, but sometimes it pays to be open minded. Cairn is a great 2-player abstract game to add to the shelf.

You Might Like...
  • The game is different every time depending on the megaliths that are brought into play.
  • Cairn is mentally challenging and such a fun exercise for your brain.
  • The production quality definitely doesn't hurt in making Cairn stand out.
You Might Not Like...
  • It's so easy to make a simple mistake and if you do, it may as well be game over.
  • Cairn is very quick to get to the table for seasoned gamers, but it might be a lot to keep track of for brand new gamers.

The Verdict
8/10 What a surprise Cairn has been! This is an abstract game that somehow levels the playing field for the two of us and creates a super quick and fun experience. it's a real mental exercise to try and lay up the opportunities, and plan for the ever changing pool of actions and transformations. There's even more depth to find in Cairn once we get better at planning and seeing opportunities on the board and that's exciting too.

Cairn was a review copy kindly provided to us by Matagot Games.

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