Friday, February 25, 2011

REVIEW: Stone Age (Rio Grande Games)

Rio Grande Games
2-4 players
ages 10+
60-90 minutes
Originally released: 2008
Designed by Michael Tummelhofer

The conversation went something like this:

ME: I got a new game and we're going to try it out tonight. It's called Stone Age.
FAMILY: Yippee! Sounds good! Battling cavemen! Wooly mammoths!
ME: Well, no, not really. Actually, it's what's called a worker placement game.
FAMILY: [blank stares]
ME: No, really, it's a great kind of game. You have little guys and they're, um, your workers, and you place them on the board and collect stuff, and then, well ... you place them again, but maybe in different locations on the board to get different kinds of stuff.
FAMILY: [uncomfortable glances at each other]
CHILD A: Placing workers is not fun. It's not even a game.
ME: Oh, yes! It's a very rich class of game! There's Agricola, and-
CHILD B: Can't we just play Dominion again?

Needless to say, we played Stone Age, much fun was had by all, and I learned a valuable lesson: never, ever use the phrase worker placement game among children or people who are not familiar with Eurogames. Seriously: kiss - of - death. Maybe call it something else, like a "Resource Acquisition Simulation".

In Brief
In Stone Age, players try to sustain and improve their tribe by gathering food and resources, adding new members, making tools, increasing their agricultural output, constructing buildings, and enhancing their civilization. This is done through a very simple mechanic that involves placing workers on certain spaces on the board and then resolving the actions for each of those spaces. Victory points are earned in several different ways, and the person with the highest number of victory points wins.

This is the usual sturdy, well-crafted product from Rio Grande. The board condenses an immense amount of information into a limited space without making it seem crowded. There are 40 wooden people and 68 wooden resources (brick, wood, gold, and stone), as well as tiles for huts, food, and tools. The art is good and does a lot to extend the theme.

There's a lot of dice rolling in this game, so something really needs to be said about the Stone Age dice cup, a "leather" cup which is designed to look primitive. It is, without question, the worst-smelling game component in history. There may have been that one time when Sid Sackson dropped a copy of Acquire in his septic tank, but ... no, the Stone Age dice cup is worse. It smells like someone left a skinned polecat in a car on a 100-degree day with the windows up.

Stone Age is a hard game to summarize. Although it's fairly easy once your grasp the essentials, there are a lot of choices and resolutions for each turn. I'm just going to run through the basics.

You begin the game with a tribe of 5 workers, a bit of food, and a player board representing your village. People take turns placing these workers in specific locations on the main board. Each location yields some different result during the resolution phase. Some spaces have limited slots for workers, so people may be competing for a choice job during any given round. The locations break down like this:

The notorious Stone Age dice cup
  • Hunting grounds (any number of workers): Gather food, which is used to feed your tribe during the feeding phase.
  • Four different resource areas (up to 7 workers each): Gather wood, brick, stone, or gold, which is used to buy civilization cards and buildings.
  • Tool maker (1 worker): Make 1 tool. Tools are used to increase the total value of your dice rolls.
  • Hut (exactly 2 workers from a singe tribe): Add 1 worker to your tribe,
  • Field (1 worker): Move your marker 1 space up on the food track. This automatically gives you 1 extra food each turn.
  • Building tiles (1 worker per building tile): You pay for a building tile with resources, and then immediately add a certain amount of points to your total score. The building tile is moved to your player board. You can only buy 5 buildings in the course of the game, so plan wisely.
  • Civilization cards (4 cards are laid out on the board, and you can place 1 worker per card): Once a card is paid for, it is taken by the player and replaced from the stock. These cards provide two kinds of bonus during the final scoring phase. Cards with culture symbols (writing, healing, pottery, art, and music) are worth 5 points for each unique card, while cards depicting different kinds of workers will add multipliers. For instance, if you have civilization cards depicting a total of 5 tool makers, and you have 4 tools, you earn 20 victory points at the end of the game. 

Food and resources are calculated by rolling dice, with 1 die rolled for each one of your workers placed on that resource. For instance, if you have 4 workers on the hunting grounds, you roll 4 dice. The total value of these rolls is then divided by various numbers to determine the total yield. (Food rolls are divided by 2, wood by 3, brick by 4, stone by 5, and gold by 6.) Thus, a roll of 24 on a food space would give you 12 food, while a roll of 24 on a gold space would give you 4 gold.

Each turn is played in rounds. First, everyone takes turns placing workers, then everyone resolves their workers' actions, then everyone feeds their tribe from the store of food. Food is measured simply: 1 food for each member of your tribe. If you don't have enough good, then your start paying out resources or even losing victory points.

The game ends when 1 stack of building tiles is exhausted, or when you cannot fully replenish the civilization card layout. People calculate their final score, and the winner is the person with the most victory points.

Food tokens
This is a great worker placement game. It's a bit easier than some, which makes it perfect for families, but there's still plenty of room for strategy and planning. There isn't a great deal of player interaction. Other players may take some spot you want, but other than that there is no trading or real competition, except for points.

There is a lot of dice rolling and simple math in the game, so if you fear the dice, you might want to give this one a pass.  (Seriously, though: don't fear the dice, people!)

Strategy comes from finding the right balance between sustaining and growing your tribe, and earning enough for the point-generating cards and tiles. It's very hard to judge who's winning at any given point, since cards can remain hidden until the final scoring phases. Someone lurking at a 100-point deficit can suddenly lap the track once they calculate all their multipliers.

This points up one weakness in the game: the score can go very high, but the track only goes up to 100 points. That means you will almost always lap the scoring track, sometimes more than once. There's no simple way to mark which pieces have lapped the track, unless you put a coin or chit under their markers. It's not a big issue, but it's something we had to account for.

The theme works well with the mechanics, but I imagine you could place this in any number of settings with few changes. It could just as easily be themed to Colonial America or Ancient China. The stone age setting adds some flavor, but it's not integral to the design.

The design, however, is quite strong, with everything coming together nicely. It's a colorful, entertaining take on worker placement.


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