Dice are most of the time anathema to Euro gamers. The numbered cubes are seen as the center of luck-driven games. Almost all of us have a tale to tell of knocking on the door of Irkutsk with a giant army only to be fended off by a few lucky rolls.
So it’s with fear and trepidation that I approach a Euro game that integrates a heavy dice element. Such, for example, was how I approached Stone Age. Was my fear merited? Check out my review below!
How It Works
Stone Age is a worker-placement game for two to four players. It usually plays between 60 and 120 minutes (depending on the number and experience of the players). The goal of the game is to score the most civilization points. Players score points by constructing huts and gaining valuable cards.
At the start of the game, each player receives a player board, five cavemen of the player’s color, and ten food. A small cube of the player color begins at the bottom of the farming track, and a large cube begins on the 0 space of the score track.
The game is played over several rounds, and a round consists of three phases: 1) commit workers, 2) perform actions, 3) feed tribe.
In the first phase, beginning with the start player, players place their available cavemen on empty spaces around the board. There are empty spaces in resource areas, special areas (the farm, the “love shack,” and the tool shed), hut tiles, and cards. A player may place as many cavemen as desired in one area (but never more than that area can hold), then the next player does so, and so on around the table until each player has placed all of his cavemen on the board.
Then, beginning with the start player, players resolve their actions in any order they choose. For each caveman in a resource-gathering area, the player will roll one die for that resource. After all dice have been rolled, the sum is divided by the resource number, and the quotient (rounded down) is the number of that resource gathered. Food is the commonest resource, so when hunting, the sum is divided by two. Wood rolls are divided by three, brick by four, stone by five, and gold by six (representing the scarcity of the resource). (For example, a player with three cavemen in the forest rolls three dice for wood. That player rolls a 5, 4, 2, giving a sum of 11. The player divides by 3–the resource number for wood–and gets three wood.)
Players also resolve their cavemen’s actions on special spaces of the board. The farm allows the player to move up one space on the food track (which provides free food every turn for feeding your tribe, lessening the need to hunt). Placing two cavemen on the “love shack” produces another caveman worker (…). A caveman placed on the tool shed gains the next level of tool, which can be used to mitigate bad dice rolls.
Players resolve any hut tiles their cavemen occupy by paying the bank the indicated resources and gaining the corresponding number of civilization points. Players also resolve cards by paying one through four of any resources and collecting the card. Each card provides an immediate benefit (something like resources, tools, or food) and an endgame scoring benefit–either by set collection (the grassy backgrounds) or by special scoring conditions (sandy background).
The game ends whenever any hut pile is empty or there are no cards to refill the card market on the board. Players add civilization points to their score based on the cards they’ve collected, and the player with the most points wins.
After my first game of Stone Age, I described it–derisively–as “Agricola Lite,” Agricola with the tension removed. Today, I still describe it that way, only I no longer consider that aspect a negative.
First off, Stone Age is one of the most beautiful games I’ve played. The artwork is a little drab, but fits the theme well and I’ve grown to like it quite a bit. Stone Age’s real beauty is found in the components. The game’s dice are wood with engraved pips. The game comes with a completely superfluous (but utterly awesome) leather dice cup. The resources look like the things they’re supposed to represent. The cavemen meeples have a somewhat hard-to-discern shape, but they still look cool. The cards for the game are on some of the best linen stock I’ve seen. And I love the start player token, which in my household we affectionately call “the man in the chair.” (And the start player is heralded as such as well. “You’re the man in the chair this round!”) Seriously, this game feels like a game that means something, and it almost always takes new players by surprise.
What I like about Stone Age is how easy it is to teach and play. Granted, it is often hard for newcomers to grasp how points are scored (despite my many reminders to buy cards and buildings), but gameplay itself is easy to figure out. One worker = one die rolled for a resource. More workers means a greater chance of getting the resource you need. If you farm early, you may not have to hunt as much during the game. Not only do these concepts make good game sense, the game’s theme reinforces them in players’ minds. (“Well, of course sending more workers means I have a better chance of gathering more resources!”)
I also like that it is a more forgiving game than other worker placement style games, namely Agricola. Agricola feels tense because there is absolutely no way to do everything you want to do. The harvest rounds when you must feed your families loom and weigh heavily on players. In Stone Age, yes, you must feed your tribe (and that every turn!), but food is easy to come by, and even if you don’t have enough, your tribe can feed on bricks and sticks if they have to. (It’s always sad to see such meager meals on your tribe’s table, but such is the cost of progress.)
Even though Stone Age is forgiving, it is not conflict-free. The resource spaces are a subtle way to control the board away from your opponents; the buildings, cards, and special areas are more direct (as only one caveman can occupy each spot). Though players’ internal tension is largely diminished by a wealth of opportunities, players’ external tension is still present.
This tension also scales dependent on the number of players, keeping options somewhat restricted. The two-player game retains much of the tension of the four-player game. The game scales well in general. This is one of my favorite two-player games because it moves much faster than the three- and four-player game and still offers fun, exciting gameplay. I think the sweet spot for the game is three players (since the set collection with two players is a little lame), though really, it’s fun with any number of players.
There are some drawbacks to Stone Age. First, for such a simple game, the game tends to drag a bit with more players (especially players who are new). I think the ideal length for Stone Age is around one hour, but usually newbie games can take upwards of two hours. There are lots of ways to mitigate poor dice rolls, but you’re still rolling dice. Whiny players will still be able to blame Lady Luck. Also, Stone Age isn’t a super deep game. It gives players a sense of accomplishment as they play, but it’s fairly straightforward. That being said, the game is much more fun if players intentionally try to get in one another’s way.
Stone Age isn’t my favorite game, but it’s one I’m almost always willing to play (as it’s on the meatier side of gateway), and everyone I’ve introduced it to has loved it. They (and I) love the tactile nature of the game. It’s fun to roll dice, it’s fun to hold nice components, it’s fun to call the start player “the man in the chair,” it’s fun to make “love shack” jokes (though it may spark a premature conversation with younger players that parents might want to avoid…). All told, Stone Age is one of the games in my collection that sees the most play–even my wife, who doesn’t often like longer games, will play and even suggest Stone Age. If you’re looking for a good worker-placement game that’s easy for newcomers to play while still fun for the more advanced players, Stone Age is the game for you.
Want another opinion? Check out @BGJosh’s Stone Age review.