Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Stone Age

The Game

I have never had much urge to try Stone Age, despite it being one of the more popular games released in the past few years. It's a medium complexity worker placement game, and I have played quite many worker placement games. Another one of higher complexity may interest me, but not one of medium complexity. When I visited Hong Kong, my friend Ben had this game (which he had not played and had not read the rules for), so I decided this was a good game to introduce him to worker placement games.

In Stone Age, everyone starts with a tribe of 5 people and some food. In every round there are three phases - placing your people, executing their actions, and feeding them. In placing people, the players take turns to choose one location on the board to place his people. The number of people placed can vary. They do this until everyone runs out of idle people. Then the players execute the actions of their people according to where they have been placed, and finally the people need to be fed, 1 food per person.

On the board there are spaces to collect food and various resources. Depending on how many people you have placed, you roll a certain number of dice, and then divide the result by a certain factor. E.g. if you are trying to collect wood, divide by 3. If gold, divide by 6. You always round down. So it is much harder to collect gold than wood. Other than collecting stuff, you can also:

  • Have a baby - Place two workers at the love shack and gain a new worker from the next round onwards. You can have at most 10 workers.
  • Build a farm - Every farm that you own reduces the need for hunted food by one during the feeding phase. Max 10 farms.
  • Gain a tool - Tools help to boost the results of your die rolls, helping you to collect more resources (or food).
  • Claim a hut - Huts are how you score points during the game (as opposed to scoring at game end). Each hut specifies the combination of resources required to claim it, and also the victory points awarded. Some huts need specific resources, e.g. 1 wood, 1 brick, 1 stone. Some huts have looser requirements, e.g. 5 resources of any 2 types, or up to 7 resources of any type. The victory points rewarded correspond to the value of the resources, i.e. wood 3pts, brick 4pts, stone 5pts, gold 6pts. There are 4 stacks of huts and the top hut is available until claimed by a player.
  • Claim a card - You need to pay resources for cards. There are always four cards available every round, just like the huts. Cards have many variations. Generally they give a one-time bonus and also give bonus scores at game end. The one time bonuses can be food, resources, tools, farms etc. The end game bonus scores can be for the number of farms you have, number of workers, number of huts, number of different special civilisation icons.

The gameboard, from the east angle. The top half of the board are the locations for resources - hunting ground for food (the round chips), forest for wood, clay pit for bricks, quarry for stone (they look blue but they are actually grey) and river for gold. At the centre and left of the board are the farming spot (occupied by a blue worker), the baby-making spot (occupied by 2 blue lovers), and the toolmaker spot (occupied by a red worker). At the bottom are the spots for huts and cards. On the left, just inside of the score track, is the farm level track. Green has progressed to Level 1, but the rest are still at zero.

So in summary, babies and tools help you gain more resources, farms help reduce the "maintenance cost" of your tribe, and huts and cards are how you score points. The cards reward you for being strong in specific aspects. E.g. cards with builders score points based on number of builders multiplied by the number of huts you have. So if you have many builders and many huts, you will score a lot. Cards with civilisation symbols score based on the number of different civilisation icons squared. So the more you have the better. You are rewarded for specialisation. During the game you can easily see what your opponents want, and you need to decide between helping yourself and denying them.

The player board. You keep your people and resources here. On the left are 3 spots for you to keep your tools. At the bottom are spots for your huts. They are not a hard limit. You can stack your huts if you get more than five. At the centre the value of the resources are listed. The table on the right is a reference for end-game scoring.

The game ends when either one of the stacks of huts runs out, or the card deck runs out. So the players have some control over it. If you want to game to end sooner, try to claim more cards or claim the last few huts from the smallest stack.

The Play

In the two games that I played with Chung, Ben and Moh Yen, the hottest spots were usually the farm spot, the baby spot (love shack) and the tool spot, roughly in that order. These are the things that improve your infrastructure. Sometimes the card spots were competed fiercely, when the right cards came up. The game could be played quite quickly, because many actions could be taken simultaneously by the players, without strictly following the procedure as described in the rules.

Red and blue in a gold rush.

In the first game that we played I won by a big margin, because it was the first time for everyone else in playing worker placement games. I had a lot of civilisation icons which gave me a lot of points. Also during the game there were a few times when I made use of the "up to 7 resources" huts to sell a lot of gold bars, and noone stopped me. In the second game the scores were closer. Chung focused on a hut + builder strategy and gained 72pts for that. He also had a high in-game score, i.e. he sold a lot of resources during the game. Ben did well in two end-game scoring categories, but his in-game scoring was poor. I took quite many cards and did moderately well in four end-game scoring categories. By quantity, as opposed to quality, I managed to overtake Chung to win the game.

The Thoughts

I liked Stone Age more than I had expected to. The game is smooth and easy to teach. It is a very good game to introduce non-gamers or casual gamers to worker placement games, or even the modern Eurogames or the boardgame hobby as a whole. There is strategy and competition, so this is by no means a too simple game for veteran gamers. The worker placement mechanism creates a lot of competition among the players. You need to watch what your opponents want. The dice can spoil your plan sometimes, but you roll dice so much that luck evens out somewhat. Also you do have the tools to help mitigate the risk of bad die rolls.

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