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STONE AGE

reviewed by Herb Levy

Hans im Glück/Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, 60-90 minutes; $44.95

   Early man faced myriad challenges in trying to carve out a sustainable life under trying conditions. This struggle serves as the theme for Stone Age, the latest offering from the pseudonymous Michael Tummelhofer, best known for Saint Petersburg (Summer 2004 GA REPORT).stoneagebox

Stone Age comes with a mounted game board, 4 individual player boards, tons of wood (used as resources and to represent the farmers of the tribe), tool and building tiles, Civilization cards, 7 six-sided dice and dice cup, and an eight page set of rules.

The game board shows the area players will scavenge in order to support their growing population including the hunting grounds (where food can be obtained), the forest (for wood), the clay pit (for brick), the quarry (the source for stone) and the river (panhandling for gold). There is also an area for a field, a hut and the tool maker as well as a food track. The building tiles are shuffled and separated in four approximately equal piles and placed in their reserved spaces on the board. In addition, the deck of Civilization cards is shuffled and four of them placed on the board.

All players start with a population of five farmers (represented by wooden “meeple” figures in their chosen color) with an additional five held in reserve and 12 food. Colored cubes are placed on the perimeter’s scoring track and on the bottom rung of the food track.

Each game round consists of three phases: placing farmers on the board, resolving the actions of the placed farmers and finally, feeding a player’s population.

Beginning with the start player, each player places as many meeples as he wants in ONE area of the board. Most areas have restricted access. For example, only ONE meeple may be placed in the field, tool maker or to claim any of the Civilization cards. Exactly TWO meeples must be placed on the hut. A maximum of 7 meeples can be placed in the wood, brick, stone and gold resource areas but there is no limit as to how many may be placed in the hunting grounds to raise food. Once all meeples have been placed, their actions are resolved.

Meeples placed in the tool area reward the player with a tool, added to that player’s board. Tools act as dice roll modifiers and begin as a +1 modifier. They can increase in value as the game progress to as much as a +4 modifier. Players can have as many as three tools at their disposal. A meeple in the field increases food production and moves that player’s cube up one space on the food track. A pair of meeples in the hut results in an additional meeple for that player as one of his meeples in reserve moves into play. Meeples placed on building tiles allow that player to buy that tile at the cost of the resources listed while Civilization cards may be bought at the cost of one, two, three or four resources. Getting resources follows a different pattern. stoneagepcs

For each resource (wood, brick, stone and gold) and for food, players may roll as many dice as they have meeples in the area. Dice are rolled, the total added and then the total DIVIDED by the factor of the particular resource: divided by two for food, three for wood, four for brick, five for stone and six for gold. Should you have tools, you may use each tool to modify the dice total rolled to increase your production. (For example, if trying to get brick and you roll a total of 15, you can use a +1 tool to make your total 16 which, when divided by four, gets you four bricks. ) With accumulated resources, you can buy claimed building tiles and Civilization cards.

Building tiles are pretty straightforward. Generally, they depict a bunch of resources (say, a wood and two brick). When claimed by a player (by placing his meeple on it), that player may turn in those resources for Victory Points.  Other building tiles are more flexible requiring four or more resources of one, two, three or four different types. In all cases, the amount of VPs on the tile are equal to the value of the resources and are awarded immediately. (Once a tile is cashed in, the next tile in the stack is turned over, open for claiming in the next round).

Civilization cards cost anywhere from one to four resources depending on their position on the card track. All cards have an upper and lower part. The upper part is the immediate effect; the lower part has endgame consequences. If a player claims a card, he must first pay the specified amount of resources (any resource is acceptable but, in this game, food is NOT considered a resource )which triggers its immediate effect.

Immediate effects include granting of food or various resources, a step up on the food production track, tools and Victory Points. There are also “items for dice” cards. The “items for dice” card is interesting as it rewards ALL players. A number of dice (equal to the number of players) is rolled. A one step food upgrade, a tool and the four resources correspond to the numbers six down to one. In turn, each player picks ONE of the rolled numbers and receives the corresponding reward. The player who claimed the card, of course, gets to keep the card. Unclaimed cards remaining in the display now shift  (going from the higher resource requirements to the lower requirements) and new cards drawn to fill the empty spaces.

At the end of each turn, the population must be fed. Each player must pay food equal to the number of meeples he has in play LESS his value on the food track. If unable to pay the food required, a player may opt to pay the difference in any of his resources at the rate of 1 to 1. However, INSTEAD of using resources, he may take an immediate 10 Victory Point loss.

Play continues until either one building tile stack is depleted OR the deck of Civilization cards runs out. And that’s where those Civilization cards flex their muscles. The bottom of each card depicts either a “culture symbol” or a multiplier. Culture symbols work in a similar fashion to the Aristocrats in Saint Petersburg – their value multiplies the more you have. Each different symbol is squared! So, one culture symbol is worth 1 point but five different symbols nets 25 VPs at game’s end. Other symbols act as multipliers for specific accomplishments such as the number of meeples you have or the value of your tools or the number of buildings or your position on the food track. Once these endgame bonuses are applied, the player with the highest Victory Point total wins.

Generally speaking, Stone Age tends to follow an almost “programmed” set of opening moves each turn. Usually, the first three plays of each round result in players claiming an additional food, reproducing and picking up a new tool before going in different directions. Stone Age also shares some of the characteristics of Pillars of the Earth (Summer 2007 GA REPORT), particularly in its use of claiming certain areas and resolving actions arising from the claims. But Stone Age works better because it eliminates some of the extraneous factors (the “stock market” aspect of Pillars, for example) making for a more streamlined and faster paced game. Although luck is a factor in both games (consider the luck factor of the blind drawing of pieces from the bag in Pillars), in Stone Age the luck of the considerable dice rolling can and is modified by the use of tools, making Stone Age more forgiving.

The game does keep you on your toes in managing resources wisely, juggling your supplies of needed resources for VPs while ensuring enough food to feed your population. One viable (albeit cynical) ploy is to let your population starve and suffer gladly the 10 VP hit in order to gather up more resources.  This approach differs sharply with the game’s intent and I would suggest increasing the penalty for such an action to a loss of 10 VPs per unfed farmer. Losing 20 or 30 points on a turn would sharply curtail the use of this non-humanitarian strategy. In your quest for points, you ignore (or gloss over lightly) the power of those Civilization cards at your peril. Because of their ability to multiply points, players mired in last place can rocket around the board to victory when those endgame bonuses are calculated.

Stone Age is the kind of game that grows on you. Balancing resource gathering with the logistics of keeping your tribe growing and fed keeps the game engaging. Despite the significant role of dice which can sometimes ruin a game, the dice rolling in Stone Age remains fun mainly because you never feel totally at the mercy of a bad dice roll and there are plenty of opportunities to turn adverse circumstances around. Stone Age benefits from a rock solid design that works well as both a family and gamers game. – – – – – – – Herb Levy


SUMMER 2008 GAMERS ALLIANCE REPORT

 

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