Stone Age Review
Board games are not one to shy away from historical themes. The middle ages in particular have been the backdrop for a countless number of tabletop experiences. Stone Age by Bernd Brunnhofer and Rio Grande Games sets the time machine all the way back to a time when mankind was at its most primitive. It’s up to you and your fellow players to push our ancestors up the evolutionary track. Are you ready to venture back to the dawn of civilization?
The goal of the game is to score the most points, which is determined by the player who advances their civilization the farthest. Players advance their civilization by creating buildings, developing their knowledge in agriculture and collecting civilization cards, which account for things like shamans, tool makers, writing, music and medicine. You only have a finite amount of time to move your group of people forward, and other rival tribes will be competing for the same resources, so it’s going to take some strategizing on your part in order to get the most out of your people.
Placed in the middle of the table, the board is where most of the action takes place. All of the areas natural resources are located here, as well as access to tools, huts, the forest and other necessities. Each player gets a small board as well, which is used to track purchased huts and tools.
Key to this experience are the meeples that each player has at their disposal. During the first phase of a turn, players place their workers onto sections of the board that correspond to actions. This includes placing people in front of a resource to gather it, placing people in the forest to hunt for food, and placing two people in the hut to procreate for the good of the species among an assortment of other available actions. Of course, when we played, we made naughty jokes about what the two meeples were doing in that hut because why wouldn’t you?
The trick is that, with the exception of the forest for hunting, all of the possible actions are limited to the number of people that can claim them. Because of this, you’re going to have to think hard about the order in which you place your people. Odds are, you won’t be able to do everything you want to do in one cycle, so you’ll probably have to make some concessions here and there to make the most with the time you have.
In phase 2, each meeple resolves its actions before being taken back by their player. In the case of the two amorous meeples in the hut, they instantly create an extra person for you to use in future turns. Trading resources for buildings give you points. Civilization cards give you some sort of immediate bonus and bonus points at the end of the game. Working on the farm increases your agriculture rate.
Most interesting are the resources and food actions. When it’s time to resolve these actions, you’ll roll a number of dice equal to the number of people at that resource. So for instance, if I have two people designated on wood duty, I would roll two dice. This in turn would improve, but not guarantee, my odds of getting more wood on that particular turn. Having this variability is smart for a few reasons. One, it adds a level of excitement and randomness to a game that is otherwise very rigid. Also, it’s probably more historically accurate. Some days, you’ll have a great gathering resources, while others will be complete stinkers.
Each time you roll, you’re going to want big numbers, as they’ll ultimately net you more resources and food. Resources are important, as they allow you to build huts and purchase civilization cards. As part of the final phase of each turn, you must trade in food equal to the number of people in your group. If you can’t make the food quota, you’ll take a 10-point penalty. Once all of one stack of building cards are purchased, or once all of the civilization cards have been depleted, the game ends and whomever has the most points after the civilization card bonuses have been applied wins the game.
I started off kind of lukewarm on Stone Age, but gradually warmed up to it. In most cases, it does a fairly good job of making you feel like you’re growing your civilization. What I admire most about the game is how it added dice to the food and resource gathering process, which was a brilliant decision that makes thematic sense while spicing up the game. My main gripe, which is admittedly a relatively minor one, is that the building tiles and civilization cards don’t do enough to convey progress. All of the buildings look exactly the same, which doesn’t justify why I’m paying different resources for the same hut, and the lack of individual huts just makes them thematically trivial.
Also, the civilization cards use weird iconography to signify advances in music, writing and other human advancements that fall short of really conveying those points. I get that trying to explain the advancement of writing on a card while giving the player some sort of immediate benefit isn’t easy, but the way in which they’re pictured here doesn’t do enough to make me feel like I’ve done something positive in that area of humanity.
If you can overlook that thematic foible, you’ll probably really like Stone Age. Everything about is fairly well thought out, from the ways in which you can advance the human race to the varying results that a resource trip can yield. Had it gone the extra mile and closed that thematic loop for me, I would have considered picking this one up. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that it’s a minor gripe in the grand scheme of things and one that probably won’t phase most players. Try it out!