Review: Stone age (Board Games)

Stone age: Member Review

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Reviewed by Taleweaver, posted Mar 6, 2018 previous boardgame reviews where light and simple. Time to dig more in the medium section of the hobby. Ladies and gentlemen...I give you...stone age!
Mar 6, 2018
  • Release Date (NA): March 6, 2018
  • Release Date (EU): March 6, 2018
  • Release Date (JP): March 6, 2018
  • Publisher: Rio Grande Games/Hans im Glück
  • Developer: Michael Tummerlhofer
  • Genres: Worker placement; engine building
  • ESRB Rating: Everyone 10 and up
  • PEGI Rating: Twelve years and older
Ever wondered how being a chieftain in the stone age would be like? Ever wanted to play age of empires on a board and without the fighting? Do you want to send out cavemen to build you huts and trade boats better than everyone else? If yes to any of these, stone age is for you. In fact, it might just be for you if your answer was 'no' to all of those.
Rule overview:

The broad overview is simple: send out workers, collect resources and use these for huts or boats, which'll get you points. The player with the most points win.

The how, what, when and who is best explained by means of the map. Look at it. Look at the little circles on specific parts of the map. Look at the locations they are at. You see them? Well...if you keep these in mind, the rest will become easier.

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Stone age, my friends, is a so-called worker placement game. And in itself, that sums up the intention of the game pretty well. You start with 5 small workers (in the hobby better known as "meeples"...or "peeps", if you're cool enough to have played rollercoaster tycoon), and you have to send them out in the field to do your bidding. Send them to the forest and they'll attempt to chop wood for you. Send them to the river they'll try to find gold. Send them to the love shack, and...erm...we'll get to that. In addition to this, you can send them to use earlier gathered resources to build stuff that will give you victory points. Your opponents will do the same, and might just occupy the spots you wanted to take.

A closer look at turns and cycles

Each turn, one of the players will be assigned the chieftain. The chieftain is the first one to put any number of their meeples onto any ONE of the available locations on the map. Then the player on this person's left places some meeples on one (different) location. After all the players have done this, the first player then choses one or more meeples to put in a second available location. This also continues until all the workers on the board.
Then the chieftain gets to pick an order in which these meeples perform their action, and consequently removes these guys from the board. Then the next person does the same, and so on.

Once all the meeples are on the board, the starting player gets to choose in which order his or her groups of meeples do their action (which removes them from the board again). Then the next player gets to do this, and so on. Once all the meeples are off the board again, everyone has to feed their meeples (see three paragraphs down). Then the chieftain token gets passed to the player's left and the cycle starts all over. This cycle goes on until huts and/or boats can no longer be replenished.

The 2.5 ways to score points

Surrounding the board is the score sheet. At the start of the game, everyone gets a cube on the zero spot. Whenever someone scores points, their cube moves up, indicating the score. Scoring happens in two ways:

-building a hut. You can send out a meeple to build you a hut from the stack. These things cost a number of resources and give you a bunch of victory points. Meaning: this is pretty straightforward. As a rule of thumb, the huts made of hard to come by resources also net you the most points.
-boat trading building? It's a board game, so you'll have to use your fantasy a bit). At the start of each round, cards are added/replenished containing boats. For each card you want, you'll have to send out a meeple and pay an amount of resources (between one and four). For this, the card will give some kind of immediate reward (food, resources, points, ...) as well as points at the end of the game. These points are never directly points, but points per achievement ("e.g.: two points per meeple you have at the end of the game).

Cards and huts are the only way to gain points. There is, however, also a way to lose points. I've already mentioned having to feed your clan. Should you forget or underestimate this task, you'll lose ten points as well as all food you might have. And for the sadists among us: you CAN go below zero points, so don't get any funny ideas. ;)

Resource gathering

Time to look at the board again. The boats and huts on the low end are explained...but what's with all that junk on the board? Well...let's take a look at the resources of this game:

* food: one of the most popular activities in the stone age was hunting, and it shows. Unlike all other positions, there is no limit to how many people can hunt (the resources listed below have 7 spots at most). I'll get to the values in a second, but remember: food is worth 2. It can only be used to feed your guys, so don't try to build huts or boats with it.
* wood: send your guys to the forest, and they'll attempt to chop wood. Provided the seven spots aren't taken. Wood is worth 3.
* clay: similar to wood. Clay is worth 4.
* Stone/granite: in the upper right corner. Worth is 5.
* Gold can be mined in the river. It's worth 6.

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The values of these resources indicate the worth for huts with variable costs, but it has an even more important function: a "how hard is it to get this?" factor. You see, when you send out your meeples to kill some animals or chop wood, you don't just get one meat or wood from the bank. Instead, you roll a dice for each meeple in an area. Then you make the sum of the dice, divide it by the value, round down...and that's the amount of this resource you'll get.

This might sound like some complex mathematical nightmare, but it's really not that hard. Say you send out three guys to get stone (value: 5). You roll three dice and get 2, 5 and 6. Combined, their score is 13. Divide this by five (and round down), and you'll have 2. And two is how much stone these three little pig...meeples get to take home to build their house. Should it be 4, 5 and 6, they would have been able to drag three stones home. If that sounds appealing, then skip ahead a couple paragraphs. For now, just get used to these sorts of calculations, as estimations play a large part in stone age. Say you want to build a house of straw wood and two many of your workers should you assign to each task get these resources AND build the hut? There is no single answer to this, as you'll send out your guys before you know how much they'll harvest. They might get lucky and get more than you wanted, but it can just as well be that your builder just stands around being useless for the round (you can't build a hut if you don't have all the materials).

The town square options

Okay...most of the positions on the board have been explained by now. Only three remain. I'm saving these for last because they're the most fun ones.

* repopulate: if you send two meeples to this hut, you'll get three of them back at the end of the turn. Yeah...I hope I don't have to explain how that one works. :P It's not only a simple and easy mechanic, but a downright hilarious one as well. Stone age is probably the only board game (a fun-for-all family board game, mind you) where you can order your people to fuck and create offspring. And send the resulting babies to work the very next day. I dare you to play a game of stone age without anyone making fun of this, but that doesn't make it a bad mechanic. Rather the inverse: it makes perfect sense from the gameplay-perspective. More tribesmen is always good, but sending two meeples to the love shack means that they're not doing anything else.

* creating tools: getting resources always involves a bit of luck with the dice. The tools (axes), however, let you increase the rolled result. Let's say you send three guys out for gold and they roll 1, 6 and 4. The eleven will be just one short of getting two gold home. If you have an ax, you can turn it sideways (to show the other players you've used it for this cycle) and it counts as a twelve (or '2 gold').
These tools are also one of the main reasons you should think about the order you let your workers do their stuff. Getting tools first is always the best idea, but deciding which resource gatherers you help can be a tough decision.

* farming: the easiest task on the board. Remember what I told you earlier that you should feed your meeples at the end of each cycle? That food doesn't just come from hunting. You start out with zero fields (the meter on the lower left), but that adds up each time you let someone build a grain field. And each field counts as food for the remainder of the game. Meaning: if your tribe consists of 7 meeples and you have 2 fields, you only need to discard 5 food tokens per round. Or in other words: the more you send your meeples to build farms, the less hunters you'll need to survive.

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An important remark: if you're playing the game with 2 or 3 players (instead of 4), only two of these town square spots may be taken. There's something similar for the resource gathering, but these don't impact the game as much (the first few games, me and my girlfriend always put meeples here and scores ended about 100 points higher because of it :P ).

Overall thoughts

As this isn't a new game, I wouldn't review it unless I thought it was great. And it is: it's clear that the designers started out with a very thematic idea (advance your tribe) and fleshed that out with mechanics really well. I won't deny it: the game has a lot of components: dice, cards, different carbon thingies, personal scoreboards, meeples, cubes, a meter and a plethora of different resources. On the surface, it looks like there's a lot to keep track of. However, once you play a couple rounds, or even see a couple rounds play out, then it all quickly clicks. Perhaps worth mentioning is that nothing in the game uses text (aside the manual, obviously). There are a couple cards that you might need to consult the manual about, but it says something on how intuitive things really are.
As I said before: you basically send out your pawns to get stuff, which you'll use on other stuff to get points. The game also has a good estimation of worth: huts made of clay components are worth less than stone components. Why? Because you'll need to roll a higher number to get stone than clay. It's these sorts of interconnections that make this game fun. You want your clan to grow because then you can get more stuff, but this growth means that you need more food. And because food in itself doesn't get you points, it's good to invest in farms that slowly diminish the amount of hunters you'll need in the long run. Huts usually net you more points, but boats can let you trade resources and require more strategic choices for the rest of the game to gather more points (if you collect boats that'll give you points for meeples at the end of the game, you'll better start repopulating).

As for disadvantages...okay, I admit: setting up the game and putting it away takes longer than the average game, as there's so much stuff to put on (or off) the board. It's not much of a disadvantage (it's kinda similar to loading times in video games), but it is there. And while the theme is pretty great, the gameplay might not be for everyone. This isn't the sort of game that has a lot of direct interaction with your fellow gamers. You can't steal their resources, corrupt their meeples or sabotage tools. This is a feature of board games described as "engine building": the joy is more in the synergy you'll get by the ways what you have works together. For example: if I upgrade my fields, I can allocate less hunters to provide for food, get them to harvest more resources I can then use to get a boat which will net me more endgame points for having more fields. See what I mean? You basically go from rags to riches during the game.
There are enough different strategies so everyone can follow their own plan. The "sabotaging" of your enemies is done more in a subtle way. To give an example: some of the boats give your tribe endgame superior technology, like a wheel, writing or weaving. These give an exponential higher score the more different ones you collect. In one game, I initially dismissed this, as I wanted to build a golden hut. However, as my girlfriend (and only opponent) started grabbing these, I had to "stop" her by grabbing a few of my own. This didn't net me much points, but would've gotten her a ridiculous amount if I hadn't beaten her to it.


Like my previous board game reviews, I'd put this one up as a "this is one to try". There are certainly others (lords of waterdeep, puerto rico and san juan are also very decent ones), but right now this is my favorite one. There is an app of it, but it's only for an older iOS version (awwww :( ). But even with the components (and perhaps book keeping) part taken care of, I like the actual board game more. That's mostly due to the beautiful art in every nook and cranny of the game. But granted: it's the hilarity that ensues when announcing things ("I have two two of my people don't need to eat", " workers can't find gold in the river...better equip them with axes to improve their chances" or "And because this guy collected stone all by himself last turn, I'll send him to the love shack this turn. :P "). A computer just doesn't budge when you announce things like that or "accidentally" prevent him to get a resource he needs for his wannabe-hut.
+ There's a love shack in it
+ Beautiful theme
+ Interesting concept
+ ...did I mention there's this hut you can send meeples to, to do...? Okay.
- Takes some time to set up or break down
9 Presentation
Beautiful art, good components and all very functional. It's strange, but I often feel more immersion than in even the most realistic video game (note: this can be due to the gameplay as well)
9 Gameplay
It's hard to see this separate from the visuals/theme. I would've been a good game without the pictures, but the hilarity just adds to the gameplay. Which I want to say is balanced, but I've gotta be honest: I haven't played enough to know for sure. There aren't clear over- or underpowered ways, though.
8 Lasting Appeal
This one's hard to judge as I've only played it about 4 times (and only with 2 players). Definitely will be playing it more, but can't say how I'll feel after, say, two dozen games. :P
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
A fantastic game that, should you come across it, you really should consider.