17th Aug2018

‘Stone Age’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

stone-age-box

Whilst games based on what is called “worker placement” are fairly common, “worker retrieval” games are much harder to come by. The subject of this review; Stone Age, dates back to 2008 and is probably the earliest example of a worker retrieval game that I can find. Essentially this is a game in which players all contribute to a tribal society by deploying workers – nothing unusual there. The twist in Stone Age is that the rewards for deploying workers are not gathered until everyone collects them at the end of the round.

As is often the case in board games of all kinds, points make prizes and the winner is the player who happens to get the most done. A victory point track runs around the edge of the board and tracks short term goals such as obtaining civilization cards and building huts, but there are also a number of end game scoring conditions that have a significant bearing on who wins. They include bonuses for the player that collects the most civilization cards of a set type (such as art) among other things. Failing to meet the basic food need of your growing tribe will also result in a penalty to your score.

The first thing you’ll notice about Stone Age is it’s big (probably too big) box that is filled with very attractive things. The board itself is large and shows a painted Paleolithic community from above. People mill around the central village, whilst hunters and animals roam in the surrounding forest and grassland. The detail is exquisite and whilst I often appreciate more abstract interpretations in board games, the realistic art style that Stone Age uses really works well. In addition to the beautiful board, cards and tokens, Stone Age also features some exceptional wooden pieces. All four tribes are represented by ten unkempt looking cave-meeples, whilst wood, clay, gold and stone all use appropriately coloured and cut wooden pieces.

There is also a somewhat unnecessary dice shaker which used to be made out of leather in older versions, but I couldn’t verify if it still is, or whether a man-made substitute is now used. Dice are also included, as well as a few other bits and pieces such as food tokens, tools and so on. The instruction manual in Stone Age is among the clearest and most brief that I’ve ever seen for a game of this kind, weighing in at about six pages of setup and actual rules. There is a supplemental rules sheet to explain the civilization cards and I have to admit, they introduce perhaps more complexity in their own right than everything else combined.

I’ve already mentioned that Stone Age is very straightforward, but it can’t be overstated. Setup takes maybe five minutes (assuming you’ve bagged and sorted reasonably well after your last play) and the rules are as simple as taking it in turns to place a cave-meeple. Many areas on the board will accept only a limited number of workers, such as “the hut” which can accept exactly two, or the field, which takes only one. In these examples, player order really matters, since only one tribe each turn can increase their population (at the hut) or their agriculture (on the field) each round. Many other actions (such as collecting gold, wood, stone or clay) can accept a number of workers from any number of players, although in most cases there is still an upper limit.

This is important because of how actions play out when the retrieval of workers happens. Several actions are automatic passes – increasing agriculture or retrieving an additional cave-meeple, for example, but the others include an element of chance. When retrieving workers from any of the resource gathering spaces, the player will roll a dice for each worker sent and then add up their total. They will then divide the number rolled by the value of the resource – two for wood, three for clay, four for stone and five for gold. If a player rolls fifteen and is collecting gold, for example, they’ll receive three gold pieces for their trouble.

Thematically, this represents the collective effort that our ancestors relied on in order to survive, whilst mechanically in terms of gameplay, it can border on being frustrating and random. Players are able to purchase and upgrade tools to further enhance their ability to harvest resources efficiently, but it’s never an exact science. Random outcomes in board games were much more acceptable in 2008, but have since fallen out of favour. I can see why, but because Stone Age is very straightforward and quick, it never really feels like the random features are too punishing because the game overall just doesn’t feel ultra competitive.

There is practically no interaction between the players except for freezing each other out of spaces and competing directly for the same buildings and civilisation cards, which (alongside the obvious educational connotations) makes Stone Age an excellent family game. I think if the game were redesigned for today’s market, then a sensible feature might have been to link the players together in a shared objective (such as a collective need for food) because the game very clearly takes place in or around the same community. Even without that, I felt that Stone Age presented itself as a game in which players are simply competing to be the best, rather than to impoverish or diminish the others.

As a father looking to educate and entertain his children through games, Stone Age is a very attractive proposition to me. Whilst it doesn’t go deep into any subject and there is little or no flavour text to read from, it certainly creates a framework around which a conversation can be had and questions will be asked. When played between adults, it’s still an entirely viable prospect when played as a gateway game – nothing about it is tough to pick up and most decisions can be made in the moment, with perhaps consideration for the next two or three turns only.

Judging by its attractive table presence and overall high build quality, its speed of setup and ease of learning and teaching, Stone Age is an attractive proposition as an entry level worker placement or worker retrieval (since both are mechanically identical) game. It plays well at anything from two to four players with a few tweaks applied to the placement slots at lower counts and it is ideal for a range of ages – be that your school age child (I’d say about ten onward) or her mid-sixties grandparents. It’s also a fairly universal and non offensive subject matter that I think most people could relate to in some way, so it should never be too hard to find a player for. A very solid effort, despite its age.

***½  3.5/5

Stone Age is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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