03rd Apr2019

‘Stone Age: Anniversary Edition’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

stone-age-anni-box

Regular readers would be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja-vu at opening our latest board game review, which, today, is the recently release Stone Age: Anniversary Edition. I say that not simply because Stone Age was first released over ten years ago, but also because we actually reviewed the base game last year, just over six months ago. At the time, I was unaware than an Anniversary Edition was incoming, but having played the two so closely together, I am at least well equipped to make a direct comparison between the two.

For those who are unaware of what Stone Age is all about (as if the title wasn’t a dead giveaway,) it is a worker placement and retrieval game that is set during the earliest days of what we see as the modern human race. The players compete to score points by collecting resources and trading them up for civilisation cards (representing cultural and technological advancements) and buildings, representing the progress of their tribe. At the end of the game, there are also a number of additional benefits handed out, allowing players to focus in on one or two objectives to steal a win at the last moment.

As I mentioned in my original review, Stone Age has always been an exceptional looking game. In broad terms, production quality in games was nowhere near as high in 2008 as it is now, so I imagine the first print run of Stone Age will have turned heads with its leatherette dice rolling cup, its sculpted meeples and resources and its beautiful artwork. Now, ten years later, those things are much more commonplace, but Stone Age still competes. With the Anniversary Edition, it comes out even better than it used to thanks to a raft of visual improvements.

Firstly, the building tokens, player boards and the main board are all double sided now. On the first side, you’ll find the original lush green, brown and earthy artwork that so fascinated players of the original game. On the second side, you’ll find the new artwork – inspired by winter. Blue, white and grey are used to great effect to create scenes – especially on the main board – that represent the dramatic and desperate struggle of early human beings. I especially appreciate the fact that every component that should have had artwork to match the boards has, leaving only the civilization cards (which have plain backs) standing out slightly. A handful of additional buildings (igloos) have been added as a mini expansion.

The visual changes don’t end there, since the meeples have also been given an interesting lick of paint. Now, rather than being nicely cut (but plain) meeples, each of these colourful little people has his or her own character, drawn on in chunky black lines complete with tools, faces and stig-of-the-dump hairdo. There’s also a handful of new cards which represent an expansion known as the “Wild Animals” expansion, but in reality, these cards serve in precisely the same way as any other civilisation card, having been shuffled into the same deck.

I’ll tell you more about what I think of Stone Age: Anniversary Edition in a moment, but before I do so, I’m going to quote my own review of the original game in order to provide more context about how the game works. As I’ll mention in more detail later, there are no material changes to the gameplay, so everything I had previously written still applies and I feel that it’s important not to waste page space simply by explaining the same thing in a different way. If you read the original Stone Age review or are just here to learn about the differences between Anniversary Edition and the original, feel free to skip past the italicised text.

“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.”

Much as the original was a fast, smart worker placement and retrieval game that felt like it balanced luck and skill well, the Anniversary Edition still does those things, and it does them with a better than ever lick of paint and a few sparse bells and whistles. What it doesn’t do is change anything, at all, gameplay wise. The igloo buildings are more or less pointless, adding just four new structure that have slightly different benefits to those in the base game, but nothing to write home about. The Wild Animals expansion is similar, folding into the civilisation deck, never to be seen (or noticed, at least) again.

With these things in mind, Stone Age: Anniversary Edition is a strange one to recommend wholeheartedly. If you don’t have Stone Age and are looking for an interesting, attractive and slightly educational game that can engage youngish players whilst also entertaining parents, then Anniversary Edition could be the one to go for. Likewise, if you have Stone Age and you are an absolute die hard fan, then you should buy Anniversary Edition and pass on your older version. For those who have the original (or had it and didn’t like it) then nothing here will change your mind.

What, i think, might make it a slightly disappointing overall package is that it doesn’t include the “Style is the Goal” expansion, which was released in 2011 and actually did bring changes to the base game. I truly don’t understand the rationale for this decision, but it feels like a shame. Despite my disappointment at this omission and the general lack of notable additions, Stone Age: Anniversary Edition is still – more or less exactly – as good as the original. An already beautiful game is now more beautiful, but in gameplay terms, nothing has changed. Invest here if you have a young, historically interested family that want to learn worker placement games together, whilst also exploring some fantastic components.

***½  3.5/5

Stone Age: Anniversary Edition 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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