Santa was pretty good to me in the board games department this year, and our favorite so far is Rio Grande’s Stone Age, a 2-4 person game with some shades of Settlers of Catan but without the initial-placement phase that plays such a huge role in determining who wins in Settlers.
In Stone Age, each player has a small civilization and has to use his five “meeples” to gather resources (food, wood, brick, stone, or gold), build tools to improve resource production, develop agriculture so he gets additional food “free” on each turn, or make more people (but you have to deploy two of your people to that space to make another person – dedicated Stone Age players call it the “love shack”). The goal in Stone Age is to accumulate as many “victory points” as possible through constructing buildings, which you buy through the four non-food resources, and through game-end bonuses for the number of people in your civilization (you start with five and can end up with ten), your food production rate, the number of tools you have, or additional bonuses for your buildings. Of course, you have various constraints at work, including the need to feed your people each turn, the limited number of people you have, and other players competing for the same resources. On each turn, only one player can occupy each of the spaces that add to free food production, make a new person, or build a new tool, and later in the game there’s competition for buildings with high point values or “civilization cards” that increase game-end bonuses while also offering immediate benefits like free resources. There are also only seven spaces on each of the four non-food resources, and since each player has five meeples at the start of the game, it’s possible that you’ll end up boxed out of a resource you want to produce on a specific turn.
Because of the game-end bonuses for tools, farming, and meeples – in a 4-person game where 200-250 is a typical winning score, you can earn 96 extra points if you max out on tools and bonus points, 70 points on people, and 70 points on food production – as well as the potential bonus of 9 bonus points per building (we’ve never had a player reach 10 buildings, although it is theoretically possible to do so), there are a few basic strategies for winning at Stone Age, although competition in 3- and 4-player games will usually require each player to adopt a hybrid approach. All strategies require players to collect civilization cards, which can be purchased for 1-4 resources but must be claimed with meeples that can’t be used to produce any resources on that turn, creating an additional arena for competition on the board. Some cards represent civilization “skills” like art, weaving, or transportation that have no function within the game but add bonus points at the game end, with each player receiving points equal to the square of the number of unique skills he has, with a max of 64 points. There is a so-called “starvation” strategy that involves avoiding food and taking point penalties for doing so – you don’t lose any meeple for failing to produce enough food – although it seems to be a the consensus among fans that this is a flaw in the rules rather than a legitimate strategy.
Although the number of main strategies is finite, each turn presents the player with myriad decisions. The first is where to place the meeples – on production spaces, on any of the three “special” spaces to produce tools/farms/meeples, on buildings, or on cards. The second is the order in which to resolve each of the meeples’ spots – do you roll for gold or wood first, or buy a card that might earn you an extra resource? The third is when to use your tools to round up die rolls on resources, although this becomes easier as the game goes on if you’re accumulating lots of tools as your core strategy. You also have the option to play a limited amount of defense by blocking opponents from resources they might need or buildings/cards they might want, and since one condition for ending the game is the exhaustion of any of the piles of buildings for purchase, you might place a meeple on a building but pass on buying it simply to keep the game going another turn or two.
There’s a modest amount of luck in the game, but it’s still a strategy game at its core. Players roll dice to determine resource production, so it’s possible to place several meeples on a resource (especially stone or gold) and walk away with little to no output, although a player can use more meeples on a resource and/or deploy his tools to smooth that out a little and largely eliminate the risk of a zero-output roll. The order of civilization cards and buildings that appear for purchase is also random, and there are certain cards (especially those that permanently add one farm or one tool) that are more attractive than others. It’s enough randomness to keep the game different each time out, like Settlers of Catan, but the fundamental strategies are always the same and you’re not completely at the mercy of the dice. The main benefit of the random element is preventing a player from having a fixed strategy before the game starts – seeing the first set of cards and what spaces you can occupy in the first few turns helps determine which strategies will be most effective in that particular game.
Stone Age is more family-strategy than hardcore-strategy; what you’re producing is generic, with no purpose to buildings or skills beyond the points they provide at the end of the game. A typical game takes just over an hour once every player knows the rules, and we found that after one game everyone was up to speed on the rules and concepts to play competitively. My wife insists that I mention that the artwork is excellent, with vivid colors and great detail – this will be more relevant after I post one of the upcoming reviews. And outside of Settlers and Ticket to Ride I don’t think we’ve been as into any game right out of the box as we have been with Stone Age.