Stone Age iOS app.

Stone Age is one of our favorite boardgames (which I reviewed in 2009) for its mix of moderate strategy, simple mechanics, a small amount of randomness, a strong theme, and appealing graphics; I ranked it 4th overall on my new boardgames ranking, and third when looking at games strictly in two-player mode. The new iPhone/iPod app version of Stone Age is an excellent implementation of the game’s mechanics with an innovative UI that is easy to learn (although not entirely intuitive) and excellent graphics, although the AI could be stronger and the lack of an iPad-friendly option is disappointing.

If you haven’t played the boardgame, it’s a simple game of worker placement and civilization building where players compete to accumulate points through three methods: obtaining technologies, building buildings, or earning multiplier bonuses on core civilization points like number of workers or number of tools. On each turn, players alternate placing workers on various game board spaces that do things like add a worker (you place two at one hut, known colloquially as the “love shack”), add farmland to give you an extra food token per turn, acquire any of the four main resources, or claim cards or buildings that must be purchased with those resources. The quantity of those resources – wood, clay, stone, and gold – you obtain on a turn is a function of the number of workers you placed in that area and on the roll of dice, one per worker placed, giving the game its main random element. Buildings and cards are also shuffled in each game and you can only purchase ones that are visible on the board.

Gameplay in the app is very straightforward. On each turn, you simply drag from the large worker icon on the left side of the screen to the area where you want to place one or more of your workers, and if it’s to one of the resource sections where you may place multiple workers, you get a fresh screen where you tap the spaces you want to fill. When collecting your workers, you simply tap the workers one by one, in the order you want, and resolve each worker’s situation (rolling dice, paying for buildings, etc.) before moving on to the next one. The app has some small time-saving features such as automatically choosing your free resource in wild-card situations when you’re the last player to choose, although there is inevitably some downtime between your turns while AI players resolve their own workers.

Implementing a game with a fairly sizable board like Stone Age’s for the smaller screens of the iPhone and iPod is a significant challenge because of the difficulty of making all of the relevant information easy for players to access. Stone Age’s designers rethought the entire layout of the game, using familiar graphics but relocating virtually everything to make it easier for players to make their moves and obtain the information they might need before making moves. The three special spaces – the farmer hut, the toolmaker hut, and the “love shack” – are now in the center of the screen, since they’ll usually be filled first. To the right is a column with the four available community cards, with the least expensive one on the bottom of the stack; above that column is a dial showing how much of the deck remains. Along the bottom are five circles showing the five possible resources for worker placement, and in the center of each circle the player can see how much of that resource he already has on hand. Along the top are the four building piles, with a clever if not immediately obvious way of showing how many building tiles remain in each pile (there are stones lined up along the side of each building) and, for buildings with variable resource requirements, barrels in front of the building showing how many different resource types are required by that building. The upper left shows how many tools, buildings, and people you have as well as how much food you produce automatically each turn. The one non-obvious bit of information comes from tapping on the icon in the upper right that shows the community card deck – doing so reveals what technologies you’ve already acquired and what game-end bonuses you hold for tools, food, people, or buildings. I understand that sounds like a lot for one screen, but most of it is clear once you know where to look, and the game uses large screen-covering dialog boxes for most in-game events, like paying for buildings or feeding your workers.

The AI players are not that strong; there are three levels available and the toughest level is fairly easy to beat if you stick to a simple strategy of attacking two or three bonus types while ignoring the others. These toughest AI players tend to pursue one such bonus strategy doggedly, producing respectable results but never racking up a ton of points without substantial luck in the dice-rolling. I’ve also noticed that AI players tend to end the game with lots of unused resources, often 12 or more, which is insane when there are still buildings available for purchase. I’m also disappointed that this app didn’t debut in a universal edition that was also optimized for the iPad, even if the screen layout was identical, because pass-and-play works much better on the iPad – especially when the app allows players to sit around the device without having to hand it off. You can double the screen size for this app on the iPad but it’s not as clear as graphics optimized for the device would be.

The actual implementation at the heart of the app is very strong, though, another in a trend of boardgame adaptations with clean, bright graphics and relatively easy-to-learn mechanics. I’d love a stronger AI presence and I assume an iPad-friendly version isn’t far down the road. If you tend to play live (pass-and-play or online/synchronous) against friends, it’s definitely worth buying, and even just playing against the AIs has been fun for a half-dozen or so games so far.