Stone Age – A classic worker placement game
Stone Age is one of the first worker placement games I ever played – Agricola was the first. Designed by Bernd Brunnhofer, under the pseudonym Michael Tummelhofer, Stone Age was first published in the U.S. in 2008 by Rio Grande Games. Even though Stone Age is less than ten years old, I consider it a classic. It’s my go-to game when introducing new gamers to the joys of worker placement and Euro strategy games.
In Stone Age, you lead a clan of stone-age hunter-gatherers. Your goal: survive and prosper. Each round consists of three phases:
- In the first phase, you and your fellow players will take turns sending one or more of your people to one place where they’ll perform an action in phase 2. You can send them to:
- the hunting grounds to gather food
- the forest to gather wood
- the clay pit to make bricks
- the quarry to acquire stone
- the river to look for gold
- the farm to till a field, which provides ongoing food
- the tool shed to fashion a tool
- the love hut to make a baby
- an unbuilt hut to build it
- a canoe to take a journey for some other immediate benefit and long-range goal (end-game scoring).
- In phase 2, beginning with the start player, you’ll bring all of your people home, performing their actions in whatever order you desire. For example, if you sent one of your people to fashion a tool and several others to gather wood, you could bring home the toolmaker first, then use the tool he produced – should it be needed – when the others gather wood.
- Finally, you’ll feed your people and reset the board. You need one food for each member of your clan. Each field you have feeds one worker. To reset the board, slide any leftover canoe cards to the right filling in any holes with new cards, then turn up the top hut of each stack as necessary. Pass the start player token clockwise to the next player and you’re ready for the next round.
One of the things I like about Stone Age is how the game’s mechanics reflect the theme. For example, were you to go out hunting-gathering during the stone age, sometimes you’d be successful, maybe even super successful, and other times not so much. In the game, this luck aspect of hunting-gathering is emulated with dice.
When acquiring food and resources in Phase 2, roll a number of dice equal to the number of clan members sent to that spot to see how successful your people were. Divide the result by the appropriate number shown on your player board (2 for food, 3 for wood, 4 for clay, 5 for stone or 6 for gold) to determine how many of that resource you acquired. This, too makes sense: gold is much harder to acquire than food.
You can use any tools you’ve acquired once each round. Tools can modify your dice rolls. For example, if you sent 3 clan members to gather wood, then rolled an 11 on the dice, you could supplement that 11 with a tool to modify your result to 12 and thus acquire 4 wood instead of 3. You can use as many tools as you have available, but you can only use each one once per round. Turn them at angle after use, then reset them after feeding your people at the end of the round.
Ultimately, you’ll use the resources you acquire to build huts, make journeys by canoe (in game terms, acquire civilization cards), or eat if you get really desperate and didn’t find enough food that round.
To build a hut, pay the designated resources and score points accordingly. Some huts require specific resources and you score the points noted on the tile. Some huts require a total and number of types of resources and you score according to the resources you use to build it.
For example, a hut that requires 4 resources of 2 different types (left) means you could build it with 3 gold and 1 stone to score the most points (3×6 for the gold + 1×5 for the stone = 23 points) or 3 wood and 1 clay for the least points (3×3 for the wood + 1×4 for the clay = 13 points) or somewhere in between. If you add up the resources on the huts with scores already calculated, you’ll see they follow the same rule.
Civilization cards cost the number of resources shown above them on the board. They provide an immediate benefit, shown at the top of the card, and some type of end-game scoring, shown at the bottom of the card. The immediate benefit could be food, resources, a field, a permanent or temporary tool, etc. End game scoring could be a cultural improvement (art, healing, music, pottery, time-keeping, transport, weaving, or writing) or an achievement multiplier (fields, people, huts, tools).
The more different cultural improvements you acquire, the more points you score: simply square the count and add 1 point for each duplicate. So, if you manage to get writing, pottery and music, that’s 32 = 9 points. If you get all eight, that’s 82 = 64 points! Each multiplier card is worth 1x, 2x or 3x whatever type of achievement it depicts. For example, say you have one 2x and one 3x hut multipler cards: multiply the number of huts you built times 5. If you built 6 huts, that’s 30 points. I can’t stress enough how important civilization cards are to your end-game score.
The components and artwork of Stone Age carry through the theme, down to the wooden dice and leather dice cup. I’ve heard people complain about the dice cup, but I don’t get it. It’s made of raw, undyed and unpainted leather. Of course, it smells like leather.
The meeples in Stone Age are a unique shape. The player boards are hefty and sturdy and provide everything you need to know for rolling dice and scoring both during and at game end.
I’ve apparently never felt the need to improve Stone Age. Often with games – particularly my favorite, most-played games – I pimp them in some way. I bought petri dishes and acquired vaccine bottles for the original Pandemic, replaced the cardboard coins with metal coins in several games, made tuckboxes or devised some other storage solution, or replaced the start player token with something more interesting. The only thing I’ve done for Stone Age is add zip-lock bags – something I do for every game. I think it may have come with bags, too. Anyway, to make a long story short: I think the components are fine just as they are. Though now that I think about it I do have some small muslin bags that would be perfect for the player sets. I could paint a stripe of the player color on each one…
Strategy and Tactics
But I digress. Let’s talk strategy and tactics. I mentioned earlier that civilization cards are important. Let me say that again: civilization cards are really, really, really important. I discovered that the hard way. The first several (yes, I’m stubborn, several) times I played Stone Age, I let the other players compete for the cards and went about my happy game concentrating on acquiring resources and building huts. At the end of the game I had a satisfying lead. Then out came their civilization cards and goodbye win. I think I did win one of those games, but it was only by a point or two. Most of the time I got creamed. So I started buying civilization cards and my game improved tremendously.
Another thing to remember: when bringing your people home, you can do it in whatever order you want. So get that tool first, then gather resources: it just might come in handy. This also means that you can send a guy to build a hut during phase 1 – even if you don’t have the necessary resources to build said hut right now. Just make sure you also send some guys to acquire whatever else you do need to build it. When bringing them home, get the resources first, then build the hut. If you aren’t successful acquiring enough resources for the hut, it’s not a great loss: so one guy was idle that turn and came home empty handed.
Which brings me to another tactic: if the game’s running out too quickly (a stack of huts is down to one or two), and you need a few more rounds of play, send a guy to build the hut on the short stack – only don’t build the hut. Just bring him home. That’ll buy you at least one more round.
There are definitely multiple paths to victory in Stone Age, despite your really needing to get at least a few civilization cards. It helps if you can concentrate on one or two things and their corresponding multipliers. However, I’ve seen a little of everything work, too.
I like to try and collect the cultural civilization cards, but that’s not always a viable strategy. Stone Age is very tactical: you have to make the best of the options available. Not only will different cards and hut tiles come out each game, the dice may or may not roll what you need, and how the other players play and what they go for will have a huge impact on your options. That’s what makes Stone Age a fresh and interesting challenge every time.
There’s no one strategy that guarantees you a win every time, though there is one that we have a house rule for: the starvation strategy. The starvation strategy is where a player puts absolutely no effort into feeding his people. Sure, after the first few rounds, that means he loses 10 points each round for starving them. But that also leaves him free to utilize all of his people elsewhere: gathering resources, building huts, acquiring cards, etc. If he’s able to draw out the game long enough, he can easily make up the points lost for starvation. The best defense against the starvation strategy is to run out the game as quickly as possible: concentrate on building all of the huts in one stack. Personally, I feel the starvation strategy breaks the spirit of the game. If you don’t feed your people, how will they have any energy to work? Eventually, they’re going to die. So, we just don’t allow it in our games.
I adore Stone Age. Bernd Brunnhofer, Stone Age‘s designer, achieved that perfect, magical combination that makes a game awesome and classic: accessible, easy to teach, provides multiple paths to victory, requires both strategy and tactics, well implemented theme, excellent components, looks great, and plays in 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Perfecto! Mwah! Love It!
I’d classify Stone Age as a medium-light strategy game. Perfect for gamer gamers, but also an excellent gateway into strategy games – particularly worker placement strategy games – for new gamers. It’s even educational: you get a lot of practice multiplying and dividing while acquiring those resources. Of course, I think all games are educational in some way.
Stone Age supports 2 to 4 players ages 10 and up and plays in 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
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