(This is not a formal review. Just...ramblings.)
Worker placement games have indeed become all the rage, vying with Chutes and Ladders Spinner Rondel Placement as "Quickly Whored Out Euro Mechanic." On the surface, it seems like a really cool, really neat, really "new" mechanic, but at it's heart it's nothing more than multiple role selection. Let's face it, if instead of putting your little mens on a card/chit/whatever you instead had X choices for roles and picked them and put them in front of you instead, it would be no different
But, I digress. We're talking about Stone Age here.
Decidedly not a hoot
Anyway, this is not that game.
We cracked it open for a game last week. My youngest brother is not a boardgamer. He's much more of a videogamer and World of Warcraft kind of guy. My middle brother is an avid boardgamer just like I am. It's as though I was split in two as I enjoy both (well...not MMOs), so it's sometimes weird to find one of them interested in something but not the other one. Anyway, since both of my brothers were going to be there for a cookout, I brought Stone Age. Mostly, just to get it played, but I thought "Hey, a light little game like this might just do the trick."
The bits will fool you, that's for sure. I think that's where I was suckered the most. Euro designers have cottoned to the fact that some gamers really enjoy their game bits to look like whatever the hell they're supposed to be representing. So the clay bricks look like clay, the wood looks like sticks of wood, the little gold bricks in this game look like little gold bricks (uh...gold?), and the cavemen all look like little dudes with big afros.
Let me rephrase that. We spent ninety minutes placing our little guys on spots over...and over....and over.....and over....all the while at no time feeling as though we were "advancing" civilization, playing Cavemen, whatever. I mean, I enjoy longer games, obviously. But there are times when 90 minutes can be too long, just like there are times when six hours of gaming will flash by you before you can blink.
That's not all you can do, though. There is a Tool Hut(tm) where you can send one of your cavepeople to fashion you what must be the Swiss Army Knife of tools. You see, these tools can be used to increase your dice rolls, no matter what it is you're trying to do (as much of the resource gathering comes down to rolls of the dice.) So when you send your guys out to chop for wood, you actually roll to see how much they gather. You get one die for each of them, and for wood you divide that roll by 3 to see what you get. Roll a 6 total, and you get 2 things of wood. The more valuable resources are more difficult to acquire, having a higher 'divisor'. That's where the tools come in handy; if you rolled a 8 and have a '1' tool unused for the turn, you can Tap it (yes, you actually turn it sideways on your card) to increase that roll to a 9, giving you 3 wood.
What's incredible is that this tool can not only help you chop wood better, it can also break rock at the quarry, mold clay bricks better, hunt deer better (I guess you throw the damn thing at them), and even....make panhandling for gold easier.
(The inclusion of gold in this game bugs me to no end for some reason.)
So as you can see, these cavemen don't really need our help--clearly their Cavemen Scientists have a handle on all the problems facing them.
There's also a space on the board where you can put two cavemen, and what do you know...you get a third Caveman. We like to call this place "The Love Hut", and I don't think anyone who plays this will be able to resist that nickname for long.
Unfortunately, hot chicks are not included with The Love Hut playset
These childrens has to eat though, and much of every turn you'll be trying to find food to stuff the mouths of these little buggers. Which would be fine, but hunting for food is literally one of the least interesting things going on in the game. How do you get food? One of two primary ways--you can place a caveman on a square that will grant you +1 food production for the rest of the game, or you can send them out to hunt, which is resolved EXACTLY like all other resource gathering, except with The Gathering Divsor of 2. (Don't forget your magic hunting tool!) If you don't come up with enough food to feed everybody, you can instead feed them resources--yes, Gold Am Tasty in caveman world, as a gold brick digests just as nicely as some fresh deer meat.
Yes, I'm aware they probably barter this stuff for actual food, or go to Cave-Mart and get groceries, or something, but since this is abstracted out you literally discard a resource to feed them. (GROG AM HAVING CHIPPED TEETH ON STONE SANDWICH!)
Anyway, the goal of the game--like any good Euro--is getting the Almight Victory Points, and if you can do that you become Greatest Cave Tribe Ever or something like that and The Cave King is so impressed that he will nod ever so slightly at Grog to show the magnitude of his impressed-ness. (I may have made the entire previous sentence up, except for the VP part.) You earn VPs by spending your resources on Huts and Civilization cards. To get those, you spend a number of resources either printed on the Hut or based on what slot the Civ card is sitting in. To purchase them though you will need to place one of your workers there, so you'll have to take time out from food gathering, tool making, and Love Hut scrumping in order to do these important tasks, such as, y'know, actually building huts for the people to live in.
Unfortunately, the huts are about as uninteresting as it gets. Most have a printed list of resources needed to build them--say, spend two wood and one stone. Literally, these point values translate directly into VPs based on what good are "worth" based on their divisor. Wood is worth 3; Gold is worth 6. So if a hut required two wood and a gold, that would be 12 points. Do the huts do anything else? Nope. They provide strict VPs based on what was spent on them.
What's hilarious is that some of them are "wilds"--meaning you can spend a variable amount or type of goods on them. Still, they translate directly into what you spent as straight VPs. The reason this is funny is because my youngest brother became fairly resource rich late in the game and built a hut with 5 gold and two stone, a 38-point hut. Yes, apparently cavemen lived in frickin' Gold-plated huts with lavish granite floors.
Yo yo, coming up next--GROG's CRIBS, check it out y'all!
The other thing you can do is collect Civ cards. These are dealt out from a deck onto a series of squares, each of them requiring a number of resources to be discarded to claim them--oh, and also requiring you put one of your dudes on them first to claim them. The first slot is only one resource of any kind, the second two, the third three, and the fourth four. As these are claimed, the unclaimed ones slide toward the cheaper slots and new ones are dealt out. This is immediately going to feel busted to you, as for Civ cards, 1 wood=1 stone=1 gold. The game doesn't care if you spend four wood or a mixture of something more expensive to claim the newest Civ card. It feels...odd considering how pinpoint and blandly balanced the rest of the whole resource system is.
But wait...that's not all there is to the civ cards. In true Euro fashion, you collect them and they have additional symbols on the bottom that affect your scoring in the endgame. Some are pictures of various things such as pottery, flutes, whatever, and those you try to complete a "set" of to get a rapidly increasing score from them--1 of them is worth 1 point, 2 of them worth 4, 3 of them worth 9, all the way up to collecting all 8 and getting 64 points. This is pretty abstract and a bit silly, but I can sort of see this thematically...if your tribe becomes well-versed in all aspects of civilization--pottery, art, music--then of course you'll be the 'better' tribe in the end.
Where it all goes nuts is with the score multipliers.
Some of the cards have pictures of shamen, or hut builders, or similar people and they grant you a multiplier on the number of certain items you managed to collect during the game. So if you manage to get 3 hut builders and have 4 huts, you get a 12-point bonus. But you see, you've just inserted multiplication scoring into a system that has up until that point been purely additive. So what happens is, you specialize in something, rack up the biggest multiplier you can, and then your score goes NUCLEAR in the end game.
Let me give you an example. My youngest brother as I said was having fantastic luck with the dice and he was able to build pretty much any hut he wanted. However, I was able to grab a hut builder early, so I just focused on building whatever hut was available, at whatever price, gathering resources to build whatever I could. My score was pathetic; I think when the endgame came he had 120-something to my paltry 85, and my other brother had just over 100.
Then I started doing the multipliers on the huts I'd built and the civ cards collected. Boom, I had nearly 100 points in "bonus" points. Yes, I scored more in the bonus round than I did during the entire game. I finished in first place by a decent margin, well ahead of the guy building nearly 40-point huts during the game.
He had already felt a little bored by the proceedings (as had we all...trust me, when all you do is place, roll, resolve, place, roll, resolve, it tends to wear on you) as we had gone about 90 minutes, and he was less than impressed that a gamey endgame mechanism had stolen victory for him despite the fact he was the obvious leader in the game, was claiming resources like a madman, had a huge tribe, and could build anything he pleased. But because he did not specialize on a particular type of civ card, he got blown away.
I agree with him; I don't think "bonus" scoring should be slanted that heavily. Then again, that's kind of the Euro way; specialize, specialize, specialize and it becomes a race of people who don't interact much with their primary strategies, and when the dust clears they see who is standing with the most points.
So...its theme is ridiculous, its gameplay repetitive and too long for what it is, and its endgame scoring potentially completely busted. But...it has such lovely bits. And that Geico caveman dude is freaking HILARIOUS. We might try this one again...someday...but I'm betting this one ends up on the trade pile eventually.
Kind of has me scared because Stone Age has been described as sort of an "Agricola Lite", and I just traded for Agricola so that I could eventually pass Official, Informed F:AT Judgement on BGG's new poster child. I'm hoping with the cards and the added complexity it avoids the pitfalls of Stone Age's mostly repetitive play. We'll just have to see about that.
So for now, a heartfelt recommendation to avoid, except it might be fun with kids. My 7-year old has asked to play it so I'll definitely be able to judge this better after playing a 2-player game with him.
I'll leave you with this proverb: