Imagine you are the leader of a Stone Age tribe. To survive and prosper, your tribe must hunt for food, develop agriculture, gather resources, make and use tools, construct buildings, raise children, and develop civilization. If your tribe doesn’t strike the right balance, your people may starve, or may be surpassed by neighboring tribes.
You can experience all this with a game I strongly recommend for families:
Many modern games attempt to have some kind of theme. However, you know a theme is not transporting you to another time and place when you think primarily about optimizing efficient placement of colored cubes. That pretty much sums up many modern “Euro” games: Place colored cubes efficiently.
When we play Stone Age, the board components and graphics combine beautifully with game mechanics to immerse us in a way that’s rare for a board game. We feed people, we gather wood, we build buildings . . . And if our people don’t eat, they starve. It even comes with a dice-rolling cup made of rawhide. Please pass the stinky cup!
Theme aside, Stone Age has nearly all of the attributes I look for in a good family game. It’s easy to learn and play. It’s engaging with many mini goals and little “waiting around” time. It has some variation and randomness due to die rolls and the ordering of buildings and cards, yet also has considerable strategy.
Stone Age is for 2-4 players and takes about 90 minutes to play.
In this Stone Age review, I combine two articles into one:
- Description of Stone Age’s game play and what makes it so good for families.
- Stone Age strategy
People who love strategy games are sometimes turned off to games with many dice rolls such as Stone Age. Dice mean lots of luck, right? It turns out that Stone Age involves far more strategy than most people realize after their first few plays. Strategy discussion in a game review is helpful to those who prefer “practice makes better” games. However, if you think strategy discussion for a game you haven’t played is like a new movie spoiler, than skip the strategy section.
This review is aimed at typical families with mixed interests, gaming styles, and ages, not game hobbyists of the sort you find at boardgamegeek.com. Typical families own a deck of cards and a few games, but rarely more than 20 games. They don’t want games that take hours to learn, hours to play, or require frequent rules consultations. In my experience, most families prefer games with strategy, variety, and some random elements. They also want to have fun!
How to Play Stone Age
In Stone Age, players assign workers to gather food, acquire resources (wood, brick, stone, or gold), grow population, develop agriculture, make tools, construct buildings, and acquire cards needed to build civilization. They accomplish these tasks each turn by:
- Taking turns placing their people on fields, forests, a building project, etc. (Worker Placement)
- Performing the appropriate action in each area where they have people (Use Actions)
- Feeding their people (Feeding)
The game ends after 7-15 turns, when either civilization cards (“civ cards”) run out or a building pile runs out. Some points are scored during the game after each building is acquired. Some points are scored after the game, from civilization cards that are kept hidden after they are acquired. 1 point is also scored for each leftover resource. Leftover food scores zero points.
Here’s a 3-player game, after workers have been placed on turn 1:
Worker Placement starts with the lead player placing one or more of his 5 “people” (also known as “workers” or “meeples”) on one place on the board. Then the next player places one or more people. And so on, until all workers have been placed.
The faint, white circles by each area of the board indicate the number of people that can be placed, except for the food hunting area which has no circles because any number of people can hunt.
It’s easiest to explain how all this works with an example first turn, which I do here with Alice, Bob, and Carla:
Alice places 1 person on the Field in order to advance agriculture. Bob places 2 people in the Mating Hut to produce a new person. Carla places all 5 of her people at the forest in order to gather wood. Alice places 2 people at the forest. Bob cannot gather wood because all 7 forest spots are occupied, so he places his remaining 3 people to hunt for food. Only Alice has people left so she places her remaining two people wherever she wants that is not occupied. She chooses to place 1 person above the right-most 1-cost civilization card, and the remaining person at the food hunt area.
Players then Use Actions. Alice uses all her actions first, in any order she chooses. Alice first uses her field worker to advance 1 on the agriculture track, which will help feed her people for the rest of the game. Alice returns the worker to her player board. She then gathers wood in the forest with her 2 workers there, by rolling 2 dice and dividing the result by 3 (rounding down). She rolls an 8 and therefore collects 2 pieces of wood (8/3, rounded down). She returns the worker to her player board. Then she buys the civilization card by paying one wood, and returns that worker. She also gets one food coin, as that is the immediate reward printed at the top of the card. There’s also a scoring reward at the bottom of the card that won’t be counted until the game is over. Lastly, Alice rolls one die for the hunt, dividing the result by two. She rolls a 2 and therefore gets 1 food coin.
Bob then uses his actions to increase his population from 5 to 6 and gathers 4 food coins, followed by Carla using her actions to obtain 7 pieces of wood.
Then it’s time for Feeding. Everyone started the game with 12 food coins. 1 coin or 1 agriculture is needed to feed each worker. Alice has 5 workers and 13 coins. Because she has 1 on the agriculture track, she only needs 4 more food coins to feed her people. After feeding her people, she has 13 – 4 = 9 food coins remaining. Bob increased his population by one to 6 people this turn. Bob also successfully hunted for 4 more food coins during the turn. So he has 16 food coins and 6 people. After feeding them, he has 10 food coins remaining. Carla has 5 people and 12 food coins, so she has 7 food coins remaining after feeding her people.
On turns when there isn’t enough food (or resources, which can be substituted for food in a pinch), a player will lose 10 points on the scoring track, a steep price to pay for starving people.
The example I used on the first turn touched on some areas of the board, but not all of them. Wood, Bricks, Stones, and Gold are similar but for cost and value. When using dice to roll for these resources, the dice totals are divided by 3, 4, 5, and 6 respectively. Therefore, in terms of cost, wood is least expensive, while Gold costs the most:
Wood(3) < Brick(4) < Stone(5) < Gold(6).
The value of these resources in terms of victory points follows the same proportions, as buildings are built on subsequent turns:
Wood = 3, Brick = 4, Stone = 5, and Gold = 6.
When a building is purchased for a wood, a brick, and a gold, this earns 3 + 4 + 6 = 13 points. Constructing a building is an action just like any other, though it’s common (as above) for no player to place a worker on a building on turn 1.
Another area without a worker above was the Tool Maker hut. A worker placed on that space will get 1 tool. Tools help reduce the luck involved in gathering resources, optionally adding 1 to the die roll. For example:
Let’s say Doug has 3 tools. Doug places 2 workers at the Quarry to gather stone, 2 workers at the Forest, and 1 worker to Hunt. When he uses his actions, he decides to first roll two dice for stone. He rolls a 9. He chooses to use 1 tool to add 1. By getting to 10, he gets 2 stones (10/5) instead of 1 (9/5, rounded down). He then rolls a 7 for wood, then uses 2 tools to bump it up to 9 and therefore gets 3 (9/3) wood. He then rolls a 3 for food. He has already used all 3 tools this turn so he will not be able to adjust this die roll or any others for the rest of this turn. He gets 1 food (3/2, rounded down).
The way resources are gathered introduces randomness to the game, but the randomness is true to theme. Going on a hunt, looking for stones, and resource gathering in general did not bring home consistent hauls in the stone age. However, using tools (like spears for hunting, or shovels for digging out large stones) makes resource gathering somewhat more reliable, which seems reasonable to expect.
I did not cover the complete rules for Stone Age. The complete rules take about 10 minutes to explain to a new player, and perhaps 20-30 minutes to read and then explain for a family that is completely new to new to this type of game.
However, I did make clear that the main gaming mechanic in this game is “worker placement.” Take turns to place workers, then use workers, then feed workers.
This worker placement game mechanic has been at the root of many of the most popular games to come out during the past 15 years. In 2016, over 20 of the 100 top-rated games on boardgamegeek.com used the worker placement mechanic. However, most games with this mechanic are somewhat complicated or time-consuming. There are some games besides Stone Age that I think can work well for a family, such as a game we own and enjoy called Lords of Waterdeep with a medieval/fantasy politics theme. However, from what I’ve observed, Stone Age is more likely than the rest of these worker placement games to be enjoyed by a typical family.
When I teach Stone Age, I leave out some details which I describe gradually during the first game. Typically, people get a solid handle on the rules less than halfway through their first game.
Stone Age Strategy
Part of the charm of Stone Age is the pleasure your family can take as you gradually discover what makes for good strategy over the course of many games. In a way, this also fits in with the theme . . . at first you understand the bare necessities of feeding your people and growing the population. However, you learn over time that if you make good decisions and manage your resources efficiently, your tribe is much more likely to prosper.
If you want your family to experience that pleasure, I strongly suggest skipping over this section:
Like all worker placement games, Stone Age has a lot of strategy to it. However, the use of dice to gather resources is not typical of worker placement games, and causes many people to misperceive how much luck is in this game. Yes, there is some luck, but much less than meets the eye. In the rest of this section I describe how to “make your own luck.”
It takes but a single game for new players to understand that feeding people is a drag. The initial food supply is only enough to last two turns. Developing agriculture is critical if you don’t want to allocate many workers to hunting for the rest of the game. New players quickly learn to compete vigorously for the “field” spot, which increases agriculture by one. Get this spot on turn 1, and you’ll need 1 less food coin each turn for the rest of the game. Great!
Most new players also quickly realize that you can get more done with more workers, so there’s competition for the mating hut during the first few turns in order to quickly raise the population to 6 or 7. Getting the population and agriculture up is more helpful at the beginning of the game than the end. Benefits of an early investment last many more turns than a late investment, leading to a higher “return on investment.”
If you’ve played a few games of Stone Age before reading this section, you’ve likely figured out these things. You have probably also figured out that at some point you need to buy huts and civilization cards to increase your score, and that with just a turn or two left, all that matters is purchasing huts or civ cards that will convert your resources into victory points.
You may also understand that you’ll get more points if you concentrate your strategy. For example, if you buy a lot of civ cards that give you multipliers on people, then you want to increase your population. If you have many hut multiplier civ cards, then you’ll want to buy many huts. And so on.
Congratulations if you’ve manage to get this far on your own. However, don’t think you’ve mastered this game. There’s much more . . .
The concentration of civ card multipliers I just mentioned means that there are a number of different paths to victory, depending on which specific types civilization cards you try to acquire. There are also other paths to victory that have nothing to do with concentrating civilization cards (discussed below). This begs the question: is one particular civilization card concentration better than another? Huts? Tools? Population? Agriculture? Green “culture” cards)? Perhaps some combination of two or three of these? Or is there some other strategy so much better than concentrating civilization cards that it doesn’t even matter?
After playing many games and reading about strategy, I can say with confidence that no particular concentration is “best.” The trick to playing well is to carefully watch everything during the first few turns and adapt a strategy most suited to the ordering of huts, civilization cards, your place in the turn order, and most importantly, what strategies other players are pursuing.
Before I discuss this in detail, it’s helpful to understand the underlying economics, or “math” of the game. As I already mentioned:
Wood(3) < Brick(4) < Stone(5) < Gold(6) is the relative cost of gathering resource—each time the dice are rolled, they are divided by the number shown (i.e. roll dice and divide by 3 for wood).
Wood = 3, Brick = 4, Stone = 5, and Gold = 6 is the value of resources cashed in for points in the form of buildings.
How can you make use of this information? The key is to understand the relationship between the dots on the dice (called “pips”) and victory points.
The simplest way to think about this is that one pip is worth one victory point. If you roll 6 pips for gold, you get one gold bar, which converts into 6 victory points when a building is purchased. Similarly, a 3 pip wood converts into 3 victory points. One pip gets you one victory point, right?
However, this does not take into account several forms of waste. When you roll 2 dice for wood, you may roll “8” which gets you 2 wood. Your 8 pips did not get you 8 victory points. They got you 6 victory points. Another form of waste is that most times, you’ll have a few resources left at the end of the game that were not efficiently converted into victory points by purchasing buildings. The final scoring does count 1 victory point for each unspent wood, brick, stone, or gold. But this is much less than their worth when used to purchase buildings. So the victory points you can count for wood(3), brick(4), stone(5), and gold(6) are not truly worth that much unless you manage the rare feat of ending the game with none of these resources remaining.
There are other more subtle forms of waste relating to opportunity cost, paying dearly for civ cards, or being unable to purchase a building on which you have a worker. But the main two forms of waste are wasted die roll pips and unspent resources.
Learning the mathematical formulas for these forms of waste is not needed to play the game well. However, an intuitive understanding of this waste is useful:
The pip value of buildings are worth more than resources, which are in turn worth more than the pips you see on the dice.
In other words, think of dice rolls as undeveloped raw materials, resources as intermediate products, and buildings as finished products. That would lead to restating the above as:
Buildings (finished products) are worth more than resources (intermediate products), which in turn are worth more than die rolls (undeveloped raw materials).
Once you understand the underlying economics of pips and victory points, everything else follows. Specifically:
- Each gold bar used to buy a building is worth 6 VPs, while stone is worth 5VPs, brick is worth 4 VPs, and wood is worth 3 VPs.
- Each food coin used for feeding is worth 2 VPs
- Boost your score by minimizing the number of leftover food coins and resources. Leftover stone and gold is particularly wasteful, while wood is the least risky resource to stockpile.
- The immediate reward on the top of a civ card is usually easy to value. The rightmost card pictured has a single food coin reward, which is worth 2VPs. The card next to it has a gold bar reward, which is worth 6 VPs.
- The after-game reward at the bottom of a civ card can also be valued, but the final value will not be known until after the game. The rightmost green card pictured has a picture of a loom. It will eventually be worth between 1 and 8 VPs depending on how many other green cards are collected. Another way to look at it is that the first green civ card you buy is worth 1, the next is worth 3, the next is worth 5, etc. The card pictured next has a shaman x 1. It is worth your population x 1, which means that it will be worth at least 5 but no more than the maximum population size of 10. You can value any civ card using this process.
- You also need to subtract cost when valuing a civ card. If it was purchased in the rightmost slot with 1 wood, then that is a 3 VP cost. When you include this cost, you’ll see that all cards are worth purchasing for 1 wood but many cards are not worth purchasing for 4 woods, and some cards are not even worth purchasing for 2 woods.
- Wood is the least expensive resource you can use for purchasing civ cards, so it’s a good idea to have a supply of wood on hand at all times. Wood is also the least wasteful resource to generate, and the least wasteful to have leftover at the end of the game. The forest is therefore one of the most competitive areas of the board. Blocking other players from obtaining wood at the forest is often a good move.
- Reducing pip waste is good, as it narrows the gap in worth between pips, resources, and buildings. More simply stated, every wasted pip is a wasted victory point.
- If you have no tools, try to avoid spreading your workers among several different resources. You get the same amount of waste, on average, for any number of workers on one spot. 7 workers on the forest will have 1/7 as much waste per die (on average) as having 1 worker on the forest.
- If you do have tools, especially if you have 3-4 tools, you can minimize waste by spreading your workers between several resources each turn, rolling the dice in order of most expensive resource to least expensive. For example, assume you start the turn with 3 tools. You can then place 1 worker each on brick, wood, and hunting. Let’s say you roll a 2 for brick. You use 2 tools to bump it up to 4, getting one brick (4/4). Then you roll a 5 for wood, so you bump it up by 1 to get 2 wood (6/3). You’ve used all 3 of your tools so when you roll a 3 for the hunt you can’t bump it up by 1 so you get 1 food coin (3/2 rounded down). If you have 3 or more tools and don’t spread out your workers, you will often not have a use for some or all of your tools, thus wasting more pips than if you had spread out the workers.
- Most new players undervalue tools. Dice introduce luck and wasted pips. Tools reduce luck and wasted pips.
- Growing the population is a costly up-front investment. If the game is short, that investment may not be worthwhile. If the game is long, than the value of that large initial investment will be more than recouped over time.
Now that you have an understanding of the pip economy of Stone Age, you can move on to more complex strategy, understanding what it takes to achieve victory by a number of different paths.
Concentrate on one or two of the civ card multipliers. Most players quickly figure this out. It can work well, but other players can observe what you’re going after and block you. This strategy can also fall victim to bad luck when opponents acquire civ cards you need before you, or some of your needed civ cards never enter the game.
Opportunistic efficiency. I start many games simply taking whatever gives me the most bang for the buck, which depends on several factors outside of my control: turn order, the starting civ cards, and what other players are doing. This primarily means going after huts (especially agriculture) or good civ cards in the 1 or 2 cost slots. However, if I do this all game, I usually lose. After 2-3 turns, it’s time to take stock of what’s happened so far and then shift into one of the other strategies.
Balanced Growth. Another strategy many players quickly discover is to grow their agriculture, population, and tools in a fairly balanced way, with agriculture lagging behind population by 2 or 3 on most turns. Good balance also means having a supply of all 4 resources on hand at all times, but most especially wood. Then take advantage of opportunities as they develop. This doesn’t sound like much of a strategy, but when it’s executed efficiently, it does win some games. Part of what makes it work is the flexibility to block other players when needed to keep their scores from getting too high.
Tool dominance. This strategy is less obvious to newer players but if used by a single player only, it tends to win many games, typically with a population of 5 workers all game. Increasing population during the first couple turns forces a player to devote a lot of attention to food and agriculture during the first half of the game. The 5-population player emphasizing tools has less food pressure and can therefore get a faster start. Once they’re up to 3 tools, pip waste gets minimized. Furthermore, the tools-player can choose to shorten the game if needed to stop a player with a strategy that requires a long game.
Starvation. Some people are very annoyed by the starvation strategy the first time they see it in action. The idea is to occupy the Mating Hut every possible turn until reaching the population maximum of 10. Food runs out on turn 3 and you simply stop feeding your people (though sometimes it may make sense to feed them on turn 3 or 4 if you can obtain food coins inexpensively from civ cards). You never allocate workers to hunt for food or increase agriculture. This incurs a big penalty each turn of 10 VPs. However, once you get to 9 or 10 workers, the large labor force enables you to generate far more than you would with the usual 6 or so workers, and therefore generate 15-30 VPs per turn higher than you would have otherwise. Some people think this breaks the game, but it doesn’t. There are several ways to stop the starvation strategy. Mostly, this involves blocking what this player needs, whether it’s the Mating Hut in the early game, civ cards with the population multiplier, or buildings which allow many resources to be used (most especially the 1-7 building which can score 42 points from 7 golds). Also bad for the Starvation Strategy is the next strategy . . .
Drill one building pile down. Several strategies discussed above benefit from a longer game, most especially the starvation and civ multiplier concentration strategies. However, a player (or better yet 2 players) may simply buy from one building pile as much as possible. This limits the game to 8-10 turns, and causes all scores to be much lower. The heavy investments made by other players in population or civ card multipliers will likely not pay off, so you will win despite a low score. The only way to stop this strategy is to occupy the building spot without buying it. Each time a building is blocked this way extends the game by an additional turn.
I’ve covered most of the common strategies, but implementing them well takes practice. Again—you’ll want to carefully watch everything during the first few turns and adapt a strategy most suited to the ordering of huts, civilization cards, your place in the turn order, and most importantly, what strategies other players are pursuing.
Why Stone Age is a Great Family Game
As I said in the introduction, Stone Age has all the attributes I like to see in family games, plus a great theme. In detail, Stone Age is:
- Easy to learn and play.
- Thematic—the stone age theme is well supported by the game’s mechanics, artwork, and components. Love it or hate it, you’ll always remember that stinky cup!
- Educational—it’s a way to learn about allocating scarce labor and material resources wisely, with a very tangible theme. Don’t eat and you suffer! Don’t manage risk conservatively and you will sometimes find yourself without the resources you need to complete a building project. It’s also fun division practice for kids.
- Varied—variable ordering of buildings and civ cards combine with dice rolls and multiple paths to victory to cause each game to turn out differently.
- Digital—there is an iOS app for Stone Age that is well done. It can be a way to learn the rules or to practice different strategies against human or computer opponents.
- Engaging—There are many decisions per game. There is limited “waiting around” time.
- Appropriate for a wide variety of ages and personalities. Stone Age can be enjoyed both by younger, newer, or less serious players, yet also by experienced, competitive gamers who like strategy. Those who play with limited understanding of strategy will usually lose to experienced players, yet still have fun as they achieve many mini goals along the way. Hidden scoring means that less observant players don’t even realize they’re losing.
What’s Not to Like about Stone Age?
After playing this game 2-4 times, some people conclude that game strategy is simple, while luck plays a very large part due to all the die rolls. It’s almost as if the designers managed to create an illusion of this being mostly a game of luck. I discussed many strategies above that skilled players employ to good effect. Luck plays but a small part in this game, as you’ll find out if you consistently lose to someone who knows the game strategy well.
However, there are a couple of valid criticisms:
- The game can be a little long and tedious for a kid, especially if there’s a player who sometimes takes a long time placing workers. The box says 60-90 minutes but in our family of 3, it’s more like 80-100 minutes for 3-player games, while 2-player games take closer to 60 minutes. Our son sometimes begins to lose his enthusiasm when our 3-player game is almost over.
- It can be frustrating to be blocked by other players frequently, especially in the more competitive 2-player variant where blocking happens more frequently.
- Resources, buildings, and civilization cards can be valued with the math I described in the strategy section. For some people, getting all “mathy” like this takes the fun out of the game. This criticism is applicable to many “euro” style games, but many are better than Stone Age at hiding the math behind the game.
- To play very well, you realize that a lot of boring accounting and memorization is helpful. Which civilization cards are your opponents buying? What cards have not yet been bought? What is everyone’s approximate score? A very competitive player will gain advantage by tracking all these things precisely, but it may take some of the fun out of the game.
That’s a short list of criticisms, and many families may never even notice any of these points beyond the length of the game. So perhaps an important strength of this game is lack of weaknesses.
Concluding Thoughts: Is Stone Age Fun?
Our family has played approximately 30-40 games of Stone Age over the past 4 years. The reason we don’t play it more is that we don’t often have 90+ minutes to play a game . . . so we simply play something shorter. When we do have 90+ minutes, we tend to rotate between several games taking this long. Also, we own Lords of Waterdeep, which has a different theme (medieval/fantasy politics) but similar worker placement mechanics and playing time. If we didn’t own Lords of Waterdeep, we’d likely play Stone Age a bit more.
Kids playing Stone Age will learn more than just the game. When we first got this game my son was 7 and he proudly insisted on doing all of his own division for resource dice rolls. He has also silently integrated many lessons about resource management in real life over the years, though perhaps some of that was learned from other games.
When we do play Stone Age, we enjoy it. We especially enjoyed it the first year as we were exploring strategy. Stone Age has never been anyone’s favorite game in our family. But even if we never end up playing it more than 50 times, it has been a memorable game that we occasionally reference in conversation. More than most other games, we get into the theme and the components. We always joke about the stinky cup, worry about feeding our people, and worry even more that someone might be executing the infamous starvation strategy.
This game has a lot of character, is very engaging, and has a lot more strategy than you’d expect for a game with so many dice rolls. This makes it a fun game for families, including ours.
Please pass the stinky cup!