Review: Stone Age

Stone Age displays a lot of information but keeps the UI uncomplicated.

Although my worker seems to be eyeing the mating hut, my drawer shows a big bonus for building.

Campfire Creations chose very well when they decided to adapt Stone Age to iOS, and they absolutely nailed the execution. The cardboard original was quite well-received on its arrival in 2008, quickly garnering a reputation as the ideal gateway into the meatier games which use the “worker placement” mechanic. Those who’ve found games like Dominant Species and Caylus forbidding can experience much of what makes games like these fascinating, in a package that’s easier to learn and plays quicker than its bigger siblings. Stone Age: The Board Game fails as a gateway in one crucial respect, however–its elegance will leave many players with little reason to move on to other games.

One of the unusual facets of worker placement games is that they introduce scarcity not only in resources, but in opportunities to deploy your workers (which are effectively action points). If someone else sends two of their workers to the mating hut, you can’t get a new worker this round. When you’re at a stall in the market buying a building, no one else can shop for that stall’s wares. It’s a dynamic which makes every decision meaningful–even when two options look equally good for you, how bad they are for your opponents can make a big difference.

Though Stone Age does a good job of keeping worker placement relatively simple, there’s still enough going on that the distinctive yet functional main view hides some of the information in slide-out drawers. The information in them is well-chosen, necessary only to make certain decisions and comfortably hidden the rest of the time. It’s a good interface–about the only negatives I found were that switching games is tap-intensive and the game list indicates which player’s turn it is with a subtle highlight rather than something more obvious. Collecting resources involves die-rolling, represented with animated stone dice on the screen. I’m not a big fan of the faux dice I can accept that those who value the experience of boardgaming will probably appreciate the brief suspense.

Those beards must get scratchy.

It’s a slightly uglier game at the doubled iPad resolution – though on a retina iPad it looks pretty nice.

Campfire really exceeded expectations by including not only a brilliant interface, but also three levels of AI, the highest of which is quite skilled. Game Center play works as expected, with the addition of ranked “League” matches. It’s a tad irksome that one sometimes has a turn which consists merely of confirming that you do want to feed your workers the food that you can’t avoid feeding them, but that’s a fairly minor quibble.

One note of caution I can sound with respect to Stone Age is that the game’s balance comes at the expense of the theme, to an extent. For example, the major assets in the game are workers, fields, tools, and buildings. You can recruit a unit which gives the player a victory point for each worker. Rather than balancing this in some more complicated or distinctive fashion, there are other units which give the same bonus for fields, tools, and buildings. This uniformity breaks the sense of theme and can bring the mathematical exercise of the game too much into the foreground for some players’ taste. All of your worker pawns are beardy males, so that the mating hut is Thunderdome in reverse (two men enter, three men leave) displays a similar concern for balance over thematic coherence.

This helps keep the game elegant, but reminds you that you’re playing a board game and not a video game. Happily, randomness in the boats and marketplace options means that Stone Age has enough variability from game to game that the strategy is quite dynamic. This restricts concerns about limited lifespan to those who have difficulty appreciating the abstract beauty which underlies Stone Age’s evocative art.

SCORE

5 out of 5

Links

• iPhone edition: Stone Age: The Board Game, $4.99

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