Review: Stone Age

In today’s review, we take a journey to a time far in the past. A simpler time, when every game did not need to be defined as “a mix of ____ and ____”. Way back when today’s “gateway games” were considered groundbreaking. Join me as we visit the era of Stone Age — the year 2008 A.D.

The initial setup for Stone Age when you have way too much time on your hands waiting for everyone else to arrive.

It’s funny to think about in those terms, but Stone Age provides a good reminder of how much board gaming has changed in the past 10 years. Agricola had come out a year earlier in 2007, but at the time worker placement was still a fairly novel concept to many gamers. (Side note: If you’re reading this and still not entirely familiar with the term ‘worker placement’, here’s a nice summary.)

These workers demonstrate how productive people were back before smartphones existed.

Stone Age’s theme is fitting, because it really is a fairly rudimentary blueprint of the worker placement mechanic. There are relatively few actions to choose from: three ‘engine building’ actions, five ‘harvesting resources’ actions, and two ‘converting resources to victory points’ actions. There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end to the game, and not a ton of variability in optimal strategies (though the controversial starvation strategy is one interesting exception that cleverly exploits a vulnerable rule).

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So with so many wonderfully complex and intricate worker placement games out there today, is Stone Age a relic of the past? I think not — let me explain why.

My wife KC and I have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of Stone Age, but in recent years it has rarely made it to the table, replaced by newer and shinier worker placement games. Recently however, we went on vacation with family, and I wanted to bring a game to play with my brother and sister in law, Mark and Maria. They own Catan and Small World, and they loved Codenames when we introduced them to it last year. Still, terms like ‘worker placement’ or ‘deck building’ are not necessarily part of their lingo.

The civilization cards are my favorite part about Stone Age.

We decided to bring Stone Age, and it proved to be a perfect introduction to worker placement games. It’s simple enough to learn quickly, yet complex enough that it still feels like your brain is getting a workout. Mark and Maria both really enjoyed it (so did KC and I for that matter), and I think they’d now be ready to jump into a slightly more complex worker placement game like Viticulture without trepidation.

Moreover, Stone Age stands on its own merits — its value is not merely as a gateway to other games. Sure, it doesn’t have the depth of A Feast for Odin or the complexity of Agricola, but when you’re in the mood for a somewhat lighter Euro game, Stone Age hits that mark. The maths are transparent enough that you can see how everything is working, to the point of it almost feeling solvable. Yet the solution seems to linger just beyond your grasp, with just enough variability infused by the civilization cards.

Stone Age just does one thing simply, yet there is beauty in that simplicity. The fact that flamethrowers exist doesn’t mean it’s not also still pretty darn cool to make a fire by rubbing some sticks together.

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