Review: Stone Age
Talking about a game that we don’t like is simply a less useful service than bellowing about one we love. That said, we can, and will, be making exceptions from time to time.
Paul: Wait, wait. What? That we don’t like? I wasn’t told about this.
Paul: It’s always about you, isn’t it?
Quinns: No, I-
Paul: Were you going to write a one-sided feature dissing Stone Age?
Quinns: Yes. I was.
Paul: Interesting, because that game’s both popular and very well-liked. UNLIKE YOU. Okay, well in the interest of fairness we should hear your minority opinion before your heresy has you inevitably cast into the pit or sent to the gallows. What’s your problem with it exactly?
Quinns: OK. There’s a type of board game I don’t get along with very much- solitaire multiplayer games. Peasantry simulator Agricola, which I mentioned in Episode 1, is one of them. Snakes & Ladders is basically another. They’re games that, while you’re meant to play them in a group, players have so little interaction with one another that everybody’s basically playing by themselves, except that only one of you wins.
For me, board games are about interacting with other people. My two favourite games are Space Alert, which puts players under incredible pressure and forces them to act as a well-oiled machine if they want to live, and Twister, which simply lets young people rub up against each other. Perfect. I suspect if I ever got catastrophically drunk enough you might even hear me argue that all board games are just inadequate shadows of Twister.
Paul: I will admit that if Game Scientists could ever fuse Twister and Space Alert into a sort of against-the-clock frottage fest then it would probably be the most astonishing thing in human history. But I think you’re misrepresenting Stone Age and being mean to Agricola.
Quinns: I think we’re getting a little lost, here. Let me describe what happens in Stone Age. Each player rules their own private little tribe of cavemen, trying to amass the most victory points by building huts and buying Civilisation Cards. This is done by worker placement, a game mechanic that’s in vogue at the minute wherein everybody takes it in turns to place their tiny people on the map, and then everyone picks their men back up off the map, collecting the reward for each man. In the case of Stone Age, those guys you dropped in the forest will bring home wood, and the pair you left at the breeding hut get you an extra caveman (and an extra mouth to feed), and so on. In theory, this makes the game a string of satisfying rewards from start to finish.
Paul: The resources you gather can go towards paying for the Civilisation Cards, or building huts, each of which requires a different combination of wood, clay, stone and gold. More expensive components obviously make for shinier, sexier huts. But never huts as sexy as the breeding hut. Only in board games do you need to book an appointment to catch some tail.
Quinns: Sh. Where Stone Age differs from Agricola is that it has what the lovely man in the game shop where I bought it referred to as “crunch”. This comes from the fact that every location on the map has a hugely limited number of spaces, so if somebody’s already dropped off a couple at the breeding hut, or the farm, or on a civilization card you want, there’s no room for your little people. Unlike Agricola, the Stone Age board is, in fact, so cramped for space that taking positions that you know someone else wants, for no reason other than to screw them over is sometimes a smart tactic.
(Incidentally, you can tell I hate Stone Age because I haven’t yet mentioned the pretty board, the leather dice cup, or the entire log’s worth of wooden components that come with the game. AND NEVER WILL.)
But here’s my problem with Stone Age. It manages to annoy me even more than an ordinary solitaire multiplayer game. That’s because for 90% of the time, you’re still not interacting with these people that you’ve deliberately met up with, and for the other 10% of the time you’re doing
something even worse – you and your friends are intentionally and unintentionally cocking up one another’s plans. Stone Age is four people building a house of cards in a room the size of an elevator. Alternatively: it’s four people trying to slow dance together, except those people are freakish golems constructed entirely from discarded
Paul: It’s true that the only way you interact with people is by blocking them. It’s the least dramatic, least remarkable thing that a player can do. I didn’t say “book an appointment” by accident, as that’s pretty much the competitive game dynamic. You try to grab something first and, if you don’t, you’re foiled by someone else who took it before you. It’s the gaming equivalent of queue jumping.
Quinns: Right. I want to build that hut that costs two wood and one stone, except Matt just put an entire crowd of his people in the forest, filling it up. No wood for me! I’m hoping to expand my farms this turn, except Julie just put her man on the farm, laughingly saying that she doesn’t know where else to put him! Haha! Thanks, Julie! And I find myself wishing this really was the stone age, so I could push them both in a bog and throw poop at their disappearing forms.
Paul: But can’t you derive enjoyment from collecting resources, spending them, and planning for the next turn ahead, not just the current one? You’re keeping an eye on what everyone else needs and, when you can, doing your best to snatch it beforehand, a turn ahead of them, while calculating what might be useful for yourself maybe two turns ahead. It’s chess-like planning. And then, because the cards and the hut building options constantly change, and because you never know how successful your hunter-gatherers will be, there’s enough of a random element to keep you on your toes.
Quinns: Stone Age is not chess-like, it’s a world apart from any games that put you in direct conflict. In those games you’re watching your opponents, interested in their moves, because their moves affect you in a lasting way. In Stone Age, you couldn’t care less what your opponents are doing, both because the game is so dry and because the utmost extent of their actions affecting you is only ever somebody putting their tiny guy exactly where you wanted to put a tiny guy.
It’s an entirely negative experience. It’s passive-aggressive gaming. As you attempt to drag your tribe up the score track, you’re encountering not sabotage, not war, not cunning, not bribery, and not even good-humoured accidents, but a silent parade of pains in the arse.
Paul: Pah. Then again, maybe I’m not its best defender, because I like it but I don’t love it and I do think it’s slightly flawed. One of the points of the game is to keep your tribe fed every turn, otherwise you lose points, but I’ve seen players exploit the game. A starving tribe is still a working tribe, and a player can spend the entire game putting people to work instead of gathering food and potentially earn more victory points from being apparently self-destructive. That’s not right. Part of the point of Stone Age is to keep your workers fed every turn, that’s the penalty you incur for breeding more of them.
Quinns: Breeding on appointment. It’s even made sex boring. Similarly, maybe I’m not Stone Age’s strongest critic, since I also don’t feel comfortable with inviting friends over just to watch a film in silence. I can do that by myself!
Paul: Whoops, you’ve just outed yourself as a freak. And you were doing so well! Pit, or gallows?