Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stone Age: I lost and I hate it;also, gaming at Michael and Maura's

Larry and I carpooled over to Michael and Maura's place yesterday afternoon and got there around 4, and we got in some great gaming. Scott, "California" Doug, Larry, and I played Alhambra (I lost) and Goa (I won). Doug explained Stone Age while Michael finished up at the other table, and then I lost by about a zillion points at Stone Age. Larry had gotten up early to run cables in his attic, so we left about 11 or so.

Stone Age is an oddity, and I didn't like it at all, and not just because I lost. I had a huge, viscerally negative reaction, probably the strongest since my gut-churning hatred of Alexandros. Larry and I talked it over as we headed back, hopped up on soda and pizza, and discussing it helped express with words what I already felt.

Each player begins Stone Age with 5 cavemen, who are assigned each turn to perform such tasks as gathering food, getting resources via die-rolls, makin' babies, and doing Eurogamey stuff (converting resources into cards and/or converting resources into victory points). There are two ways the game can run out, making the game variable in length.

In theory, there's huge tension because you might not have enough food and might lose victory points for not being able to feed your cavemen. Larry tried a "starvation" strategy where he just placed his workers and took the victory point hit each turn, and ignored the resources-to-cards conversion track. Oh, and your "starved" workers aren't removed, they live to starve in the next round, and the next, and the next... Larry thus had free rein to place workers willy-nilly, where the rest of us either went up the food track a lot, or spent a lot of time wasting time collecting food.

As Larry pointed out, there's a huge set of unknown-unknowns: Are you going to roll to get enough resources? Is the game going to go fast or slow, and if so, what are these various victory point conversions worth? What's any placement really worth? How can I best block someone else, presuming they are in a position to grab a great victory point conversion? Are we there yet?

The start player gets to place workers first, and there are basically 3 excellent spots in the opening stages of the game, so if you're tail-end Charlie (and I was), you'll have to watch these spots be grabbed and take leftovers for 3 turns before getting to place first when the start player marker rotates around to you. The 3 spots are to create more workers, get a re-usable die-roll bonus, and permanently reduce your food upkeep cost. I loved the aspect of having limits and then having the limits eased, but again, there are 3 spots, and 4 people. If you're playing with other numbers of players, the occupancy limits are adjusted, so there's always an element of screwage that El Grande or Saint Petersburg players will enjoy (Saint Petersburg is also by Stone Age's designers, so it's no coincidence that player order figures so strongly in both).

In practice, unless you advance the food track or decide to adopt the "starvation" strategy, statistically, you need to devote about a third of your workers every turn, or all your workers every third turn, in order to get enough food to keep from starving. Again, as tail-end Charlie, I had to watch everyone else grab the food track 3 times prior to grabbing it for myself, at which point the player who advanced food first had also gotten an extra food advance from a card. In theory, this evens out, but in actual practice, it didn't, due to the speed at which the game ended.

The resources-to-cards set of cards use a waterfall cost method, so we had 4 cards out each round, costing 1, 2, 3, and 4 resources. In theory, as tail-end Charlie, you'll have a better chance at getting the cards you want, so it all works out. In actual practice, the cards are wildly variable in effect and value, so the fluctuating costs are simply another method for making player order frustrating. There's a ton of good, interesting things to do on every turn, and in practice, you're able to interact with very few of them. In some games, AP would lock players up, but the fact that there's only so much calculation you can do means players pretty much place and hope. There are strong opportunities to block, but again, you may not have enough cavemen to waste, just to be spiteful. All of this sounds great, but in practice, it's a giant dog's breakfast of icons, shopping for victory points, potentially-starving cavemen, and bitter regret. If you know anything about probability, it's better to clump up the cavemen than gamble them on single resource spots, so it was rare to see anyone place cavemen on more than one resource spot unless their tribe was going to starve.

So, if you're following this, it's Saint Petersburg (a shopping game where turn order is a total bummer)+Aladdin's Dragons (worker placement plus converting wildly-variable resources to varied victory points)+Agricola (worker placement and blocking plus brutal need for food)+ Caylus (worker placement and conversion of resources plus variable game length), minus fun. Some of you may recall this rant about turn order in Puerto Rico; Stone Age evokes that same frustration. The game length is wildly variable depending on which huts (resources-to-vp conversions) come up, and in what order, and based on players' whims. Spendthrift players can speed up the game significantly. Much like in Aladdin's Dragons, a player who wants to win must be pursuing resources-to-victory points conversions from the beginning, by finding bargains and opportunities.

After all my complaints, I'd still be willing to play Stone Age again, just to see if having two newbies threw the game out of whack. Rest assured, I won't play as the last player of a 4-player game next time I try it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you hate the turn order, just play 2P Stone Age.

For food, focus on getting farms, market cards, and food-reward civ cards. That keeps you from having to farm all the time.

10:59 AM  

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