Welcome to my strategy guide for the board game Stone Age, designed by Michael Tummelhofer.
Despite the theme, the beautiful artwork, and the cute meeples, Stone Age is, in essence, an economic simulator. Players earn currency, then sometimes they save it and other times they use the currency to buy, and sometimes they sell. To maximise their chances of winning players must learn to do all of this as efficiently as possible.
You might be wondering what this currency is that I have mentioned, because it is not explicitly mentioned in the rules. Well, if this is an economic simulator, and the game is a worker placement game, then we can think of the currency as being what the workers (i.e. your meeples) earn when they go out to work. When a meeple is placed in any of the resource areas, a die is rolled for him. We can think about the pips on the die as being his wages for the work that he has done, and we can imagine that he spends those wages on food or wood, or whatever resource he is collecting. In this way, pips become the currency of the game, and by doing this it is possible to analyse the game and assign pips value to most of the choices that have to be made.
If the previous paragraph depresses you a little, the good news is that I have done the maths so that you don’t have to!
The best way to approach Stone Age is to think about it as being made up of three phases: the early game, the mid-game, and the endgame. In the early game you will be focusing on agriculture, tools, and increasing the size of your tribe; you will be trying to build an engine that feeds your people automatically, and has the ability to get whatever resources or victory points you want from the board. In the endgame your engine is complete and you will not care about improving it, you will only be interested in scoring as many points as possible from the huts and civilisation cards. The mid-game is perhaps the trickiest of the three phases – it is a combination of the early game and the end game. In the mid-game you will still be building your engine, but you will also be trying to score victory points too, and getting the balance right is not easy.
Let us start by looking at the early game shall we? This is where you should be focusing on agriculture, tools and making more meeples. But which is more important? Well, it is possible to assign values (in pips) for all three and compare them. If we do this we find that agriculture is worth more than tools, which is worth more than extra meeples. A movement up the agriculture track for example, is worth one food (which is worth two pips) every turn. If a game lasts ten turns therefore, an early move into farming is worth twenty pips, though it is worth less later in the game.
The maths for working out the pip value of tools is a bit more complicated. The value of a tool depends on which resources you are gathering, and the number of different locations. While there will be some occasions when a tool is worth more than two pips per turn, on average it will be worth less than that, though not by much.
The value of an extra meeple is 1.5 pips per turn (3.5 less the cost of the one food the meeple needs to survive) but because you have to invest two meeples in the love hut to get the extra meeple, this makes the love hut the lowest value of the three.
However, both tools and extra meeples have values above and beyond the pure pip value, and that comes from the fact that they give you an extra element of control. Tools allow you to pick and choose which dice rolls you care most about, and if you have enough tools you can make decisions based on certainty rather than rolling dice and hoping for the best. Extra meeples allow you to block opponents’ strategies and to take advantage of unexpected developments in the game. Most importantly, extra meeples give you opportunities to claim victory points via huts and cards, which agriculture and tools do not.
So, what conclusion have we come to? All three village spots have their merits, so what is the best strategy? Well, the truth is, there is no definitive answer to that question. The game is well balanced and your strategy will depend on what your opponents are doing anyway. It is often better to go for things that the other players are ignoring rather than competing and paying over the odds.
It is widely believed though that agriculture is the most important thing early on, and that you should always choose agriculture when you are the first player. I would argue that tools and extra meeples are of similar importance; however, because most players take agriculture as their first move, you should probably do the same, otherwise you will never get any. When you are not the first player, you should, as I mentioned, usually first go for tools or extra meeples.
Once those spaces are taken up on the board, you have to decide what to go for next. I would advise you consider two things: wood, and civilization cards.
It is always good to have wood.
Hmmm. Perhaps I should rephrase that. Wood is the cheapest resource and you will need lots of it for buying civilization cards later in the game. If you take all the wood early in the game, it puts opponents at a disadvantage. If your opponents take it all before you, you should go for clay instead.
Even in the early game, it is usually a good idea to go for the cheapest civilisation card. As we shall come to later on, they are always really good value for money (or should that be value for pips). Even the second or third cheapest card is worth considering, especially if they contain valuable engine-building bonuses, namely agriculture or tools.
Now let us think about the mid-game. A few turns have passed; your engine is starting to develop and your opponents’ strategies are starting to become apparent.
Try to anticipate what your opponents are doing. If one has got no wood at all, he is probably going to go for it now – can you block him? If one has claimed a hut without having a particular resource to pay for it, he is almost certainly going to go for now – can you block him?
Most importantly, you will need to make a decision about when to stop growing your tribe, building tools, and developing agriculture. As the game goes on, these things become less valuable, and there comes a time when they are not worth much at all, if anything. Most obviously, there is no point in having more agriculture points than you have meeples in your tribe; the extra food will be wasted. Extra meeples and tools also exhibit diminishing returns however, but how many are too many? Well, it depends of course on your preferred playing style, and what your opponents are doing. Extra meeples are good for blocking if you want to play aggressively. Extra tools are useful if you believe you are cursed in some way and you keep rolling ones. As a rule of thumb though, I would suggest that you should aim for a tribe of size 7-8, and your agriculture should match that. You are unlikely to need more than 5 tools.
It is usually during the mid-game that people start to buy lots of huts. I would advise against overdoing this though. As we shall see in a moment, huts are usually not great value. I usually only buy huts in the mid-game when I want to use up some gold or stone that I have acquired.
So that brings us to the endgame. In this part of the game you should be ignoring agriculture, tool production and extra meeples, and focusing instead on trying to turn your resources into victory points.
The most efficient way of doing this, as I hinted earlier, is via civilization cards rather than huts. The victory points for each hut, you may have noticed, are equal to the total pip value of the resources used to buy them. In other words, buying a hut converts pips to victory points in the ratio 1:1. However, for civilization cards the ratio is usually much better than 1:1. A card with, say two dice rolls of resources in the top half, and a single agriculture multiplier in the bottom half, is worth on average seven pips and maybe seven victory points. This would be an absolute bargain if you only paid one wood for it, but even if you paid four wood it would still be better value than a hut. Double or triple multipliers are, of course, worth even more.
(In this comparison I have ignored the cost of the meeple used to claim the hut or card, because the cost is the same for both)
There are some civilization cards which are not worth paying more than one or two resources for though, such as one with a top half agriculture bonus late in the game, or one with a green background and a culture symbol which you already have. However. You should consider that it might be worth more to an opponent, and it might be worth taking to stop him from acquiring it cheaply.
You will usually find though that there are not enough civilisation cards available, so to make the most of your turn you will need to buy huts too. You should note that it is more efficient (because of the cost in feeding the meeple you use to claim it) to buy expensive huts than cheap ones, so that is what you should aim to do if you can.
There is one very well-known strategy that I have not mentioned yet. It is a powerful strategy, and one that is difficult to beat. Often referred to as the ‘starvation strategy’ it involves ignoring hunting and agriculture completely, allowing the tribe to starve, and focusing on other resources instead. A player adopting this strategy usually builds as big a tribe as possible. Without the burden of having to provide food, is often able to amass more than enough resources and victory points to compensate for the ten point penalty each turn.
Now, I do not approve of this strategy. One of the things I like most about Stone Age is the theme. Whenever I play I like to suspend my disbelief and convince myself that I am actually running a tribe. If an opponent stops feeding his tribe completely it breaks the illusion for me. Therefore my tip for starvation strategy is please do not do it.
If you want to prevent other players from adopting it too, why not try my solution: introduce a house rule that says that if you cannot feed your people on a particular turn, then in addition to the ten point penalty you also lose a meeple. For me this fits the theme really well, and nips the starvation strategy problem in the bud (Actually, the people I play with do not even know it is a house rule, they think it is a proper rule. Please do not tell them. If they are too lazy to read the manual for themselves it really serves them right).
If you cannot get away with this, then you have my sympathies. The best way to beat a player using this strategy is to make the game as short as possible by drilling through one stack of huts as quickly as you can. Other tactics that will confound the starvation player include blocking the things that he wants, such as the love hut, and certain civilization cards (especially meeple multiplier cards). It helps if all players work together to do this. One player who does this on his own will give himself a disadvantage – a fact that the starvation player often relies upon. If you play regularly with the same people though, it is worth losing an game or two to show opponents that starvation does not work. Having to deal with starvation players does take a lot of the fun out of the game, so to any players considering the starvation strategy I repeat, please do not do it!
The best civilization cards are:
- The leaf – allows you to choose any two resources any time you want to, making it much easier to pick up most huts.
- Anything with a double or triple multiplier.
- The cards with the dice rolls – especially early on in the game and especially if there are three or four players because you are likely to pick up either a tool or an agriculture for free.
Some additional general tips:
- It is more efficient to group your meeples together on one resource than it is to spread them across several unless you have lots of tools.
- You should (usually) order your rolls from highest valued good to lowest. Using a tool to pick up an extra gold is better than using it to get an extra wood.
- Try to roll sixes!
My last piece of advice is simply to pay attention. Even if you have memorised this analysis, and think you know how to react under any circumstances, your plans will come undone if you make a stupid mistake. It is easily done. I was playing Stone Age with friends last week, just two days after finishing writing this, which I thought was a pretty thorough analysis of the game. My friends had never played before at all, so I was feeling quietly confident. Then, on the fourth turn, I forgot to buy enough food to feed my people. I just forgot. Under my own draconian starvation rules, one of my meeples died. The poor little fellow had a wife and family too! My friends thought it was hilarious.