Settlers of the Stone Age
Lead your tribe of Homo sapiens out of Africa to explore and expand over the globe. Issued as Abenteuer Menschheit by Kosmos, the game uses the familiar Settlers of Catan systems for its mechanics, with enough differences to make it worthwhile for even hardened Settlers players.
If you don't know what I mean by the Settlers of Catan systems, you should. Go here, buy the game, play it, then come back here. Settlers is so ubiquitous, I'm assuming most readers of this page will have played it before, so I will concentrate on the ways in which Settlers of the Stone Age, (SotSA), has molded the Settlers systems to fit its theme.
Jump to my opinions
Settlers of the Stone Age is played on a large map of the world, with the familiar landmasses replaced with Settlers-style hexes. Like Settlers, the goal is to be the first player to reach ten victory points. Unlike standard Settlers, the resource numbers are fixed, and do not change from game to game. At each intersection, there are small circles, some of which (32 to be exact), are shaded to represent allowable camp, (read settlement), locations. In addition, the hexside paths, (where a road would go in Settlers), are enlarged, and extend from Asia to North America and Australia, and extend off of the continents into the seas, (more on these later). In SotSA, the five familiar Settlers resource types have been replaced by only four types of hexes, which produce meat, bones, hides and flint.
The game is setup by placing a marker on all of the shaded camp spots. These come in four colors, and correspond to the continents upon which they are placed. The hex paths that extend off of the continents, (and between Asia and North America), are seeded with "Exploration markers". These come in four sets, and each set is randomly placed into boxes containing that sets' number. Players then begin placing their camps into Africa, in the standard Settlers rotating manner. Players place three camps into Africa, and the game begins. The turn sequence follows the standard roll, get resources for each settlement bordering hexes with the number rolled, trade, build sequence of Settlers. There are a few twists however.
The biggest twist is that of the "Explorers". In SotSA, players can create up to two explorers, which are placed next to an existing camp of the player. By spending a meat resource, that explorer can now move along the hexsides from intersection to intersection. In this manner, players are able to move their tribes out from Africa to the rest of the world. When reaching an allowable spot containing a tribe marker, an explorer can be converted into a new camp. Doing so causes the explorer to get replaced by a camp, and the player takes the marker, which is worth 1 victory point. Each player only has 5 total camps though, and once you've placed your first two, to place another means removing one of your camps that is in Africa. In SotSA, there is nothing equivalent to the cities of Settlers that provide two resources, (and are worth 2 VPs).
Rolling a seven still brings the robber, as in standard Settlers, but in SotSA there are two "robbers", the Neanderthal, and the Sabre-Tooth Tiger. The Neanderthal can only be placed on hexes in Africa, Europe or Asia, and the Sabre-Tooth can only be placed on hexes in the Americas and Australia. The standard "steal a resource" and "over 7 cards discard half" rules apply to the robbers in SotSA.
So with only 32 possible camps available, there seems to be a lack of victory points available doesn't there? Here's where the next interesting change from Settlers comes in: the advancements tracks. Around the edge of the board there are four five space tracks. These represent nourishment, clothing, construction, and hunting/fighting. Each player starts at level 0 on all four tracks, and can move up on a track by spending the appropriate resources to move to the next level. These change from level to level, requiring more resources, and a different mix of resources to move to level 1, levels 2 and 3, and levels 4 and 5. The benefits that one gets by moving up the tracks vary depending on the track. The nourishment track allows a player's explorers to move further when a meat resource is spent. For each point on the track, one is added to the player's explorers movement, (level 1 = three intersections, level 2 = 4, etc.). Moving on the hunting track allows the player to move one of the robbers, and steal a resource from someone with a camp on the hex the robber is moved to. Moving the robber(s) in this way does not trigger the "discard half of your resources if you have more than seven" rule however. The clothing and construction tracks have less immediate benefits. Remember the "exploration markers" mentioned previously? Along the paths that extend off and between the continents, there are spots that are seeded with face down exploration markers before the game begins. The first player to move along this path gets to take the marker. However, in order to move along these paths, you must have reached certain levels on the clothing and construction tracks, (which are indicated on the board). To even reach North America or Australia, you need to have advanced on these tracks. To get to Australia, for example, you need to have reached level 1 on the clothing track, (shoes), and level three on the construction track, (boat building). While this is a very abstract mechanic, the fact that the names of the levels do correspond somewhat to what would be required to undertake such a journey adds a nice bit of theme to the game. Finally, for the first player to reach level five on each track, there is a card which gives that player one victory point.
Now for those exploration markers. These are numbered in sets from I to IV, and are mixed up and placed on the corresponding spaces on the board. Within each set, there are three kinds of markers. One simply gives a victory point to the player that uncovers it. The second type allows the discoverer to move the robber of their choice. The third type are the most interesting, as they show a terrain type, and one hex of that type in Africa must be desertified. Placing the desert tile on a hex causes that hex to no longer produce anything, and so this mechanism forces players to get out of Africa as soon as possible. It is also interesting to note that in the set I chits there is a "Bone" tile. Bone is very important in the midgame, so while the "6" numbered bone space in Africa looks really good, it may very well be one of the first hexes in Africa to turn to sand.
Trading is the same as in Settlers, with two major differences. First off, there are no ports for those hand 2:1 trades. Secondly, trading to the bank is on a 3:1 basis, not 4:1 as in Settlers. There are also only four resource types, so this leads to trading between players happening a lot less frequently than in regular Settlers.
As already mentioned, each camp you found gets you one victory point, as do the exploration victory point chit and the level 5 cards. In addition to this, the first player to get a camp chip in all four tribes gets a two VP card, and the second player to do so is allowed to take any remaining tribe marker from the board for one VP. But what about The Longest Road? Well, there are no roads in SotSA, but the player who can get the most exploration chits gets a two VP card, which can be stolen if another player can get more.
First off, let me say that I like Settlers. I don't love it, nor was it my introduction to German games. It's a fine game. However, I've always felt that it is too static, and it is far to easy to get cutoff from being able to build long roads and/or get good resource spots through no fault of your own. This leads to a very frustrating game. The explorers therefore provide the mobility that I desire. Also, there appear to be more possible paths to victory in SotSA than in regular Settlers. So, take a game system I like, remove the one thing that bugs me about it, give me attractive, high-quality components, and I'm there.
And not just others, but you can include me in this category as well. Here's what I see that is wrong with SotSA. The most obvious thing is the fixed resource numbers on the hexes, and the fixed terrain types. This should limit replayability. With a game like Settlers, where it often gets played over and over and over, the lack of a fixed board and resource numbers is a great thing. I'm never going to play SotSA so much that I need that much replayability. Secondly, SotSA is a longer game than Settlers, though I'm not sure by how much. I've not played Seafarers or Cities & Knights, (the latter I've heard significantly increases the playing time), but I don't think SotSA is out of line in terms of play time with either of these. Another issue I've heard is that SotSA has a bigger runaway leader problem than standard Settlers, and I have to agree with this somewhat, which ties in to the one potential flaw I see in the game.
It appears to me that there is a "single best strategy" in SotSA, and that is to go for the exploration chits to the exclusion of almost everything else. Not only are there four VPs hidden amongst them, but if you don't get the VPs you will either et the robber chits or the desertification chits. Getting the robber chits allow you to move the robber off of your hexes that are being blocked, (the primary way to slow down the leader), while not having to spend resources to move to the higher levels of the hunting track. If you get the desertification tiles instead, then you get to control what hexes in Africa turn to desert, and can make sure that your hexes are not the targets. Plus if you have the ability to get to the chits early, you will likely get the 2 VP card, and once you've got that, it's very hard for others to take it away. Now I will be the first to admit I haven't played SotSA enough to completely verify this, and perhaps in a game where all of the players were experienced, and were aware of the power of the exploration markers, this wouldn't be an issue, but it is a concern I have.
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