Sunday, May 12, 2013

Roll Through the Ages Review

Roll Through the Ages was designed by Matt Leacock.  It came out in 2008, and is currently published by Gryphon Games.  I'd heard about it for years, but always dismissed it as looking too boring.  The game looked like little more than a wooden pegboard and a spreadsheet.  But still, everything I'd heard had been positive.  So when I saw a copy in the library at PAX East 2013, I decided to give it a go.  Boy was I surprised by what I found!

Roll Through the Ages is a dice game where you will be building up your civilization over about 5 to 10 turns.  It contains elements of push your luck, as well as some cleverly abstracted civilization building and economic mechanics.  One thing that shocked me, is that being a fan of Pandemic, I had no idea the same designer also worked on Roll Through the Ages.  They couldn't be more different games.  I can't think of a single similarity among them.  Between Pandemic and Forbidden Island, I wasn't aware that Matt Leacock had that sort of range.

Rule Summary

At the beginning of a game, players will receive a pegboard and a score sheet.  The pegboard tracks their food and goods, and the score sheet tracks their cities, developments, monuments and disasters.  Players will start off with 3 food and 3 cities.

On a players turn, they will roll 1 die for each city they have, which is 3 at the start.  They will then gather food and goods off their dice.  After that, they feed their cities, one food per city, and resolve any disasters or starvation.  Players are then allowed to allocate workers to new cities and monuments, and purchase one development.

When rolling the dice, players get three chances.  After their first roll, they may choose to reroll any of the dice that didn't land on a disaster.  They get to do this again after their second roll, even choosing to reroll dice they had previously kept.  After the third roll the results are locked in.

Top row: 3 food, 2 food or 2 people, 3 people
Bottom row: 1 good, 2 goods and 1 disaster, 7 coins

The six faces of the die are workers, food, workers or food, goods, goods and a disaster, or coins.  Food and goods are simply collected, and tracked on the pegboard.  Disasters come with extra goods, but they also inflict negative consequences on players, ranging from lost points, to losing all your goods if you roll 5 of them!  Workers can be used to build cities and monuments, and coins can be used in conjunction with goods to purchase developments.

The game ends when either one player has purchased 5 developments, or collectively all the monuments have been built.  Then everyone gets an equal number of turns.  Players will then score points for developments and monuments, but lose points for disasters which occurred over the course of the game.  The player with the most points wins.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

This game is fantastic for people new to board games.  First of all, it's dice, and new gamers always love dice.  The game has a simple structure, plays quickly, but still manages to have interesting decisions to make. Decisions that someone new to games can quickly understand the consequences of.  There is nothing worse for new gamers than being forced to make a decision, and having no clue why you would pick one option over another.

In Roll Through the Ages the decisions have very direct consequences.  There are no layers of indirection and subtlety.  If you are low on food, you will try to roll more.  If you want more dice, you build cities.  If you are behind in points, it's time to start working on monuments.  You have immediate actions you can take to satisfy your immediate wants.  It feels good, and it's rarely frustrating.

Why is the game so accessible?

The answer to all
your questions
What is really fantastic about Roll Through the Ages is the quality of the reference material.  Down the right side of the score sheet is everything a player could ever need to know.  How to take their turn.  What the die symbols mean.  What the disaster symbols do.  When the game ends.  Plus it even includes an area to add up your score!  It's flawless, and absolutely nothing is left out.  Someone could have easily thought a game this simple didn't need reference material.  However I'm extremely pleased that isn't the direction that was taken.  It's fantastic watching new gamers suddenly realize all they need to do is look at the right side of their score sheet, and all their questions will be answered.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

So far I haven't noticed experienced players having any particular advantage.  There just isn't any sort of hidden knowledge to this game.  No arcane series of manipulations which could constitute a "trick".  The dice once again are the great equalizer.  No strategy survives first contact with the enemy.  In this case, the enemy would be the dice.

Possibly the only thing experienced players might have on new players is more patience.  Patience to save up goods for a nice expensive development.  Patience to start dumping workers into a big monument early, even thought the payoff is 4 or 5 turns later.  They may also better evaluate which developments are better for their circumstances.  But then again, all that could easily fall through if the dice don't cooperate, or the game ends early due to a player knocking out 5 developments back to back.  A common occurrence with new players.

Why is it so fun for everyone?

Everything you
can do is right here
Once again, the first rate reference material keeps new players completely immersed in the game, and aware of their options.  You'll never hear "Oh, I didn't know I could buy a development!" or "I didn't know Irrigation protected me from disasters!" because the cards for those choices were scattered halfway across a table cluttered with components.  That will never happen, because everything a player needs is right in front of them, in the center of their attention.

It's rarely obvious which player is winning as well.  Thanks to the time honored tradition of not adding up points until the end of the game, players aren't preoccupied with who is doing better.  They just get to focus on playing the best game they possibly can, and won't get bummed out that their best efforts aren't catching them up to the leader.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

The final state of the realm of King Kyle
I was positively shocked how well this game captured the feel of a civilization building game.  That essential quality of building up your empire, accumulating wealth, and developing technology.  That this entire experience is so light on the rules, and plays in only 20 minutes astounds me.  I also really appreciate how the uncertainty of governing a civilization was abstracted in the dice.  It's especially thematic to me that when you work the people extra hard for trade goods, disasters strike because they aren't tending the fields and are becoming disgruntled.

The great thing about Roll Through the Ages that really makes it a treat to play, is that nearly every turn you will accomplish something.  You'll build another city.  You'll develop a new technology.  You may even build the Great Pyramids.  Progress happens rapidly, and the game has a fantastic pace.  By the end, your civilization with be quite distinct from everyone else's.  After a mere 5 to 10 turns, you will have developed your people to their zenith and the game is over.

Why is the game so enjoyable?

What makes this game play especially smooth are the score sheets and the peg board.  Score sheets seem to have a bad reputation in gaming.  Likely because you know that some day, you will use them all up.  So many games resort to all sorts of fiddly tracking mechanics that would have been greatly simplified with a pen and paper.  I applaud Roll Through the Ages for picking the right solutions to the problem.  There are a lot of different ways civilizations can develop in this game.  Just crossing off the right boxes is much quicker and simpler than nearly any other tracking solution.  Not to mention more intuitive.  It keeps the flow of the game going, which is so important in a light weight dice game.  Nothing is worse than a light game which plays slow.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

For a dice game, Roll Through the Ages offers some surprisingly interesting long term strategies.  Nothing that rivals a longer, more intricate game design.  But for a dice game it's top notch.  Often the first development or two your purchase will do a lot to determine the direction you take through the game.  And there are a lot of developments.

That being said, it's still a dice game, which means a strong tactical element.  The decisions about which dice you keep, and how it effects your food levels are your most immediate concerns.  Although I've occasionally let people starve and earned a few negative points if it meant rushing another city or monument to completion.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

Roll Through the Ages does a good job of pulling you in multiple directions.  You can build more cities, which gives you more dice, but also more mouths to feed.  Plus those are people which aren't building you monuments which you need for points.  It also tends to make you more susceptible to disasters.

There are developments you can buy that make feeding your cities easier, and protect you from disasters.  But if you purchase those, you aren't purchasing the developments which allow you to develop faster, or build quicker.

You might choose to play a long term strategy, aiming for the top tier developments like Empire, but someone else might rush the game to an early conclusion by buying up the five cheapest developments, without ever having built a new city or monument.  Suddenly the game ends and you didn't score anything at all!

A very suboptimal roll.

Even on just the die rolls, you will be constantly tempted to reroll otherwise safe die results.  You'll see a bunch of 2 food/2 worker dice, and think to yourself "If I roll 3 food, I only need 1 die to feed all my cities instead of 2"  The 1 trade good die face tends to suffer a similar fate.  Coins tend to get rerolled a lot too, since if you don't plan on purchasing anything this round, they are useless.

Why are the dilemmas so good?

Roll Through the Ages presents a player with 13 fantastic technologies, of which they will only get to buy 5 if they are lucky.  But trust me, you'll want them all.  You'll be forced to pick very carefully.  The brief game length also forces a lot of specialization on players.  Your first game, you might get caught off guard by an abrupt end.  After that you know that you have to rush towards certain objectives, and mean business about it.  The game evolves a bit from push your luck, to trying to optimize and synergize your dice rolls with your developments.

But even if you aren't playing your A game, there are very few bad rolls in Roll Through the Ages.  It's mostly contextual.  You may not get the workers you wanted to finish the Great Wall.  But you have a lot of goods you can use for a development.  Or perhaps you ended up with tons of food stockpiled.  Now you don't have to worry about feeding your cities, and can focus on workers next turn.

I once saw someone roll the worst game I'd ever seen.  Every turn he rolled at least 2 disasters, with very little in the way of food or workers.  However he very quickly bought up the first 5 developments, and nearly ended the game while I was still gearing up, building cities in an effort to knock out monuments.  A single turn gave me enough time to earn a few meager points before the game ended.  And despite hardly being able to feed his people, and getting slammed with drought after drought, the other player still ended up with positive points based on the quantity of developments he purchased.  It was a surprisingly effective result for as poorly as we both thought he was rolling.

Physical component design and limitations?

I've talked a great deal about how much I love the score sheet already.  It's great from a gameplay perspective.  But that isn't all.  Roll Through the Ages comes with an enormously thick pad of score sheets.  Plus they are double sided.  I honestly have no clue how many score sheets the game comes with.  At least 100.

This is a fantastic tracking solution.

The pegboard used to track your goods and food is also fantastic.  It's simple, effective, and most importantly you won't lose track of anything if the table gets knocked or a stray die wonders into your play area.  Something which is very important in this game.  I played an older version of the game where all the pegs were the same color, but the version I own has pegs colored to match the goods you collect.  I do enjoy the colorful version, since the components of the game can be a bit dull.

In fact, the components of Roll Through the Ages just look boring.  You would never guess this is a fun game by looking at it.  Nothing about this game pops, or grabs your attention, or makes you ask yourself "I wonder how you play that?"  If I hadn't had so many people, who's judgement I value, telling me "Trust me, it's fun" I sincerely doubt I would have even bothered with it.

What could have been better?

The game suffers a serious lack of color.  The components are just white paper with black inking, natural wooden dice with brown icons, and a natural wooden peg board, with a tiny splash of color in the goods printed on it.  Minimalist will be all over this game.  Everyone else is likely to be extremely turned off by it.

The components will grow on you.  They are very well made, and will easily outlast any cards or cardboard other games are made of.  Over time their simple aesthetic will become charming, if you give them a chance.

So much brown and tan!

But the game needs more color.  It just does.  Anything at all to spice up the visual palette. Multicolored sides of the die.  Stronger coloring on the pegboard.  Even the box is predominantly wood and brown tones.  It kills me to look at.  I can't help but wonder how well this game would do if it had the same bright eye catching colors of King of Tokyo.

Still, despite my misgivings about the dull components and artwork, nobody else has complained.  I suspect that once someone gets this game in front of you, and teaches you how to play, you simply don't care anymore.

Long term prospects?

This is the rare dice game that actually has some meat on it.  Yet its still incredibly easy to teach.  Those two qualities alone earn it a permanent spot in my collection.  It is incredibly difficult to find a game that plays in under 30 minutes, but that anyone can play and enjoy, regardless of skill level.  Too frequently non-gamers are overwhelmed and confused, or serious gamers are bored and disengaged.  This game manages to satisfy both groups with flying colors, which is truly an accomplishment to brag about.

I'd previously only found those qualities in the fantastic Battle Line.  But Battle Line is only for two players.  So as it stands, this is the sole game in my collection that satisfies gamers of all levels, is easy to teach, and plays in under 30 minutes.

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget about the free printable expansion, the Late Bronze Age!