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I was absolutely thrilled to win a copy of Roll Through the Ages recently in a Dice Tower podcast contest - my first game contest win ever. It finally came in the mail the night before I was to spend a weekend away with my wife Heather, and she had actually asked that I bring some games to play in our hotel room in the evenings. Perfect timing!
I gladly brought it out the first evening, and it took only about 20 minutes to digest the rules. I was very impressed with how much actually comes in this compact box: it is chock full of stuff: so full that I was literally not able to put everything back in the box once the pegs that come in the game were bagged. Both this game and Pandemic (the other great Matt Leacock design) should be noted as two games that have the best chance of staying intact and not getting flattened after being driven over by a truck. My wife was impressed with the wooden components too and thought the idea of dice imprinted with wood-burning was pretty cool. I explained the rules in about 10 minutes, and then we dove into our first game.
Mini-review: The idea of this game is to collect the most victory points by building monuments, acquiring developments, and avoiding disasters, while collecting enough food to feed your cities. You start the game with 3 cities, can build up to 4 more, and you get to roll one die for each city you’ve built. But the extra dice come at a cost: you must spend one unit of food per turn per die you’ve rolled, and for every unit you’re short, you get one negative point toward your final score. Besides symbols for food on each die, there are also symbols for goods, skulls (which can accumulate to form disasters), workers, and coins. Like Yahtzee, at the beginning of your turn you roll and decide which ones you want to keep, rolling the other ones up to 2 more times, although in this game, if you roll a skull, you have no choice but to keep it. Each player tracks their points on their own score sheet, which also depicts the cities and monuments available to build, the development available to buy, and a place to track the number of disasters encountered. There is a huge pad of these sheets included in the game (and once I take it out of the box, the rest of the pieces fit quite nicely).
Workers can be assigned to build cities or monuments. The various cities and monuments require different amounts of workers to build them, as represented by the number of boxes that need to be checked off within them on the score sheet. The first player to build a specific monument gets a certain number of points, and any other players who complete that same monument later will only score about half of those points. Goods and food units are tracked on the wooden peg board each player gets. The more of a certain type of good that is collected, the more valuable that collection of goods becomes. There are five types of goods (wood, stone, pottery, cloth, and spearheads) that are progressively more valuable, but the better goods are also more difficult to obtain, since when collecting goods, you have to collect the least valuable ones first. For example, if I roll 5 goods, I will collect one of each of the 5 types of goods, but without rolling 5, I’ll never acquire a spearhead. The goods’ value is used to buy developments, which is something you can do once at the end of each turn. The value of the coins rolled can also be used to buy developments. These thirteen available developments are listed on the score sheet, cost various amounts of coinage to acquire, are worth different amounts of victory points at the end of the game, and provide specific benefits or powers that can be used for that player during the rest of the game. For example, the Leadership development gives you the ability to roll one die a fourth time (even if it’s a skull), and the Architecture development gives you one extra point per monument you’ve built at the end of the game.
When two or more skulls are rolled by a player in one turn, a disaster will occur, which depending on the number of skulls, results in negative points for the current player, the loss of all the current player’s goods, or even negative points for the other players. The game ends when either one player acquires his fifth development, or when all of the available monuments have been built at least once. Final scores are calculated by adding the victory points assigned to each development acquired and monument you built, adding any bonus points the developments may give (like Architecture), and subtracting the amount of negative (disaster) points accumulated over the course of the game.
In the game with my wife, I concentrated on 2 things: getting more cities (dice) quickly, and buying good developments. I got to 6 dice in a handful of turns, however, I found out how much work it can be to support these extra dice with enough food. I experienced a few famines. Heather was having an easier time of it with only 4 dice. The first development I acquired with the help of a dice roll bringing me 3 coins was the Coinage development which increases the worth of each coin rolled. This in turn helped me get Caravans, Agriculture, Religion, and the other significantly helpful development: Engineering, which I used to turn a stone good into 3 extra workers on my last turn to help me finish building the Great Wall monument worth 10 points. I didn’t acquire many goods over the course of the game, but really didn’t feel the need to with all of the good coins I was rolling. I encountered one drought for a loss of 2 more points, but other than that, I didn’t roll many skulls.
Meanwhile, it took Heather a couple of turns to really understand what was going on, which gave me a bit of a head start. She acquired quite a lot of goods in the game, getting four developments closer to the end of the game, none of which provided a huge benefit outside of their point values. She was able to build a couple of decent monuments, like me, and ended up faring a lot better than I thought she would, picking up steam near the end. But this game can end very quickly, and I’m wondering if it doesn’t even feel a little too quick. I’ve heard of other people playing to 7 developments instead of just 5.
But in our game, I reached the fifth development first, within about 20-25 minutes of starting the game. When we tallied up our points, this is what it looked like:
Me: 29 points (23 from developments, 11 from monuments, minus 5 disaster points)
Heather: 20 points (20 from developments, 8 from monuments, minus 8 disaster points)
Heather quite enjoyed the game, and wanted to try it again the next night. Overall, my impressions are very favorable. There’s just the right amount of luck, while rewarding strategic thinking with a few available paths to victory. It plays pretty quickly (almost too quickly), and does make me feel like I’ve played the beginning of a bigger, Civilization-style game without having invested a lot of time in it. I think the development benefits can be very useful, provided one gets them fairly early, or otherwise it will feel like you never really got a chance to do anything with them. There’s not a lot of interaction, outside of a couple of disasters that can affect the other players, and the obvious fact that this whole game is a race to see who can get the most done in a very short amount of time, with a few smaller sub-races built in (the races to build the individual monuments). Which is interaction enough as far as I’m concerned, especially for a game in this style. I also like the fact that it includes official rules for playing it solo. It really does feel like a condensed version of some of the main elements of a Civ game played with dice - not enough to permanently satisfy the deep hunger pains of a Civilization lover, but enough to provide some pretty enjoyable "snacking". And while my wife may never enjoy playing the similarly named Through the Ages, she’s already asked for us to play this again.
I’ve never encountered a better dice game that plays in under a half-hour. I was very curious to see what a Civilization-themed dice game from the designer of Pandemic would look like, and the end result is quite a bit better than I had anticipated.
Thumbs up for Roll Through the Ages!
This game was an instant hit with my girlfriend as well. It took her a game to grok (I won this first game in a blowout using the variant 7-development endgame condition). The second game (here we went back to the basic 5-development endgame) was closer: 30-27 for me. The third game she won handily 32-20 as I was unable to manage disasters and famine (-10 points, where she had none!) Looking forward to trying it solo as well.
Although this game is a short filler, I can see it as part of a longer meatier experience with future expansions (Roll Through the Ages: Iron Age anyone?) where each subsequent expansion provides the opportunity for earning more points.