ROLL THROUGH THE AGES
1-4. Best: 2-4; I have never played the solo variant.
30 minutes (2-3 players), 45 minutes 4 players
Matt Leacock (Pandemic, Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island)
Eagle-Gryphon Games (For Sale, Incan Gold, I'm The Boss)
Civilization Building, Dice Rolling
Build a City In Under an Hour
On the surface, Roll Through the Ages has many factors that make it a desirable game on paper for me. It’s a small box, takes 30-40 minutes to play and has a high degree of modularity. Roll Through the Ages was designed by the legendary Matt Leacock; it is part of the Eagle-Gryphon Bookshelf series featuring great hits such as Incan Gold and For Sale. Yet I did not know much about it before purchasing it; it was nominated for the 2010 Spiel des Jahres but doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Many, myself included, mistook it for Through the Ages, a perennial top ten lister on BoardGameGeek. It wasn’t until I played Roll Through the Ages that I realized how mean it can be, how unforgiving the game is when you do not listen to the dice and, most importantly, how this game is criminally underrated.
Roll Through the Ages, as it names implies, is a dice-based civilization game that simulates the process of building an empire from scratch. Players use the Yahtzee reroll mechanic to collect food to sustain current cities, workers to establish new cities and monuments for more cities and points and, finally, goods and coins to procure developments, which produce a variety of unique beneficial effects as well as points. There are also skulls, which produce two goods each but cannot be re-rolled; additionally, depending on the quantity, skulls will either be harmless, bad for you or bad for your opponents.
Like King of Tokyo, which uses a very similar re-roll mechanic, sometimes the best rerolls are the ones you do not make. Every outcome on a die produces something of value in most situations, but there is often a tendency to reach too far and end up with something less desirable. A reroll can also increase the chance of rolling another skull, which from one skull to two will result in negative two points for the current player unless adequately protected. It is also extremely easy to run out of food, and for each city you do not feed, you lose one point due to famine. It is not uncommon to see double digit points subtracted from your total score at the end of the game, and many of these negatives are completely preventable. Players just choose not to, and that’s a great aspect of this game – there are many viable paths to victory, which maximizing your own score and hurting others are big part of many of them.
There are thirteen developments that may be built in Roll Through the Ages, each unique. The game has two end conditions, one of which is when a player buys their fifth development. Since this is the after the roll phase, the fifth development will only result in points and perhaps a brief defensive ability; therefore, for the purposes of game-altering combinations, we will only consider the first four, accounting for 715 unique combinations of developments. While the distinctions between some of them may be minute, there are still plenty of paths to consider, and the order in which they are purchased influences the game; for example, if you delay purchasing food upgrades, you need to roll for food more often. Certain developments will combine to improve food production and reallocation, defensive abilities, increased worker efficiency or large points accumulation. It is even a viable strategy to try to end the game as quickly as possible before your opponents’ engines begin producing significant value.
There are also up to nine monuments (depending on the player count) which can be built for additional points. When workers are used on monuments, players mark off the appropriate number of boxes on their scoresheet and, when all boxes are marked, they score the larger number if they are the first player to complete it or the lower number if they are not. While the larger monuments have a better worker-to-point ratio (as high as 15-12), players may end the game before they are ever completed. Additionally, and much more painfully, these larger monuments may not be completed in a single turn, which allows your opponents the opportunity to have a burst of workers and complete them ahead of you, particularly if they have Engineering or Masonry. This risk-reward mechanism adds a lot of tension; I have won games by purchasing the most expensive monuments, by stealing monuments from other players and by ignoring them entirely to end the game quickly. For those who say there is no player interaction in this game, I disagree completely. You are constantly watching what other players are doing and evaluating how that will impact your engine – it will determine the game length, scoring opportunities and opportunities to provide (or be provided with) negative points.
Roll Through the Ages is very reminiscent of Race for the Galaxy, another engine building game, in that the game is played with extreme urgency. There is little time to waste as you must build your engine, determine your path to victory and accumulate as many points as possible for the end condition is triggered. If you are going last, this game provides the opportunity to end the game if you are winning and can fulfill one of the two criteria, leaving your opponents without a chance to react. Given that players can only build one development per turn and monuments take time to construct, you must estimate carefully how much time you have before deciding to focus strictly on points. There is a particular development, Granaries, that allows you to sell excess foods for four coins each, which even with seven cities and the full fifteen food (you cannot overproduce) will result in as many as 32 coins to add to your development purchase. If the game is ending, you get a nice boost to your purchasing power; if the game is not ending, you are likely to suffer a devastating famine or have a non-productive turn.
The final aspect of Roll Through the Ages that deserves attention is its clever resource management style, using Cracker Barrel style peg boards to keep track of your goods. Goods are accumulated in a two-dimensional scale that slows their growth; additionally, you must discard down to six at the end of your turn unless you have Caravans, so hording your goods for the better developments is not always an option. Coins will help in this endeavor, but they do not last from turn to turn; as a reminder, you can only buy five developments over the course of the game, so you must decide whether or not to accept the wasted resources and coins or alter your strategy and purchase a different development. Also, the best way to acquire goods is to roll skulls, so you can easily see how this game is an elaborate series of tradeoffs to be analyzed and mitigated.
Roll Through the Ages deserves a lot more attention that it receives and the game has held up well in the decade since it was released. While Matt Leacock receives continuous praise for his cooperative games, I’m not sure why this game has faded in notoriety when it is my favorite of his. I put it on my 10x10 challenge because it is easy to teach, quick to play and provides difficult decisions from start to finish. I highly recommend that you try this game if you have the opportunity.