Developing a new civilization has to be one hell of a tricky day job. I mean, my day job is to make catalogs, and that can sometimes be tough, but taking a civilization from stone weapons to the Great Pyramids just seems like it would really be a bitch. Between famine and pestilence and sex scandal in the White Palace, being in charge of an emerging civilization must have been harder than a job as Christian Bale's anger management coach.
Now, if those ancient tribes of primitive leaders had just had a set of wooden dice, things might have been a lot easier. I mean, when I played Roll Through the Ages, we managed to build cities, erect monuments, and develop irrigation in less than an hour. Can you imagine how much more difficult it would have been if we had actually been required to hire slaves and make them drag big stone blocks around? God, the paperwork alone must have been a nightmare.
Roll Through the Ages makes the whole thing easy. You start off with three cities, and each city lets you roll a die. The dice are all the same, but they have crazy stuff on every side, like one side will have three pieces of wheat, another has a jar of something-or-other, another has some people on it, and other sides have coins and skulls. The skulls are the ones to watch for, though - roll a few of these, and you might get invaded by Huns or give all your opponents smallpox (OK, that's actually kind of fun).
Every turn, you have several things to manage. You need food to feed your cities, and the more cities you have, the more food you need. You need goods and coins to develop stuff like medicine and granaries and architecture. You need workers to build more cities, and erect those gaudy monuments that must have seemed totally unnecessary at the time, but ended up being used by enterprising locals as tourist attractions for centuries (showing that the Bronze Age rulers had an incredible amount of vision). And all the while, you have to keep ahead of the Joneses, because it would be just like those damned Babylonians to go and build the Great Wall first, and leave the Chinese looking like copycats. Let's face it - nobody goes to visit the other Machu Picchu.
As the game progresses, bad stuff is going to happen. You'll roll too many skulls and wind up with drought, or invasion, or really itchy scalp way before anyone invents Selsun Blue. And when that happens, you lose points. You have to keep track of all these lost points, because at the end of the game, you subtract all those points from your achievements. It doesn't do much good to develop masonry if everyone revolts before you even get to build a brick outhouse.
When all the monuments have been built, or someone finishes five different developments, the game ends and everyone counts up their scores to see if they were the most impressive budding civilization. The player who built the most impressive civilization, as shown by adding up all your good stuff and subtracting all your disasters, gets to pretend he's King Tut. Everyone else gets to hit him with an orange in a sock for pretending to be King Tut.
By and large, I really enjoy Roll Through the Ages. It's a ton of luck, what with all the dice, but it's still fairly even. Poor planning at the beginning can sink you at the end, and a few bad rolls will ruin your day, but for the most part, the luck works out. In fact, the luck is part of the game - you roll and make the best of what you get. Since you get three or four rerolls (though you have to keep skulls), you'll have a chance to do something, even if it does end up being getting invaded and making an incredible number of clay pots.
There are a few problems, though. For one thing, there's virtually no player interaction. In fact, the game includes rules for solo play, because you never really get to stick it to your opponents (or invade them and use them as slaves, which would be way more fun). There's a little competition - you want to build the big monuments first, and you can hurt everyone else with pestilence if you roll just right - but mostly it's a bunch of people all taking turns playing a solo game and comparing scores at the end.
The biggest problem, ironically, is a direct result of multiple competitors. I haven't done an in-depth study of the game (because I have a job and a family and a television), but it seems to me that the best way to win is to build a bunch of cities really fast and then build the biggest monuments as quick as possible. You can have all kinds of calamities if you can go hide inside your pyramids. This means that there's not much reason to devote much time to the developments, which is kind of disappointing because the developments were one of my favorite parts of Roll Through the Ages. It does make the game go fast, but that's not always what I want in a game. In this case, I really would have liked the option to develop engineering and coinage before I went off to build the Parthenon. Instead, I can just spend two turns dumping all my workers into a monument and rack up a huge score for it.
But even with the lack of interaction and the abbreviated ending, Roll Through the Ages still barrels of fun. It's a fast-paced dice game where it pays to take risks and you can't ever have enough food (kind of like being a teenager). You can break it out and finish in less than an hour, and if you really just like the way it works, you can play all by your sad, lonesome self.
Really neat wooden components
Quick and intuitive
Risky - who dares, wins (unless they die)
Lots of chances to plan ahead and still be flexible
Not enough opportunity to ruin your friends
Ends before it really gets going
Matt Drake is a regular contributer to Fortress: Ameritrash and the author of the Drake's Flames blog, where you can read more of his crassly opinionated reviews.