Roll Through the Equal Rights Amendment
Matt Leacock may have gained public acclaim thanks to Lunatix Loop and Knit Wit, but I must confess a heterodox belief that Pandemic, Roll Through the Ages, and Forbidden Desert will eventually be recognized as his more influential designs. Consider Era: Medieval Age as a prime example. As a successor to Roll Through the Ages it sheds the system’s slimness for a small hill of plastic, but it also happens to be a near-perfect dice game.
Here’s the thousand-mile overview of what you’ll be doing in Era. As the mayor of a medieval town, it’s your task to provide food, comfort, security, and shape to the lives of those living within your demesne. This involves rolling dice to gain resources, build actions, and maybe more aggressive opportunities, gradually arranging new structures to gain their benefits, and weathering bandits, plagues, and the extortions of your neighbors.
Some have called it a roll-and-write game. It’s true enough that the dice provide opportunities, and placing miniature houses and farms onto your pegboard isn’t that far off from inscribing them onto a pad, à la Cartographers. But as a designation, it may prove misleading. Where many roll-and-writes feature a shared roll or draw, everybody’s dice pool in Era is their own, and will gradually adopt its own composition as new types of citizenry are attracted to your settlement. A town thick with priests won’t function much like a town that’s heavy on the burghers. Robber baron or pious farmer, it’s up to you. Speaking of which, Era is also a fair bit more open-ended than most roll-and-writes, providing a number of divergent avenues that can all lead toward victory.
Then again, every town really ought to feature walls. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before we get into the particulars of town construction, let’s open with the basics: why these six-sided cubes are so compelling.
Three rolls. You’ve seen this before. All at once, everybody chucks their pools of dice, sets aside what they want to keep, and reroll the others. After three tumbles, you’re stuck with whatever’s showing. For the most part, this is as straightforward as it sounds. Grain is essential for feeding your inhabitants — equal to your pool of dice, which means your target is always literally on hand — while wood, stone, and treasure are necessary for construction. Also necessary for construction are actual builds, and don’t forget it. There’s nothing quite as sweet as when an opponent has bottomless stores but no serfs willing to lay the foundations of a cathedral, and nothing so bitter as when it’s you without labor.
Of course, there are wrinkles. Every die shows a skull, which locks that die when rolled. Depending on how many skulls you’ve rolled, an event will be triggered. That usually means something bad has happened, like a bandit or a plague, translating to a lost resource of your choosing (shrug) or negative points depending on the placement of your buildings (either a shrug or a huge oh no the Black Boils moment). Sometimes you’ll even settle for lesser resources because you don’t want to risk rolling another skull.
Except! And this is a big one. Except sometimes you want more skulls. Not only do skull results provide solid resources otherwise, but certain events might affect rival towns instead of your own. So while two skulls means a plague and four sees one of your buildings getting burned down, three forces your opponents to place a scorched tile somewhere on their board. One or two don’t pose a threat, but four? Five? These start to gnaw at the edges of any kingdom, providing one more reason to push or hold your dice in pursuit of desirable results.
Crucially, each type of die comes with its own advantages. Peasants are reliable workhorses. Nobles love to attack your neighbors and make off with their resources. Clergy and Burghers both generate culture — direct victory points — but the former also bestow additional rerolls while the latter hoard treasure. Every additional die shapes your town’s potential growth, and must be considered with appropriate care.
There’s one essential rule to town construction: walled buildings score double. Within that framework, everything else clicks into place. Era is very much a race, and often ends suddenly when a preordained number of building pools are emptied. This quickly generates an essential tension. The longer you fret over your placement — the more building types, the more area walled in, the choicer the buildings both outside and inside those walls — the less likely you are to get everything finished in time. While it would be great to protect everything, that isn’t a realistic proposition.
It helps that the buildings are a cornucopia of bonuses. Farms and lumber mills produce free resources at the expense of large or hard-to-fit footprints. Longhouses, townhouses, churches, and keeps all provide new dice. Hospitals negate the plague in adjacent spaces, letting you cram buildings into proximity, while monasteries let you pick the result of one die when rolling. And scoring structures like cathedrals, markets, guildhalls, and universities each provide their own criteria, taking advantage of open space or extra resources or raw population. Everything is useful. Your task is to figure out how to get them to work together.
Despite this, Era remains a dice game first and foremost. It’s chancy in exactly the ways you’d expect, and when tied to the fate of your town, can result in situations where some mayors prosper while others fall behind. Early resource buildings or extra dice can be the difference between a successful center of trade or a picked-over ruin, and it certainly doesn’t help when rival players continually raid your resources because they happened to roll well with their Nobles.
Not that I’m complaining. If anything, my principal issue is that the icons on the pegboards are impossible to make out without some sort of wash. Do I have four or five lumber? Better count the holes in front of your peg to be sure. When a dice game is this good — and especially when it knows well enough to wrap up in less than an hour — I’m willing to call its moments of low luck part and parcel with the experience. Shoddy components, in particular when the remainder so perfectly suit the game’s needs, are more irritating.
But that’s a trivial problem alongside what Era does so well. This is the work of a master designer, even when it appears that certain buildings are better than others. Especially then. In Leacock’s hands, Era’s decisions matter precisely because they’re both based on current fact and mired in future uncertainty. Rather than pitching every option as equivalent, buildings offer vastly different benefits. The points from markets are easily acquired, but they’re also capped more tightly than those from other structures. Cathedrals and guildhalls can turn the game in your favor, but only if you invest in them. A university can transform your town into a hub of learning or be worth hardly anything at all. It isn’t enough to toss down a bunch of structures. A successful town requires that you build smart. And maybe be a bully every so often.
Or maybe you’ll lose because you rolled poorly. Oh well. When a game is as brisk and rewarding as Era: Medieval Age, even its worst moments are a pleasure.
A complimentary copy was provided.