Roll-and-writes have been through somewhat of a golden age of late. One of the things I like about a mechanism gaining popularity and ubiquity is the challenge it throws down to designers to innovate and make their game stand out. Most innovations have focussed on the first part of the mechanism (flip-and-writes and flick-and-writes), but Matt Leacock’s Era: Medieval Age tackles the second verb to give us a roll-and-build.
It’s an idea that is as genius as it is preposterous. Part of the appeal of roll-and-writes is their small size, low-cost and simple play. Era: Medieval Age, dispenses with that. It presents you with a big box full of plastic components and dozens of dice. This is not one that you’ll be playing on the train or in a café. It is a bit of a relative table hog.
In Era: Medieval Age, players are vying to build the most successful and prosperous medieval city. It will net them the most points in the final scoring. To do this they will roll dice each turn and use the symbols rolled to gather resources. Then they'll build and trigger natural disasters that might hamper their opponents’ plans or even their own. You will also be trying to roll swords or shields. This is so you can extort resources from your enemies.
The best thing about Era: Medieval Age is that you physically build your city by attaching plastic sculpted buildings onto a peg-board. This creates a wonderfully tactile experience. As well as a strong visual and table presence as your town slowly materialises before your eyes.
As a bigger game, Era offers much more strategic depth than most roll-and-whatever games. During setup, players are given the same starting components but are free to place them how they will and develop their own strategy. From there on in, the 13 different types of construction available give players plenty of scope for varying routes to victory.
Each building comes with its own special power that may increase the dice in a player’s pool, bring extra resources each turn, provide protection from natural disasters or provide points at the end of the game. There are also buildings that will allow you to manipulate your dice to avoid harmful disasters and ensure you get the exact resources you need.
For a game driven by dice, there is surprisingly little luck involved. You get to reroll dice three times on your turn unless they have a skull disaster symbol on them. This adds a push your luck element to the game. do you stick with an okay roll or risk a die for something better. Likewise, the way the disaster system works, alternating negative and positive effects for the player, piles more tactical pressure on the reroll.
Another key strategic decision in Era is balancing gaining new dice to your pool with the need to have resources to ‘feed’ those dice. Failure to feed your dice with the wheat resource will bring negative points at the end of the game. Indeed, every decision in Era can feel like a trade-off between one thing and another, not least the limited space you have to build in. Inexperienced players can come unstuck trying to do too much of everything and achieving a lot of nothing.
The game ends when the supply is exhausted of three different types of construction. At this point each player adds up the value of the buildings in their city and any bonuses they may have achieved (biggest walled area, most culture etc.) and the largest score is declared the winner.
Era: Medieval Age is box packed full components (130 building miniatures). The lavish production from Eggert Spiele is superb. It means the game also scratches that lego type itch alongside the gaming need.
It’s not just a roll-and-build gimmick though. Behind the glossy plastic lies some meaty mid-weight decision making: Do you pursue a religious, cultural or resource-based strategy? How big do you try and build your walled area without risking never finishing it? Can you risk that last reroll that might hit you hard with a disaster?
Era is a game where time and space can be tight. What begins as a seemingly wide-open choice of possibilities, tightens as building stocks run low and the areas left to build on your board diminish. In my first few games, I felt victimised by some bad rolls, but there are choices you can make to give you more control of your dice and learning to manipulate them well is crucial to success.
All in all, Era is a welcome big box innovation of the roll-and… genre. I love the sense of fun and play it brings to a crunchy set of choices. Not least, the pleasure of physically making your city and the sheer amount of choices available. And, with one expansion, Rivers and Roads, already released and more content promised, I look forward to this game growing and growing.