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App Review: Roll Through The Ages makes dice-rollling, civ-building easy on the iPhone

Any dice game review is required by law to compare the new game to Yahtzee (if we don't, we lose our right to ever roll a d6 again). So, let's get this out of the way early: the Roll Through The Ages app [$2.99], released last week, shares but three features with Yahtzee: it uses dice, you roll them three times (keeping the ones you like between throws) and you mark things off on a scorecard after each roll.

Instead of collecting simple numbers, in Roll Through The Ages, the goal is to quickly build up an ancient civilization from three small cities to, well, that's the challenge: do you go for more cities? Monuments? Developments? Goods? Or a little bit of everything?

RTtA (which is how the name appears when installed on your iDevice) faithfully implements the tabletop game, but it doesn't do so elegantly. Right now, the app is pretty much a trial-and-error mess with no tutorial or well-written rulebook explaining what it is you want to actually do in the game. Still, by using the limited in-app help menu and some online resources (the video pasted at the bottom of this review was quite helpful), we managed to struggle through.

Of course, anyone who's played the tabletop version of Roll Through The Ages should be able to adapt to the iPhone version in mere minutes. The app had better improve fast, thought, in order to attract people who aren't familiar with the dice version, lest it suffer the fate of getting lost in the never-ending barrage of good game apps. Thankfully, there's some precedent for board game apps that start weak and improve quickly. The Small World app didn't have a good way to learn the game at the beginning, either, but look at it now.

Read on to see if you want to give RTtA a chance now, wait for the improvements to come or pass altogether.



The Game

As mentioned, RTtA is a light civ-building game. It was also just nominated for the prestigious 2010 Spiel des Jahres award, which implies that there's a really good game here. Each turn, you get to roll one die per city you have (you start with three) and the game ends after either ten rounds (in a solo game) or when someone either buys a fifth development or all monuments have been built by all players.

In some ways, RTtA is a grown-up cousin of the Catan Dice Game. Each takes something from a related game and blends the mechanics with the Yathzee-like rule where you get three rolls to get the best possible outcome. (Speaking of which, when do we get the Catan Dice Game on the iPhone? Seems like an easy port to make.)

Each die either gives you workers, food, coins, goods or a combination effect. Since you can't build or buy everything, we found it makes sense to quickly get to seven dice (by building four extra cities) and then trying different tactics to either focus on monuments or developments, which each give different bonuses and have different costs. We haven't perfected out strategy quite yet, but we did manage to quickly nab one of the solo play scoring achievements, so that made us feel good.


The App

While the game is fairly easy to understand, the app is a bit of a nightmare at first. It really feels like you're just flipping through menu items. There's a roll screen, and screen to buy developments and one to build monuments, there's a goods screen and another for the rules (such as they are). It all works and makes some sort of sense after you've played a half-dozen games, but it's confusing at first.

You can pass-and-play with as many people as you want, but it's kind of clunky, especially when you add in the Late Bronze Age expansion as an optional feature. When playing against humans, this variant makes the came much more interactive (introducing attacks and more trading), but it's hard to see that on the iPhone screen. We enjoyed what it adds to the solitaire game as well.

The RTtA app adds 10 achievements for solo players to complete. Some are pretty easy to reach, some are a real challenge. The fifty-points-in-one-game achievement doesn't seem that hard, but we were amazed how many games we played and only reached 48 or 49 points. Another new thing in app is how it deals with skull rolls. The tabletop rules require you to always keep any skulls that you roll (yes, skulls are bad), but the app allows you to re-roll hazard dice in the solo game. When playing multiplayer, skulls function as normal. We suppose anyone used to playing by the tabletop rules can just opt to keep skull dice and suffer the consequences. Better yet, one can buy or build defensive items for protection, the way the game was meant to be played.

Future updates to RTtA will add AI opponents and native iPad support (and a higher cost). We look forward to two of those three things, and hope the iPad version will be gorgeous and avoid all the back and forth between menu screens.

You can watch a video review below. iPhone/iPad readers, click through to the video link on Vimeo for the HTML5 version.

BGWS 056: Board Games with Scott 056 - Roll Through the Ages from Scott Nicholson on Vimeo.

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