Era: Medieval Age Review – Boards and Buildings
Matt Leacock is a well known designer within the board game ecosystem. The name behind Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and numerous other board games, Leacock has a name for excellence and has become renowned for great board game experiences.
This meant that, in 2019, when Era was released it piqued our interest as a board game group. Friends of ours got their hands on it, and recently we sat down to play.
It is an interesting game, there is no doubt about that, and I don’t want to give too much of an introduction, so let’s just jump into the review.
What is Era and how is it played?
Era: Medieval Age can best be described as a roll-and-build game designed by Matt Leacock, with artwork by Chris Quilliams, and published by Eggertspiele. Players play the parts of town leaders, looking to build the best possible town to rule the Medieval age.
The basic concept is simple enough with Era. Your each start off with a board, one keep, three walls, three longhouses, and one farm. The pieces are all 3D plastic pieces, and they pop into your board, so you start building your own unique town. Each turn your roll dice, and those dice give you resources. Those resources can then be spent on more buildings, which can then give special abilities (and sometimes additional dice), allowing you to do more on each turn. They allow you to build more and gain more.
It’s a very simple concept, and one that has a strong engine building element. There are four types of dice gained from Longhouses, Townhouses, Keeps, and Churches.
Longhouses give you yellow dice, representing peasants, that are rich with basic resources. Food is essential as you need to feed your dice every turn (they represent people or mouths to feed) a little bit like Stone Age. Townhouses give you blue dice, representing burghers, and are rich is trade goods. Trade goods are more important when building some of the more advanced buildings. White dice represent the clergy, and have an interesting re-roll mechanic on them. They are available through Churches. Burghers and clergy also give the ability to gain culture, something that is just straight up victory points at the end of the game. Burghers and peasants also have the ability to allow for you to build as, dice need to show a specific side, as well as you have the resources you need, to build more buildings.
The Keeps determine the player interaction throughout the game, giving grey noble dice that have strength and swords on them. Players, at the end of each turn, wage war against one another, and take a resource off anyone whose strength or defence is lower than the strength that they have present on their die.
When you roll dice, you may reroll them several times, to help increase your chance of getting what you want.
There is, of course, one exception to this. One side of every die has a skull icon, and that skull represents disasters. Depending on the number of skulls you have determines the effect, and this can lead to negative consequences throughout the course of the game, as well as negative points at the end of the game.
Once skull, for instance, means brigands attack. You get a singular negative point, or you lose one resource. Two means disease spreads, giving you one negative point per building that is clustered next to another building (built directly next to it). Three means each one of your opponents chooses a scorched earth icon and they place it in your village, limiting the amount you can build. The list goes up to six skulls and losing all trade goods.
Finally, there are special buildings that do special things. Some, like the Monastery, allow you to set a face of one of your dice. Some give your resources – like the Lumbermill or Farm – and some give end game bonuses (like the Market, Cathedral, Guildhall or University) based on certain end game conditions.
The game ends once all of either three types of building have been used up (in a two or three player game) or all of five are gone in a four player game.
What is it like playing Era: Medieval Age?
Era is an odd game. Okay, so before diving into what the actual game is like – there is one thing that needs to be addressed. Era has some nice custom components. The dice are well-made custom dice. They feel tactile and lovely, and roll well. The buildings are okay. They aren’t particularly special, and some of the buildings (like the University) can be a little mal formed – however, generally speaking they are okay.
Then there is the board. The board is an integral part to the game. It keeps track of player resources, their culture, their negative points – it even keeps track of the phases of the game. All that and it is where you build your town. Unfortunately, it is also really poorly designed. The boards are yellow, with the core information embossed into them, to the point where it is really difficult to distinguish numbers or icons. The boards really need an ink wash or something similar just to make them legible. They are incredibly poor.
Okay, board aside, what is Era like to play? Well, Era is an interesting game.
Era feels a little bit like playing Age of Empires or Civilisation. You start the game facing a blank space that will become your town. Where you can play optimally, you can also play thematically, and that is really cool. Seeing your civilisation build up gives a similar kind of satisfaction as seeing your park build up in Barenpark or Welcome To Dino World. You can kind of imagine how the civilisation is building up and being created. You can kind of imagine what the people are like. You can imagine what your civilisation is like and how it runs on a day-to-day basis.
That level of city building is the core strength of Era: Medieval Age. It is that level of city building that makes the game kind of attractive – as you see your city growing in front of your eyes.
The gameplay and the variety in dice actually form their own puzzle. As someone who like to analyse games for fun, I actually noted all the faces on the die before we stopped playing so that I could analyse them at a later date. There is a large amount of luck in the game, especially with skulls as you can’t reroll them; however, there is also a large amount of luck mitigation present within the game. That additional level of mitigation allows for you to play the mathematical game, and try to figure out what you need to roll, what you need to keep, and what you need to set.
A core strength the game lies within the variety of buildings, allowing for a large number of strategies to be played. There are a few buildings that stand out as no-brainers; however, there aren’t enough for everyone to have one. This means there is this interesting dynamic around the table where you find yourselves building as much resource up as possible in the hope that you can grab one of the coveted buildings before your opponents do.
For a roll-and-…[?] game, the limited number of buildings and the noble dice create a really interesting dynamic between the players. The noble dice allow for players to raid each other for resources, and they allow for players to stock up on resources they need. It is a part of the game that I believe works really well. It creates player interaction whilst, since you have to use the die if you have it, removing rivalry. It means raiding becomes a fact of life playing the game, rather than feeling like it is personal when a raid takes place. It also allows you to stock up on core resources like food when you work out you need to roll food on all your dice next turn in order to keep your town happy.
One observation is that, where Era is arguably a spatial game, wherein you need to build your own town – space never really feels like a commodity. I played a game where everyone scorched my earth, resulting in large spaces on my board I couldn’t use and yet, due to space on the player board I never struggled to build something – even with the larger buildings. There is this idea within Era that you can slot everything together to create a beautiful Tetris style masterpiece, and I personally adore that idea – however, you don’t really have to. Unlike similar games where you have to slot things together, like with Barenpark as an example, you don’t have to think too hard about that side of the puzzle within Era.
Now this isn’t a criticism, as it depends what you want from a game, but an observation. What is nice is it gives you the option about how you want to play.
There is one aspect that doesn’t seem to work well within the game and that is the disasters. The disasters feel like an after-thought that didn’t add anything to the gameplay. Where it is rare that they really truly make a difference to the game, one poor turn can be devastating simply due to luck. They feel kind of convoluted and could easily be removed from the game to make it a more fluid experience. If you can imagine one element to a game simply being removed without impacting the enjoyment of the game, you do find yourself asking if that element needs to be there.
All-in-all though, Era is an enjoyable game and it could be worth checking out if you like those games where your own player area develops throughout the game. Design flaws aside, it can be fun to watch your town develop over time. We have a few really good laughs when playing the game, especially revolving around the idea that the universities were for town planners, and it is those kind of moments as to why we keep gaming. Era isn’t perfect, but with an ink wash and the tweaking of a couple of elements, it is a fun addition to the roll-and… genre.
TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and The Town Planner University
Like all games we can now look at the good, neutral, and bad elements of Era: Medieval Age.
- Era presents a really interesting dice based puzzle. There is enough luck and luck mitigation within the game to create a fantastic challenge in working out the probabilities.
- If you like civilisation builders, then Era is about a literal as it can get. The pieces are tactile and can create diverse player boards, reminiscent of Age of Empires.
- Era offers both a variety of different ways to play the game, as well as a variety of different scoring options. It really is one of those games where you never really know who has won until the very end.
- Where not huge, there is some player interaction, and that can help keep the players on their toes. That interaction is relatively neutral in nature and, due to the inevitability of raids, doesn’t promote rivalry between players.
- It is an strong addition to the roll-and… genre, presenting something new and intriguing.
- For a game that is so tactile and spatial, the spatial puzzle can be played one of two ways. Things can be clustered, or they can be spread out. This means that space is never really a commodity within the game. It’s not a problem, but it is worth noting if you want that kind of challenge.
- Disasters don’t feel like they add anything to the game. They could be easily removed and the game would still be enjoyable.
- The boards are genuinely terrible. Every time I was the first player, I found I had to hold my board up to the light just to get enough reflection to be able to read the icons. Luckily everything is plugged into the board, so everything stays in place when you do have to hold the board up to be able to read it.
Conclusion: Era: Medieval Age Review
So, what can finally be said about Era? How do we wrap up this review?
If you like games that are new and different, then Era adds something unique and different to the roll-and… genre. It offers a tactile experience that, although it could be replaced by cardboard, is physical and something that only Era can really offer in the way that it does.
Era is a fun game. There is no doubt that it could do with some refinement; however, it is enjoyable nonetheless.
So, what are your thoughts? Have you played Era? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.