Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization

(image courtesy keithblume2 @ BGG)
There seem to be two main “holy grails” in the board gaming world: spouse-friendly two player games and fast-playing civilization games. When a new civilization-style game hits the market the Internet is abuzz with anticipation. Through the Ages was one of those that was receiving a lot of early good reviews and people couldn’t wait for it to hit stateside. Printed by FRED Distribution, the game finally landed early this year.

I’ve managed to get a couple of games in so far and I must say I’m impressed. If you’ve ever played any of the Civilization computer games you’ll feel right at home; Through the Ages takes many of the mechanics and concepts and successfully abstracts them out into a deep, engaging card game. I’m not quite sure what it is about extremely long games that i love so much, but I keep falling in love with them!

Each player takes their civilization from the Age of Antiquity through modern times over the course of four ages. In a very interesting move, Through the Ages has no map; you don’t own land and attacks are made directly against other players. Each player has a mat that shows their current population, available workers, population happiness and available resources. You also have a set of cards representing your farms and mines along with any other civil buildings you can construct, armies, wonders, leaders and government type. A track in the middle shows everyone’s culture and science earned per round while a card track shows the cards available for purchase with the newer cards costing more. At the start of each player’s turn a number of technology cards are removed, everything is shifted down and new cards are played representing the advancement of time and technology. Ultimately victory is determined by the player whose civilization has the highest culture.

On your turn you’ll be able to perform a number of civil and military actions; how many actions you have available is determined by your form of government and possibly modified by technologies, leaders, etc. I’m not going to dive into details on all the actions, but here are a few things you can do:

* Increase your population.
* Construct a building.
* Purchase a card from the track.
* Construct the next phase of a wonder.
* Put a new leader into play.
* Change your form of government, either peacefully or through revolution.
* Build military units.

(image courtesy edubvidal @ BGG)

Pretty standard stuff for a civ-style game. One aspect really makes the game shine is the population/resource track. For population you have a row of yellow discs broken into sections. That section lists an amount of food you need to pay when generating food; this represents the need to feed your population. Likewise, there’s a blue resource track with numbers that represent the number of resources you lose for hoarding too much in storage. That single track represents both available food and metal. It’s an extremely clever supply/demand style that forces you to adjust throughout the course of the game. Sometimes you’ll find yourself not producing enough food and losing most of it to feed your population; other times you’ll be hoarding too much food which will directly impact how much metal you’ll get.

When you produce food or metal you move a blue disc onto the appropriate card. Early on a blue disc on a farm represents a single unit of food but with later farm upgrades a blue disc will represent two food. This puts real importance on upgrading your farms and mines as they become more efficient at higher technology levels, meaning you’ll decay less. If you have to lose two metal, for example, early in the game you’d have to lose two blue discs (each represents a single metal) but later in the game you can lose just a single blue disc (as it now represents two food).

The entire game is a real balancing act. You’ll find yourself watching the card track, trying to figure out which technology cards you need and which you can live without. You are limited on what you can do each turn; sometimes you’ll want to pick up a nice card but you’ll have too much “housekeeping” (increasing population, moving workers around, etc.) to do and simply won’t have enough actions to pick something up. There are lots of ways to earn victory points and it’s a matter of figuring out how to work the system you are building up. This amazing balance is really what makes the game so fascinating.

Up to this point, though, it’s all very much a solitaire experience. Sure, you’ll be watching cards move down the track and hope you can snag something before someone else does, but that’s minor. The other major component of the game is military. Throughout the course of the game you’ll be picking up military cards that do a variety of things. The two big ones are colonies and wars. Colonies require military strength to claim; you actually bid your military strength and the winner loses that many military units (representing them sailing off to settle the new land). Aggressions and wars are played against a single player. Here it is straight up military might versus might but players do have a chance to sacrifice units to double their value and play bonus defense cards. Highest strength wins and takes something from the loser.

(image courtesy duartec @ BGG)
There’s a very strong tendency in this game for the weak to get weaker and the strong to get stronger. Normally I don’t like that sort of thing in a game but for some reason it works extremely well in Through the Ages. Once one person builds up some military it becomes an arms race because you generally can’t afford to fall behind. New colonies are often very tempting but they’re going to cost you military strength may put you in a weaker position. As turn order simply goes clockwise around the table you always have a chance to respond to someone building up so it’s all about balancing your internal economy with growth and keeping up with everyone’s military strength.

At the start of each game a few end-game objectives are laid out and will determine the overall flow of the game. If you have a lot of military-oriented objectives you’ll see tons of military strength build-up where more economic conditions may result in a slightly more peaceful session. There are a lot of variables and I think no two games will play out exactly the same. A the same time I don’t think luck will be a significant factor in your outcome. It’s possible cards just won’t come down the line when you need them two but based on how the game is going and the number of cards in the deck I think there will almost always be a way to work with what you’ve been given. How you manage your civilization over the course of the game is going to be far more important than the cards available to you on any given turn, and part of the fun is working with what comes your way.

Through the Ages is a complex game, no doubt about it, and a long one to boot. If you want to play the full game with four players you’d better plan for a full day. With two I think you could tear through the game in a few hours once you both understand it. I get the feeling that the game would play best with three although I have yet to try it out that way. Having a third person should give players options on who to attack but would likely play faster than having that fourth player involved. Don’t be scared off by the length and complexity, though. The rules are put together extremely well and lead you through several stages of learning to build up the knowledge you need. It does abstract out many concept (obvious by the complete lack of map) and that may be a minor deterrent for some. I think that it works well, though, and allows players to focus on the delicate balancing of the inner working of their civilization.

My only complaint is that the FRED version has some glaring production issues. It is missing quite a few cubes for each player, the scoring track is misprinted, there are a few card misprints and the cards warp a bit. It’s probably worth waiting for the coming reprint to see if they fix up the quality issues. I don’t regret buying the game at all, though. Hopefully I’ll get to play it more often as it’s a game that will really consume your thoughts once you finish a game.