Board Game Review: Through The Ages

2014, Jul 28    

Through The Ages recently arrived on Board Game Arena, which is our favourite website for online board gaming, so we decided to give it a go.

First up, a note about online board gaming. It’s never, ever going to be anywhere close to real life actual board gaming, in my eyes, but it’s worth being involved in anyway. The ability to get a game any time is great, and the computer-enforced rules solve all disputes. Board setup is a non-issue, and with a voice chat system of some kind, you’ll barely miss being in the same room as your opponents. I also think it’s a great way to try out games and learn them. In fact, Gear and Piston debuted on Board Game Arena, so you could try it before backing the Kickstarter campaign. Brilliant. Not a replacement for real board games, but an excellent addition. Check it out.

Enough of that, on with Through The Ages. This is a 2006 game by Vlaada Chátil, who is responsible for Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert, among many other titles. It is a civilisation-style game, it is entirely card-based, and it takes in the region of 4 hours to play. You’ll need at least 2 friends with plenty of patience, a tolerance for strategy, and a lot of snacks. Throughout the game you’ll see your civilisations work their way up from banging rocks together to, errr, being governed by rock stars, and you’ll focus on science, culture, war, or industry to get ahead. Of course, the best strategy involves getting involved in everything the game can throw at you to some extent.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the game looks terrible. I was surprised by this, given Vlaada’s other work, but I’ve got nothing nice to say about the look and feel of Through The Ages: it is a mountain of cards coupled with some confusing looking boards. The cards have little in the way of art, there’s not much flavour, and the boards are pretty dry. All game progress is managed by tokens. Having seen that, I was all set up to hate this game: I wouldn’t say I was all about looks, but I like a game to look good if I’m going to stare at it for 4 hours.

The rulebook is impenetrable. I struggled through it but eventually gave up, knowing that Board Game Arena would cover for the gaps in my knowledge. It’s a shame, because the game isn’t actually that complicated: the book is just very, very thorough. This is a bit of a disappointment, because Galaxy Trucker contains one of the most pleasant rulebooks I’ve ever worked through and came out just one year after Through The Ages. To their credit, the rules are incredibly detailed and leave you in no doubt whatsoever, but they need to be a reference, rather than an introduction.

That’s where my criticism ends: as soon as you’re actually playing the game, everything changes. The game centres around a shared pool of cards which run along a timeline, one end being cheaper than the other, and cards being added to the expensive end as others are picked up. In the first turn your only available action is to pick up cards, and what you choose will dictate your strategy for the next few turns of the game. Straight away you have too many choices to manage and you’ll find yourself spending plenty of time analysing your choices from the word go. If that doesn’t sound fun, this really isn’t going to be your kind of game: it only gets harder from here. In turn two, everything starts to open up and you’ll face not only the incoming cards, but the option to build buildings in your civilisation to increase your production. Buildings can produce food, resources, science, military strength, or culture. Food lets you increase population, resources let you build more buildings, science opens up more building choices and some special cards, strength enables colonisation, and culture acts as the victory points that ultimately win you the game. Like any good game system, all of these overlap: you need population to build, you need to build to get science, you need science to grow more food, and so on.

Each turn, you’ll probably make somewhere between 5 and 10 actions, and they’ll all really, really matter. Everything is scarce and you will need more of all of it, and you’ll be forced to pick them. You spend a lot of time not actually playing, as there is little to do outside your turn, so you get to do a lot of thinking, and it’s very possible to play out your turn quite quickly if you’ve planned ahead correctly. For our first game, we often failed to do this: one of our players complained that he hadn’t had a chance to interact with the game for a full 20 minutes. That’s all part of Through The Ages. That said, it’s easy for every turn to be incredibly intense: there is real strategy here, not just reactionary tactical movements. The events cards are an example of how things play out in the long term here: when you play an event, it doesn’t activate immediately, but goes into the future events deck, which is worked through later in the game. You have to think about where you want to be in the future, and play accordingly. I spent my game hoarding colonisation cards, only to win a territory with them on the last turn which secured me the game. I played an event that would result in the weakest player losing territory, knowing that I was not out to claim territory and so was unlikely to be weak.

This game is deep and intricate. This is real strategy, and not based around the movement of units on a board, for once. This is the city building of Civilisation condensed into one tight game. There’s no fluff here: a great game, one you’ll talk about for weeks after. It’s a real shame that it doesn’t look like it, though. Could whoever designed the 7 Wonders cards give it a re-design, please?