Through the Ages
is a Czech game of civilization building, recently released in the United States by Eagle Games and FRED.
Playing Time: 2-8 hours
This review was originally published in March, 2008, for the initial release of the game, but was updated in March, 2009, to account for the newer printings of the game, which upgraded some of the components.
The Game Components
Through the Ages comes in a densely packed box.
Game Board: Through the Ages is a pretty unique Civilization-style game because it's played entirely with cards, and that first come across on the gameboard. This three-panel glossy board is just a collection of spaces and tracks. There are 13 spaces for cards, with costs clearly shown. There are also tracks for total culture, science, and military, plus tracks for how much culture and science you earn each turn, cleverly making it easy to keep track of your current levels of growth.
Everything is laid out in a pretty blocky style that's not particularly beautiful, but is relatively utilitarian.
Cards: These are the heart of the game, and there are a ton of them (350 according to the box). The cards are all half-sized. They're printed on linen-textured cardstock, which should hold up very well to multiple plays (and are clearly much sturdier than the lighter cardstock of the previous Eagle printing of the game).
The cards are divided into two main types--civil and military--and are further divided into several eras (antiquity, middle ages, age of exploration, and modern age), for a total of eight decks. The civil cards list all the cool improvements you can make to your civilization; they include actions, leaders, governments, technologies, and military units. The military decks contain the cards that affect multiple people such as events, pacts, aggressions, wars, and combat bonuses. Everything is very clearly color-coordinated by type, and several major icons make it easier to use the cards. There's still a bit more text than I'd prefer, especially when you're looking at a whole line of 13 cards, but as you start playing they become relatively easy to use.
Some of the cards have nice artwork on them, such as pictures of leaders and technologies.
Player Boards: Each character gets their own linen-textured cardboard player board which clearly depicts their player color, displays starting technologies, and also shows off available population, current food and happiness costs, available resources, corruption costs, and unused workers.
Some good attention has been given to making these boards automatically display some complicated rules (namely how increases in overall population cost food and require happiness and how increases in resource usage cause corruption). There are also some reminders about what things happen in what order during the production phase and what resources are needed for various worker uses. Some of the rules thus incorporated look a little daunting, but are nice to have available for play.
(The player boards also mark the other big upgrade for newer printings of Through the Ages. They're much more attractive and offer more attention to the rules than previous player boards--though even those were pretty godo. However, my favorite new feature on these new player boards is the inclusion of the six starting technologies; it's great to not have those six extra cards making your player space look messy.)
Rules Card: Each player also gets a standard rules card which is a glossy heavy cardboard sheet which lists all the rules that a player might need to know.
Wooden Bits: There are wooden cubes for each player, plus wooden discs to record food and resources, plus more wooden discs to help a player keep count of their civil and military actions. These are all pretty standard wooden pieces, notable only for their volume.
Rulebook: A 20-page full-color rulebook. It tries to make the game easy to learn by breaking it into three types of play (simple, advanced, and full). This sort of works OK, but then makes the rules somewhat hard to use when you reference it later. On the whole I would have prefered a more singular set of rules, or else one that was better indexed. Nonetheless, the full-color rules are attractive and full of examples.
Overall, the components are average-to-good quality with nice attention paid to utility. I'd love to see a truly beautiful edition of this game someday, but everything works pretty well as it exists, thus I've given it a "4" out of "5" for Style.
As already noted, Through the Ages is a Civilization-style game. You're trying to bootstrap numerous elements of your civilization to ultimately produce the most culture over the course of the game.
Setup: The game of Through the Ages begins with all the players being given the basics of their new civilization: a despotic government; warrior technology (with one soldier); philosophy (with one worker); religion (with no workers); bronze mining (with two workers); and farm agriculture (with two workers). They're also given one unallocated worker and a supply of potential resources and workers which will come into play during the game.
Governments. Governments, of which Despotism is one, define three things in Through the Ages: how many civil actions a player gets; how many military actions a player gets; and what their urban building limit is, for technologies like philosophy and religion.
Technologies. Technologies initially come in three flavors.
There are production technologies, like bronze and agriculture, which respectively produce resources and food. Initially they produce one resource or food per worker per turn, but that will increase as a player improves their technology.
There are military technologies, like the warriors, who provide military strength. Later on players will also meet tactics cards which give them military bonuses for having certain combinations of military units
Finally, there are urban technologies, of which philosophy and religion are the first two. Philosophy produces one science point per worker while religion produces one culture point and one happiness per worker. Later technologies will produce more of these things in various combinations.
Food, Resources, and Happiness. These are an important crux of the game. Food is needed to produce new workers and also to continue feeding your workers when you hit certain population levels. Resources are needed to move those workers onto technologies and also to pay off corruption when you use too many of your resources.
Besides feeding your work force, you also have to keep them happy, and their general unhappiness increases as you ramp up your number of workers. You're OK as long as you don't make unhappy workers go work, but if you do, there's an uprising.
Science, Culture, and Strength. These three stats are all marked on the main board, and represent your civilization's rating in some major elements.
Science is used to pay for new technologies. Culture is essentially victory points.
Finally, Strength is military strength. It's used to determine the outcome of aggressions, wars, and certain events. Whenever you get into a war or a raid you can temporarily increase your strength by discarding some of your soldiers.
Order of Play: On your turn you:
- Adjust the Card Row
- Determine the Outcome of Wars
- Take Political Actions
- Take Civil & Military Actions
- Take Production & Maintenance
Adjust the Card Row: There's always a row of 13 cards available for purchase at variable costs. At the start of your turn you discard the first card(s) if they haven't been selected, move everything to the left (which makes things cheaper) and then fill in the right-hand side with new cards.
Determine the Outcome of Wars: In the most advanced game there are wars where one player initiates a long-term conflit, then each player has the opportunity to build up their strength. The winner of the war is determined at the start of your next turn, based on who has the stronger military Strength by that time.
Take Political Actions: Taking political actions mostly centers around playing military cards that you've drawn in previous turns. You can only take one political action. It can be: playing an event card to a deck which will cause a global event later; kicking off some minor aggression against another player; initiating a pact with a willing player; or kicking off a war.
All of these various political actions have somewhat complex subsystems of their own. For example in aggression, each player will get to bid how many troops they want to sacrifice--a sort of auction--before the aggression is completed. Meanwhile, events occur in 6-card cycles. You place a card in a future event pile, then when the current events are used up, all the future events get shuffled and start being used, allowing you to have some knowledge of what will happen in the future.
However, as is the case with many of the elements of this game, the complexity of these subsystems is sufficiently deep that it's impossible to detail them all in a short review.
Take Civil & Military Actions: The heart of the game comes through using your civil and military actions. These are essentially two types of action points that you have available each turn. Initially you'll have 4 civil and 2 military action points, but as you improve your govenment, take on leaders, and learn special technologies, these numbers will grow.
There are numerous things that you can do:
Take a Card (Civil). You can take one of the cards from the card row. These cost either 1, 2, or 3 actions, depending on how long they've been available. Besides the types of cards already described, there are also: leaders (who give you some bonus until they get too old); actions (which can be played for some bonus on a future turn); wonders (which must be built with resources over some number of turns and which give you some sort of major bonus); and special technologies (which give you a bonus without requiring the use of any workers).
Play a Card (Civil). With the exception of Wonders, all cards that you take must then be played at a cost of one action. This includes leaders, action cards, and technologies. The latter also require science points. Actions give an immediate one-time bonus, while leaders and special technologies immediately start helping out, but other technologies require workers before they start offering their bonuses.
(A fourth type of card, government, can be played out of your hand also, but typically costs all your civil actions to do so due to the "revolution" required.)
Increase Population (Civil). The first step in getting a worker over to a technology is increasing your population. This costs 2-7 food (depending on your current population) and could also increase your happiness and food requirements.
Hire Worker (Civil or Military). Now, you actually have to move that worker to a technology. This typically costs a civil action, but if you're turning your new worker into a soldier, you instead spend a military action. This also costs resources.
Upgrade Worker (Civil or Military). You'll inevitably end up with the same technologies at different levels. For example later on you might pick up a new farm card, Mechanized Agriculture, which produces 5 food per worker. You can spend an action to move a worker from one technology to another of the same type by spending the difference in resource costs.
Fire a Worker (Civil or Military). You can alternatively spend an action to move a worker off of a technology, freeing him up, which can be invaluable if you back yourself into a corner due to food shortages.
Construct a Wonder (Civil). Wonders of the World require a lot of work to finish (and a lot of resources). They're laid out in stages, and you can complete one stage for one action.
Take Production & Maintenance: Now that you've completed your actions you do all the fiddly things. First, you make sure that your workforce is happy. Next you increase your culture and science points based on labs, libraries, and theatres, and other cards that produce them. Then you produce food, feed your population, produce resources, and calculate corruption.
Finally you get to draw military cards if you have extra military actions. This is where you get the events, aggressions, and other cards that you'll primarily play in the political phase of the game.
Ending an Age: The game is divided into four ages: the very short antiquities age, followed by the Middle Ages (I), the Age of Exploration (II), and the Modern Age (III). All four of these ages are played in the full game, or just the first three in the advanced game. An Age ends when the civil cards from that Age run out. At that point a few cards are thrown out for the Age two back (e.g., when you enter the Age of Exploration you can lose some things from Antiquity). In the Full Game, population also gets harder to feed and entertain from one Age to the next. Then play continues on.
Ending the Game: The game ends shortly after the last card from the Civil deck of the last Age appears. When the game ends some points will be scored basde on final events which give bonuses for developing in certain directions over the course of the game. Then, whoever has the most culture points wins.
Relationships to Other Games
The sub-title of Through the Ages is "A Story of Civilization". And, Through the Ages is clearly reminescent of Sid Meier's computer game, Civilization, which was in turn partially influenced by the old Avalon Hill game of the same name. Through the Ages distinguishes itself from its predecessors primarily by the fact that it's entirely based on cards. No board is required (except for keeping score).
Through the Ages might also be considered a "Civ Light" game, meaning a game that tries to create the feel of the original Avalon Hill Civilization without being as long or complex. However, it's not really that light. The game isn't nearly as daunting as it seems, complexity-wise, but it's still long. I've heard reports of gameplay coming in between 2 and 8 hours, depending on whether you play Advanced or Full, how many players you have, and how experienced they are.
Gryphon Games recently put out a dice game on the same topic, called Roll Through the Ages. It's by a different designer and it's dramatically shorter, but they're both civ-building games, Roll through the Ages is just "Civ Super Light".
The Game Design
I'll cut to the chase and say Through the Ages is an excellent game. Now, let me explain why.
Through the Ages really excels as a resource management game, mainly because of the fact that you're constantly hitting limits of different sorts. Food, resources, science points, and happy faces are the biggest limitors. You could also end up losing the military race and have to put effort there, or you might fall behind on particular technologies. Trying to stay up on everything simultaneously is just about impossible, and figuring out what resources to grow at any time, what to save, and what to spend makes for an intricate and interesting game.
Closely related to this is the fact that Through the Ages supports multiple paths to victory. You can push on any of the resource types and try to make that your speciality. You also have to frequently decide when to grow mature production systems and when to make a rush on VPs.
If that all suggests complexity, that's definitely the case. However, the game does a really good job of modeling complex, interconnected systems simply. The food needed to feed your population, the corruption that comes from excessive resource use, and the possibility of large populations growing unhappily could resulting in really brain-burning calculations, but instead Through the Ages makes it really easy, thanks primarily to the good graphic design of the components, but also thanks to the clear way in which growth and cost are laid out in the rules.
I also think Through the Ages does a superb job of modeling the computer game of Civilzation. Even the quirky elements of Civilization show up in Through the Ages, such as the fact that you might still be marching around ancient warriors on modern-day battlefields (though they grow somewhat less efficient due to limitations of using tactics with out-dated units). In any case, if the quirky elements are there, you can be sure the big-picture things are, like slowly growing technologies to inrease the power of your civilization.
Finally, I'd just say that Through the Ages is flat-out fun.
If I had one warning for Through the Ages it's that it's a long game. As I've already noted, it can run from 2-8 hours. Experienced players can probably expect to knock out games in 2-4 hours. Despite this, Through the Ages rarely feels long. There can sometimes be downtime between your turns in a four-player game, but every time you're actually playing, the game feels fresh and interesting.
It's probably no surprise that I've given Through the Ages a full "5" out of "5" for Substance.
Through the Ages is a superb game of Civilization, taking you from antiquity to the modern day. It supports great, thoughtful resource management that will play out differently in just about every game. This is one of the best games of the year and should be on the shelf of any serious game player.