Prolific board gamers know Through the Ages. Consistently one of the top 10 (if not top 5) games of all time according to BoardGameGeek.com, this civilization-building strategy game is among one of the most celebrated of its kind. From excellent mechanics to well-crafted strategic elements, it’s one of those rare games that you’ll feel immensely satisfied after playing, even if you lost badly.
I had actually never experienced Through the Ages until this past Friday. That’s when, as part of our weekly Friday night game session at the office, we broke out a copy of the newly-released update to the game: A New Story of Civilization. Featuring tons of meticulous balance tweaks and completely revamped artwork and components, this is apparently the definitive edition of Through the Ages. I wouldn’t know from experience, but my friends who had played the original version claimed that the new edition was a vast improvement in the art department and also welcomed the other new mechanics. If I was to write my own new story of civilization, at least I’d get to do so with the best possible tools!
Normally I’m not a competitive gamer — and never have been. Although I’m not anathema to playing competitive games, I usually prefer cooperative fare like Sentinels of the Multiverse or games with a hidden role element like Battlestar Galactica (which we’re playing now over several successive lunch hours). Through the Ages is the kind of competitive game I do like: it involves more than two players, so there isn’t this crushing tension of being under constant scrutiny by a lone opponent. It also tends not to be directly confrontational at first, and in fact may never be so, depending on who you’re playing with. This is all not to mention the fact that it’s a beautiful game and its mechanics are instantly engaging, though it takes a little practice to get into the swing of things.
At a high level, the game simulates the progression of time through four ages. Each player represents a nation-state that begins in despotism in the age of antiquity and, over time, works its way up to more progressive forms of government, industry, and culture. Along the way you can colonize territories, develop technologies, build wonders of the world, amass a military regime that would make North Korea blush, and choose leaders whose special abilities could amplify all of your other accomplishments to put you over the top. It starts small and slow, but can soon turn into a clash of superpowers as time begins to run out.
Our game involved three players, two of whom had played the newest edition of the game only once (and even then, not to completion). I was a complete neophyte. As preparation, we each reviewed these excellent overview videos on YouTube channel Gaming Rules:
Nothing prepares you like actually playing the game, though, so that was the real tutorial. While all players begin with the same stats, things quickly diverge. The central mechanic of the game is the expenditure of actions (either Civil or Military, or some combination of both) to advance your civilization by purchasing cards and producing resources. What you choose to buy and where you focus your efforts dictates how your empire develops.
I took an early lead by building a couple of key wonders, and hiring a leader, which together produced additional culture — what the game calls victory points. Although I did this at the expense of some of my nation’s other areas, such as science and mining, it gave me a large advantage out of the gate.
Things might have continued this way, if I’d been able to parlay my early investments into an increase in science production as planned. Developing more advanced forms of farming and mining costs resources, and hiring workers to staff these facilities costs food. Producing resources and food more efficiently is key to mid-to-late game progression. When you’re paying for five guys to work in your mines and each one is only producing one resource, and you need eight resources to upgrade one laboratory or farm worker, time elongates to unsustainable lengths. However, developing better facilities costs science points, and you only produce as much science per turn as your labs dictate. Better labs = more science.
Although I had a plan to up my science production, it was shattered about halfway into the game when the Yellow Player played an aggression card on me during the political phase. Until this point we had all been content to mind our own respective business, but my victory point production was getting out of control and Yellow, who was furthest behind, needed to slow me down. I also made myself a target by purchasing the most desirable government card from the card track before the other players could get a crack at it — despite being the only player to have upgraded his government once already. In response, Yellow’s aggression destroyed my best lab, reducing me to only one point of science production per turn.
This proved to be a significant setback. Although I had the resources to finish the wonder I had been building (which would generate 4 victory points per turn), I found myself struggling to replace the lost science production. It would take several turns to do so, and until that happened, I couldn’t upgrade my mines or farms to make all other upgrades more efficient, or afford to play the new technologies and government cards that I had in my hand.
The Green Player, who had been biding his time and developing a strategy up to this point, started to take off. He developed advanced coal mines, irrigation systems for his farms and the scientific method. Soon his per-turn victory point production was higher than either of ours, and he was taking the lead on total points. Comically, I was producing a fairly healthy amount of per-turn points while still stuck with bronze mines and plain old agriculture, yet with a constitutional monarchy that had theaters and printing presses. It was as if I needed to prove that the game could be played via unorthodox means.
Before long, Yellow began to turn their capitol city into Pyongyang. The military build-up began slowly, but before long, Yellow had multiple units of artillery (tanks), advanced tactics and even their own Kremlin (one of the wonder cards). Their war power rating soon reached 50, and when compared with mine and Green’s rating of Pacifist Zero, that meant we had no hope of staving off any kind of assault. That there would be an assault was inevitable, and near the end of the game, it arrived.
Yellow attacked Green, playing a warfare card with a special effect. It allowed Yellow to steal as many victory points from Green as he had advantage on the warfare track. That crushing deficit of 50 became all the more painful when that very number was removed from Green’s VP track, costing him the lead.
However, Yellow’s gambit wasn’t entirely successful. Although he had taken out the game leader, he soon realized he did not have quite enough victory points of his own — or time left in the game — to overtake me as well. The game ends when the last of the cards run out, with any player who has yet to take a turn getting one final shot. I was the last player to wrap up, and was able to produce enough victory points on that last turn to give me a slim but comfortable margin of victory.
After the game we all agreed that focusing at least some effort on military units was essential. While it’s possible to defend against an invading nation using political defense cards, there is no way to overcome a strength deficit of 50 on cards alone — not even close. Had I enough military strength at the halfway point, I could have potentially defended myself against the aggression that cost me my best lab in the first place.
We also marveled at the way the game seemed to adapt to our varying play styles, from Green’s meticulous nation-building to Yellow’s warmongering and my absurd nation of wonders that was still fueled by bronze mines in the middle of the Third Age. Everyone agreed that the game had been exhilarating and we were all eager for our next chance to play again.
I highly recommend the tabletop version of Through the Ages to anyone who likes strategy games, particularly of the nation-building variety. And if you don’t have any tabletop gaming friends, I hear that a digital version will soon be available for iOS and Android. Visit the makers of the game, Czech Games, for the official details.