Through the Ages: A four-sided game review

Through the Ages boxThrough the Ages is a civilisation building card game by Vlaada Chvatil that takes players on an epic ride from antiquity to the present day.

While war plays a large and important part in the game* there is no actual map, or dice – interaction is instead played out through card play.

There are three versions of the game in the rulebook, ranging from simple through to full, but the first two are really just warming you up (in terms of understanding the rules) for the main event. Through the Ages is a serious time investment (four-plus hours, even two-player) but if you’re willing to give it a try you’ll find a hugely rewarding tactical and strategic gem waiting for you.

While it’s not the biggest game box in the world, there’s a ton of game packed into it: there are more than 340 small-sized cards, 300 small wooden counters and cubes, plus boards and reference cards. It will set you back £45+, but I think it’s a fair price both in terms of components and play value. The art is pretty poor, but the card stock is great and the graphic design efficient and simple to understand.

It’s not for the feint of heart, but nor is it a war game – you’ll draft leader, wonder, building, government, technology, military and action cards and manage your resources as you advance your civilisation; all the time trying to score points while keeping your opponents in check by staying close to them in the race for military domination. It’s an impossible balancing act, giving the game a marvellous ebb and flow.

Teaching

TTA allAs mentioned earlier, the game has three versions which slowly introduce different rules and card types as you move forward. This makes it easy to teach experienced gamers, especially as the game concepts are pretty familiar.

Each round (after the first) players may use their political action to play a ‘future event’ for later, triggering a current event which will reward and/or punish players who are doing well/poorly in a particular way – for example the player with the strongest civilisation may get to produce extra goods. They can also use the political action to start an aggression or war, or offer a pact.

Players then use ‘civil’ actions to advance mining, science, farming and religion to increase building materials and technology (allowing building upgrades), population size and happiness (allowing population growth) and military might. Governments give extra actions, while leaders, technologies, ‘action’ cards and wonders give a variety of bonuses.

Civil actions are also used to increase population, lay technology, wonder and leader cards, put your population to work or upgrade them. Military actions – you guessed it – do the same with your military units.

TTA tracksEverything to do with civil and military actions is done openly, so it’s simple to watch and help new players through their turns.

Through the Ages has relatively little hidden information, so its simple for the teacher to explain cards as they come up.

New cards are ‘bought’ (with actions) from a shared conveyor belt-style track, with newly added cards costing more actions (from one to three). Military cards do go straight into your hand blind, but aren’t terribly varied and can be roughly explained before you begin.

Game concepts fit well into the theme, while the central game board lets you keep information on your military strength, science (for advancing technologies) and culture (victory) points. Each player also has a player aid listing all of the actions available in each phase of each round.

Player boards are well set out, and the wording on the cards leads to very few grey areas. The only real problem area is the Territory cards, which tend to contain rather obscure icons which aren’t explained in the rulebook. However there is a good Excel doc available from Board Game Geek which explains them in plain English.

The four sides

TTA eventsThese are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Through the Ages is the board gaming equivalent of spinning plates; just as you get your science points going, you realise you’re running out of food – but by the time you have that back on track you’re falling behind on military – but getting that up to speed means you have to forgo a materials upgrade. It’s a delicious, epic and challenging balancing act that tells a different story every time.
  • The thinker: Its rare you find a game that has the perfect mix of tactics and strategy, but this is one of them. You’d think it impossible to create a ‘civ’ game without a board, but Vlada has managed it with aplomb. Specialise at your peril, but spread the wealth at your peril too – your long term plans are constantly being altered by both the actions of your competitors and the run of available cards.
  • The trasher: Through the Ages is a bit much for me, but is clearly a great game. I love the future events: you play cards, predicting the later game state and hoping you can be in the right position when they’re triggered. So satisfying when it works, but devastating when your own cards blow up in your face! But overall, the short game doesn’t offer enough military fun and the long game is simply too long for me.
  • The dabbler: no way! No no no. I tried it once – you can’t make me play it again! It has great flavour, carries the theme well, but I am not playing a game that takes longer than the entire games evening on its own!

Key observations

TTA player boardOf well over 3,000 Board Game Geek comments, Through the Ages has 500+ perfect 10 scores – which should be enough to convince you its a great game. Even by half way through the comments, people are still rating it 8. However, it’s certainly not for everyone. Not by a long chalk!

Game length is clearly an issue for many, but another problem is downtime – especially in a four-player game (which I wouldn’t attempt again). I enjoy a two-player game but three is definitely the sweet spot, which adds quite a bit to the play time. One plus side is the fantastic Through the Ages online version. Initially the layout looks troublesome and weak, but it actually plays really smoothly once you get to grips with it.

Another problem is the importance of the military aspect of the game*. Players who aren’t keen on confrontation need not apply, but its not just them: others think the military aspect is either tacked on as a balancing mechanism or is overpowered. It’s true that if someone falls behind on military and is picked on by the other players, it can be impossible for them to recover – particularly punishing in such a long game.

Finally, some describe Through the Ages as nothing more than  a spread sheet rather than a game – a dry, themeless affair that is way too fiddly for its own good. The fiddly criticism is true, and there is a lot of bookkeeping, but this can be done by a player at the end of their turn while the next player gets on with theirs, so it’s not so bad. But again, if you don’t like fiddly bookkeeping games you may want to avoid it.

Conclusion

TTA card trackThrough the Ages is the last game in my all-time top 10 that I’ve tackled for review and I’ve definitely been reluctant to do so.

It feels impossible to do such an epic game justice in 1,500 words – especially when you know many people simply won’t like it.

But if you like civ and/or engine building games – or more specifically ‘engine building and then maintaining aggh god I can’t do everything at once’ games – and are happy to be in for the long haul, this is a must-try.

I definitely lose more games of TtA than I win and I’m not sure I’ll ever be a good player. There’s so much to think about, so much to plan, so many options – and that’s before you’ve even started to think about what your opponents have planned for you. But even in defeat I tend to walk away from the table thoroughly gamed-out and satisfied.

Is downtime an issue? Sure, a bit. Is military overpowered? Probably. Are some combos simply too good to stop? Sometimes. Will this game be staying on my shelves for the foreseeable future, even if I only get to play once or twice a year and I lose every time?

Absolutely.

* There is a ‘peaceful’ variant of the game some people play, but personally I can’t see the point. It’s such a huge part of Through the Ages that to take it out seems ridiculous – if you don’t want any player conflict in your games, I’d highly advise you to look elsewhere.

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