It says a lot about a game when it spends 10 years in the Board Game Geek top 10 list despite being four hours long and fundamentally flawed – a fact recognised by even its most dedicated supporters. Welcome to the world of Through the Ages.
The version I have previously reviewed (link below**) was the second edition, released in 2007, but the changes from the first edition were largely cosmetic (such as a pretty big upgrade in component quality). But in 2015 Czech Games Edition and designer Vlaada Chvatil decided to revisit the game more thoroughly – with another component upgrade, but also some pretty big changes to the rules.
Having reread my original post, I feel no need to do another full review. Almost everything still stands: it’s still epic, complex and long, but totally rewarding. It still shouldn’t be played with any more than three (unless you’re happy with a hell of a lot downtime), but if you have a liking for ‘heavy’ euro games or civ-style games, it’s at least a must-try.
You can also play online, for free – including the new version – at Boardgaming Online. Not only is this a strong implementation of the game, but the users also deserve kudos for being a large part of the testing group for this new third edition.
Through the Ages: The military problem
There have several changes that help tone this down a little, with much less reliance on luck of the draw with your military cards.
For example, when defending aggressions you can now discard any military cards (up to your number of military actions) to add to your defence cards. Also you no longer have to rely on drawing the right tactics card if someone else has already put it into play – there is a common area for all tactics cards played, meaning you can adopt a strategy earlier played by an opponent.
In addition, during both wars and aggressions you are no longer allowed to sacrifice units to add to your military strength. Wars can still be devastating if you don’t at least keep close parity with your opponents, but as long as you’re within touching distance you should be able to cling to a lead. Personally I’d still like to see a cap put on the amount of benefit you can get from military cards, but these are all big improvements.
Significant tweaks: Turn sequence and card balance
In older versions of Through the Ages there was a very fiddly turn sequence where it was quite easy to be caught out by ‘corruption’ (the loss of building materials, which could be devastating), especially for less experienced players. The new version has streamlined this beautifully and turns now flow smoothly, giving you your turn to fix any corruption issues as they happen near the end of your go.
Another issue was that many cards were simply better than others and there were a lot of cards experienced players would never even consider playing. Most have been balanced now; either toned down, tweaked up or at least made useful in certain situations. I’m now seeing cards being played that never used to be and it’s great to see whole new strategies becoming viable for experienced and new players alike.
A New Story of Civilisation: Component upgrades
The card art is now lovely (rather than passable), the player boards are both functional (including a handy play sequence) and attractive, while the cubes are less small and fiddly.
The rulebook certainly benefits from the simplifications in turn sequence but is undoubtedly better across the board; while all the player boards look great and can be organised in a way that suits your player numbers and table space. And across the board everything is more colourful, but not in a way that detracts from its functionality. There are even some rather pointless stickers to put on the player markers, if you’re so inclined.
Through the Ages: Will we need a fourth edition?
At the time of writing, the third edition of Through the Ages was already up to number 11 in the BGG rankings – just six places behind the original with an average ranking of 9/10 from close to 2,000 votes – a whole point above its predecessor (a big part of the BGG ranking is number of votes – in which the original outstrips it about 10 to 1 for now). I’m sure it won’t be long before it deservedly overtakes it.
The game has been high in my Top 50 games list since it began and I can’t see it ever dropping off that list, despite the fact I’m terrible at it. The one problem I have is simply my own, not the game’s: it’s a little too heavy for me to be any good at because once the mid game comes along I tend to lose touch as the decision space becomes a bit too much for me. The fact I still enjoy it despite almost guaranteed defeat speaks volumes!
Is the game perfect now? No, I don’t think so – but its close enough that I can’t see Vlaada and CGE returning to it for more big changes. I would still like to see a version of the game where military can be de-scaled a little more, but not completely: where you could ignore it to a large extent because you knew there was a cap on how many points you could be hit by during a war. I think leaving the war cards out is too strong the other way, but a points cap on their effectiveness (at least as an option) would be appreciated.
The online second edition version also includes a second set of cards and I’d love to see something like this released in physical form for the tabletop version. I guess it would be a lot of testing for very little profit if just released as a card expansion, but as this is clearly a game the designer still has a lot of love for I wouldn’t rule it out. A true classic.