|Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization (2015)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Heavy [4.44]
Sitting down to write this review, it feels a lot like trying to find the starting tab on a roll of Sellotape. How do you even begin talking about a game like Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization? What can you say that hasn’t been said? How can you begin, how can you end, and how can you hope to do any justice to a game with sufficient ambition to take a swing at the whole sweep of human history?
The traditional advice of ‘begin at the beginning and go on until you reach the end’ isn’t really compatible with a meaningful review. If you’re looking for a rules explanation there are plenty of videos and write-ups that would do it with more panache and accomplishment than I would manage. Without something equivalently functional though there’s no obvious place to begin talking. This isn’t a game that is about the cards, even though there are hundreds of them. It’s not about the cubes, even if you’ll spend most of your time uneasily shuffling them around your board in a geometric waltz of self-doubt and recrimination. It’s not about the politics around the table, although if you neglect them you’ll find yourself on the sharp edge of an invasion before you can say ‘wait, what about what we talked about in Munich?’. It’s about all of those things, all of the time. You can’t really know about one without knowing about the others.
Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization (henceforth just Through the Ages, TtA, or ‘this bloody game’ depending on how long the review takes) is a game that has an intimidating reputation. For a long period of time it was in the BGG Top 10 – twice. Much like Twilight Struggle, this is a game where one has to tread lightly with criticism because it’s so deep, so complex, and so unwaveringly grand in the scope of its ambitions. When this level of critical acclaim is married to a game of sophisticated logistical interactions it’s easy to feel like gushing positivity is the only rational approach to take. To go for anything else is to make yourself suspect ‘It’s not you, it’s me’.
I’m not going to go significantly against the grain here. TtA is a great game – one that I have sunk countless hours into playing. It’s not getting away from this review without a great deal of enthusiastic support. I definitely think anyone who has the time to spend and the interest to spend it should absolutely check it out. It’s just… it’s not quite as excellent as you might expect. Its accomplishments are not quite proportional to the adulation it has garnered. It has systems of intricate interconnectedness that are sometimes dazzling in their ingenuity. It also has numerous shortcomings that can make it intensely frustrating to play. It thrives when everyone sitting around it has mastered its decks and decisions, but the gears grind together alarmingly when a novice is in the mix. It’s a game that is all about the cost of opportunity, and yet sometimes never presents you with opportunities worth considering. Its pace is glacial, and yet its climax arrives without fanfare and often before you’ve had a chance to really enjoy yourself. It’s simultaneously all about its theme and not actually very thematic. It pretends to be an epic game spanning the breadth of antiquity but it’s like the history of the world as expressed by an Excel spreadsheet. It’s a clever game, but somewhere along the line a bit of its heart went missing.
Enough of that, enough of that. Let’s not dwell, for now, too much on the negatives and get back to the key takeaway here – this is a consistently great game. Not flawless, but great and well worth your attention.
Despite the fact you won’t find a single one in the box, TtA is a game about elastic bands. It’s a game of incomes and outcomes that flex and expand and rapidly contract with the force of inevitability. You’ll sting your fingers if you don’t get them out of the way in time. It’s about staffing the civic infrastructure of your empire while making sure everyone is fed and nothing is wasted. In the process though you’ll find that much of your productivity is sapped away by corruption, and the bigger your empire gets the harder it becomes to expand to meet all your growing obligations. From the simple beginning of a despotic city state you need to develop your science, your economy, your infrastructure and the happiness of your population. You’re going to have to do this while also presenting yourself as too risky a target for other civilizations to contemplate attacking. Easy peasy except the more you strain in any one of these systems, the more the realpolitik of necessity will draw you back. Don’t strain too hard, or the whole thing will snap. It’s tense. It’s fascinating. Its mechanisms are so incredibly rich they cause agitation and upset in the Occupy movement.
You’d never know any of this from the two manuals though – they have all the charm and warmth of a Home Office immigration visa and are roughly as interesting to read. While they do a reasonably good job of stepping you through the game they fail utterly in communicating the lessons that you really need to learn. Usually Czech Games manuals are notable for their quality and whimsy. Here they’re just dense documents filled to the brim with mandatory legalese. They’re the game manual equivalent of a EULA agreement that you long to simply click through but can’t take the risk.
I’m going to take an unusual step here and suggest that you don’t even bother reading them. Invest in the app for the game – it’s very well done and also has one of the best tutorials I’ve seen in an adaptation. If you wonder from the manuals where all the humour has gone, it’s in the app. The tutorial is genuinely funny in a way that is both respectful of the game and satirical of the wider context in which the game exists. It’s good stuff! It is a fair cost to bear in addition to the box you just bought but it’s worth it. Otherwise you’re going to be reading 24 pages of tightly cropped mumbling just in order to see how your first game is going to play:
Once you’ve gotten that down then you’re constantly consulting the grandiose ‘code of laws’ when you’re trying to work out the rest. It’s not actually a very complicated game in real terms, but you’d be forgiving for being sceptical when you open the rulebook.
Let’s not concern ourselves with the specifics of the rules because we’ll be here all day – let’s just take a little tour of the world and see some of its more noteworthy sights. It’s okay, it’s not going to take eighty days although knowing how much I love the sight of my own text it might feel like that to an outside observer.
That picture above shows your player board, with your empire marked primarily by the buildings it has developed along the top. The yellow cubes placed on those buildings represent allocated workers – as long as a building has someone in it, it’ll produce the raw and refined resources upon which your empire runs. Agriculture provides food, mining provides materials, and philosophy provides science. The religious building here has no-one allocated to it so it produces nothing, but if it did it would give you a happy face and a point of culture. Happy faces come into play when you start depleting the yellow bank along the bottom – you pay food to move them to the worker pool, and in the process you change the balance of content versus discontented workers. The more workers you have, the more food is necessary to feed them and the harder it is to keep everyone from rioting.
Buildings get constructed using production capacity which comes from mining. The blue cubes in the middle of the board are ‘resources’, and as your agriculture and mining base produces food and ore you’ll sprinkle these on to the relevant card to indicate both the type of resource and its efficiency. To begin with, each card produces resources on a one for one basis. As you move blue cubes onto cards though you expose inefficiencies in your infrastructure and this manifests as a corruption tax. This is ore that you need to repay to the bank at the end of your turn before you handle your production. Resources that lie unspent on your cards are just waste – they actively get in the way of you achieving your goals by sapping away at your efficiency.
You can’t just shuffle cubes around indefinitely. Everything has a cost – if it’s not in food or ore or science, it’s in terms of one of the civil or military actions your government permits you. Many things require both. Despotism provides you with four civil actions and two military actions. Civil action simulate your ability to manage your empire and its internal systems, and military actions relate to aggression, wars and your own self-defense requirements. As time goes by you’ll likely earn more of these actions, but in the short term they’re the primary thing causing you consternation in the duration of your turn.
Sitting the centre of the table as a resource shared between all players is the card row, and this is something like the waterfall of history – new and more sophisticated cards will enter from the right and older, unwanted cards will cascade off to the left. Cards on the right are more expensive than cards on the left, and in order to claim the cards you’ll need to spend civil actions. You can’t just be focusing on your own civilization as it stands now – you need to be considering how it needs to evolve in the future and how you’re going to afford all the things you need to make it prosper.
The card row contains one use events that can change the course of your turn, but you can’t spend them on the turn you acquire them. It contains world wonders that grant you permanent buffs to your civilization – and only you get them. It contains potential leaders who, for a short time, can lend a particular flavour and texture to your empire. Homer for example gives you a little flex in production, and if you replace him he makes your empire permanently happier. He’ll cost you two civil actions to buy though because of where he currently resides in the card row. Perhaps you want to buy the pyramids – you’ll need to build that in stages and it’s expensive in terms of ore. Your reward for that though is to have a permanent extra civil action in every subsequent turn. Or maybe you want the Library of Alexandria which gives you a culture and a point of science, but also alleviates the strict hand limit you have on cards at the end of your turn. All of those are two civil actions, but the one-shot events are only one civil action each to buy. You could buy two of those for the price of one of the others. Which do you want?
Well, usually you want all of them but you never have enough actions for that. It’d be fine if this was a shop that didn’t see much stock rotation, but the press of time is staggering and every turn things are disappearing and new things appearing. There are lots of event cards, duplicates of technology cards, but only one card of each wonder and leader. If one of those cascades off the left of the track you’ll never see it again. Only a portion of cards are lost in this way after each player’s turn and maybe your best bet is to just not buy a key card and wait for it to move to the left where it becomes cheaper, or when you’re hopefully in a position to afford it more freely.
That’d be fine and dandy except everyone else around the table is making the same decision, and while you might want the Pyramids at a discounted rate the player that follows you might be happy to pay the current price. Especially since the act of not purchasing it moves it farther to the left as the older cards are discarded. Really your main enemy here is the ruthless compromises of opportunity – to take one is sometimes to permanently give up your chance at another. You face many of these decisions in a single turn, and it’s these that make the game so good. There are turns in TtA when you don’t have much to do that’s going to hold your interest – sometimes you take cards just because you’ve got the actions to spare and they do nothing if they’re not used. More often though you’re performing a hostile negotiation with yourself about how to spend your meagre pool of options. You’ll want to spend them locally in your empire, but also you really want the Colossus and it’ll be three civic actions to get it…
Don’t get carried away with this though because you’ve also got military actions to spend and you better be wary about what your opponents are doing. The military strength of your empire comes into play regularly through the course of play, and it’s always relative. It doesn’t matter how powerful your military is in real terms – just how powerful it is in relation to everyone else. It’s good to be on top, it’s tense to be in the middle, but it’s positively terrifying to be last because that makes you the butt of almost everything terrible that will happen through the course of the game. Players are going to be doing everything in their power to make sure you live in interesting times.
This is what passes, in the main, for player interaction in Through the Ages. At the start of their turn, each player gets to play at politics and this is where things start to get nasty. Politics might include seeding an event into the future events deck, which will cause a previously played event from the current events deck to pop into life.
The order in which these get played is not the same as the order in which they get placed, and as such you might find yourself becoming the victim of a trap you laid for another player just because the momentum of the game got away from you for a bit. That happens a lot. Many of these events are things like ‘The strongest player takes a yellow token from the bank of the weakest player’ or ‘each civilization loses culture for each discontent worker’. Those may have played in your favour when you chose the card, but you don’t get to decide when they actually activate. Every event is a landmine you planted and it’s very easy to bumble into it yourself. The fact you know the event is in there can turn foreknowledge into a problem– maybe you’re building up your military to prevent a terrible thing happening but that can look an awful lot like escalating aggression to everyone else around the table. That’s well worth bearing in mind when a political phase can also include some very pointed and direct aggression. Like real life geopolitics, it’s sometimes as much about the signals you give off as it is about the actual intention you have in your heart of hearts.
You can stage aggressive acts, directly pitting your military against another player. They can protect themselves by discarding their military cards to bolster their current score but if the difference between military setups is large that may not be sufficient. You can even start a war which has a much greater effect on the loser but gets resolved at the end of your victim’s turn – that gives both of you a full turn to militarize to meet the challenge but your opponent handles this last. You need to be pretty sure you won’t be pipped to the post there, but if you succeed in the war the rewards can be considerable.
Or maybe the events will be a discovered colony which lets you all bid troops you’ll send to conquer it. These have nice rewards associated, but it comes at the cost of your self defence and maybe that was the intention all along. You don’t know, in a game of more than two players, who put an event in the deck. That means you also don’t know why they did it.
Some of the military cards you draw permit you to layer tactics on top of your troops, giving a bonus as long as you meet the tactical requirements. They serve as a kind of overlay you can choose to adopt. You get unique use of a tactic for a single round of the game and then it goes to the common tactics board where anyone can use it for an increased price.
All of this is very enjoyable and satisfying and makes for a game that gives you plenty to worry about in your own empire and just enough to worry about in those of your opponents. The decisions you make are genuinely, meaningfully interesting. You usually have so much to worry about that there’s no clear path towards success. Even just in the escalation of military you sometimes find yourself shackled to the momentum of play as it’s set by other players. You don’t get to tune out of TtA – you need to be engaged in every turn to make sure you are the equal of the challenge. You get real opportunities here to develop deep understanding of game systems that at their best are all but magical in how well they cohere.
However, it’s also a game that doesn’t change an awful lot from the start of play to the end of play – it’s really only the events that feel notably different because they change dramatically in tone as time goes on. The antiquity events are always free bonuses for everyone. The age one events are mostly about colonization. Age two is mostly about direct competition with other empires, and age three is seeded with additional scoring opportunities. The latter of these are so important that they distort the rest of the game around them but otherwise the difference between a late game turn and an early game turn is mostly in the numbers. You generate ten science rather than two, but you use it to purchase more expensive technologies in exactly the same way. Your military is forty rather than four, but it still works only in relation to the militaries of other players. You’re generating eight ore instead of two, but aside from the fact it becomes a bit more pernickety to track it nothing fundamental has changed. Numbers get bigger, but bigger numbers don’t change the way anything feels.
And that leads into one of the more significant structural problems I have found in every game I have played of this – the engine you spend all that time constructing never really gets a chance to spin up in a way that feels like an accomplishment. That’s something true of a lot of games like this where you build an engine from a tableau of cards – San Juan and Race for the Galaxy also have the same issue. Mostly this is actually good – it makes sure that the game feels tight and tense and that decisions matter. It ensures that everything is balanced and contentment doesn’t rob a game of its meaningful tension. The problem with TtA is that the game ends before you really get to enjoy your hard work, and at the end of a three hour game that is always frustrating. All the way through TtA you are running to stand still – it’s like playing an RPG with enemies that scale to your level so that you never really feel like you’re getting more effective. The rabbits that killed you at level one are just as dangerous to you at level one hundred. Just as you start being able to bask in the logistical infrastructure you spent all the game developing, the last card of the last age gets dealt out and everyone is slipping on their coats. The impact of earlier turns rapidly becomes dwarfed by the outputs of later turns. It might have taken twenty turns to earn ten culture to begin with, but in the last rounds of the game you’re getting that every single time your turn comes around. That means that while the bad decisions in early turns may create problems they don’t really have as much impact on the development of your civilization as you might expect. In the end there’s one real decision you must get right in TtA and that’s when to start directing your empire to the optimised production of culture. In the last reckoning it doesn’t matter how much food you’re producing or how impressive and mixed method your military ends up being. It’s all about culture, and the victory points it represents.
It’s certainly not that this is an easy decision – it’s all bound up in the scoring events that have been played, and many of those are dependent on other parts of the game state. It’s just that how well you do in every other part of the game doesn’t really mater if you get this bit right. You could have been lagging behind everyone the entire time and manage to synchronise yourself to the scoring in such a way as to rocket into the lead. You temporarily buff your military just as the ‘impact of strength’ event comes out of the deck – despite the fact you’ve been the weakest the entire game, you just got the points for being the strongest. Someone dismantles their happiness producing buildings in order to focus on culture, temporarily giving you the most content workers. Then bam, ‘impact of population’ pops out and you’re the one that benefits from it. The largest impact of scoring is not from playing consistently well, but from being in the right position to benefit at the right time. The end game scoring is very significant, and it does tend to overshadow what you spend the vast majority of the game doing. If you play the earlier game well you’ll be in a better position to take advantage of the scoring. The erratic and capricious timing of the events though means that you might very well find yourself pipped to the lion’s share of the points through no fault of your own.
There are a number of moments like this when it’s not so much skill that defines your success as it is the happy co-incidences of fortuitous timing. It’s possible to be locked out of a technology just because the two copies of it were dealt out to the card row before you got a chance to claim them, and others snapped them up first. For most technologies this isn’t a problem because you’ve got plenty of other options. For governments, this can be intensely destabilising for your prospects. Governments have such a powerful impact on an empire that to be denied one is to be largely knocked out of the running for a chance of winning. Democracy for example gives seven civic actions and an urban building limit of four. That’s fantastically powerful, certainly in comparison to something like Monarchy with its 4/4/2 split. If you don’t get to expand your government you’ll find yourself constantly struggling against a civic action limit that you didn’t choose but couldn’t easily escape. Similarly, the tight limits within which you function will also prevent you from reaching too far into the card row to pluck a choice option when it’s most expensive. There’s too much you need to be worrying about in your own empire to safely spend 75% of your actions on that kind of thing. You can’t ever be denied access to tactics cards because they cycle into common use, but it would have been great to have seen the same thing for governments. After all, it’s not like I couldn’t have looked over to another empire and said ‘Hey, let’s do what they’re doing’. That’s basically how governments propagate in real life. Well, that and the relentless imperialism that seeded the system of parliamentary democracy through the world. I would have been pretty happy too with a system of aggression that permitted you as the loser of an invasion to copy the government of the attackers as they put a stamp of conquest on your shores. In the absence of this you’re often left playing an empire based more on convenience than any real commitment to its manifestation.
Similarly with tactics – the higher tier tactics cards are very powerful but the cost of developing a military to use them can be excessive in terms of numbers and down to serendipitous configuration. As such, choosing a tactic is less about building an empire around a vision of military effectiveness and more ‘going to war with the army you have’. It’s not bad – it’s just a lot more about taking advantage of an opportunity rather than anything else. Otherwise it’s a system where the costs rapidly outweigh the benefits – adding another couple of developed military units is usually more straightforward and a great deal cheaper. The game doesn’t encourage the development of breadth – it incentivises efficiency and that comes at a cost to the theme.
The result of all of this is that the game doesn’t really feel epic – it feels weirdly bureaucratic. Your civilization never develops a personality – I couldn’t pick any civilization I have developed in this game out of a lineup. They may as well be mass-produced by Mattel for all the distinctiveness they have. In Innovation, your civilization feels like an expression and extension of your earlier choices. In TtA I may end up recruiting Julius Ceaser and building the Pyramids alongside the Hanging Gardens and yet feel like nothing of meaning has actually happened. My empire should feel like it was forged by great people performing great deeds. It doesn’t though – it feels like it was put together by the accounting department. Since you see every card in every game too it all starts to become more like reassembling a jigsaw than it does grabbing hold of history and forging it in your image. The same thing that permits TtA to be a game where players can build genuine mastery is the thing that makes it feel curiously sterile.
It doesn’t even feel like your civilization has particularly captured the tempo of the times. The ages are weirdly anachronistic and jumbled up and don’t really feel cohesive in the technologies they present you. It’s a bit like experiencing the full majesty of history through some kind of mystical strobe light. Boom, Homer. Boom, Pyramids. Boom, Columbus. Wait, what? Did I just stroke out for a moment there? That seems like a hell of a jump. Boom, Bach. Wait, what? Boom, Einstein. Hang on, something has gone wrong with the TARDIS I need to fix it… wait, hang on, just stop. Boom, space flight. Screw it, never mind.
It’s weird too because this is a long game – an hour per player plus an hour or maybe two. For two players you might be at this for three hours. For four players you might be stuck at this for six hours or so. You’ll be touching against the far extreme of this especially if people continually iterate through the various combinations of their actions to achieve an positive impact on their game. You play for ages and don’t really feel like you constructed an empire. It’s not really the length of the game that’s the issue here either – it’s the brutal downtime that comes with each additional player. Efficiency here is a logic puzzle and it takes time to solve it. That time commitment increases when you need to consider the way that puzzle is inextricably linked to the tempo of play being set by every other player. That makes it interesting and deep, but you spend a lot of time doing nothing when playing TtA. It seems unfair that you don’t even get to feel at the end like you made something of which you get a sense of ownership.
These though are mostly complaints about something intangible – the feel of an experience. Mechanically TtA is a wonderful game that will keep you absorbed during your turn by presenting you with a whole smorgasbord of wonderful things that you can’t have. While you may not have a huge impact on scoring with your early turns, the compounding and composite impact of the actions you take mean that there are short term consequences for everything you do. The game loops here are satisfying – short term emergencies that repeat and iterate within the larger cycle of the ages. Even the simple decision to delay doing something can play out in a disastrous way as wars and famine strike the land. You have the freedom to make mistakes without critical comporomise, but you can’t make too many because failure in TtA is a pit that is difficult to escape. It’s tough at the top, but that’s nothing compared how tough it is at the bottom where mere necessity forces you into endless battle with your own nobler instincts. Everyone in TtA is constantly climbing over each other in an attempt to get out of the pit, and in that frenetic melee you’ll find an awful lot of satisfaction in the momentary periods you achieve dominance. You could play TtA a hundred times and still feel like you’re only just getting a grip on it. If you want a game you could spend your life trying to truly master, Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization is a good candidate for adding to your game library. It’s not quite the flawless masterpiece its reputation would imply, but few such claims truly stand up to scrutiny.