Board Games by Vlaada Chvátil
(This review was originally published on our blog . Two Moms Game. Follow the link to read it in it's original, recommended format).
Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization
A card drafting and resource management, tableau building civilization game for 2-4 players
Published by Czech Games Edition
We couldn’t start reviewing games without hitting one of our favorite brain-busting games – Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization. This is a Euro-style civilization building game where players must balance creating both a resource/technology/military engine while managing a card deck through drafting and card play.
Play begins with your civilization in the Greco-Roman Age of Antiquity and progresses through the history of the largely Western/Euro-centric world and into the Modern Era. In this review we’ll talk about the new (2015) release of the base game and the New Leaders and Wonders expansion.
Through the Ages is, at its heart, a card game. Sure, there are a series of individual boards that keep track of points and various game mechanics, but the soul of the game lies in drafting, managing, and playing cards to create an engine that progresses your civilization through history. Players take a number of actions during the course of a turn to try to advance their civilization by way of culture, science, and military tracts from the Age of Antiquity to the Modern Era. On their first turn of the game, players only take cards from the card row based on turn order. The remainder of the turns go as follows:
1. Reset the Card Row
In the base game, there is one board for cards that is renewed at the start of every turn. With the expansion, there is a game variant where specialty cards called “Leaders” and “Wonders” are displayed to give players a heads-up for what’s coming later in the game (green and purple card rows in the image).
2. Political Phase
Put an event or territory into the future events deck.
Flip over an event from the current events deck and execute.
Play an aggression
Propose/cancel pact (3+ player games only)
Players choose based on the number of actions they have available. They may be taken in any order – do not need to do all civil actions before taking military actions
Civil Actions – Take a number of actions based on government type and card bonuses. All actions have inherent cost of 1 unless otherwise noted.
Draft cards from card row
Cost 1-3 actions
Leaders (green) – give special abilities or scoring opportunities
Action cards (yellow) – one time bonus
Tech (blue, gray, red, brown, orange) – ongoing bonuses and scoring
Wonders (purple) – ongoing bonuses and scoring
Play card from hand
Complete a stage of wonder
Change government peacefully
Change government via revolution
Military Actions – Take a number of actions based on government type and card bonuses. All actions have inherent cost of 1 unless otherwise noted.
Build military unit
Upgrade military Unit
Disband military unit
Play tactics card
Copy tactics card of another player
4. End of Turn Wrap-Up
This is where you move a million things around – pay special attention to the end-of-turn instructions on the player mat.
Discard excess military cards
Score culture and science points
Check for corruption
Check for starvation
Draw military cards, if applicable
What do we think?
First, the bad. Through the Ages is a nuanced game with many details players must manage and pay attention to throughout the game. It can come off as disjointed, overly complicated, and fiddly. It is not kind to new players and there will be an obvious experience gap between new players and those who have played before. But that’s also part of what makes it fun for us.
Now the good! As you play the game, the actions and game sequence come together in a cohesive flow that sucks you in. The game demands your total attention and becomes an engrossing experience. If sometimes you like playing a game in 80% silence as you both are wrapped up in your heads and only emerge for brief conflict, this is for you! The first time we played, Emily didn’t speak for nearly the entire game and stared at the table with a very serious expression. Turns out, she was having the time of her life.
Through the Ages has a number of unique elements that both complicate the game and make it fascinating from a strategy perspective. There are many different strategies to try, and the game is balanced enough that we haven’t found one overpowering “best” strategy.
One interesting element are the culture, science, and military tracks which act as a scale to determine each player’s resources (science and military) or points (culture). Players’ individual positions on each track can be modified by gaining/playing specific cards or through management of a player’s engine. At the end of each round, players gain culture points based on their position on this track and their culture point total at the end of the game determines the winner. Therefore, balancing the acquisition of resources (science), military, and points (culture) is a delicate and difficult procedure and the success of different strategies can vary widely by what the other players are doing.
Corruption and uprisings are other interesting concepts, as they limit what players can do with their own resource engines. Build up more resources than you can handle and you get corruption penalties. Forget to keep your population happy and they become unruly and refuse to work.
In the two-player version, the military element is less important (but we are both conflict avoidant players). Typically, one of us tries to overpower the other, we both balance out to be nearly equal in strength, and then we abandon the effort to focus on other things. In games with more than 2 players, military becomes much more important.
One last bad thing: We do have a thematic complaint that we know has been raised previously about this game being incredibly male and Euro-centric. It does a better job than similar games at avoiding blatant whitewashing of history (lookin’ at you, Maricaibo), but when the bar is on the ground it’s not that hard to raise it.
If a game is supposed to walk players “through the ages” and include historical leaders and events from all over the world, it can’t be so…white and male. Even with the addition of a couple (white) women – you could maybe argue about Cleopatra being Egyptian though she was ethnically Greek, but that’s missing the point – and a few (male) POC leaders in the new Leaders and Wonders expansion, this game is still severely lacking in diversity. We aren’t really history buffs in general (does watching Drunk History count?), but we’re nearly certain there wasn’t a 2:1 ratio of white men to literally everyone else (and I’m pretty sure POC women existed throughout history as well). There are a TON of great leaders, innovators, etc. throughout history who could have been chosen, so it’s definitely not too much to ask that game designers make more of an effort.
Compared to similarly themed games, Through the Ages does take tiny baby steps in the right direction, but we’d ask that the industry please take bigger steps.
This is a hard one to rate for me. I really enjoy the card row and the engine building aspects, but man am I bad at this game. I have only ever won once, on our first full playthrough…a full 4 years ago. We’ve played 10+ times and no wins for me.
It’s a good game, but it is long and I’m not sure I have the patience or the planning skills required to really excel at this game. No matter how well I think I set myself up with an early engine, I still end up getting absolutely ROCKED by Emily about 2/3rds of the way through. Like, man, I just want to win once then I will live in peace.
One big con for Through the Ages is the player mats. They are thin and not dual layered so the cubes slide everywhere. Literally, every time I lean forward to take card, or you know play the game, I bump the pieces. I call it the “boob bump”. Yep. You read that right. The height of our current table means that anytime I lean over all my tokens get pushed up and around by my chest. Gee thanks, I really needed the reminder they are there.
When this happens, the proper Minnesotan response is "Ope"
I have played the app version many times and for me, the app wins out every time. The ability to have the app manage all the fiddly, time consuming bits while I just sit back and play is wonderful. Admittedly, I play the app on easy mode (I just want win every now and then, okay?) and I am not always the best at paying attention to what the AI does on it’s turn. BUT it is still better than the the physical game.
Can you more than love a game? I adore this one and I can’t put my finger exactly on why I feel so strongly. It might be the great 2-player balance of the new release, the complex strategy, or the fact that I absolutely crush Sarah. Every. Single. Time.
See…the trick is the military. Don’t tell Sarah, but when she ignores military, I can go nuts building an engine and I have that figured out for this game so that I can do it very quickly. Above we said that military isn’t as big of a thing in 2-player, and it isn’t. But ignoring it completely means you’re basically playing a game by yourself, and whoever plays it better wins. When Sarah goes harder on military, I’m forced to as well or risk losing a ton of resources, workers, points, etc. and I can’t build up my engine as quickly.
Fun fact, the first time we played the original Through the Ages it took us about 4 hours to learn and play the intro game. For first time players, especially if no one has played before, this is a definite weekend activity unless you’re a normal person and can stay up later than 10pm (don’t judge us, the kiddos wake up at 5:30am).
CGE and Vlaada Chvátil games tend to have some of the best written and easy to understand rulebooks, and this one is no exception. The biggest complaint is the size, it’s like reading a novel, but that’s typical of a game this heavy.
Most experienced gamers should have no problem learning the game from the rulebook. If reading rules isn’t your thing, there are numerous “how to play” videos available online, including directly from CGE.
Through the Ages is a game that rewards repeated plays. With more plays comes an understanding of which cards are available when and how to use them. One of the biggest barriers, and in-game surprises, is not understanding when your cards or leader become antiquated. Players can lose significant ground by not planning for antiquated cards correctly. As we played more, we quickly became much better at understanding this concept.
Play Time, Best Number of Players
We play this almost exclusively at 2 players and can generally play through the full game in about 2 hours. Newer players and those of us that need a rules refresher before games should plan on 2.5-3 hours. Plan on an additional 60 minutes or so for each additional player. Setup/takedown for this game is also pretty long if you didn’t contain your cards right and they’re all mixed up in the box because you accidentally turned it upside down, *Emily*.
Through the Ages is a commitment with at least a 2 hour play time, not including set up and tear down. It’s also complicated enough that multiple interruptions throughout the game can make it very difficult to play, so not a good one for when the kids might interrupt to show you a dinosaur 400 times. The time commitment puts this in the weekend night game or kiddos are at a sleepover with Nana category.
4: Likely to play again (Emily would give it a 5, Sarah a 3)
*See our rating scale on our site
Is Through the Ages worth the barrier to entry? Definitely. Yes, repeated plays and familiarity are rewarded, but familiarity comes quickly as the many moving parts of the game meld together into cohesion that makes sense. This familiarity drives a desire to keep playing and to keep improving once you start understanding how each card works. We really like the emphasis on long-term strategy planning. It’s often favorable to make sacrifices in the early game in order to gain points or abilities that pay off much later, and so each turn you have to keep the bigger picture in mind.
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