Reviewed by Herb Levy
(Czech Board Game Company, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 120 minutes +; about $150)
Every once in a while, a game piques the interest of a small cadre of gamers and, like a herd of maddened bees, a buzz takes to the air. That phenomenon occurred with the release of Through the Ages, a new game out of the Czech Republic from the aptly named Czech Board Game Company. Subtitled “A Story of Civilization”, the buzz was that this would be the Holy Grail of Gaming, namely a game that would encapsulate the growth of humanity, from antiquity to today, in a short period of time. The bad news is that the search for the Holy Grail continues. The good news is that Through the Ages is a masterfully crafted game.
Unlike other games following the ebb and flow of civilization, there is no mapboard here or counters to move across terrain. At its core, Through the Ages designed by Vlaada Chvátil is a card game and it is the interplay of cards that grows and transforms civilizations.
The game comes with several decks of cards representing civil and military advancements from various historical Ages, from Antiquity up to Modern times (Civil Decks A, I, II and III, Military Decks A, I, II and III), two small boards (one to showcase available cards and one containing scoring tracks for use with player markers), player Civilization cards, gemstones (tokens in several colors) which serve multiple purposes and a very thorough rulebook, aided by many examples. Three levels of play are offered: the Simple Game (more to introduce game concepts than an actual “game”), the Advanced Game (which gives the full flavor of the interwoven nature of the game) and the Full Game (which adds more cards and concepts – and playing time – to the experience). This review is based on the Advanced Game.
Cards drive the game. (Only Cards from Decks A, I and II are used in the Advanced Game.) Cards come in two basic types – civil and military – separated into Civil and Military decks. Both types are color-coded. Civil cards consist of Leaders (green), Action cards (yellow), Wonders (purple), Military Units (red), Urban Buildings (gray), Farming Technology (light brown), Government (orange) and Special Technology (light blue). Military cards offer Events and Territory (both green), Bonuses for use in Defense or Colonization (its dual purpose marked as the cards are divided into two colors), Tactics (a deeper, muted red) and Pacts (deep blue). As the game progresses, players will seek to grow in scientific knowledge (tracked as Science Points), military strength, happiness (depicted as “smiling faces”) and, the most important in game terms, culture (charted as Culture Points). At game end, the Civilization with the most Culture Points will win. While all cards offer benefits to the player using them, it is the choosing, implementing and interaction of these benefits that is the essence of play.
At the start, each player directs a civilization represented by a set of six cards: a government card (Despotism), military (Warriors), two types of “urban buildings” (represented by Philosophy and Religion cards) and two types of technology cards (Bronze and Agriculture). In addition, players receive a “Civilization card” which serves as a “bank” to hold and track their resources and population.
Everyone begins with equal supplies deposited on their cards: 18 blue “gemstones” on the Civilization card which represent resources and/or food and 25 orange “gemstones” to symbolize population/workers. The orange gemstones are split up with 18 of them going in the bank area of the Civilization card, one more placed in the unused worker box (in the upper right hand corner of the Civilization card) and the rest placed on the player’s initial cards (one on Warriors, one on Philosophy and two each on Bronze and Agriculture). Finally, four clear gems (representing the number of Civil Actions available to a player this turn) and two red gems (representing the number of Military Actions available this turn) are placed on the Despotism card. Cards from Military Deck A (two more cards than the number of players) are placed face down on the board to form the Current Events deck. These cards will come into play later in the game. Cards from Civil Deck A are placed on the card board. (At the start of each player’s turn, the card row is adjusted as cards shift to the left and less expensive side of the card row) with new cards filing in the now open areas.) In the Advanced game, the Age III Civil and Military decks are not used EXCEPT that four Event cards are randomly dealt from Military Deck III to become the final scoring criteria at game’s end.
On each turn, players are faced with a set of possible actions covering political, civil and military options. First, A player may choose to perform ONE political action from four possibilities:
1. Play a Future Event. These cards will earn him 1 or 2 Culture Points (depending on which age deck the card is from). These cards are played face down to begin or continue a new set of Events but by playing a Future Event, the top card on the Current Even deck is revealed to the benefit (or detriment) of the civilizations in the game. Some Events reveal new territories to colonize. (All players have a chance to colonize the area by bidding military strength.) Initial events are positive but as the game progresses, events can help some civilizations and hinder others.
2. Play an Aggression. This is the game’s equivalent of war. Strengths of civilizations are compared to another to achieve some immediate gain such as immediate resources for the victor and a loss (of population or a building) to the defeated.
3. Propose a Pact with another Civilization (by playing a Pact card) which, if accepted (each participating nation placing a marker next to it) generally reaps benefits for at least one and often both Civilizations. Alternatively…
4. Cancel a Pact already in effect simply by announcing the cancellation.
Political actions are strictly voluntary. Once the political action phase is over (whether an action is taken or not), a player must discard any excess Military cards he may have in hand. Now comes the Civil and Military Actions phase.
Depending on the nature of a Civilization’s government (and the impact of Leaders associated with that Civilization), players have a number of Civil Actions and Military Actions available for use each turn. Civil Actions require spending ONE Civil Action (and sometimes more) and then:
1. Take a card from the card row. (This action may cost 1 or 2 or 3 Civil Actions depending on that card’s position). You may take as many cards as you can afford but there is a hand limit. Cards picked this turn may only be played on a subsequent turn. Players may only have as many cards as their form of government has Civil Actions.
2. Increase population by moving orange gems (at the cost in food of the number underneath each gem’s position in the population bank) from the bank to the unused worker’s box.
3. Build a Mine, Farm or Building by spending the required resources and moving an unused worker onto the specified card.
4. Upgrade a Mine, Farm or Building by spending the difference in resources between a lower level unit and the new, more efficient, unit.
5. Construct a stage of a Wonder by spending the specified resources. (Each stage costs 1 Civil Action, the number and cost of stages vary from Wonder to Wonder. Completed Wonders offer boons to civilizations in many ways including more happiness, culture and/or science points.)
6. Put a Leader card in play. (Leaders are often but not always political figures. Rather, they represent people who have had a historical impact. In game turns, they boost the abilities of a Civilization. For example, from Antiquity, we find such political figures as Julius Caesar who increases your military strength and gives you an extra military action and Hammurabi who gives you an extra civil action at the cost of losing 1 military action). As you go through the ages, Leaders are such non-political figures as Isaac Newton (who can increase your Science points and help you get spent civil actions back), William Shakespeare (who boosts your culture point production) and, if you play the Full game, leaders include Elvis Presley (who increases your culture point production and happiness) and Albert Einstein (who increases science and culture points).
7. Put a new Technology card in play (to improve resource production)
8. Play an Action card (but NOT one taken in the current round) which can give a one-time boost to a Civilization such as reducing the cost in resources of an upgrade, increased production of resources or food or a bonus of culture points.
9. Change your Government. As the government of your Civilization moves away from Despotism, more Civil Actions and more Military Actions become available. There are two ways a player can upgrade his government: revolution or through peaceful change.
Each new Government card displays two Science Point values. A revolution allows you to spend the LESSER amount of Science Points shown on the new government card but requires the expenditure of ALL of your Civil Actions. A sometimes necessary move but, of course, this prevents the player from doing anything else requiring Civil actions that turn. A peaceful change in government costs only ONE Civil Action but demands the considerably higher amount of Science Points. Regardless of spent Civil Actions, players may still use available Military Actions.
At the cost of ONE Military Action, a player may:
1. Build a Military Unit by spending the required resources and moving an unused worker to the appropriate card.
2. Upgrade a Military Unit by spending the difference between an upgraded unit and a basic unit and moving a worker to the upgraded “card”.
3. Destroy a Unit. This allows you to bring workers back to your unused worker pool.
4. Play a Tactics card. This gives additional strength to combinations of military units. As the game progresses, some Tactics cards differentiate between current and “antiquated” units (from a previous Age) and awards less strength to older units.
With a turn coming to an end, that player must check for Production and Maintenance. Earned Science Points and Culture Points (as specified on cards in play) are tracked. Now, farms with workers produce food (based on the card) and food is consumed according to the amount of workers gone from the bank. Similarly, resources are produced based on the cards with active workers and corruption (based on the amount of resources in play and not in the bank) is paid. You must also keep your population happy. Happiness, in the form of happy faces, is also tracked on your Civilization card. If you haven’t generated enough happy faces, you will end up with “discontented workers”. If you have more discontented workers than unused workers, you have an “uprising” and NO resources or food is produced and NO points are scored! Now, Military Cards equal to the number of UNUSED Military actions may be drawn. (While there is a hand limit, as with Civil Cards, equal to the number of Military Actions a government provides, as previously mentioned, a player does not need to discard excess cards until AFTER his political phase NEXT turn.)
As an Age ends, some cards from the previous Age become obsolete. Thus, when Age I ends, some Antiquity cards are removed from play. This includes cards still in a player’s hand, Leaders, Works under construction and any Pacts in play. (Other Antiquity cards remain in effect.) Play continues until the last Civil cards from Age II are placed on the card row. This marks the final turn. All players get an equal number of turns and when the last player finishes, the Age III Event cards drawn at the start of play are scored. Culture points earned from them are added to the totals of the players. The player who finishes with the most Culture Points wins!
Players are encouraged to play Event cards for two reasons. There is an immediate scoring of Culture Points (1 or 2). In addition, the player playing the card as a Future Event knows what will be coming and can plan accordingly. (For example, if a Future Event rewards a strong military civilization, a player can build towards that goal to reap those benefits when the card appears.) In the Advanced game, Through the Ages uses final scoring cards well. Unlike some games that award victory bonuses for some secret requirement (including the Full game here), ALL players know what the final scoring bonuses will be in the Advanced game and can strategize accordingly, an approach that works exceedingly well.
Although all players start with the same strengths and weaknesses with the same basic civilization, civilizations tend to take on individuality almost immediately, starting with initial card picks and a player’s own priorities regarding growing population or developing resources or seeking to increase science knowledge or military power. The interplay between culture, science, happiness and military strength is very well done. One caveat: although warfare in and of itself is not overly stressed, military strength is important. If your civilization remains weak, you may find yourself the target of greedy neighbors. But an overemphasis on military strength can hamper the growth of your culture and the bottom line is that the Civilization with the most culture points will win the game.
Downtime comes with the territory here but, surprisingly, it is not a crippling factor. Players are completely engaged in planning their next move and weighing possibilities. The rulebook suggests that production and maintenance be done as the next player starts his turn to cut downtime a bit. But there’s no getting around the fact that the game is long. Expect to spends hours at the table. With two or three players, cards are removed from play and the Civil cards are cycled through more quickly which tends to “shorten” the game but I use the term “shorten” advisedly. The game is still long. The mark of the game’s quality is that the time spent flies by and, actually, I prefer the longer game (with 4 players) since more cards remain in play and you can better appreciate the progress of civilization while giving yourself more opportunities to upgrade your assets and immerse yourself in the flow.
Bookkeeping is a factor here as you must be alert to potential uprisings (when happiness is not at the required level), famine (when your population exceeds your food production) and corruption (when a sizeable amount of resources are in play). This makes upgrading your civilization at ALL aspects (government, technology, military) vital so you can maximize your abilities while using less gemstones. In fact, although I prefer the face to face action found in sitting across the table from players, you can see how Through the Ages could lend itself to a computerized version where the computer tracks the maintenance, freeing up players from the maintenance chores and probably speeding up play.
The relatively small cards clearly display lots of important information (resource cost, production etc.) labeled accordingly by name (lightly found on the top of each card) and color. Color differentiation (as well as icons) between card types enable you to recognize card functions and potential upgrades easily but the cards could have been bigger with better quality card stock used. The gemstones used are pretty but quite small. The challenge of the game is enough, you do not need to add the challenge of handling such relatively miniscule markers on a rather small civilization card. This can lead to dropping and shifting of gemstones which makes you wonder why such a large box was used for such comparatively small sized components. The listed price above is the approximate cost of the game as the original print run has sold out. Hopefully, the upcoming reprint of this game will both bring the price down a level or two and fix such easily correctable graphic aspects of the game.
There is much to like in Through the Ages. The full range of human activity and the impact of one phase of human endeavor upon others is wonderfully simulated. While the search for the ultimate civilization building game continues, there is no question that Through the Ages captures the feeling of human growth and experience through the ages, making it a challenging and rewarding game and a worthy recipient of this year’s International Gamers Awards. Recommended! – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy
Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.
Fall 2007 GA Report Articles