G@mebox author Doug Adams writes about the game :
Caveat - this is going to be a lengthy review, because there is a lot to talk about. For those who want the quick summary, here it is. This is a brilliant game, and thanks for stopping by!
Through The Ages is an obscure card/board game that was released at Essen 2006. I don’t know how many copies were published, but they appeared to vaporize almost instantly and were impossible to find. Now, nearly twelve months later, I have finally caught up with this game and have had a chance to see what it is all about.
I should state from the beginning, these types games are just nuts to me. Through The Ages is a growth game, where you begin with little and reap what you sow. One of my favourite games is Roads & Boats (Splotter Spellen). That game begins with the players owning a few planks of wood and some donkeys, and have to turn them into gold, coins and stock shares. Through The Ages is a similar sort of game – start low, aim high.
So, what’s it all about? The object of the game is to take your fledging civilization, and guide it through two (Beginner’s Game), three (Advanced Game) or four (Full Game) historical “Ages”. The Ages are listed as “A” (Antiquity), “I” (Middle Ages), “II” (Discovery) and “III” (Elvis).
Players begin the game in ancient times, with a couple of thousand years of development in front of them. Each player begins with a couple of rudimentary mines and farms, a laboratory desperately trying to perfect the wheel, and a single platoon of swordsmen trying to figure out what the pointy end is for. Finally there is you – the local despot sitting on the throne, gurgling with glee at your vast empire.
The not so good stuff are the player’s mats and the glass beads. The mats are the player’s “bank”, where beads are stored. The mats are rather flimsy, and look a little tacky, however they don’t have to do anything apart from sit in front of you and store stuff, so it’s no big deal. The beads, though, are a pain. This game is all about shuffling beads from card to mat, mat to card, and card to card – and these little beggars are slippery semi-spheres that are difficult to pick up. For the first of the first game, we struggled. For game two we went to Doug’s box of spare game bits and replaced most of the beads with wooden cubes – much, much easier to handle.
Finally, there is the rulebook, and the good news is it is excellent. There is a lot to this game, however the rulebook carefully teaches you the concepts in three simple to digest chunks. The Beginner’s game teaches you the basics of cube (or bead) shuffling via a short game of only two Ages. The Advanced game extends the game to three Ages, and introduces more advanced concepts such as aggression, happiness, corruption, etc. The Full game isn’t that far removed from the Advanced game, but includes things like wars, and extends the game to the full four Ages. The layout of the rules makes advancing from the Beginner’s game to the Full game easy, and it’s all in full colour with lots of examples
For the remainder of this review, I will be discussing the complete Full game.
Game Concepts, or eight ways to not win.
Through The Ages reminds me of games like Die Macher. These are complex games where the different resources interact with each other in intricate ways. Neglect one, and you'll pay for it in the future. Through The Ages is no different, if anything it's more complex. Players are faced with about ten resources urgently and equally demanding your attention. Thus the player becomes a juggler, and it isn’t easy to keep all the balls in the air. Here’s a quick tour through the stuff you need to manage:
Food: this comes from your farms. You need food to produce new workers, and feed the workers you already have. If you fail to address your food, you may have a famine on your hands, which drains your culture. Even worse, you won’t expand your population base, and you won’t win.
Rock: this is really called “resources”, but it’s been “rock” for us since the first game. Rock comes out of mines, and you need it to build pretty much everything in the game. If you fail to produce enough rock, you’ll fall behind in your building projects, and you won’t win.
Science: this is primarily produced by your laboratories and accrued each turn into a “bank of knowledge”. You spend your banked science on new technologies to improve your civilization. If you fail to accelerate your science, you’ll fall behind in the technology race, and you won’t win.
Strength: this is the combined strength of your military arm, and any technological and tactical know-how you’ve picked up during the game. You can get by ignoring your strength, but it really depends on your opponents. If they’ve built up nice armies, and you’re sitting there with your original platoon of spearmen, it will be mighty hard not to have a swipe at you for an easy gain or two. If you game with players who love throwing down, then you’ll need to build up your strength. On the flipside, if you’re in the fluffy bunny brigade, you could almost ignore your strength (keep a low profile just in case, you never know with bunnies). If you fail to address your strength, you may win.
Culture: the ultimate goal, these are the victory points. Everything you do with your resources should be driving towards picking up more and more culture points. These accrue during the game, and along with bonus payouts at the end, determine a winner. Ignore your culture and you surely won’t win.
Population: the game calls these “workers”. They exist in three states during the game. Firstly, they begin in a “bank” on your player mat representing potential population you can build. They leave the bank when you spend some food from your farms, and become an unemployed worker who is waiting to be assigned to a technology. To assign them, you spend the rock from your mines to place them on a technology card. Once assigned, they are considered to be that particular thing – a building, mine, farm, or a military unit. If you don’t generate enough population, and employ them effectively, you won’t win.
Resource Bank: this is a storehouse of blue beads (now cubes!) on your player mat that represents potential food and rock. Your mines and farms produce at the end of each of your turns. You lift the cubes out of your bank and place them on the mines/farms, one per building. Early in the game, each of these cubes represent one food or rock, but as better mining and farming technologies are developed, you pick up more rock/food per cube. If you don’t develop your mines and farms, escalating prices in the latter Ages will swamp you, and you won’t win.
Happiness: as your civilization swells with people, they begin to get increasingly grumpy. To calm them down you need to either develop entertainment technologies (which boost happiness), or build more workers as “policemen” to keep an eye on them. The game calls these policemen “discontented workers”, however I like the policemen analogy. If the (un)happiness isn’t addressed, you can have a potential uprising, meaning you produce and score nothing for your turn. If you don’t keep the people happy, you won’t win.
Corruption: graft is alive and well in this game. As the food and rock is assigned to your farms and mines, it can either be spent next turn, or held at these buildings for a future purchase. If you do this “store and save” stuff too much, a bit is sold off on the side and must be returned to the “blue bank”. This is essentially wasted resources – do this too often and you won’t win.
The 365 Cards, or I want it all!
The Civil Deck - Building it up
Let’s take a tour through the Civil deck…
Technology Cards: the meat and potatoes cards – these are all about growth. However, receiving the benefit of technologies is a three step process. First, they have to be drafted off the Card Row. Second, they have to be played into your play area, requiring the expenditure of science. Lastly, they have to have a worker assigned to it to actually construct the thing the technology represents. Only then do you earn the technology’s benefit. Technologies are further broken down by their technology type:
Government Technology: each player can only have one Government technology in play, and at the beginning of the game it’s Despotism. Governments are important, as they define how many actions, both Military and Civil, a player may take during a turn. You can decide to remain a Despot and take your measly 4 civil actions per turn, but the earlier you can upgrade your Government, the sooner you are getting more actions in the game and the longer the payoff benefit. Still, if Despotism is your thing, you can pick up extra Civil Actions via some of the Wonders, Leaders and Special technologies.
Mines/Farms Technology: you begin the game with lowly mines working Bronze, but it can be so much better. Mines and farms can be upgraded via better technologies to Iron, Coal, Irrigation, and so on. The payoff is each rock and food is worth more per cube, and as the cost of everything else escalates throughout the game, you are forced to look for these technologies.
Urban Buildings Technology: the stuff science and culture is made of. Urban building technologies represent your temples and laboratories, and as the game proceeds you have the ability to develop libraries, theatres, stadiums and so on. These buildings churn out science and culture points at an increased rate, as well as ensure your population remains happy. Getting these buildings into play early creates a sound cultural/scientific base for your civilization.
Special Technology: these are short cut technologies that don’t require a worker to be built on them; you simply pay the science and begin earning the benefits. Examples include Masonry, that give you construction discounts, or the Code of Laws that give you additional civil actions. These are nice to get down early.
Military Technology: spears aren’t enough? Military technologies enable you to increase your strength per worker, via swordsman, cavalry, cannon and so on. These can be combined with tactics cards from the Military deck to form up armies – combinations of troops that increase your strength even further.
Leader Cards: these are historic personages who can be drafted and played to the table, and they confer an ability on your civilization. For example, Homer leading your people glorifies the military aspect of your people, generating culture points each turn from your soldiers. Leaders dictate your game strategy, and powerful combinations can be formed that output large amounts of science or culture during your turns. Cook and the Colonies is nice, but Michelangelo and St. Peters is nicer.
Wonder Cards: these are the only cards that don’t have to pass through your hand, they can be drafted straight onto the table. Wonders are built over several actions, requiring rock to complete each step. Once complete, they grant a bonus on your people for the remainder of the game. For example, the Pyramids grant you an extra civil action each turn, while the Library of Alexandria gives your science and culture points a little kick along. The wonders that turn up late in the game can generate huge amounts of culture, and shouldn’t be ignored. Tech heavy civilizations will be looking for the First Space Flight, while breeders want Fast Food Chains!
Action Cards: these can be purchased off the Card Row into your hand, to be played on a future turn. They do handy things like give discounts on building purchases, or give your science or culture a one shot boost.
The Military Deck – Tearing it Down.
Tactics Cards: each civilization can have one of these cards in play at a time, and this represents your current military doctrine. For example, the Phalanx may be the cutting edge; however it requires two units of foot troops and a cavalry to adopt. If you construct the required units that match your tactics cards, you’ve formed an army and may increase your strength accordingly for each one you build. Like many aspects of this game, tactics go out of date and devalue quickly. An Age I Legion going up against an Age III Entrenchment is likely to get a bloody nose.
Event Cards: these are the game's answer to the “take that” element. These get secretly fed into a deck of cards that represent the future, and earn the feeder a few culture points by way of incentive. Whenever a card is placed into the Future Events deck, a Current Event is flipped up and actioned. What a brilliant mechanic this is – you have an inkling of the future and can try to plan for it, but cannot exactly predict when it will occur. Events typically benefit the player with the most strength, or hurt the player with the least. There are also colonies that can pop up, which are bought by the player who is willing to sacrifice the most strength to go and conquer it. Early events tend to be friendlier, while the later events are typically “Impacts” - end-of-game bonuses that award culture points.
Aggression Cards: the beat them up cards, that are paid for using military actions. A player will play one of these against an opponent in order to gain some sort of listed benefit – for example gain a few rock, or pinch some science, or perhaps just to rip a few buildings down for fun, you know. It’s no sure thing, as the attacker has to commit his strength up front, possibly sacrificing units to enhance it. Then the defender does the same thing, but may add Defence cards (another type of Military card) from their hand to help. If they can match strength they fend off the attacker, otherwise they have take their lumps. Aggression cards are the main reason to keep your strength up to trim, for if you don’t, you’ll be beat upon constantly for the rest of the game – even the fluffy bunnies won’t be able to resist.
War Cards: the Full game meanie cards. Wars are exactly like Aggression cards, however the defender gets one full turn to do something about it (i.e. build troops!) before the war is resolved. The defender can take the spoils of victory from the war card, if they win.
Pact Cards: these cards allow two players to achieve some sort of political understanding. For example, if one player is so much stronger than another player, they may suggest the “Supremacy” pact. If agreed to, uneasy peace ensues between the two players (i.e. they cannot play aggression against each other), however one player takes one rock per turn from the other. Pacts can be used for mutual benefit, or just bare faced intimidation – wonderful stuff.
Game play – it’s not that difficult
The game uses a clever idea to set people upon different paths. For the first turn and a bit, the Antiquity (“A”) Age is played. This consists of a mini-deck of about twenty cards, and players spend a turn drafting these cards to “seed” the game. After this, the remaining “A” cards are removed and the game swiftly moves onto Age one (“I”).
Game play then settles down into structured player turns, as outlined below.
I covered quite a bit of what happens during a turn describing the various components and resources. However, using your Civil and Military Actions could use a bit of embellishment.
During this phase of your turn, you glance at your Government technology card, and see a number of white and red beads (cubes!). Each white bead represents a Civil Action, while the red beads represent Military Actions. It also represents your hand size – the number of cards you can “store” before you get them into play. Beads! You almost always want more of them. Lowly despots begin with four Civil and two Military Actions per turn. However, this can be increased through constructing Wonders, purchasing Special technologies, recruiting Leaders, and of course, upgrading your Government.
Until you do these things, you are stuck with your restricted number of actions. What do you do with these actions? Well, you spend them, keeping track by removing the beads from your Government card as you go. At the end of your turn, if you have unspent Military Actions, they allow you to top up your hand of Military cards from the deck.
Civil Actions can be spent on a variety of things, and this is where the game shines. Players are faced with so much choice and flexibility; it can be rather daunting deciding which direction to take. There is lots to think about, even out of turn. Here is a description of what you can do with Civil Actions.
Draft off the Card Row: you spend one, two or three Civil Actions to claim a card from the Card Row of Civil cards. These have to go in your hand, and if it’s a yellow Action card, it must remain there until at least next turn. Unclaimed cards drift down the board into the cheap seats, requiring fewer Civil Actions to claim.
Populate: you spend one Civil Action and the appropriate amount of food from your farm to bring a worker out of your “bank” and into the unemployed box. He’s ready for work! The problem players will be quickly faced with is as more workers leave the bank, the population gets grumpier and hungrier.
Construct, Upgrade or Destroy a Building: these require an unemployed worker and the expenditure of rock from your mines to build. The worker is taken and placed on the technology card, in effect they become that building. As you proceed into the game, you can spend a Civil Action to “level up” your building technologies. For example, a Bronze (1 rock per cube) technology can be upgraded to Iron (Age I, 2 rock per cube), Coal (Age II, 3 rock per cube) or Oil (Age III, 5 rock per cube). You can upgrade your mines by hopping your worker across from the lesser to the better technology by simply paying the difference in rock, to the entry cost. Upgrades work the same for all buildings that “level up”. A building can also be destroyed for a Civil Action, freeing up a worker back to the unemployed pool – you do this when you have a better use for them.
Build a stage of a Wonder: wonders are great, but require concentrated effort to complete them. I have been thrashed by my wife who did almost nothing but construct Wonders and maintain her army for the entire game. Getting them built, however, requires lots of rock, and discreet stages of completion. Each stage costs a Civil Action and a required amount of rock. Once complete, they begin earning their keep, bestowing their benefits upon your civilization for the remainder of the game.
Play a Leader: each civilization can have one Leader per Age during the game. Leaders should be chosen carefully, because once claimed and in your hand, you aren’t allowed to claim another until the next Age. Getting the Leader onto the table requires a Civil Action, and they benefit you immediately.
Play an Action: each Action card costs a Civil Action to play from your hand, and bestows an immediate benefit on the player. Care has to be taken with Action cards, as some require an additional Action to be spent along with the Action to play the Action card itself.
Revolt: you can voluntarily go into revolt to toss out your current system of Government and install a new one. This either costs one, or all, of your Civil Actions depending on how quickly you want to go about it. Spending one action costs vast amounts of science points, but it allows you to continue on with your other Civil Actions. Spending all your actions represents violent overthrow, effectively terminating your turn, but the science cost is much cheaper.
Military Actions work much the same way as Civil Actions but emphasise the strength side of the game. You spend them on the following:
Build, Upgrade, or Disband a Military Unit: this works exactly the same way as Actions spent on building Mines, Farms and Buildings. You assign a worker to the appropriate red military technology card, and adjust your civilization’s strength accordingly.
Play a Tactics Card: these appear from the Military deck, cost a Military Action to play. Each civilization can support one Tactics card, and as I described above, they represent doctrine that allows you to form sets of units into armies to give you a strength bonus.
This long review describes the various aspects of the game. Apart from the first couple of turns, which are slightly different, the rest of the game follows the same cycle of turn structure. An Age ends when the last Civil card from the current deck is flipped up onto the Card Row. The game is over at the end of Age III. Bonus points are awarded for any appropriate cards in the current or future event decks, and a winner is declared.
Checks and Balances
Limited Actions: you can’t do everything you want. Your system of Government enforces limits on how much you can achieve during your turn.
Hand Size: as you claim cards from the Card Row, they go into your hand. Like Actions, your hand size is restricted by your Government. In addition, once a card is in your hand, there is no way out apart from playing it. You don’t get to discard junk here (but cards can eventually “rust”, see below).
Building Limits: you may think you’re pretty clever getting your culture producing theatre into play, and a worker or two on it to start spitting out the victory points. However, the Government looms its head again and enforces a building limit on the number of workers you can allocate to such cards. For our lovable Despotism, you can build at most two buildings per technology type – you must move on to a better Government to reap the full benefits of your buildings.
Famine: if you’re a breeder, you will have mouths to feed, which require more and more farms to keep up. Failure to feed your population will bring on Famine, losing your civilization four culture points per turn while the Famine is in effect.
Uprisings: again if you breed too heavily and don’t keep the people happy, you will have an uprising. Uprisings mean you produce nothing (food, rock, culture, science) for the turn. Keep those yellow beads happy, or the game system will bite you.
Corruption: you simply cannot sit on your Bronze mines and basic farms the entire game amassing a few dregs per turn. Shifty individuals will sell off your surplus, forcing you to put the cubes back in the bank. The game forces you to upgrade your mines and farms so your get more food/rock per cube, and can thus keep up with the escalating costs during the game.
Rust: a term I’ve blatantly borrowed from 18xx train games, where an era ends and trains dissolve. Here when an Age ends, any cards from the previous Age are suddenly vulnerable. For example, if Age I has just ended and you were about to place the pointy bit on the Age A Pyramids, bad luck – they leave the game. Similar things happen to your leaders, who shuffle off their mortal coil and depart for the game box. The military side isn’t immune either – tactics that were cutting edge quickly become redundant and devalue in strength. Time marches on.
Exodus: this is a nasty little rule that is easy to overlook. When Ages I, II or III come to an end, two potential populations suddenly up and leave your population bank. If you’re not prepared for this, it can create a hunger or happiness gap on your player mat, and lead to famine and uprising.
Military matters: if you build a nice army and get feisty with it, you will almost certainly erode it. When playing aggression and wars, you have the option to burn units to double their strength value for that action. Whatever the result, this leaves you weaker and more vulnerable. Furthermore, playing aggression and war cards cost you Military Actions, which reduce your Military card draw at the end of the turn. This is clever stuff, and ensures the military is a tool to be carefully considered, and doesn't dominate the game.
I'm still experimenting with strategies. I tend to like going heavily into science and rock, my reasoning being you must have these to get anywhere. I pounce on mine technologies to ensure growth in rock, and have costly changes of government to build up my actions. However, each time I find myself short of food and unable to sustain my population (and momentum). My wife tends to stay a Despot and pick up her extra actions through wonders and special technologies. Lack of mines don't seem to bother her either - she grabs rock and discount action cards from the Card Row to make up the shortfall, all the time hammering out wonders. Both strategies seem to be able to win.
Strategies? I'm still working them out, trying to keep the critical mistakes under five per game, and enjoying the ride.
Since receiving the game, my wife and I have knocked out twelve games in quick succession. The game is so good we are loath to pack it up; we just keep playing it. The urge to set it up again to test out new strategies is one we simply can't resist.
I maintain a list of my ten favourite games, and it doesn't change very often. War Of The Ring was the last new entry in 2004. Through The Ages joins it in 2007.
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Copyright © 2007 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany