Review: Through the Ages15 Sep 2017 11
Review: Through the Ages
Released 14 Sep 2017
Through the Ages has the most entertaining tutorial yet seen in mobile gaming. Designer Vlaada Chvatil gets appointed leader to guide you through your first few millennia. And he proves as able a comedian as he is a game designer. With the wisecracks flowing like wine, you'll learn to throw wonders up and your opponents down in no time.
Good job too, because Through the Ages isn't the easiest thing to learn. As befits a civilization game, the rules are complex. The physical edition deserves some kind of record for the largest number of the smallest pieces ever in a board game. So, the design team at Czech Game Editions deserve some kind of record for fitting it all onto a touchscreen. It's not perfect - especially on phones - but it's hard to imagine it could have been much better.
Through the Ages isn't your average Civilization game. There is no map: it abstracts away almost all the military and exploration elements. You still have an army and you can still conquer territory, indeed managing both well is vital to success. There are a bunch of other things to manage too, in a more familiar style. Food and economy, population and happiness, technology and research.
They're all linked, so you'll want to advance them all at once, and you can't. Learning to triage the is one of the keys of good strategy. Working out how while your brain is being crushed by the cascade of competing demands is a sweet agony few games can match. In the press of priorities it's easy to forget that troops and technology don't win the game: culture points do. By the time you remember, it's often too late.
Powering the whole shebang is the card row. From this you select leaders, wonders, research goals and various one-shot bonus goodies. But there's a catch: each turn, the ones at the front of the row get discarded and new, more expensive ones get added to the end. It costs one action to take a card from the front, three to take from the back. It's a conveyor belt of temptation, like something out of a 70's game show. You can grab the prize you want early and inefficiently, or risk seeing it fall into oblivion or, worse, swiped by a competitor along the way.
The cards themselves lend a polite veneer of historicity to this raging cauldron of competing demands. Leaders are people of their respective age, like Aristotle in ancient times or Newton in the Renaissance. Wonders and technologies follow the same pattern. Each play through thus tells a different, but plausible, story of civilization. In this one can also see the varied paths to victory. You could install Napoleon and bury your foes in a sea of cavalry and cannon. Or elect Charlie Chaplin, build cinemas and ride to the win on a sea of pure cultural happiness. In truth you'll often have to switch and change your plans as the chaos seethes around you.
With a game of this complexity, it's easy to presume the AI in the solo game isn't up to much. The toughest setting here won't challenge the most experience human players, but for everyone else, it's a good opponent. Even if you're equal to it, a slew of challenge scenarios provides something difficult enough for anyone. These scenarios, many of which bend and break the basic rules in interesting ways, ensure solitaire play has a healthy shelf-life.
Like any good board game adaptation, there is also online play. It's particularly welcome here, given the four-hour play time and fiddly pieces of the physical game. Thankfully, the implementation is full of features and functionality. There are a variety of play modes from real-time to slow as you like. It does seem to have a short fuse for dropping unstarted games that don't fill up fast. Whether that's a problem when the play community increases in size post-release remains to be seen.
If you want to pick fault with this, the sound design is poor. The music is repetitive and the sound clips that play with certain cards add little to proceedings. In every other respect it's an outstanding adaptation of an outstanding game. The pace of board game releases, both digital and physical, in recent years has left me feeling rather jaded. Through the Ages helped rejuvenate me with the pure, fierce joy of play that only very best titles can deliver.