Sunday, 4 October 2009

7 Ages

7 Ages is a civilisation game. It tells the story of the history of mankind, starting from the earliest ancient civilisations, to modern day nations. The game is played on a world map. Each player controls a number of empires, settling new lands, conquering enemies' territories, building cities, constructing monuments, trading with other empires. You also get to play events, develop technologies, adopt religions, gain great leaders, build armies, fight battles, suffer disasters and so on. The scope of the game is truly epic. And it takes a bloody long time to play!

Han, Chong Sean and I first played a learning game on 17 Sep 2009, playing about 1.5 ages in 2 hours. Then we scheduled another day to attempt to play a full, 7 ages, game, on 25 Sep 2009, this time with an additional player, Choo. To my surprise, we didn't even manage to play half a game. We only managed to play 3 ages in 7 hours. This may be partly because we didn't push our empires to progress as quickly as they could have done so.

How does the game work? The two main things to talk about are the cards, and the action selection. The game comes with a big deck of cards, which serve multiple purposes. Each card shows an empire, which you can start as your own. The card tells you where this empire starts, how much money you get to buy your starting units, whether you have a capital, whether you get leaders, in which ages you can start the empire, etc. Each card also has a number ranging from 0 to 7, which is used for combat resolution, trading, some event resolution, and even in determining player order at the start of the game. Each card also has a technology, or religion, or artefact, or government, which one of your empires can develop / adopt / build. Each card also has an event that you can play on your own empire or someone else's. Some are good, some are bad. There are many ways to use a card, but you can only pick one. The cards in the game provide the bulk of the flavour.

The cards are full of information. Most of the information is for the empire that you can start using the card. The red circles show the ways this empire can score points. On the French card, the icons mean: (1) 1pt for holding your home territory (and -1pt for losing it), (2) 3pts for controlling the most land and sea territories outside of Europe compared to other European empires, (3) 2pts for controlling the most land and sea territories in Europe, and (4) 2pts for controlling the most artefacts. The number in the top right corner is used for many purposes, e.g. trading and battle resolution. The coloured bar (for this card) is an artefact. On other cards there are technologies, disasters, government forms, religions etc. And at the bottom is an event that you can play on your own or on others' empires.

The structure of the game revolves around the action tokens. At the start of every round, every player secretly selects a number of action tokens. Then as each phase of a round is executed, players who have chosen the action token corresponding to that phase participates (in a way, this is like Race for the Galaxy). You can start a new empire, end an existing empire, discard/draw cards, move & fight, earn money & build units. You can trade cards and hopefully by "winning" (i.e. giving a better card to your trade partner) your empire gains some extra progress steps. You can choose an action called Civilise, which allow you to do many things - build cities, gain leaders, modernise your army, play event cards, found or adopt a religion, develop a technology, build a monument, etc. The tricky part of these actions is there is only one chip of each type of action. When you have multiple empires, they won't be able to do the same thing, since you can only assign one action chip to one empire. So you need to plan and coordinate. There is one Wild Card action chip that allow you to do one repeated action, but it costs one victory point, which is a big deal in this game.

The scoring in the game is done every round. Every empire has a few ways to score, e.g. controlling the most land in Asia, retaining control of its home province, being the biggest Christian empire, having the largest navy, having the most colonies outside of Europe compared to other European empires. Sometimes you must be the top player to earn points. Sometimes you earn points for being in 2nd or 3rd place. Each empire has a few ways of earning points, but we found that typically you earn about 4 points for an empire for one round, and that's an empire that's doing well. Some empires earn only 1 or 2 points, and some may even cost you points! The way empires earn points is quite thematic and also interesting, and creates much variety. When you manage multiple empires, you should try to avoid conflicting interests among your own empires. You also need to watch your opponents' empires and try to prevent them from scoring, even if it means you need to do something that does not gain you points.

The game board (paper) is huge, and is made up of two sheets.

Close-up of the board. This is where the two sheets overlap.

17 Sep 2009. This was our learning game. The Tamil empire (dark brown in this game) had just started at the tip of India.

This was around the end of our learning game. We placed dice on our empire cards to indicate how many points each empire earned in the latest round.

All the light green counters. Top left number: strength when fighting as a front-line unit. Top right number: strength when fighting as a support unit. Bottom left number: the time when the unit can appear. Bottom right number: movement speed.

All the same counters, but turned over. One of the things you can do in the game is upgrade your unit, which means turning it over to the more advanced side. Of course your empire must have reached the required level of progress.

There is a lot more to the game, and you'll really need to experience it to appreciate how rich the game is. Here are how our two games went.

In our learning game, we did not plan to start in Age 1. The game allows players to start in any age, but somehow we started in Age 1 anyway. I forgot who started the first empire. The first empire started determines the start age of the game. I don't remember much about our learning game, but one thing that was very funny (probably except to Han, who was the victim in that event) was how his Tamil empire was started and then immediately wiped out in the same round by a volcano eruption event played by Chong Sean. There is only one such event card in the whole deck, and Han happened to start an empire on the same round that Chong Sean had chosen to do a Civilise action (part of which allowed playing events). That was painful.

We played and learned along the way, looking up the reference sheets and rulebook and player guide. There were quite many elements which I simply ignored and did not try to utilise, because there were simply too many things to think about and to read up. Even after having played 2 games, there are still many aspects of the game that I'm not familiar with yet. I just read and learn along the way, and if I find something (some leadership power, or some government, or religion, or artefact etc) useful, I try to incorporate it into one of my empires. 7 Ages is not a game you should try to know inside out before you start playing.

For our second game, we made arrangements to meet up at 8am to start playing on a Friday. Some of us took leave from work to play. 8am is even earlier than a work day! We agreed to start in Age 1, so that we could experience the full scope of the game. The start of the game was quirky. Neither Han nor Chong Sean had any Age 1 empires in their starting hands. They were late by 2 to 3 rounds to start even their first empire, because they had to spend actions refreshing their hands trying to get Age 1 empires. Han was the last to start any empire, which was a big handicap.

Choo, who played for the first time, had a very good start and played quite well. Drawing the Romans certainly didn't hurt, and he chose the intimidating black counters for the Romans. The quantity and quality of the units of the 15 colours in the game are not the same, and the black set is the strongest (but I think they are less in numbers). Competition in Europe and Asia (in this game, Asia is Middle East to Siberia, excluding China, India, and North East Asia) was fierce. Europe was very crowded. Asia had two aggressive empires - Chong Sean's Huns, which were mobile (normally empires are not allowed to vacate an occupied territory, thus reducing mobility and ability to attack others), and later Han's Mongols. Asia was not a safe place. The Middle East part of Asia was busy too. Choo had the Arabs and founded Islam there. There were a few North African empires.

China saw a number of dynasties fighting one another. None of the dynasties were very lasting. The first two (I can't remember exactly - Shang and Xia maybe) fought bitterly. Later I started Tang, but it was quickly crippled when the Mongols appeared. I hurriedly ended the Tang empire. The glorious (in real life) Tang Dynasty only lasted as long as an ice-cream on a hot summer day. Later on Han started the Ming Dynasty, which did much better, and even started conquering Indian territory.

The Tamil empire was the only one ever started in India. Coincidentally, exactly like in our previous learning game, Chong Sean had the volcano event and could have wiped out the Tamils just as they came out. What luck?! (Maybe I should say in the deep Darth Vader voice, "It is your DES-tiny") And I was the one who traded that card to him earlier. But he decided to be merciful and kept the card for another use. Surprisingly noone bothered the Tamils, and they spent quite some time expanding (even to South East Asia) and earning points for me.

There was little activity in the Americas. I was the only one to have started an empire there, I think the Aztecs (or Incas?) in South America. They didn't have much victory point earning potential, and just gave me 2 points every round. Not much, but at least reliable. I barely developed this empire, so they continued to live in trees for a long time.

Towards the end of Age 3, we started to see some colonisation-type empires. Chong Sean was first to have a European empire with a goal (and fulfilling it) of having the most non-European territories. We never progressed past Age 3. The concept of progress in 7 Ages has some similarity to Civilization. At the end of every round, every empire progresses one step for free, unless it is on a dark age space, or it has used the Wild Card action. If an empire is on a dark age space on the progress chart, it can only progress through trade, i.e. it must choose the Trade & Progress action and "win" the trade. By choosing Trade & Progress, an empire may progress up to 3 steps - one for "winning" the trade, one more if you are less advanced than your trade partner, and one for being the one to initiate the trade. The last space of Age 3 on the progress chart is a dark age space, and for the last few rounds of our game, the two empires stuck on that space kept being stuck and did not manage to progress to Age 4 through trade. So we blamed Han and Choo for keeping everyone in the Dark Ages. They were the ones with empires on the brink of progressing to the next age.

We agreed to play till 4:30pm, so we stopped then. Chong Sean had overtaken Choo and was the leading player by a comfortable margin. Chong Sean had earned some good points from artefacts and leader abilities. I was second place, with Choo close behind. Han was still in last place, despite having played aggressively and played well, due to his unlucky start and early game.

So we've played less than half a game. And we've spent 7 hours, excluding lunch break. We gradually saw some changes in the nature of the empires. I expect the gameplay would gradually change as new empires came into play, and new units, new technologies, government forms, religions too. We had started seeing some improved horsed units, infantry and ships rendering the oldest units less effective. The later empires would also score higher per round. There was still so much more to experience and to explore. If I get a chance to play 7 Ages again I would grab it, and I wouldn't hesitate to try to complete a full game.

25 Sep 2009. Early in our 4-player, 7-hour, 3-age game. Some empires around the Mediterranean, and one in China. Choo was red/pink (and later grey too). I was light/dark green. Chong Sean was light/dark blue (and later dark purple too). Han was yellow/orange.

Chong Sean's dark and light blue empires were both in Greece. My light green empire was the Etruscans, who were soon wiped out by the Romans (Choo's) who appeared not long after this. Purple was Chong Sean's nomadic Huns empire, which earns points by destroying cities. I thought my dark green Central European empire would be doomed, but surprisingly it lasted quite long and earned me some decent points. Han's yellow Scandinavian empire did little good for him. His orange Chinese empire competed with Choo's red empire. Choo's red empire was so rich that it had nothing better to do than to keep building forts (which we used blue cubes from another game Age of Mythology to represent).

World view.

Rome (black, played by Choo), was gradually wiping out the Etruscans (light green). They had even built a world wonder (the structure on a light green background, at Sicily). Chong Sean's dark blue empire had built a number of cities. He also had a leader (a face on a light blue background). Chong Sean also just started his light purple empire in Germany (that stack).

My South American empire, the only one in the Americas throughout our whole game.

Strife in ancient China. Choo's (red) and Han's (orange) dynasties fighting it out. We used red blocks from Age of Mythology to represent unrest. These were played on Choo by Han.

Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East were rather crowded. Han (using the light green counters) had just founded the Egyptian empire, having Cleopatra as his leader. We played one rule wrong. The two start colours of a player can never be used by any other player. Light green was one of my start colours, but my empire using this colour had ended. We discovered our mistake only halfway through thet game, so we agreed to continue playing with this mistake for this game.

Egypt had spread to much of the Nile banks. The Tamil empire had spread to Indochina. I had just started another Chinese empire (Tang Dynasty), also using red (the same colour used by Choo's earliest Chinese dynasty).

The Tang Dynasty was crippled by the (grey) Mongols, losing even their capital.

Han had a lot of monuments built in Eastern Africa. His Ming Dynasty (yellow) had just started in China. His (grey) Mongols were attacking into India. Chong Sean's British (dark purple) had just emerged.

The Progress Track. Brown spaces are dark ages. You must performing trading to progress past these spaces. The pictures of units mean once you reach these steps, you can start training these units. The city sizes on the left correspond to the ages in which you can build cities of such sizes.

End of our game. My South American empire finally grew to a good size, but still only gave me 2 points per round. The Ming (yellow) was rising and threatening the Tamils (light brown) with advanced ships. The Romans (black) were still hanging around. The British (dark purple) had colonised Greenland.

The players, proud of their achievement of having played a 7-hour game: Choo, Han, Chong Sean.

7 Ages is enjoyable. It is also very long. Being long is not bad in itself, but I do find it a little tedious. I wonder whether there is some way to simplify or streamline it. Maybe simplying the combat system or the units themselves. The game covers very many aspects of civilisation building, but it seems that a lot of the emphasis is in fighting, which is a shame. I'm not sure whether this is because of the way we played. Other groups may have different experiences. Many of the scoring conditions are related to controlling territories, so it seems you can't really run away from fighting over territory.

This is definitely a daunting game. I joked with Han that it's reference sheets have more pages than many Eurogame rules. Han printed out a player guide / player aid prepared by a fan of the game, it was practically a thick book! So this is definitely a gamer's game. In a way, this is also an experience game. Sometimes you really can be screwed by bad luck. Sometimes you get hit by bad events. You watch your empires rise and fall. But I would say you still make many decisions and take an active role in steering your empires. There is an element of diplomacy in the game. If there is an obvious runaway leader, other players can and should cooperate to keep him in check. In this way, some luck is balanced out.

One last point about 7 Ages - come to think of it, this is actually a very educational game! Well, maybe except the part that Jesus Christ is one of the leaders you can choose to lead your Roman empire.


wankongyew said...

That is an insanely long time to play even half a game. As fun as it may be to do something like this once in a while, I just can't help but think that it would be more practical to get this sort of experience from a computer game.

For example, I've played some multiplayer computer games that took nearly a year to complete. Typically, these are relatively complex turn-based games. To start with the players have maybe 24 hours to play and submit their turn orders to a central server for processing. As the game progresses and things get more complex, one might have to wait 48 or even 72 hours for a turn, which is why it can take a year for a game to finish.

The downside of this of course is that you don't get the face-to-face interaction of a boardgame, but the upside is that the game can be as complex as you want but players can still take their time to ponder their moves as necessary.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Actually I don't think I would be able to play a 7-hour computer game session. Facing a computer is more tiring. But then maybe it wouldn't take 7-hours if we play via networked computers.

Playing a computer version does take away some face-to-face interaction. 7 Ages has so many rules. If playing this on a computer implementation, I think the players will be lazy to look up and understand the rules, and thus will play without knowing the exact rules. I think that's a negative. Computer versions help if they help take away mundane parts of a game, e.g. calculations and table look-ups. But if they make players lazy to truly understand the game, they would also take away appreciation of the game.

One good thing about playing via computer (in particular Play-By-E-Mail) is you have plenty of time to make your move. That's what Han and I did for Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition.

choo said...

I think they should do something about compensating players without an empire, maybe add gold according to age(age 1 add 1 gold and etc) for players who don't have any empire that round. Otherwise, that player is practically skipping turns.

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