Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Through the Ages

On Fri 25 Apr 2008, I took a half day leave in the morning to play games. Han came at about 8am, and we gamed till about 1:15pm. That's about 5 hours. We don't usually get to play that long in our regular Saturday afternoon sessions (usually 2pm to 5pm). We played Through the Ages, Race for the Galaxy and Starcraft, all three being new games for me. Han will be going to another city for 1.5 years because of his work, so we are trying to play more while we can.

Through the Ages was the first game of the day. Rules were not published online so I couldn't download to read beforehand. Han had to teach me on the day. Thankfully the reference sheets that come with the game are quite good. Also, as Euhan (a boardgamer in Melbourne whom I got to know on Facebook) said, it's a lot like the Civilisation PC game, which I have played a lot of. So I found it very intuitive and relatively easy to learn, despite the many rules.

Through the Ages is a card game, but this is not any regular card game. People usually think of card games as simpler, shorter, and a bit more luck driven than normal boardgames. Through the Ages is more complex and longer than most boardgames, and probably less "lucky" than the average boardgame too. It feels much more like a heavy boardgame than a card game. It is a civilisation game. You start as a small tribe, which has just learnt farming and mining and philosophy. OK, I know that sounds weird, but the game needs to give you some way of gaining knowledge at the start. From these humble beginnings, you build your nation, through the ages, all the way to the modern era. You compete to be the nation with the most culture by game end.

This game has almost everything that you'd expect to have in a civilisation game - farming to gain food, growing your population, mining to gain resources, constructing buildings that bring benefits, upgrading your infrastructure, maintaining happiness of your people, gaining knowledge in order to discover new technologies, different forms of government, building wonders of the world, great leaders in history, military and warfare. And it is all put together in a well polished way. I find the game very intuitive, to the point that I find I'd like to describe it as simple. But that's crazy, because there are many rules and this is definitely not a simple game. It just gives me that feeling.

So how does it work? Let's start with the civil cards. There are many types of civil cards, representing different things - leaders, farms, mines, buildings, technologies, wonders of the world, military units. There is a long queue of cards from which you can choose cards from. This queue is always moving, like a sushi bar kaiten belt, so cards that appear for some time but do not get picked up by any player will eventually disappear at the end of the queue. They get discarded. You need civil action points to pick cards up. Cards that have appeared for longer become "cheaper". Some cards can be placed on the table immediately after you pick them up. Some go into your hand. Leader cards are immediately played and take effect immediately. Wonders are played immediately, but you are actually just putting down the blueprint. You'll still have to spend effort and resources to build the actual thing. Buildings and military units go to your hand. You need to have accumulated enough science points to play the card onto the table. Then after that you still need to spend effort to build the actual building or train the actual troops. This is where the your two main resources come into play - food and stone. Food is food, and can only be used for feeding your people and for growing your population. Stone is everything else. In this game it represents all other types of resources, and you need it to build almost everything. Well actually there is a third important resource (if you can call it that) - your population. To build anything, you need both idle people and stone. Spend the required amount of stone, and put one idle person onto the appropriate card, e.g. a temple card, and poof, your idle worker is now a fully functional happiness-inducing and culture-generating temple.

These are just some aspects of the game that I am most impressed with. There is much much more to the game. I like the card queue concept because it means you can plan ahead, and you can see what kind of cards your opponents are taking. This helps to make a card game less random. I like the population / stone system because it is so simple and it is the foundation for many other aspects of the game to be built upon. I really admire how everything in this game comes together in an intuitive package.

Another important concept in the game is the available civil actions and military actions per turn. For almost anything that you want to do, you need to "spend" your actions. To increase your actions, you can change to a better form of government. There are also wonders and leaders who can give you extra actions. In a way, you can think of actions as yet another resource that you need to manage, like food, stone and population.

Early in the game. The 6 cards on the left are what you start with. The orange card is my initial form of government - despotism. It gives me 4 civil actions and 2 military actions per turn. The second card is for temples, which I don't have any yet. No yellow cylinder on it. The third card is a lab and I start with one of these. The next two are farms and mines, which produce food and stone respectively. I start the game with 2 each, but by this point in the game I have built a 3rd mine. The red card is my military force, and I start with one warrior. The green card is my leader Moses, which I obtained during the Ancient Age (i.e. the initiation phase of the game). The purple card is a wonder card. I picked the pyramids, and that blue cylinder means I have built the first stage of the wonder.

The board at the bottom is for maintenance purposes. You keep all your unused yellow population markers and your blue resource markers (which can represent food or stone) here. This board makes things very convenient, because it tells you when corruption will start to kick in, when you need to start managing the happiness of your growing population, how much food you need to feed your people, and also how many idle workers you have.

This is the common board. The outside track is accumulated culture, i.e. victory points. The four inner tracks are accumulated science points, military strength, rate of culture generation, and rate of science generation. That row of cards is, of course, the sushi bar kaiten belt.

In our game, we played the Advanced Game, which is the medium length game. Excluding rule explanation, it took us less than 2 hours. It was a very enjoyable game. There is always something interesting to do. Well, actually there are too many things to do and not enough actions to do them all. There is much prioritisation to be done. Tough choices to be made. I always like wonders, even when I was playing the Civilisation PC game series, so I spent much effort on them from early on, the pyramids being my first wonder. I had Moses as my leader, who allowed me to grow my population quickly. I had so much surplus food that had to make sure I my people make enough babies to eat it up and not waste. I find that I needed to work towards a breakeven point (no surplus and no shortage) so that I don't need to worry about food anymore, at least until I decide to grow my population further. Then I would need to stockpile some food. I focused much on stone production, because I feel that this is the most important resource in the game. At least it seemed so in my first game. However I fell into the trap of inefficiency. In this game, if your nation is inefficient, you will lose resources to corruption. It's complex to describe in detail in writing, so I won't bother. I kept in mind that eventually it is culture that counts, so when my infrastructure was mostly stable, I started to focus on culture generating buildings and wonders. I led the culture race for the rest of the game. That was despite my form of government still being despotism, i.e. the most primitive form of government.

Han played slightly differently. Less focus on wonders at the start, and only worked on them later in the game. He started the focus on science earlier than me. At first neither of us bothered with military might. At one point I was contemplating building up a small force to take advantage of his weaker army. However before I started doing anything about it, he started building up his military, and soon the gap was so big that I decided not to bother to try to catch up. Instead I tried to focus my effort on culture. I was attacked 3 times, and I could not defend against the attacks. In two of them Han pillaged my resources, and in the third one he took some of my maths textbooks, setting me back in science. Those were painful. Basically I lost almost all resource production / science production for those turns, because what he took was about what I could produce in one turn.

Some turns Han had so much stone he didn't know what to do with it. So he used them to build wonders, which are resource intensive. Eventually he had 3 wonders too, the same number as me. He had two revolutions during the game, i.e. change in form of government. The first was a bloody coup (i.e. one whole turn lost), but the second was peaceful because he could afford the science points.

As the end of game approached, we started paying attention to the end game bonuses, e.g. for technologies, military units, population beyond 10, etc, basically some measures that reward you for how well you have developed your civilisation in aspects other than culture. This means that although throughout the game culture is the only victory point that counts, other aspects will still help at game end. Although my culture was some distance ahead of Han on the last turn, he had fulfilled more of the end game scoring conditions. The events that had been accumulating in the event deck and had not been executed yet was also a factor. All of them must be resolved before counting the game end bonuses. Some had quite big impacts, e.g. one of them allowed the less civilised player (in this case, Han) to destroy one building of the more civilised player. This was quite crucial because by destroying one of my libraries (I think), my science production dropped to just below his, and at game end there was a 10 culture bonus for higher science production. Thankfully there was another event that allowed me to regain the science lead. I don't remember exactly now, but I think that was what happened. These events that get resolved at game end are actually "planted" into the event deck previously by the players, so here's another aspect of the game where you can plan ahead. You know what is coming (at least for the cards that you put in) and you can prepare for it. In the end, I won, but barely, 101 to 100.

Bird's eye view of a two player game in progress. This is approaching our end game, i.e. the end of Age II (as opposed to Age III in the Full Game).

Some of the card details. My three wonders, one from the Ancient Age, and two from Age I. I picked William Shakespeare to be my leader because he is, ahem, very cultured.

I find Through the Ages to be a very immersive game. I feel very involved all the time. It is very thematic. It looks complex, but in my opinion it is not really so, because of how intuitive the rules are. It surprised me how much I liked it. I decided to buy it, even though I may not have much chance of playing it after Han leaves KL.

Some people complain about the components, but I think they are very good. There are some mistakes, but I feel they are quite minor. Now I'm looking forward to play the full game of Through the Ages. I hear that Elvis makes an appearance...


Aik Yong said...

Great description! I too find the lack of rulebook online a barrier to learning the game and to find out whether it is a game for me.
But your explanations confirm that it is.

So now the only sticking point is the price point :(...

On the other hand, what are your thoughts on Race for the Galaxy and Starcraft? Played both and find them highly enjoyable. Didn't take to Race at first, but it grows. How do you find it?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I found Starcraft just so-so, at least from the first play. Not too sure whether it's because I haven't explored enough of it. But for now I'm not keen to play it.

I like Race for the Galaxy. I guess I have read many reviews and complaints and praises, so I already know what to expect. I have no issue with the lack of direct player interaction. I do see that sometimes you'll feel helpless because you can't really stop or hinder your opponent much, but I'm OK with that so far.

I decided to buy both Through the Ages and Race for the Galaxy after playing them once and four times respectively.