I was introduced to Sid Meier’s Civilization series of video games when I was in high school. My very first play was Civilization III on my Playstation 1, and it probably accounted for at least 20 percent of my total playing time on that console. I would go on to play Civ IV and V on the computer, and like Michelle Pfeiffer, the series only got better as the years passed. It was thinky, strategic, thematic, and at the end of it you felt like you had built something. To this day it is my favorite computer game of all time.
Enter Through the Ages. Since entering the hobby gaming world, I knew I wanted to get my hands on something that could provide some or all of the qualities stated above. I wasn’t even sure if such a thing existed, but after researching the marquee civilization games—Clash of Cultures, Civilization the Board Game, and this one, among others—I landed on this one. Counterintuitive, I know, not to pick up the actual Civilization board game, but I am a thorough researcher when looking for games, and from all accounts, this one captured the feel, if not the aesthetic, of the digital masterpiece. After reading the rules (twice), watching a tutorial video (twice), and mentally preparing the players for a “slightly heavier game than they’re used to” (I might have winked when I said this), I once again entered the world of building and managing my own civilization.
It’s important to note I have no experience with the previous editions and therefore cannot offer any comparative analysis.
In Through the Ages, players are trying to have the most culture in the land, which will ultimately win them the game. They will gain culture through military strength, scientific prowess, resource production, and more. The game lasts through four ages—A (or Antiquity), I, II, and III—the end of which triggers end-game scoring and declaring a winner.
First and foremost, there is no map. Progress is primarily displayed on individual player boards as well as different player tracks. Let’s take a look at these individually:
• Player Board: Your player board is where most of the action happens. It displays your various technologies, what buildings or units you have, how much food and resources you have, how happy your civilization is, how much food your citizens eat each turn, and if there is any corruption.
Across the top of your player board are “cards”, which are your starting technologies that are pre-printed onto the board. There are three kinds of cards that can be used in these spaces: Military (red) cards, Production (brown) cards, and Urban (grey) cards. Yellow cubes on any one of these indicates a building or unit for that specific card. Each card performs a specific function and can be upgraded throughout the game. The different starting cards are:
oMilitary: each yellow cube provides one military strength
o Farm: each yellow cube provides one food
o Mine: each yellow cube provides one resource
o Philosophy: each yellow cube provides science
o Religion: each yellow temple provides one culture per turn and one happiness
Keep in mind that for the farm and mine, the yellow cubes do not represent the food/resources, they produce them. Food and resources are represented by blue cubes that are added during the end-of-turn phase.
• Culture Track: Culture points in this game can essentially be viewed as victory points, as the ultimate point is to have the most. The culture track shows how much culture you produce each turn as well as how much culture you’ve produced so far (your score). As part of your end-of-turn phase, you will move your marker up an amount equal to how much you are currently producing.
• Science Track: The science track operates the same as the culture track, with a space indicating how much is produced each turn, and a space indicating how much a player has produced. The main difference between this and the culture track is that you will be spending science, so your accumulated points will go up and down.
• Military Track: This tracks each player’s military strength, as well as holds different tactics that can be used by each player. Military strength is generated by yellow cubes on the player’s military card.
Player boards also indicate the player’s current government type, which starts at despotism. This provides the player four civic actions each turn, represented by white cubes, and two military actions, represented by red cubes. The number of civic/military actions can change when a new government is developed—for example, democracy provides seven civic actions per turn.
On a player’s turn, they will take various actions, most of which require one or more civic cubes. Let’s take a quick look at each available action:
• Take a Card from the Card Track: In the middle of the table is a row of cards presented on a track. Each card will cost the player one, two, or three civic actions depending on its position on the track. Cards will be moved down the track each turn as players buy cards and remove a number of the oldest cards from the end depending on player count. The remaining cards get moved down the line and the empty spaces are filled. Different cards that can be purchased are:
o Leaders – Players can have one leader from each age that provide a bonus to their culture, military, science, or other parts of their civilization.
o Technology – This provides the player with an upgrade of an existing technology—for example, farms that now produce two food each instead of just one (though this is still represented by just one blue cube, meaning you don’t have to pull as many from your bank)—or brand new technologies that can be placed next to your board, such as theaters and libraries.
o Special Technology – These provide a discount on the construction of future buildings.
o Wonders – A player can have one wonder under construction at a time. Once completed, these provide boosts to science, military, colonizing, and more. After building a wonder, each subsequent wonder will cost an additional civic action to purchase for each existing wonder the player has built.
o Actions – Action cards are a one-time benefit that can be played starting on the player’s next turn.
o Government – Playing a new government, as mentioned above, can provide more or less civic and military actions, as well provide additional happiness and culture.
• Increase Population: Along the bottom of each player’s player board is a row of yellow cubes, sorted into different numbered groups. For one civic action, a player can move the right-most yellow cube to their worker pool, located just above this row, to later be assigned as a farm, mine, temple, etc. In addition to paying the civic action, the player also needs to spend the corresponding amount of food, indicated on the row. The food is moved from the farm to the blue cube bank. For each numbered section along this row that is empty, the player needs to produce one happiness, or smiley face. This typically comes from temples, wonders, and leaders. For each happiness they produce, the player moves their happiness marker one space to the left, satisfying that section should it be empty. If the player does not produce enough happiness to cover an empty section, his people revolt and will not produce food or resources at the end of his turn. The quick-fix option for this is to move a worker (yellow cube) from the worker pool and have him cover the space normally covered by the marker. This will allow you to produce while finding a way to increase your happiness.
• Build a Stage of a Wonder: Wonders require a series of resource payments to complete their construction, each of which is called a stage. For one civic action, a player can pay the required resources indicated for the current stage and then cover it with a blue cube, taken from the blue cube bank. Once the player as covered all of the stages, the wonder is built, its effects implemented, and the blue cubes used for its construction are returned to the bank.
• Play a Card: Using a civic cube, players can play an action card (picked up last turn), a leader, government, or a new technology. In the case of technology, they will need to pay its science cost by moving down on the science track a number equal to the cost of the technology. Governments have a science cost as well, but can be played for a reduced science cost if the player uses all of their civic actions (i.e. their entire turn) to play their new government. This is known as a revolution.
• Destroy a Building/Unit: This is not often done, but you can spend a civic action to place one of the yellow cubes on one of your cards into your worker pool.
• Add a Building or Unit: Spending a civic action (or a military action in the case of a military unit) and the appropriate amount of resources (indicated on the technology card), you can add a yellow cube from your worker pool to the technology card. During the end-of-turn phase, you will now produce another blue cube of that type. So adding a yellow cube to the Oil card, for example, will produce one blue cube (representing five resources) on that card.
• Upgrade a Building: Once you develop one of your technologies, you’ll want to upgrade your existing buildings from the previous version of that technology into the newer version.
For example, you might have two mines that produce bronze, which means each blue cube they produce will represent one resource. Once you build the iron technology, you’ll want to upgrade those mines so that each blue cube they produce represents two resources, making more efficient use of your blue cube bank.
At the end of the player’s turn, they will take the steps included in the end-of-turn phase, which include discarding military cards down to their max—equal to the number of military actions their government provides, scoring culture and science, checking for corruption—meaning they will lose resources and/or food if there is not enough blue cubes in their bank, food and resource production, and feeding their people a number of food indicated in the left-most empty section of their row of yellow cubes. They will also a draw a number of military cards equal to how many unused military actions they have. They then reset their actions, i.e. gather all of their spent civic and military action cubes and make them available for their next turn.
The next player will begin their turn by moving cards down the card track and resupplying the empty spaces.
Military cards can be played at the beginning of a player’s turn, before taking any actions. These include the following:
• Events: Events can be good, bad, or a mixture of both. This may be producing food or resources, increasing population for free, or having the player with the strongest military gaining culture while the player with the weakest military loses culture.
Playing an event facedown in the future events pile activates an event from the current events pile. Once all of the current events are exhausted, the future events pile is shuffled and becomes the new current events pile.
Events played in Age III act a little differently in that they provide the more standard end-game scoring mechanisms, e.g. “Each player gains two culture for each mine”. These can be activated in-game like normal, but any Age III events left unplayed at the end of the game are flipped up one at a time and resolved.
• Colony: This is a specific type of event card that is bid on by players when it is drawn from the current events pile. It provides both an immediate and long-term benefit to whoever ends up owning it. For example, it might provide three yellow cubes to be added to the player’s row and let that player immediately move two of them.
When the colony is drawn, the active player bids a minimum of one military strength, or passes. The bidding continues in player order until all but one player as passed. That player returns the appropriate number of military units (minimum of one, if using tactics and/or bonus cards—see below) to their yellow cube row on their player board, takes the colony card, and applies its benefits.
• Tactics: These cards allow a player to combine different kinds of military units into sets that gain a military strength bonus. For example, a legion requires three infantry units. Using this tactic when you have the three infantry adds two additional military strength to your total.
Tactics belong exclusively to the player who plays them for one round, after which they become available to all players at the cost of two military actions.
Tactics bonuses can be used when bidding for a colony, but if the player wins the colony, the player must return at least one of their military units to their row of yellow cubes on their player board.
• Bonus: These provide the player with either a defense or colonization bonus. Both are included on the card, but it can only be used for one.
o Colonization: The bonus card can be used to apply its colonization bonus when bidding for a colony. This will be added during the bid, but if the player wins the colony, the player must return at least one of their military units to their row of yellow cubes on their player board.
o Defense: This adds to a player’s military strength when they are the target of an aggression (see below).
• Aggression: Playing an aggression requires a number of military actions. When playing an aggression, you declare another player as your rival, whose military strength you must currently exceed. That player may then play defense bonuses and/or discard military cards to gain a +1 military bonus for each. Then, if your military strength exceeds your rival’s, the card’s effect is resolved, typically meaning a gain of some kind for you and a loss for your rival. If by playing bonuses and/or discarding military cards, your rival now equals or exceeds your military strength, your aggression fails.
• War: This targets a player of your choice and requires a number of military actions. It is not resolved until the next round, at which point you and your targeted player compare military strength. Whoever has the most receives the benefits listed on the card, while the other player incurs some kind of loss.
• Pact: When playing a pact, you and a targeted player agree to be allies under the term of the pact played. This usually includes not playing war or aggression cards against each other, in addition to each side receiving some kind of benefit. Such benefits include a per-round food or resource bonus, as well as extra actions.
The final round is triggered when the card track can no longer be replenished. End-game scoring is resolved, and a winner is declared.
First of all, congratulations on making it through the overview. That was a journey we took together.
Now let’s see how many licks it takes to get to the center of this review.
Being a board game fanatic, I often describe board games as the equivalent of a good meal at the dinner table, in that they have a unique ability to bring people together and enjoy each other’s company over a shared experience. Sure there can be competition, but assuming you’re in civilized company, it adds just as much savor as the gameplay itself.
Using the food analogy, Through the Ages is a Thanksgiving feast. There is a ton going on here: science, military, population, production, culture, government, leadership, and the interplay among all of them. And part of the greatness of this game is that you don’t necessarily need to put equal amounts of each on your plate. You can focus on military, for example, to hold your opponents under a certain ceiling while gaining benefits for yourself. Or you can focus on science, enabling you to speedily put out new technologies. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a sandbox game, as it does require a certain degree of balance for you to succeed, whereas a true sandbox game lets you do whatever you want and as much of it as you want (I submit Xia as exhibit A). But Through the Ages does offer a lot of flexibility in how you develop the overall complexion of your civilization.
In our most recent game, I focused on science and got to a point where I could put out a new technology each turn with ease. Meanwhile our friend, Mr. Multiplayer, focused on military and played event cards that focused on military strength—at different points awarding him culture, destroying our buildings, and gaining him colonies. I’ll let the Mrs. tell you about her strategy.
I will mention that whatever strategy you choose, keep in mind the only way to win is to score culture. So be it science, military, production, etc., whatever machine you build needs to ultimately be churning out points. I was master of all things science in our game, but I might have overemphasized a bit, which ended up costing me opportunities to score (granted, this had a little do to with me missing out on getting William Shakespeare, who would have generously rewarded me for my library/theater pairs that I was able to build fairly early in the game, but I’m not one to make excuses). So the moral of the story is to find leaders, wonders, buildings, etc. that overlap culture with whatever else they’re bringing to the table. For example, if you’re going the military route, Joan of Arc provides you with an additional military action, an additional military strength, AND an additional culture point each turn. If have a more scientific bent like myself, the Universidad Carolina provides an additional culture AND two additional science each turn.
Speaking of finding the right cards for the right strategy, I think it’s important to address the perceived issue of randomness in this game. I can see the argument being made that one would be at the mercy of the cards—especially in a four player game—as they may or may not have access to the card they need on their turn; an opponent might grab it beforehand, it might fall off the track before they can get it, or they just might not have the actions for it.
This is all true. I myself was deprived of Moses, my favorite early stage leader because he fell off the track before my first turn. But blaming a poor score on card-based luck or randomness in this game doesn’t hold as much weight as one might think at the outset.
Taking cards here is not about hoping the right card falls in your lap, lest you be forced to take lesser tools for the same job. Rather it’s about adapting your strategy to what’s available, the way an actual civilization would do. The main criticism I often hear about the game Yahtzee, and lots of other dice rolling games, is that it is random, with the illusion of control—yes, you can freeze the dice but it’s ultimately a game of pure chance.
I see Through the Ages going the opposite way, with the cards giving it the illusion of randomness. Yes, their availability, cost, and order are beyond your control. But everyone gets a full row of cards on their turn (except for the final round), and while the optimal card quite possibly isn’t affordable and/or available, it’s hard to argue that there’s literally not a single card that can help. And on the few occasions that that might actually be the case, you have plenty of other actions available.
Becoming familiar with these actions will take a little time. Unless you’re Jarvis from Iron Man or have played a previous version of this game, you will probably be a bit overwhelmed when you first crack this one open. My recommendation is to thoroughly read all of the rulebook—this will take some time so curl up with a cup of tea—and then watch this video from Gaming Rules, which I found to be of immense help. From a technical standpoint, the combination of the two should sufficiently prepare you to play.
Another factor to consider is that this is a long game. In our first two-player game, we clocked in at around three and half hours. Knock off half an hour or so for teaching it to the Mrs. and you’re still looking at three hours for two players. I don’t know if this is typical of other players, but I can’t imagine you would get out of this one in under two hours at bare minimum.
I love all kinds of games, practically, but this one is more of what I naturally gravitate toward: very meaty with lots of choices and strategy. It would definitely go under the brain-burner category, which will probably chase some people away; in no universe is it casual, or something you would play with non-gamers. But it is a masterpiece of gameplay for those inclined toward the heavier fare.
I’m aware that previous versions of this game featured more basic artwork and components, so I’m lacking the frame of comparison to place these components on that scale. On its own, I think the game offers great components, my favorite of which is probably the cubes. The yellow, blue, and red ones are clear, which I’m drawn to like a moth to flame. The white ones escape being generic by having a cloudy, marbled quality that gives them a bit of a classic look.
The artwork isn’t what I would call amazing, but it isn’t notably bad or lacking. It does just enough to give the cards and player boards some thematic support.
Speaking of the cards and player boards, all of the cardboard components in the game are durable and decently thick. The only piece that gives me concern at all are the player aids, which are printed on flimsy glossy card stock. These run a higher risk of getting bent or damaged, so handle with a little more care.
Also, a big plus is the insert, which easily fits everything in a very organized way. There are four compartments for the cards—one for each age—and each of these has indents that help you separate cards. We separate out the three and four player cards from the rest, as well as the military cards.
Overall component quality is great, especially for a heavy game, which can easily get away with being a little decaf in this department.
It’s easy to take your first glance at this game and question its commitment to theme. It’s a civilization game…without a map? Where’s the technology tree? Is it just cards and tracks?
Yes, this might look more like a fantasy football draft kit than an epic civilization-building board game at first. But for me, the theme quickly rises to the surface through the mechanics. You feel the time passing as the cards move down the track, moving you closer to the next age, feel the anger of your citizens when they stop producing because you didn’t keep them happy, and feel a sense of accomplishment when you erect your newest wonder and start reaping its benefits.
Yes, the theme is mined a little bit differently than most games, but after finishing your first session, you couldn’t call this anything but a civilization-building game. There’s a type of card that covers every aspect of such a game, from technology to military to religion. So in my opinion, this is a considerably thematic game.
So, does Through the Ages do everything the Civilization computer games do? Well, technically no.
The differences are obvious, but only skin deep: no map, no moveable units, no tech tree, and sadly, no soundtrack.
But does Through the Ages shine just as bright as Civilization? Absolutely. You can explore. You can fight. You can develop technology. You can build something that is uniquely yours and can be different each game.
Shedding the comparison and just looking at it on its own, I can see why this game is ranked in the single digits on BGG. It’s a wellspring of strategy in an elegant, thematic package. I can’t say I’d recommend it to everyone, as it’s not for everyone. But if you like heavy games that require strategic nimbleness, managing resources, and lots of choices, this is a must-play.
I need a few more plays, but this is probably going to end up being my favorite all time game.
Excellent #1 review of my #1 game
Congrats! And "keep 'em coming".