This is an incredible achievement for a game that tries to sum up thousands of years in the life of a civilisation using nothing but cards and cubes.
And this is more or less the point - the first time you open the box and check out the pieces (first on anyone's list of things to do after buying a game) it takes a lot of effort to stop yourself asking;
======Where's the map?======
Ah, my imaginary question man - you were the guy who asked about why there are no plastic ships in Supernova, weren't you? I'll give you a similar answer, though it came as shock to me - you don't need a map of the world to play a civilisation game!
The borders here are abstract - any civilisation can attack and defend against any other whenever they like.
Through The Ages represents most of the aspects of your civilisation; the level of your technologies, the development of buildings, great wonders, the strength of your army and even your system of government are represented by cards.
===Cards? But where's my Tech Tree?===
Technology cards represent your technology for you. There's no traditional "tree" of developments since there are no prerequisite technologies involved - to play a new technology you just need to spend a currency called "technology points", representing research done across your nation.
You gain these by having Laboratories or by possession of other cards with the appropriate icon.
======Icons? What Icons?======
Every card has a symbol on that shows its effects on your civilisation. A lovely golden harp for "culture points", a light bulb for Technology, a sword and shield for strength and the appropriate token for bonus tokens.
This system is helpful in itself, since a quick sum of all the relevant symbols will give you your current scores - but they're kept up to date on the main board too, for reference and scoring purposes
====That doesn't sound like a Civ game!====
I wasn't sold either on looking at the bits, but it is in the playing that Through The Ages becomes the outstanding civilisation building game it is.
Each turn you must spend your limited number of actions to take cards, play them, play technologies, upgrade your armed forces, increase your population, improve existing buildings, build wonders in stages, choose tactics for your armies, fight other players and much more.
And how many actions do you have per turn to do all these countless things? Six.
Actually, four and two.
Your number of actions is determined by many things, but mainly your system of government. You start off with a Despotic government, good for four civil actions (building, feeding etc) and two military actions (recruiting, attacking etc).
This should show you that there is no way on Earth to do everything you want in a single turn. TTA is all about doing as much as you can, and making the most out of what options you have.
Want more actions per turn? Well, you're going to have to change your government! Like all other technologies, governments are represented by cards and must be paid for with science points. You also have the choice to use up your whole turn by having a revolution (which is cheap) or a peaceful transition (more expensive but leaves you actions)
=====Is it just Multiplayer Solitaire?======
This is traditionally one of the biggest insults you can throw at a game - that it has no player interaction and amounts to little more than two to four people playing diffeent games and totting up scores at the end.
Not so in this case.
Player interaction occurs in many places, some of the more obvious are;
- In the card row - all players are playing from the same deck, if you like, so competition for the best cards will be intense! As the cards are played, newer ones are more expensive than those already out and available, so you must also push your luck if you want that card you've been waiting for to be cheap, because someone else may grab it on the way down the row. You will also find yourself considering adaptive blocking (that is, changing your strategy to incorporate a card you're taking to keep it from your opponents)
- The combat system - you can be attacked by either aggressiions or wars in the full game, and these can have disatrous consequences - even if you're not in immediate danger - you must keep your military strength close to that of your opponents or you will be an easy target later!
- Events - many events you play can be more beneficial to others than yourself, you must always bear in mind their consequences in the long term for ALL players.
- Colonies - When colonies come out of the event deck, players bid strength for the right to take them - they can be highly beneficial, but you must sacrifice your units to do so.
- Points - the biggie! It's an indirect conflict, but Culture is the sole method of determining victory or loss in TTA. You cannot afford to be left miles behind, because there is no assurance you will catch up!
======I'll read the rules later! Is it any good?======
Absolutely! Through the Ages takes the classic Civilisation themes and distils them down to an incredibly tight and streamlined system. Each turn your choices are agonising and frequently painful - since the best move right now may not be the best long term.
I'm on a big rulebook clarity drive right now following my moans about Supernova's rulebook (though the game is fantastic), and while Through The Ages takes you step by step through every option as you would play them, it separates the learning of the game into a basic, advanced, and full game - I liked this organisation since we could pick it up as we went, but for people who want to be going to the end of Age 3 in their first round, they will find that the rulebook contradicts itself later on, as basic game rules get overruled by later additions.
A bit of care and attention from players should overcome this issue without too much trouble, however.
======What about the quality of components?======
The third edition, which is the version we sell , is far superior, with a matt finish to the boards and linen finish to the cards which makes the whole thing feel much nicer. The new player boards also do away with your starting cards, since these are now pre-printed. Though, typically, you won't have enough space on this board to put all your new ones (Doh!)
======In conclusion then?======
I reckon you can't go wrong here.
If you want a game that sums up the difficulty of building a society from scratch, with all its pitfalls and potholes along the way, I can highly recommend it. If you're after a game with depth, this is also an excellent choice, as what seem to be unbeatable strategies in your first couple of games become less and less powerful as you play more.
People, however, who are after a massive scale wargame, with units moving across the board in fleets or armies and bashing each other will be disappointed. While the combat system in Through the Ages is clever and potentially devastating, it is completely abstracted - there are no massive dicefest battles. Sorry.
For those wanting something along those lines I'd recommend Twilight Imperium (it even has a tech tree!) though the theme is very different.
There's ample opportunity for player interaction, sicne you are all sharing the same limited choice of cards, and sometimes it may be worth adapting your strategy to use that card that your opponent will definitely take if you don't.
That being said, like so many games, I am no genius at Through The Ages, losing more than often - but this leads me to my most crucial point. You can enjoy a game of this perfectly well even if you are unlikely to win - the simple act of runnign an efficient Military machine can me fun, as can the capability of balancing your income and expenditure on a knifepoint.
I can't really say much more to recommend TTA, so I won't.
Get it. enjoy it, and keep playing!
As ever, even if you think TTA is rubbish, or if you simply HAVE to win all the time for a game to be fun (and the better player ALWAYS will in TTA) and find talk of "enjoying while losing" anathema, I hope you enjoyed the review!