Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Card Game Review - Through the Ages

When I was a kid, I used to read a comic book about a team of endurance racers who would take turns driving dune buggies through rough terrain. I don't remember the name of it, and the only character I remember was the Mexican stereotype who was always hollering in Spanish - 'Madre de Dios! The steering wheel, she is like a demon in my hands!'

The only reason this comes to my mind tonight is because I recently played Through the Ages, and it reminded me of that comic book. Because at the end of the race, every one of those drivers had a sore butt from bouncing across the desert, and at the end of Through the Ages, my ass had fallen asleep from sitting in one place for way, way too long.

This classic card game is a lot like playing one of those dull, repetitive video games where you're trying to get enough wood farmed to build a temple so that you can keep your people happy so that they'll work hard enough to build a barracks so that you can turn your people into soldiers to protect your other people so they can farm more wood. Only in Through the Ages, you don't just have to start with a little outpost and turn it into a thriving village. You have to start with a handful of Greek farmers with bronze swords and take them all the way up to driving tanks and launching nukes.

The game is actually pretty damned fun, which is why we finished it at all. Usually, by hour five, someone in our group is ready to go. We did have to take a break halfway through, but that was mostly because I needed nicotine, badly. We really didn't notice the passing time, except for the fact that the fabric from the chairs started to mold into our skin, and we were a little worried that we would have to get some kind of surgical procedure to remove our flesh from the seats. But the game was fun enough that we stuck it out and saw it through to the end.

There's something really satisfying about taking a scrappy little group of farmers and turning them into a warfaring society. And because there are so many things going on at any time, and so many directions you can go, there's massive opportunity to diversify your civilization in different directions. One player might become a military juggernaut, while another focuses on scientific progress and yet another creates a deeply religious society full of philosophers and poets. No particular strategy is more viable than any other - that war machine might not have time to build the Great Wall, but it might also have the power to roll over and break yours before you can finish it. The philosophers might heighten culture (which is the most basic barometer for winning the game), but they might also fall too far behind and get lost in the shuffle when the scientists of the rival nation invent space travel and leave them all behind.

Part of what makes Through the Ages enjoyable enough that you can stand to finish a game this long is that every turn is intensely critical. You've got just a handful of actions every turn, and you have to use them for a wide variety of things. You need food, so you need farmers, and you need metal, so you need mines. But you need scientific progress to learn new forms of agriculture, and you need temples to keep the people happy enough to keep working. Spend all your time hiring workers for the iron mines, and you'll never have time to finish those hanging gardens. It's kind of like my life - if I spend a day working on one project, three more fall behind. And God help me if I get sick.

The game has a sort of natural timer in the cards. Every turn, some cards will disappear and others will take their place. When you run out of cards from the first age, you start using the second, and when you run out of the second, you start in on the third. When the third age ends, the game is over and everyone can call their wives and say they're on the way home, please don't make me sleep on the couch, I'm sorry I missed dinner.

I have to say, I wasn't expecting to enjoy this game a whole lot. The art for Through the Ages is really dry. Almost painfully dry. It gets the job done well enough, so that I know what any particular card is supposed to do, but it's just really boring. But then, this isn't a game that's supposed to appeal to the brain-candy part of your inner gamer. Through the Ages is designed to appeal to the part of your brain that gets a kick out of solving geometry proofs and analyzing iambic pentameter. You can't play this one drunk. You probably shouldn't even play this game if you're eating sugary snacks.

The rulebook for Through the Ages does try to take it a little easy on you. There are three breakdowns - the basic game, where you learn the fundamental pieces, the advanced game, where you incorporate more of the player interaction and get to see some more interesting cultures, and the full game, which takes you all the way up to current events. The basic game takes a couple hours, the advanced game takes five or six, and I have no idea how long the full game takes, because frankly, I don't have that kind of time.

And I regret to announce that I won't ever know how long the full game takes to play, because I don't ever intend to play Through the Ages again. It was very fun, and I had a very good time, but I'm not in college any more and I just can't devote that much time to anything that doesn't earn money. If you've got tons of free time and an exceptional attention span, Through the Ages might be just the game you're looking to play. But if you have a kid who needs to get to a soccer game, a dishwasher that needs a new pump, a car that needs an oil change and a house that won't clean itself, you might be better off playing one of those video games - you know, where you can save after an hour and do something else.


Every decision counts
Very minimal luck
The better player will win, just about every time
A really brilliant game

Incredibly drab
Takes so long, you'll wonder if it was originally meant to be played in real time

If you've got the mental stamina for a powerhouse marathon of a game, Through the Ages is an incredible amount of fun. And if you're going to buy Through the Ages, I would appreciate it if you got it from Dogstar Games, because without them, this site would wind up being all about irritating people I met at the gas station.


Steerpike said...

If you screw up early do you have to spend five hours twiddling your thumbs, and banging rocks together, while all the other players build space ships and laugh at your under developed nation ?

Mikko said...

Three players, full game - three hours tops, maybe three and a half. Shouldn't take any longer than that.

Warren said...

"... designed to appeal to the part of your brain that gets a kick out of solving geometry proofs and analyzing iambic pentameter." That is a great quote!!!