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Through the Ages – The Best non-4X, 4X Game in the World – A Game Designer’s review

Through the Ages, tabletop game coverThrough the Ages is one of my favorite board games of all time. Yes, that is saying a lot – but no matter what new games come out I always come to the point where I’m in the mood for yet another game of Through the Ages.

On the surface Through the Ages is a 4X civilization building game. It’s like Sid Meyer’s Civilization on a board (no, I don’t mean the Sid Meyer’s Civilzation Board Game, I mean the real Civilization, the computer game that’s responsible for more lost sleep than coffee and sex put together). Except that it’s nothing like Civilization, not really.

See, here’s where it gets interesting from a game designer’s standpoint. Through the Ages is a game that manages to take a very bare-bone Eurogame mechanic and infuse it with an amazing amount of theme. I’ve played the game for about eight years now and while I can see what’s going on under the hood the theme still tends to grab me and get me to forget that I’m dealing with numbers and efficiencies (and that makes me lose to my hyper-optimizing, Euro-crazy friends).

Through the Ages, game componentsWhich is strange, since Through the Ages lacks most of the components that make up a 4X game. Yes, it comes with some cards to represent technologies, resources, factories, foreign colonies and other things that a 4X game has. But it has no map, no military conflict, pretty much no interaction whatsoever. That’s right, in Through the Ages you don’t march your army to you opponent’s gates and stomp him. Instead you put some markers on a card (that’s your army), hope to draw another card (that’s your attack), bolster it with a third, randomly drawn card (that’s your strategy and army coherence) and compare two values. Yay! Tension and excitement!

Except that there’s plenty of tension and excitement in Through the Ages. Here’s why:

The game comes with an engine building aspect that is very, very much like building up a commercial empire in a 4X game. You acquire technologies that let you build new buildings that produce more resources that make your workers more effective and allow you to research more buildings to produce more resources and so on and so forth. In Through the Ages you really feel the loss of moving that worker-marker from the mines to the army. When you lose a building or soldier you feel it.

Through the Ages: Ancient age cardsBecause Through the Ages comes with a permanent resource shortage. It allows you to continuously produce more while equally continuously increasing costs. Your actions that increase your abilities feel like real victories but they pale before the victories you’ll achieve next round. So you’re in an eternal loop where you get to build and be better but at the same time race to be even adequate. You get a sense of feeling rich while at the same time being resource strapped. Which is an amazing thing to achieve in a design.

Through the Age’s resource shortage extends to actions as well. You start each turn with a limited amount of actions and you can see a lot of things that you’d like to do. Through the Ages offers you choices that are equally good – but not equal. So you might want to increase your army to play that raid card you’ve been hoarding – but if you don’t grab that coal mine you’ll be strapped for minerals in the future. And if you don’t increase your population the end of the age is coming round and it will be so much harder to raise your pop after that. You want to do everything but can’t. Every choice matters.

All Through the Ages cards stackedWhich brings us under the hood. Through the Ages is a game about mathematical precision: whoever manages to use their resources more efficiently will win. If you are left with resources at the end of your turn because you didn’t have the ability to spend them (due to doing something else) you’re not playing effectively. And the effective player almost always wins.

So you’ve got a math/counting/optimizing game hidden in an engine building game hidden in a 4X game. Which is an amazing feat of game design, especially since it doesn’t feel like math while you’re doing it. And I haven’t even touched upon Through the Age’s card drafting mechanism (which has come to be used by many other games afterwards) or it’s player created variants. In fact I think that Through the Ages has the potential to be a modern classic, played by geeks for decades yet.

So if you haven’t played Through the Ages go play it. If you have played it, go play it again and look at the design choices. I guarantee that you’ll learn something.

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