Board Game Review: Through the Ages – A New Story of Civilization

Through the Ages is one of my all time favorites. I love civilization games generally and this was the pinnacle. So I lit up as soon as I heard a new edition would be coming out. Bu the New Story of Civilization was not merely a graphical upgrade, but a promise for a rules overhaul to address some of the (frankly, minor) issues some players had. Is the result a beautiful wonder or merely another title on the ash heap of history?

The Basics. Players start on equal footing. Each gets a few mines and farms, a philosopher earning him science, and a single warrior. Players are set up in humble despotism which grants only a few civil and military actions.

Each turn, players add cards to the card row. New cards can cost as many as three civil actions to obtain. While cards that have been around for a turn or two might cost as few as one. On a turn, a player may use all of their civil and military actions. Military actions are typically used to build more army units, arrange them into tactics, or even to initiate wars and aggressions.

The card row is back, in all its glory

Meanwhile, civil actions do everything else. In addition to grabbing new cards, they allow you to play single-use cards or put forth leaders that provide special powers. Civil actions can be used to build more farms, mines, or urban buildings – or even increase your population. They are also used to add new technologies, so that instead of simple philosophy, you start to dabble in alchemy or even discover the scientific method.

Each turn, your buildings will produce some amount of science and culture. Science is a resource that is spent to play new technologies. The Culture track represents the victory points. To make things easy, you get a marker that keeps track of your culture-per-turn production so that you don’t have to add up your whole tableau every time.

But there are distinctions from its predecessor. First, numerous cards have been changed and rebalanced. Interestingly, there are few examples of cards being made strictly worse or strictly better. Instead, the powers tend to be adjusted by giving different abilities. And, while the relative power is arguable, it allows space for new strategies.

Leaders of the new version on top, old version on the bottom

Perhaps the biggest change is how the game handles tactics. It used to be that you drew tactics cards at random. If you got a good one, great! If not, then it was too bad, so sad. Now, when a player plays a tactic, they have exclusive access to it for one turn. But thereafter, it goes to a pile of common tactics. The other players can then adopt that tactic on their turn by paying military actions.

A few other changes, like getting a bonus civil action when replacing a leader and cleaning up the end of turn step, also make improvements here or there. They generally clean up the maintenance and make it somewhat less onerous.

After Antiquity, which lasts just one round, play continues through three Ages – roughly medieval, colonial, and modern ages. After the end of the third age, a final round is played and the civilization with the most culture wins.

Some leaders that may not be recognizable from prior English editions

The Feel. The New Story of Civilization is very true to its origin. The game continues to provide an astonishingly engaging experience of building a culture from almost nothing into full prominence. And, while winning is awesome, I’ve found that as I look over my civilization at game end, it is always satisfying.

Through the Ages is highly strategic. While tactical elements occur throughout (especially as players respond to various events), the long-term strategy tends to be the critical piece. Players consequently adopt a long term version of events. While they must pay attention to turn-to-turn maintenance and production, no single turn is as important as accomplishing the grander goal.

Organizing units into a Legion? Well two can play at that game!

But strategy and tactics aren’t clearly divisible and often meet in interesting ways. At its simplest, the card row is one such area. A new technology might become available on your turn. Is it worth paying three actions just for that one card? Or do you risk letting it pass by and someone else snagging it? Or, do you use the military you’ve created to opportunistically grab a colony? Or is it better to keep your powder dry and attack (or defend) at a more critical juncture?

Military might, meanwhile, is incredibly important. In general, military units and military strength do not provide you with culture. Sure, you can use your military to grab new colonies, but otherwise every resource you feed to your army is a resource that does not directly contribute to victory. So the temptation is there to forgo it, be a peaceful nation, and simply make great works of art.

But that temptation could easily cost you the game. Other players may have larger militaries and may use those to wage aggressions and wars against you. The strongest wars may even steal your culture away. So, you must make sure that you have a formidable enough military even while you invest resources elsewhere.

Gone are the terrible cylinders in favor of cubes

For longtime fans, this New Story of Civilization offers a lot. The graphical revamp is phenomenal. Honestly, I thought the new pictures would be nice but, ultimately, not that important of a change. But after being treated to the pretty pictures, I wonder how I ever played at all before. It spruces up the game and, while mechanically irrelevant, it does nevertheless increases the fun factor.

The new rules with tactics are great. Now the luck of the draw has much less impact on the game. And the decision of when to play tactics is pivotal. Do you hold onto it, hoping to surprise other players with a quick aggression? Or do you play it out now in order to avoid being a weak civilization when the events arise? It minimizes luck of the draw and creates more choice and strategy.

Some of the other changes are neat, too. Getting a civil action back when replacing a leader is a nice bonus. So is the streamlined version of corruption which helps reduce upkeep. But the biggest and best changes are the rebalanced cards.

Wonders provide different, if analogous powers. Leaders, especially, have seen a lot of tweaking. The best part is that you rarely get a card and think, drat, this would have been better in the old version. It may now have a different emphasis, or give rise to an alternate strategy, but the power levels remain approximately the same, for the most part.

The boards are all separate, so you can arrange them in any that makes sense for your table and group

Even better, many of the cards feel new. Playing the New Story felt like coming to the game for the first time. Established combos and strategies were still there, but they weren’t always exactly the same. And new ones had arisen. It was a great experience to play one of my favorites again for the first time.

The only thing that is not noticeably improved is downtime. Through the Ages has always been a lengthy game and that is essentially unchanged in the new version. But at least you now have pretty pictures to look at while you wait.

If you own the original, many of the rules changes are easily incorporated. But the rebalanced cards would require extensive markups or cheat sheets. Which leaves us with the question: is it worth getting if you already have the original? Well, I suppose that depends on how much you love the original.

The current age board reminds you what to do as each age finishes

The original is one of my all time favorites and a game I am always eager to play (time permitting). So the existence of a new version doesn’t invalidate the old. I would still love to play Through the Ages even if the original was all that ever was. But, I have to admit, now that I’ve played the new version, I don’t want to go back.

The cards are better, the components are superior, and game has reduced randomness. Of course, it makes sense to factor in the amount of time you will be playing it and your enjoyment of the original. But if both are high enough, and your financial situation permits it, I would definitely attempt an acquisition of the game. It is simply the superior version and will provide you with the better experience.

The new player tokens are a treat.

Components: 4 of 5. The pieces in the New Story of Civilization are quire good. No more little rolling cylinders, you now get the plastic cubes that were previously sold as an upgrade. The cards are larger (though still not standard size) and easier to shuffle. Plus there are several helpful reminders, like the upkeep at the end of each age, that are really handy.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5. The balance has always been exceptional on the civil actions. Players start out equally, but soon diverge based almost entirely on player choice. But the cards that enter the card row provide just enough variety to give the game a tactical edge. This new version keeps that aspect but also accomplishes something similar with military cards. While still more random than civil cards, the most important cards (tactics) are now generally available.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. I love the way Through the Ages comes together. The card row is a fabulous way of minimizing randomness and extolling player choice. Players have to carefully weigh how they use their civil actions. Further, there is constant tension in the use of resources. You need farmers and miners, but also culture producers, warriors, and scientists. Plus, the new tactics mechanic is phenomenal. Not only does it address a common complaint, but it is thematic as well. It makes sense that you would see another nation’s tactics and adopt them.

Replayability: 4.5 of 5. The only thing holding Through the Ages back from ultimate replay value is its length. It takes about an hour per player and my preference is to have 3 or 4 players. So you do need to have the time. But other than that, it’s brilliant. The cards come out slightly differently, but in general you’ll see them all. So the replay value isn’t tied to variety per se, but to the sheer hugeness of the decision space. And to the unrelenting satisfaction of playing well.

Spite: 3 of 5. Spite cards manifest almost entirely as wars and aggressions. If you have a small military, it can be easy to be the limpy gazelle and have others attack you. This is especially true in wars where you can lose the things you’ve worked so hard to build. The solution, of course, is to keep pace with military. If you can do that, then this is a low spite game. But if you invite the spite, it can be brutal.

The cubes just make me so happy

Overall: 5 of 5. Through the Ages is simply phenomenal. It’s a meaty game, filled with strategy and tactics. You shepherd your own civilization with love as you constantly eye your opponents. The endings are among the most satisfying of nearly any game I own. If you enjoy civ builders, or are even just looking for a meaty game, then this is it.

(A special thanks to CGE for providing a review copy of Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization)

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