Saturday, May 30, 2009

Forever, Again (Through the Ages)

Kozure made a liar out of me and suggested we play Through the Ages this week. Shemp wasn't around, but Bharmer/ Luch/ Kozure and I still made a foursome.

I have to admit, I wasn't particularly looking forward to this one. It has a reputation for being long and fiddly, two things I'm not particularly fond of in eurogames. On the other hand, Kozure liked it enough to buy a copy and it's designed by the designer of Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert (Vlaada Chvatil), so those were definite plusses.

It *is* long. We played the "advanced game", which is shorter than the the "full" but longer than the "simple" game. Including rules explanation, it took a little over 4 hours. Like every other game by this designer, there are many components and many moving parts to the rules. The basics are simple enough once you get the turn order down. but there are issues in the art direction of the boards and cards which makes things a little harder than they need to be, and the sheer number of phases in a player's turn makes keeping an eye on the player's reference mandatory. Of course, all these things can be forgiven if it's a good game... so did I like it?

Yeah, more or less. However, even more than for most games, one game is not enough to really know. It's definitely clever and original, but at first blush there seems to be a few problems (in addition to the length issue).

I'm going to gloss over a hell of a lot of detail here, but here's a brief overview of the game mechanics:

Each player has a board which describes the state of their civilization. A central board keeps track of each player's score, relative army strength and relative ingenuity. The central board also holds two different decks of cards, one to determine future events and the other to be drafted from by players as they develop their civilization.

On a turn, a player starts by doing one political action, which may involve starting a battle or seeding the deck which will ultimately become future events. After that, he/ she gets a number of civil and military actions based on the government of their civilization (everyone starts with despotism, which grants 4 civil and 2 military actions). Examples of civil actions would include drawing from the worker pool, building a building, drawing a card from the available selection on the central board, etc. Military actions would be training or upgrading military units. The fun in the game is mostly in customizing your civ based on the cards drafted from the board. Here, you can recruit famous leaders, build wonders of the world, discover an invention, or grab a helpful event. On the way, player need to balance military might, invention, happiness, corruption, revolts, food and cultural development. Sounds like a lot? It is, but it's mostly abstracted into a series of interdependent mechanics (of which quite a few of them are fairly clever). One example: Resource tokens are used to represent everything from coal, to iron, to food. As more of this pool make it onto the player's mat as goods, board spaces are revealed which identify how corrupt the society is. More goods in circulation= more corruption. It's simple and it works, and it makes sense thematically. There are perhaps to many of these clever rules, however, and not all are so successful. The happiness meter is a good example of a rule that is hard to internalize... as the worker pool diminishes, it follows that population is increasing. As population increases, players need to ensure that the happiness track below it keeps up, or else a revolt can happen. It sounds easy, but the execution is confusing because the happiness track works backwards from most tracks, and the results of an unhappy civilization are not immediately obvious. I don't know, it just felt fiddly to me.

Overall, there is a sense of development of your civ. Leaders come and go, events happen, production increases with knowledge and invention. The mechanics themselves have a definite relation to those of Phoenicia, though without the auction. I'm not entirely sold on the card draft, because the cards move so quickly that it would be hard to actually plan on getting any particular card... you just have to hope there is something you can use when our turn comes up. Still, there is enough available that I didn't really feel that "lack of options" was ever a problem. Quite the contrary. I always wanted far more actions than I had.

The main issue I have right off the bat is with the military system. I had read that it was critical not to fall behind on military. I therefore concentrated on being very strong in this regard. We discovered soon enough that when a player is very strong, the system REALLY encourages that player to beat on the weakest player, and there is little that can be done about it. The weak player just gets weaker. Not much fun for him. In most games, players would be encouraged to beat up on the leader, or for the leader to beat up on his nearest competitor, or two players to beat each other up in the hopes of taking a specific objective. Here, there is no possibility for any of these things to occur, which is kind of a shame. It seems vital to ensure that all players remain roughly neck and neck with military. If this can be managed, then the conflict system is essentially neutralized due to the risk of attacking a similarly powered opponent. This begs the question, however, why introduce a system that only works when it's neutralized? Worse, if the luck of the card draft dictates who is strong in military vs who is strong in ideas (for example), then it's pretty bad. I'm sounding pretty harsh here, and to be fair it may be over nothing. Only time will tell.

As I alluded to earlier, I went strong on military. I started with Alexander the Great, the Colossus and a strong army with a good tactics card. I later expanded with a few churches, Joan of Arc and the Great Wall of China. I was far and away the military leader... only Kozure approached me, and not for very long.

I suspected that going strong on military would be very powerful at first, but that those who concentrated on ideas would pull ahead as the game wore on. If this session is any indication, there may not be enough time in the "advanced" game for this to happen (it's only two ages instead of three). I pulled ahead early and stayed in front throughout. The others were clearly producing more ideas than I was by the end, but they weren't translating to points fast enough. By the end, my cultural points production was a little behind, but my lead was large enough to stay ahead. I may have played well, the cards might have gone my way, or the system might genuinely be biased towards a military strategy in a short game. I hope that it's balanced even in two ages, though, because I'm not sure how much I would want to play this game for 6 hours just for the sake of multiple viable paths to victory.

The overall experience is an interesting exercise in civilization development that feels like a euro spinning slightly out of control. The scope is extremely ambitious, and it succeeds in many aspects, particularly the science/ invention/buildings and leaders parts. The military aspect might be a problem, but more play will be required to figure that out for sure.

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