Monday, August 31, 2009

Forever, and a day (Through the Ages)

The pick this week was Through the Ages.

Shemp hadn't yet played. Kozure and Luch had played 3-4 times each. My mind must have been eslewhere, because I had a downright awful time trying to recall the rules from my single previous session. Granted, it's not the most intuitive game, but I was really struggling for the first little while. I did eventually get it, thankfully (and then, of course, it seems simple). Oh well.

I was skeptical last time regarding certain aspects of the game, and now my opinion is solidifying somewhat: It's an interesting resource management game, but the military aspect is (in my opinion, of course) fundamentally broken.

There was a very interesting snippet of conversation that occurred halfway thorugh the game where Shemp mentioned that this was superior to the Sid Meier Civilization boardgame because the feeling of civ. growth wasn't bogged down by endless fiddling with purchasing, deploying and managing various military units. Kozure then replied that for many people, that fiddling about is the highlight of the game. I feel somewhat differently than both of them: Fiddling with military unit purchasing and movement is normally the main source of downtime in a world domination/ civilization game, and that is a problem that few games of this type have managed to solve (RISK suffers least due to the simplicity of the system, but even Antike suffers from this problem despite having elegantly streamlined most of the typical civilization game timewasters). On the other hand, if you abstract this part of the equation entirely, as Through the Ages tries to do, you have to somehow maintain the logic of why/how conflicts happen. In a typical game that involves conflict (of any sort, not just war), a player needs to size up a situation and ask themself what they hope to gain.
Are they trying to pry away a resource from the other player? Do they feel vulnerable to a possible future attack and wish to preempt it? Can they satisfy a pertinent goal by conquering a specific territory? Further, where goals do not determine an exact path of action, frequently geography does. Who is adjacent to who? Is one unassailable due to superior positioning? etc.

Unfortunately, ALL of this is lost in Throught he Ages. The system features a series of mecanisms that all boil down to allowing the strongest to benefit at the expense of the weakest, regardless of goals/ positioning/ etc. Raids, conquering the territories that come up, the future events, Wars, etc, all revolve around two players... the strongest and the weakest. The effects can be quite punishing on the losing player as well.

Given the terribly punishing nature of falling behind on military, it's unfortunate that keeping up with military is so highly dependent on the luck of the draw. The mecanism for developing you civ, the card track, is quite interesting because of the way it forces each player to stay on their toes and grow their civ based as much on opportunity of available cards as planned long term strategy. I like that part a fair bit. You might be behind on ideas, ahead on culture production, doing ok in food, catching up on ore, etc. Each civ is different and the it's up to the player to address the areas they are deficient in in time. However, orchastrating the aquisition of the right leader/ wonders/ military technologies/ military units/ and tactics cards requires a fair amount of luck of the draw for something this critical. If someone happens to hit you when you are catching up, you can end up nosediving as you then become the easy target for all future aggression. I can't see a way out of it if the other players really take advantage of the situation. I think that an experienced player going strong on military probably wins most games, as long as that player is willing to use the power at his/her disposal (I make that comment mostly because it feels so cheap to use military might that I'm convinced many players often won't because it's distasteful).

Anyway, other that the significant length, I like the rest of the game. It's fiddly, but most of the things going on seem to be there for good reason. Too bad about the military.

We didn't complete the full game, ending after the second era. Shemp read a few strategy article prior to starting and went hard on military just as I had last game. I tried to go strong on a culture engine, but was severly hampered by lack of food early, too much food late, and very few ideas. Shemp destroyed my Eiffel Tower after I had sunk many turns constructing the first two thirds, which was a big blow. Luch ended up being the real wipping boy, however... after leading most of the game, he sunk his military too low and we all decended like vultures. I succesfully waged a war against him and there were a number of aggression. Sorry, man.

Kozure won, though it was quite a tight game scoring wise. I am convinced I made significant errors in the beginning which distorted my score somewhat (I think my score should have been lower). Practice makes perfect, I guess.

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