After a recent game of Through the Ages, a friend to whom I had just introduced the game remarked that, “you have to do everything, but you can’t”. It’s an apt summary of a game that exists, for me, not as one game among many, but as a lodestar for the entire civilization game genre. Yes, it all began with Tresham in ‘80 and was popularized by Meier in ‘91, but Through the Ages is the one that hooked me and never let go.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Through the Ages is how condensed it is. Yeah, at 3-4 hours it’s long for a board game, but given how much it covers in the civ genre, it feels amazingly short. It does this primarily by excising a map, instead centering the action around logistics. Game designers take note: maps need to be justified. Nearly every time I attend a prototype event I end up playing at least one game that is dragged down to a tedious slog because of its map. “Magic: the Gathering, but with a map” is a bad game because you’re just adding a dull walk in between the fun parts. Of course, sometimes a map can be great, if the game is structured around proximity, geography, and movement. Through the Ages doesn’t miss the map one bit, because it realizes that the scariest part of proximity in a combat game is someone right on your doorstep, so it makes all the players right up on everyone else’s doorstep, all the time. A quick skirmish can be initiated, without warning, on anyone’s turn. A larger war gives you exactly one (1) turn to prepare before the beatdown.
Through the Ages, particularly the first version, sees humanity as existing in either a state of cold or active war. Sure, there are pacts you can make with other players, but those are broken with little consequence. If you are not militarily stronger you will be attacked, repeatedly, and sacked for whatever material plunder you might have. You have no choice: you absolutely cannot fall behind with your military size and strength. The second edition softens this up a bit, mostly by recognizing the immense costs of war. It’s still a nasty, perhaps accurate, view of the world, that civilization is what you do in the spare moments between slaughters.
The other prevailing theme of Through the Ages is the inevitable march of time. The cards slide down their conveyor belt whether you like it or not, and no one—not your opponents or the game—is going to wait for you to be ready. New players almost always take more cards than they can afford, and never get to see their dreams realized. It’s a progressive vision, to be sure, with new technology and ideas appearing on the horizon, ready to be plucked from the ether and implemented. It’s also steeped in regret, of a game and a life that watches opportunities drift by, unable to do anything about it. You have to do everything, but you can’t. And what you have to do is right there in front of you, on that ever-moving timeline of cards you can’t afford to play, slipping by. You want more time, but there isn’t any.
But, of course, the memories remain. What was once new and innovative fossilizes into the status of relic. New technologies stack on top of old ones, doing what they did but more efficiently. The influence of leaders (not just military or political leaders, but social and technological too) lingers well past their lifetimes. Great architectural wonders, a staple of the genre, become permanently associated with your civilization, a record of past sacrifice in the hopes of future reward.
I’m uncomfortable with the idea of civilization as a management game, but I have to admit that Through the Ages does management as good as any game. Every turn is significant, packed to the brim with problems that have no easy solution and terrible tradeoffs. Every turn is also its own unique event, containing, by the latter half of the game, sometimes as many as ten or more different actions. Plagues and revolutions and massive technological breakthroughs and entire strategies can play out over any one of the game’s turns. The turns have gravitas; they take time and thought, echoing the large swaths of human history they thematically represent.
They’re also a sort of plate-spinning exercise, where you have to keep a number of factors afloat lest your civilization starts to crumble. You need resources to build things, but if you stockpile too many resources they begin to decay. You need to expand your population to grow, but the more people you have the more you need to focus on keeping them happy. Happy faces (which is the technical term) are vitally important, as having a deficit will lead to an uprising, which might as well be the end of your game. In addition, you need technology to actually research new ideas to help sustain your population and produce more resources. In the midst of all that, maybe, finally, you can create some culture (whatever that means), the game’s victory points.
Knowing how to keep all of those plates up and spinning is something you can improve at, but the fact that everything in Through the Ages is housed in a few shuffled decks of cards makes each game new. It’s a brilliant blend of strategic and tactical decision-making, as you know which cards will appear, but not quite when. The “when” is important. Everything, really. Knowing when to adjust and when to keep firm on your long term plans is something I still don’t know how to do well, even after probably twenty plays. Every time it’s fresh and exciting.
Making civilization a logistics game is both brilliant and unsatisfying. Vlaada has left many legacies, but one is that he’s perhaps found the logical conclusion to this form of civilization game. I know there are others that do certain aspects better, and I know there are many who swear by Tresham’s original design, but Through the Ages feels like a resolution. Through it I see every other civ game I’ve played as singing the same song in different keys. What if there was a different song?
Because as brilliant as it is, Through the Ages puts a spotlight on some real awkwardness in the genre. Civilization isn’t a logistical puzzle run dictatorially by mini-gods, it’s the expression of millions of people living real, individual lives, communicating and organizing and fighting and loving and worshiping and hoping. It’s as much a beautiful mix of decentralized living as it is the mandates of authority. Plus, historically, those who have positioned themselves as mini-gods don’t have the best track record for civility. Civilization games like Through the Ages take an extremely paternalistic view of culture, enabling players to command hordes of people as automatons. Show me the civ game that understands spontaneous order.
The genre is also burdened by a moral flattening, where genocide is an equally valid way of achieving victory as progressing science or the arts. I find this most jarring in Through the Ages with the government cards, which have such disparate forms of government as communism, [religious] fundamentalism, and democracy as three relatively power-balanced options. Of course a certain amount of balance is needed for the game to function competitively, but what would a civilization game with a more focused point of view look like? What could be done by deliberately clashing with the precepts of this genre, and asking ourselves what actually constitutes “winning” at civilization? Through the Ages awards culture points largely for architecture, the arts, religion, and murder. The murder’s there for mechanical, gamey reasons, but still.
After all, the question of what winning at civilization is, is really a question about what life is about. Is our purpose here, to quote my favorite band, just to stay a bit longer? Is it to amass wealth, or to fight to survive at all costs, or to embrace art, or to tame the wilds of nature? Through the Ages, emblematic of the genre, doesn’t have many answers. It takes the position of a naïve historian: some peoples survived and some didn’t; the ones that survived went on to get smarter and more wealthy. I’d like to posit it as a source of freedom. We’ve got an incredible version of this sort of game, right here. What else can we design with this huge, exciting idea of “civilization”?