The highest rated, most complex board game to receive the app treatment. How does Through the Ages stack up?
Android & iOS
# of Players
1 - 4
Czech Games Edition
Through the Ages is the classic Vlaada Chvátil civilization building game that has found a home near the top of the Board Game Geek’s top 100 list. The app plays one to four players over the course of world history, from Moses to Bill Gates, in a battle to build the
greatest civilization. The game plays out over three primary ages, each of which adds its own set of cards, the game ends following one final turn after the Age III cards are depleted, this usually takes about 30-40 minutes, varying by player count. The player with the most culture points wins the game.
Through the Ages marks the highest ranked BGG to receive an app port (take that Twilight Struggle, slacking at #3!), but it also marks a new bar in complexity for a digital port. The game carries a hefty weight rating on BGG, with Mage Knight being the only other top 20 to come close. As far as ports go, Terra Mystica was the previous heaviest game to hit mobile devices. All of this is to say that CGE Digital had their work cut out for them and I’m not going to be able to come close to describing the more intricate parts of this game in this review. I hope to provide a brief overview of the game and then go a little further into some specifics on why this is such a beloved game.
A turn in Through the Ages has a player carrying out three phases: Politics, Action, and Production. There is an optional discard phase which is triggered if you have too many Politics cards in your hand. Politics allow you to do things like declare war, offer peace treaties, or queue up an event to be played later (this also reveals a previously queued event). Politics is the phase in which you interact with other civilizations, while the Action phase is where you build your own civilization. The bulk of the game is spent in the Action phase, which is where you draft new cards, create/assign workers, develop new technologies, build military, and so on. The Action phase is fueled by Civil and Military action points. Military actions can be spent on creating new troops, starting with simple foot soldiers, later advancing as far as fighter jets and rockets. Civil actions are used to do everything else. Each time to take an action, you must spend an action point to do so. You can gain or lose the amount of action points you get every turn throughout the game, primarily by changing your government. The final phase is Production, which simply delivers the goods your civilization produces for that turn. The game ends following a brief, one round Age IV after Age III’s cards are depleted. After Age IV a few political cards are scored and the player with the highest culture total wins.
Goods are broken down into: food, resources, science, and culture. Food is used to create new workers, resources are used to build just about everything, science is used to generate new technologies, and culture act as victory points. Ultimately, the game comes down to what cards you are able to take from the card row. The currency used to acquire new cards are your civil action points, cards to the left are cheaper than cards to the right and cards on the left also age out every turn. These cards will fit under a few different categories: action cards, technologies (with a few different sub-categories), leaders, and wonders. Action cards give you goods or discounts, technologies allow you to unlock the ability to build better buildings, leaders provide special bonuses to your civilization during the current age, and wonders take a while to build but can provide substantial instantaneous or ongoing bonuses. Buildings are what, generally, generate your goods. You start with the basic buildings to produce a single food, resource, etc… and must upgrade throughout the game to produce enough to build the newest technologies to earn more culture. A classic engine building experience.
That’s my attempt at explaining Through the Ages in a nutshell. A 400 word nutshell, but a nutshell nonetheless. I’m not scratching the surface on a ton of the minutia of this game. There is colonization which includes a bidding aspect, peace/trade treaties in 3 or 4 player games, a worker temperament component, and a handful of other things I don’t have the space to touch on. Instead, I’ll try to summarize the overall effect of the numerous moving parts in this game.
Basically, it’s absolutely fantastic. The thing Through the Ages does that so many other engine building games don’t, in my opinion, is force you to leave behind certain aspects. I REALLY want to slowly and steadily build up all four good productions in my civilization, this results in a constant stream of losses. I take a look at the AI or online player that wiped the floor with me, and they’re still on the initial farm building, generating very few resources per turn. They circumvented the need to develop that particular technology with some combination of action cards, colonizations, wonders, or leaders. The game does a great job of providing numerous ways to earn culture, and therefore win the game. Some of the largest generators of culture are Age III wonders which provide immediate culture when they are finalized, the amount of which are based on aspects of your civilization. Play the game enough and you will know what wonders are coming and you can play to them. Be a newbie and don’t pay attention to things like that and you’ll become very familiar with losing. Same goes with the post-game political scoring cards which can make or break a game for you.
Barrier to Entry
This is a massive game which makes the ability of the app to teach itself an incredibly important piece of the implementation. Through the Ages contains a rulebook which is thorough and easy to navigate, so it acts as a great reference for specific questions once you have the basics down. The app also includes links to full PDF rulebooks and an official rules video. I didn’t find these necessary, but others certainly might.
The tutorial is excellent. It is a ten part series which takes you from the start of the game through a little under half of a full game. Each part adds key pieces of the game, building with each step. The tutorial is very good, but the best part might be the humor added. There are jokes and you get a digital Vlaada Chvatil guiding you through the first age as your leader. It is a nice touch to add light moments while teaching, it works well to keep you engaged. The tutorial is quite long, thankfully you can stop and come back to the same point at any time.
Like any complex game, the tutorial won’t leave you 100% comfortable with knowing the ins and outs of the game. If this is your first experience with Through the Ages, you will still be quite lost heading into your first game, which is simply unavoidable. What the tutorial succeeds in doing is giving you a strong base of the main components of the game. New players will fumble their way through an AI game after completing the tutorial, but will likely feel much more comfortable pretty quickly. Then they will slowly build up some strategy over the course of more games.
The point being, the tutorial gave me enough knowledge to slog through my first game, and the first game started teaching me about play strategies. My next game taught me more, and so on. Through the Ages is a game that requires multiple playthroughs, there is simply too much going on and too many options to expect to put together a strong strategy without experience. As such, the barrier to entry to being a competent player is high, but the app does as good of a job as can be hoped in setting you on that path.
Starting a game
Vlaada helping in the tutorial
Brand new civilization
Look and Feel
The graphics do the job. The focus was clearly on fitting the abundance of information on the screen and the game does a fantastic job there, but the graphics won’t jump off the screen. The controls and interface are handled amazingly well. There is so much going on in this game, it is a minor miracle they manage to effectively convey all of the information to you when you need it. You can perform most actions with drag and drop once you are comfortable, or you can click on areas of the screen to see the full cards and perform actions that way. It is great to have an option to move faster once you understand the game a little better.
Elsewhere, the menus really shine. The game will let you jump between a local AI game to an online game if your turn comes up, and then back to the AI game when you’re done, all through the in-game menu. It’s the small attention to detail on things like this that make you really appreciate the job CGE Digital has done here.
The implementation isn’t perfect, however. A few times I’ve managed to get stuck and forced to exit and stop the app. This has happened when I bring up a menu, and the common thread seems to be that the screen behind the menu changes, from a game action occurring or me hitting the back button, for example. I’ve also had crashes on startup and when trying to create a new AI game, the frequency of this has increased since the app was updated. Thankfully, it hasn’t occurred in game and the app otherwise runs smooth and loads so quickly that I am back in the game very quickly. I have contacted CGE Digital and they are fully aware of these issues, I expect them to be fixed soon.
Through the Ages offers a robust online game, allowing players to play a handful of different game lengths from real-time to unlimited asynchronous play. Games are created in a lobby, you can start your own game or join an existing one, then leave to go play another game or exit the app entirely. When the game fills up or, optionally, when the creator starts the game, the game begins. The only minor improvement suggestion here is an option to “join a game of ____ length.” This would avoid having to scroll through the large games list by simply matching you automatically.
The online game defaults to a Digital Rules option which was created to speed up async games. It shifts the timing of some of the group decisions so you don’t have to wait on a response as often. Some actions still necessitate a wait, but this rule variant speeds things up where possible. You can also play the traditional tabletop rules if you prefer. The asynchronous games have working, detailed system notifications (apparently that isn’t a given at this point, see some of our recent reviews). You will get to see what game is ready, what age that game is in and what action you need to take all from the notification. A very tiny detail that really adds to the usability of the app. Rounding things are are a nice game chat feature. I started games with some Twitter followers and enjoyed brief chats throughout. Also of note, unlike many online games, Through the Ages doesn’t appear to be blocked by corporate/school networks by default.
The rating system for online play will be familiar to Galaxy Trucker players; you earn points for completing and winning games, points move you to higher ranks. A player’s rank is easily visible when choosing games, so you can avoid higher ranked players if you’re just getting started.
There is a local pass and play option as well. There a few options unique to pass and play which affect how the game is presented, but they are listed as “Coming Soon.” For now, you get a blacked out screen with the current player’s name so your opponent holding the device can’t see your cards.
Single player in Through the Ages contains two options: Custom Game and Challenges. A Custom Game is simply an AI game against one to three AI opponents. AI opponents can be Easy, Medium, or Hard. It took me four full games (and many partial games) to be able to beat the Easy AI one on one. Then a handful more to be able to defeat multiple Easy AI opponents. I would say Easy is a great learning tool for new players like myself, it isn’t a cakewalk even after you start to develop some sense of strategy. I currently play, and mostly lose to Medium AI. I can’t comment on how Medium or Hard stack up to seasoned TTA players, but I imagine they hold their own quite well.
The other solo play mode is through Challenges. These are a series of 29 games you can play with specific rule variations. The first, and easiest, is simply to defeat a single Easy AI opponent. If you beat that, you unlock the next challenge in that row which is defeat two Medium AI opponents. The next row, as an example, gives everything in the game a 20% discount. These challenges are varied and rated on their difficulty, there are nine rows, each with their own rule variant theme. I haven’t made it very far, but it’s clear this mode will provide a lot of unique wrinkles to the game which should keep players busy for a while. Should you happen to win a challenge, you receive a Dominance score equal to your winning margin.
The online lobby
End of game civilization
Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization was released only a couple of years ago as essentially a second edition of the original Through the Ages. It streamlines some aspects and provides a major overhaul of the military system. There are no expansions for the physical game, so there are no in-app purchases to be found here.
There is an extensive achievement system in the game, with 86 to unlock at the time of launch. They range from a number of simple actions which you will likely achieve unintentionally simply by playing the game, to very specific tasks which you will likely need to purposely set out to accomplish.
The Wrap Up
Through the Ages is an incredibly complex game that should have no business in app form. It should be too large of a task to port it in a way that is usable, let alone intuitive. CGE Digital has taken on this massive challenge and delivered a stunning app that exceeded our sky high expectations. Sure, there are a few bugs currently, but they are all minor and we expect them to be fixed sooner rather than later.
The only reason we wouldn’t recommend this app is if you are concerned Through the Ages is too complex of a game, this game certainly won’t have the mass appeal of some other ports. The learning curve to be even remotely competitive is huge, let alone competing with the higher level AIs or against experienced players online. This is of no fault of the app, of course, but is worth the warning for would-be players. If the underlying game grabs you, then you are in for a fantastic experience in the app. I personally have been addicted to this one since it released and have played more games than I care to admit.