Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Through The Ages... and Ages... and Ages

Chris came over this morning to get in another step along the path to learning Downtown - we played scenario D6: Respect, which simulates a photo recon run. The DRV only get SAMs, Fire Cans, and AAA, so there isn't that much to do in the scenario other than learn how Fire Cans and SAMs work. Otherwise it's really only good as a learning scenario (although they did try to sex it up a bit by adding MiGs and an F-4 escort in a variant). SAMs are really good for screwing up someone's attention, and I can see how they will add a lot of time and complexity to most scenarios. The good news is that we've pretty much learned the rules at this point and are ready to start with one of the full Rolling Thunder scenarios next time out.

Rather than play through a second time, we decided to play through as much as possible of Through the Ages, which was released in a second edition and is almost certainly sold out already. TtA is about as faithful a representation of the old Sid Meier computer game Civilization as you are likely to find, albeit without the actual map. That goes for the amount of time necessary to play as well, which will definitely have an effect on how often it comes out. This is not to say that there isn't a good game here, just that it develops slowly and methodically, with occasional bursts of activity, just like the computer game.

All of your favorites are here - wonders take time to build, a big army will produce certain benefits, but you have to dedicate population away from productive pursuits. Bumping up to a new technology requires time spent earning lightbulbs, and you can devote excess population to Elvii to keep your population from revolting. When you change governments, you even have the choice to get it cheaper but essentially lose your turn. As a boardgame emulation of many of the elements of the computer game, it's a success.

However, it is not a game I think I'd even consider playing with four, and three would require some sort of side entertainment. You see, unless someone is messing with you (and that is a fairly rare event), there is little or nothing to do while your opponents try to figure out what they will do on their turn. Given the way that cards cycle in and out of the draft pool, that means that there is a very good chance that almost nothing you saw there a turn or so before will be there, and forget thinking out two turns. The cards move *fast*, and I could see it being possible that a critical card might come and go with three or four players without you ever getting a chance to grab it. Of course, there are additional cards added that I'd hope would help this out, but the potential still exists that you might really struggle if the cards don't come out well. I believe the track is set up so that any cards that get added at the start of your opponents' turns could be available when your turn comes around again, but only if they don't take them.

The critical resource in the game is lightbulbs. You can't play *anything* to the board other than leaders and wonders without earning lightbulbs, and the cards that improve your ability are far and few between in the early game. I was facing a rather steep light bulb shortage in fact, which made it very difficult to play most cards. The cards that improve your ability to get lightbulbs are almost non-existant - I'm pretty sure I counted a whopping four cards per Age at best, and if they don't come out early in the second Age you can find yourself putting almost all of your efforts into generating them. While there are other ways to generate them through action cards and events, it's an uphill battle. Knowing that you grab these cards when they come out is a key element.

Everything else - culture points (the final tally of victory), resources, and food - all seem to be available when you want them. In fact, despite my knowledge gap (Chris was earning something like 5 bulbs to my 2 every turn), I was doing well in happiness and culture, but it was clear that he could do what he wanted with raids and attacks while i was unable to do more than tread water, at least in terms of expanding. I was *just* starting to get things moving a bit faster when we ran out of time about halfway into the Age 2 deck, around 2.5 hours of play time after Chris ran over the rules.

The game is advertised as having three different difficulties and lengths, but that includes the pretty dull "simple" game, which features zero player interaction. The Advanced game has a lot more going on - events become much more important, you have raids, and there are new territories that you can conquer. The military game also becomes much more important, and happiness makes an entrance as a major factor in the game, much like the computer version. If for no other reason, TtA will have a place in my game library, even if I only play it with two players on anything resembling a regular basis. I'm not even sure that it would make a good game for WBC West - five hours of this in the evening, along with the constant scanning of the cards and your opponents' situations - it would be too much for me after a day of A Victory Lost. And not that many two player games show up at Sunriver, especially ones that are this long.

I am looking forward to trying it solitaire, with me playing two or three sides, just to see how it works. On the plus side, you are always busy...

I may try this with Jesse on Thursday, if we decide we have the time for it. Four hours would not be out of the question once you knew the system (it's pretty straightforward, with only new territories and other strength-related mechanisms being a bit more difficult), although the way you measure your corruption, food costs, and happiness is a bit confusing.

As for the price of $70 Us, I can only say that the market is dictating that this is *not* too high a price to pay, given it's almost immediate scarcity, and this for a second edition. Yes, the card art is cartoony, the bits are manageable, the human factors are both well done and weak depending upon the system in question. On the other hand, if you're looking for a game that gives almost *exactly* the same experience as the old Civ game, from the 30 hour playing time to the interaction of the various parameters, this is the game for you.

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