I’ve been somewhat getting back into boardgames recently after a five-year hiatus. Strictly speaking I never really left them – I play games all the time and I’m not particularly bothered what format they come in so I was always playing them on and off, but the overhead required to get a bunch of people together in a room to mess with a bunch of physical cards and playing pieces is always going to make them a more infrequent pastime than just booting up Into The Breach for a hour-long session. This is why I’m quite cheered to see a few of the iThing ports of popular boardgames making their way onto Steam, as it makes them rather more accessible than they would be otherwise — and this accessibility can more than compensate for the loss of that experience of playing with other people, if the port is done right.
That being said, you’ve got to pick the right kind of boardgame for one of these ports. Years ago I bought the Ticket To Ride port — reviewed it on this very blog, in fact — and by removing the physicality of it and reducing it to a set of raw mechanics it was exposed as a rather shallow experience. If nothing else, you can’t see the expression of rage on an AI’s face as you block their route from St Petersburg to Barcelona with a single train. No, if you’re going to port a boardgame to a computer then it has to either gain something in the transfer or else already have enough depth to it that it can survive as a concept once the associated boardgaming accoutrements have been stripped away.
By that metric, Vlaada Chvatil’s Civ-lite Through The Ages is an almost perfect candidate for conversion. And this port stands up very well indeed.
Oh, it’s iPad as all hell, of course, and as a consequence has an interface that’s rather more primitive than I’d like — but that’s the only real criticism I can level at the way it’s been put together, as it’s considerably more feature-rich than previous examples of the form that I’ve played. Most impressive is the AI, which is putting up a hell of a fight and consistently beating the crap out of me on Medium, but I also very much appreciated things like the advisor popups — which serve as an excuse for the game to shout at you when you’re about to do something mind-numbingly stupid like ending the turn without having spent all of your actions and genuinely helps you optimise your turns — and the game speed options, which painstakingly stops to explain every action on the slowest setting, but which incrementally suppresses feedback as you shift up gears until turns whip by and you can finish a game in well under an hour. For reference I have played the physical version of Through The Ages seven or eight times, and it has never taken less than six hours to get through the entire thing.
But enough about the port: what is Through The Ages? Well, the short answer is that it’s an extremely stripped-down version of Civilization with some Euro-style boardgame mechanics worked in such as turn actions, worker placement and victory points. Like Civ you start in the Ancient age with only a couple of basic farms and bronze mines, one laboratory and a single unit of Warriors to your name, and your goal is to guide your civilization through the ages until you reach modern times, at which point scoring occurs and the player who has the most victory points (in this case represented by Culture) wins the game.
Because everything has been abstracted down to fit a boardgame your civilization is roughly analogous to a single city in regular Civilization, and the meat of the game is about placing workers to generate resources to play technology advances which then upgrade your buildings so that you can get more resources can buy more workers and better advances. Your options for directly interacting with other players are limited to a single Political Action that you can take at the start of the turn, which can range from signing a diplomatic agreement to mounting a raid to declaring a full-blown war, but in general you’re pitting your ability to build an economic engine against theirs and seeing who comes out on top. While raids and wars can definitely tip things in your favour and throw a spanner in the works for your opponents, you’re not going to win Through The Ages through military might, although you can certainly lose it if you neglect your armies — more on that later. TTA avoids the ruthless competitive solitaire of something like Agricola, but it’s definitely a more isolated experience than somebody used to the more cut-throat mechanics of multiplayer videogames might expect.
The core feature of Through The Ages is the card track at the top of the board. At the start of the game this track is filled with cards from the Ancient Age deck. These cards can be anything from one-off bonuses (instantly gain some minerals and/or food) or technology advances (better laboratories or military units) to full-blown Wonders of the World, which provide powerful advantages but which must be built in stages, often over multiple turns. Each turn you get a certain number of Civil Actions, denoted by white markers, to carry out the bulk of your activity in Through The Ages — you start with just four, but can increase the number through changing your government type, researching technologies such as Code of Laws, or building Wonders. Civil Actions are used to spend food to buy new workers, and then again to place those workers in a building where they’ll provide some positive effect for your civilization; they’re used to build Wonder stages and play leaders and research technologies. Civil Actions are, in short, used for literally everything in the game that’s not building military units or declaring wars, and much of Through The Ages is spent deciding how exactly you’re going to spend them over the next few turns.
They’re also why the card track is such a neat mechanic. You bring cards from the card track into your hand by — you guessed it — spending Civil Actions. Purchased cards leave gaps in the track, and once your turn finishes everything shuffles down towards the left of the track, closing the gaps, and new cards are dealt onto the right-hand side. These cards represent the progress of time, and are drawn from four Age decks: a small Ancient Age deck that serves to set up the game, and then Age I, II, and III decks representing the Medieval, Enlightenment and Modern ages respectively. Later-age versions of cards are better — so a farm built with knowledge of Agriculture will produce three food where an earlier Irrigated farm will produce only two — and for most resource-producing techs the Age decks will contain one less of that building than there are players in the game, meaning somebody is definitely going to miss out on getting Iron Mining this Age.
Having the card track be refreshed with potentially-powerful cards just before your turn starts opens the game up to rather too much RNG, so to compensate the track is split into three sections. Cards in the left-most section that have been on the track the longest cost just one Civil Action to take. Cards in the middle cost two Civil Actions, and cards on the right-hand side that have just come out of the deck cost a whopping three Civil Actions. This is a huge cost at the start of the game, as taking one of the three-action cards is basically your entire turn, so you’d better be sure it’s worth it. Even in the late game when you’ve boosted your civilization to have 10 or 11 Civil Actions it’s a not-insignificant cost. It might be better to wait for that card you want to slide towards the left-hand edge of the track — but wait, you’re relatively sure nobody will pay 3 actions for it, but what if it slips into the 2-cost section before it comes back around to you and somebody else pinches it? Decisions, decisions.
Of course, spending Civil Actions to bring a card from the card track into your hand is only the first step to actually deriving some benefit from it. If it’s a technology card you’ll have to spend another Civil Action and some science points to play it onto your board. If it’s a technology card that lets you build a more advanced building type, you need to spend another Civil Action and some minerals to build one of that building. As buildings must be staffed by workers, Through The Ages treats workers and buildings as one and the same; building a new lab is represented by shifting a worker token from your idle workers pool onto the laboratory card. If you don’t have any idle workers, you’ll have to spend another Civil Action and some food to buy one from your workers stockpile (i.e. growing your population) before you can place it. If you don’t have any food, or if your workers stockpile is so depleted that new workers are prohibitively expensive, or you don’t have enough Happiness to support a larger population, you’ll have to pull down one of your existing buildings to reclaim a worker. This costs a Civil Action.
And that’s just the process for constructing one building. Constructing a Wonder requires a whole other level of turn sequencing; Wonders are the only cards which are automatically played when purchased from the card track, so you save some effort there, but they also get incrementally more expensive the more of them you have; if you already have two Wonders and want to purchase a third, it’ll cost you two extra Civil Actions. When Wonders are played they represent the Wonder being under construction, and each Wonder has between two and five construction stages. You can complete a single stage of a wonder by spending the associated amount of minerals and — predictably — a Civil Action. You only get the Wonder benefit when all stages are built and the Wonder is completed.
By now I should have sufficiently emphasised just how important planning the use of your Civil Actions is to Through The Ages. You will spend a lot of time thinking about it, and you will screw it up a lot to begin with as you get to the end of your turn and realise that actually what you just did makes no sense because you don’t have enough Civil Actions to finish off your planned action chain and derive some benefit from it this turn. (Fortunately this port lets you roll back your turn step by step with an Undo function if you make mistakes, so you have plenty of latitude to experiment.) And Civil Actions are just one type of resource to manage; you also have workers and minerals, which are drawn from limited stockpiles that decrease every time an Age deck runs out and the game advances to the next one. Running too low on your minerals or workers exposes you to corruption and revolt respectively, so just like Civil Actions you want to make use of them as intelligently as possible to avoid inefficiency.
So much is tied up in the technology, building and resource generation side of the game that the military and political aspect is in danger of seeming like an afterthought, even though it really isn’t. Military units function much like buildings, in that you buy the tech for a new military unit from the card track, play it from your hand, and then spend minerals to place a worker token onto the unit card, which represents your civilization training one of that military unit. There are a few different types of unit (Infantry, Cavalry etc.) but the base effect of all of them is the same: each unit has an associated strength value, and your civilization’s total military power is the sum of the strength of your units. There are Tactics cards that give bonuses for having certain combinations of unit types, technology cards that give passive boosts and even some some buildings (putting a worker into an Arena boosts your military because of gladiators and later – presumably — because of the weird link between US sports and their military-industrial complex).
In one of the few odd pieces of design Through The Ages has, directly building military units is done through a separate set of red Military Actions instead of Civil Actions – except this is something that doesn’t happen every round unless you’re playing very aggressively. Through The Ages is designed so that you spend every single one of your Civil Actions every turn if you’re playing well — and the port will actively remind you if you’re about to end the turn with unspent Civil Actions — but you end most turns with your full set of Military Actions left intact, which is why any leftover Military actions are also used to draw cards from the Political deck at the end of a turn. These come in a few varieties: Pacts you can make with other players, Wars and Aggressions you can declare on them (Aggressions resolve instantly but are less powerful, Wars resolve at the start of your next turn and so give the defender a turn to prepare by building lots of units to boost their military strength, but are potentially a big swing in your favour if you pull it off), the aforementioned tactics cards and so on — but the key thing about them is that you can only play one big Political Action per turn. This can be signing a Pact, or seeding an event deck with good (and bad) events that’ll trigger later on in the game, but most of these political cards are doomed to sit in your hand forever, or else be discarded. Because of this, it feels like Military Actions and the associated cards carry a distinct whiff of leftovers about them.
I said earlier that while it wasn’t possible to win Through The Ages solely through a strong military, it’s definitely easy to lose by neglecting it, and here’s why. Being the strongest player in terms of military does confer some advantage in that you might be able to throw your weight around a bit with Wars and Aggressions, and it also makes colonisation a bit easier. The scale of this advantage is nothing compared to the disadvantages you suffer from being the weakest player, however. You’ll obviously be a natural target for aggressive players declaring wars, but the real penalty for being the weakest civilization is a bit more subtle. You know that event deck I mentioned just now? Whenever you use your Political Action to put a new event into the event deck, another event that was seeded into it earlier will trigger. Some of the events have a blanket effect on all players — gain a worker, build a free temple, produce resources immediately — but most of them resolve in a tiered or conditional structure that benefits or screws over certain players, and the most common condition is “the weakest player” or “the two weakest players”. Nearly every single event card with this condition carries a negative effect (there’s a single exception), and so if you’re flying high in the military strength stakes it’s in your best interests to jam as many of these events into the event deck as possible so that they’ll come up later and stamp on the competition. Conversely, if you’re unfortunate enough to find your army in last place then you’re going to eat negative event after negative event. Individually none of the negative events are that bad and usually amount to wasting a few of your Civil Actions to mitigate the impact, but if you add up the cumulative effect of multiple negative events over an entire game you are not going to find yourself on top of the pile when the Age III deck runs out and the victory points are totted up.
Military strength therefore ends up being something of an arms race, but not quite in the way you’d expect. There is some value in having the strongest military as you’ll occasionally get positive events resolving in your favour; however, successfully launching a raid or prosecuting a war against another player doesn’t just require a higher strength than them, it needs you to have at least a 10-20 point gap in strength (depending on era) to outweigh the advantages Through The Ages hands to defending players. If you’re not playing a military-focused strategy you mostly just need a military that’s strong enough to dissuade the players who are — and this is fairly easy to maintain — but you really, really don’t want to be the weakest player, and so that particular dunce cap will regularly change hands as players drop into last place and then do some remedial work on their military to lift themselves out of it again.
It can sometimes be annoying to have to devote actions and resources just to avoid negative outcomes, but aside from the deck draws Through The Ages is a 100% deterministic game where you have perfect information on everything outside of your opponent’s hands, and so it’s much more interesting to make judgement calls about what your opponents are up to, and what you should be focusing on in response. Another player has just picked up a Cavalry card; should you spend this turn upgrading your Swordsmen to Riflemen to maintain military parity? But wait, there’s a Coal Mining technology card that’s just come out of the deck and you’re still stuck on Bronze mines. You could do the military thing and wait for another Coal Mining card to come out of the deck, but depending on when that happens you might not even get the chance to pick it up; securing it now means you’re guaranteed not to suffer from mineral shortages in the late-game. However, neither of those approaches will directly score you any of the Culture points you need to win to game; perhaps it would be better to invest in a Theatre that will, over the course of the game, accumulate thirty or more Culture that could well be the difference between first and second place.
It’s the constant spinning of all these plates, balancing each need against the rest and making the correct choice, that makes Through The Ages so compelling. The port quality is superb; it’s not flashy in any way, but it looks decent, the UI is good, the AI is great, and I have played so many ports of boardgames that have fucked up at least one of those elements (and often all three at the same time) that Through The Ages is now my gold standard for how to do it right. Most importantly, it does exactly what a good boardgame port should do: preserve everything that made the source game great while stripping out a lot of the faff and making the whole thing far more accessible. And Through The Ages itself is an excellent Euro-style economic boardgame, perhaps the best I’ve ever played. The only real criticism I can make of it is how long it takes to play the physical version, and that’s something that’s been fixed in this digital one. Boardgames tend to be a little more polarising than videogames thanks to their more focused design (there’s way more potential for Marmite mechanics to crop up), but if you like the sort of things that it does — card drafting, action management, a bit of worker placement — then Through The Ages gets a pretty much unreserved recommendation from me.
This review feels far too positive – what have you done with Hentzau?
It is a good game; I’ve not delved into buying any of my board games in digital format as I’m not sure I would really enjoy them on my own – board games are definitely a social activity for me. This might at least be a way for me to play more games though. It sounds like you’ve played quite a few digital incarnations of board games; any to particularly avoid or which were good beyond this?
Avoid Isle Of Skye like the plague. Also avoid Terraforming Mars because it looks nice but the AI doesn’t know how to play it. Also avoid Lords Of Waterdeep, not because the port is bad, but because Lords Of Waterdeep is fucking *terrible*.
Looks like I’ll just have to wait until Root comes to a digital store near me.
I’ll definitely try it on my phone. People say that it’s fine on 5″ and bigger.
I wonder if boardgames are our saviour in times of developers embracing what the tech allows them to do. First, there’s a problem of devs being able to model whole WW2 with a meticulous rivet-counting and keeping tabs on how much toilet paper does 12th squad of 3rd rifle battalion of 14th infantry division of Irish Army has. Even worse players think that they want this.
But it’s an obvious problem that boardgame limitations help to solve, the one that you made me think of is AI. Boardgames are balanced and tested, they have some rare updated editions with some fixes to the rules but those are rarely complete. Meanwhile most of those rivet-counting strategy games fall apart once you learn the rules; many modern strategy games with wonderful rules fail to have an AI that is able to do anything against a player who knows the rules. Not mastered the rules, not understood everything, just learned enough to not do stupid mistakes. Many games like Paradox ones evade this problem by having varying starts and randomness in many ways (e.g. you can’t predict how the game will go in Europa Universalis 4 because there are hundreds of independent actors and no sane prediction is possible even if each faction is more or less predictable). But many of currently developed turn-based strategy games – Civilization 6, Endless Space 2, Stellaris – may have elegant complex mechanics that they’re constantly tinkering with. I can understand devs who see little point in trying to make a good AI because the better is your AI’s understanding of the rules the dumber it looks the dumber it looks when a new mechanic is added. Or, in case of Stellaris, removed. Soren Johnson, of Civ4 fame, says that it’s the biggest problem in AI development. He wrote the AI in parallel with game system and he basically programmed most of the mechanical stuff alone which is a rare and I doubt it would even work for later Civilization games with their more complex mechanics. It’s still possible when you confine yourself to making a boardgame port. It may not have 500 hours of gameplay but it won’t leave a poor taste in your mouth when you realize that AI is dumb and the only things that stopped you from realizing it were obscure hidden mechanics and poor UI.
I’m of the opinion that if you’ve made a game where 96% of players are only ever going to touch the single player, and it’s so complicated that your AI can’t play it competently, then you need to tone down the complexity until it can. You absolutely compromise on the design of your game in order to have an AI that can provide a challenge to the player, and then you can build out the additional features later when you’ve got a solid base.
That being said, I’m forgiving when a Civilization or a Total War produces an AI that can do the basics but which still has problems. Coding AI is incredibly difficult, and I’m not expecting it to reproduce anything more than what a player with a few hours experience in the game would be able to do, with the rest of the difficulty provided by behind-the-scenes stat bonuses. The reason I’ve been so annoyed at Rome 2 and Civ 6 and Stellaris is because their AIs couldn’t even do that, which is the point at which you need to seriously rethink you basic game structure.
Do you have any other boardgame conversions you’d recommend? I can think of a couple games off the top of my head I’d be curious about.
Not really! The only other one I’ve played that might hold up is Twilight Struggle, but I’ve not put enough time into it to know for sure. This is why Through The Ages is such an outlier, and why I went to the trouble of reviewing it: it proves it can be done right, which is why I’m so baffled that everybody gets it wrong.
I am a big fan of the Splendor digitisation on Android/iOS. It’s a great game but being able to play it quickly vs AI and then multi-player versus real people really teaches you about the strategic depth of the game. And it’s a nice smooth adaptation of it to boot!