Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization

A surprise find during the current Steam sale was Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization (not to be confused with Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, otherwise known as “the original version”). Through the Ages is rated #3 on Board Game Geek, and having never played, this looked attractive.

In short, Through the Ages is a streamlined version of Civilization as a card game. It is a better Civilization than most editions of Civilization. I could just stop there: if you like Civilization and are willing to trade the territorial control element for having a satisfying game in a quarter (or less) of the time, buy this.

I have not timed my solo games closely, but this does not seem far from the tabletop game’s estimate of about 1 hour per player. This seems to play more quickly than the physical car game because the computer takes care of all the bookkeeping. This is exactly what you want from a computerized version of a board game, and it goes further to have a revised ruleset intended for online play. That’s nice.

Through the Ages plays out in cards and tokens. You get so many actions per round; you can improve that with technology or changing governments. You can use those actions to increase your population; to build or upgrade your farms and mines (production); to build urban buildings that provide science, happiness, and culture; to build a military; to build wonders (like in Civ); to change leaders; and to draw cards that help you do all those things. You build a tableau through the ages, as your cards give you different types of buildings from different ages. Later age versions are better but more expensive.

That card acquisition is a drafting mechanic that is the means of indirect competition. You can spend actions to get cards. Cards become cheaper over time, just a few turns. You can spend more actions to get it now and make sure you get it before someone else does, but then you have spent your actions to do so. Maybe you are a republic that gets many actions, so that’s fine, or maybe you are toughing it out with a monarchy this game. Maybe you invested in military actions, which is another card set used for direct competition.

Through the Ages has the core Civ gameplay elements. There is a technology tree, and here you can skip around it rather than being tied into a predefined chain. There is a military race. There is bidding for colonies. The economy always feels very tight, because you always want to do more but you can only do so much given your population, actions, resources, cards, etc. You can invest to get more, but then your actions for that turn were mostly investing, while other people are cashing in on their lesser investments.

Through the Ages has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, and you can play a solo game in a reasonable amount of time. I am led to believe that multiplayer takes much longer, as humans deliberate about decisions, but it should be quicker than either the physical version or actual Civ. And as I said, it is a better Civ than most versions of Civ.

: Zubon

Tang Garden

Our friends at ThunderGryph games have successfully launched another Kickstarter project, Tang Garden. It has the unusually nonviolent theme of building a garden.

I have not studied up on the game because (longtime readers will remember) I backed their first game at the “send me a copy of everything you ever make” level. So I have an obvious ulterior motive in wanting to see them to well. And they are, in fact, doing well, looking like they could reach 1000% funded in their first day. Stretch goals are falling about as fast as they can post them.

One thing I like about their Kickstarter projects is that they make it easy to see if you would like the game. Rules are posted in PDF form, as is the norm. But then they also have electronic versions on Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator. Nothing helps decide whether you would like a game like playing the game.

They have had the usual project management and shipping schedule problems that most Kickstarter games have had. They are getting better with practice, I think, or at least getting more realistic estimates.

: Zubon

Game Length

Knowing how long a game lasts dramatically affects your strategy and investment. I was thinking about this in the context of the first time you play a board game with win conditions rather than a fixed number of turns, but it applies broadly across games, and now that I think of it even more broadly across how much of yourself you are willing to invest in anything based on how much future you think it has. But back to the game context.

Some games have a fixed duration, in terms of time or turns. You can watch the clock count down in a football game. In many Eurogames, the winner is whoever has the top score after X rounds; you will have exactly X rounds every game.

Some games have win conditions. Reaching those sooner can be a powerful strategy. Your first time(s) playing, you do not know how long a game typically lasts, so you play at a non-apparent disadvantage because you do not know when to pivot from building up to cashing in.

My example of the weekend was my first game of Dinosaur Island, which is fun. One player at our table had played before, and he had a runaway victory, cashing in on objectives while the rest of us were building up for the endgame. We played the “medium” length game, and it lasted four rounds. Even the winner was surprised about that. It seems safe to say we would have played differently had we realized that investments had so little time to pay off.

I have generally favored games with win conditions over fixed numbers of turns, because the number always seemed too arbitrarily game-like. The game lasts three seasons because the game lasts three seasons. But it does have the advantage of putting everyone on even footing and letting you know in advance when the endgame is coming.

: Zubon

[TT] The 7th Continent First Impressions

The 7th Continent is “a solo or cooperative ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ exploration board game,” in which you play a cursed explorer returning to the eponymous continent. It is a game of exploration and survival. It is expensive and comes in a big box with 1000 cards. If you want to know more, you could look at the original Kickstarter campaign. I backed the expansion Kickstarter campaign after hearing good reviews of the original.

This is the first time I have ever sleeved a game. That seemed like a good idea for a game that is expensive and not found in stores. In retrospect, that was probably overkill; sleeving the commonly used cards (a few hundred) makes more sense, although this provides protection against beverages and casual damage. As I mentioned, this is not as easy to replace as a set of Dominion cards. Even more than just seeing the stacks of cards, you get a sense of how many cards 962 really is when you sleeve every one of them.

My first impression while playing was “why is this not a computer game?” The mechanics are something that computers do well. The “choose your own adventure” approach is something known well in computer games, a solved problem. Making it a game rather than a “choose your own adventure” book adds gameplay mechanics, but replicating that with cards is unnecessarily complicated. It is really neat, but it seems like an expensive luxury. It is an $80 board game that could be a $20 computer game. The way that the cards work is neat, but doing this with cards seems like a lot of effort just to do it with cards. And I love me some cards, but I also like offloading mechanics on computers.

The mechanics really are not that complicated. But your first playthrough has that effect where you check the rules more or less every turn, which slows things to a crawl. Every terrain card has multiple things going on, and some of those “things” also have several things going on, so it takes an hour for a new player to explore the first island even though it is very small. You feel like you have gone through a lot, and you also feel like you have played through four cards in an hour.

My other big impression is that the game has limited replayability because of the exploration factor. Like going through a deterministic computer game or a real “choose your own adventure” book, once you have gone through it, you have gone through it. Card 10 will still be card 10 if you play again. There will be differences based on other cards that randomize and which skills and items you have available, so your path will differ, but once you have seen something you have seen it. If you have a good memory, you are following the path from before, using physical cards for the equivalent of “click everything once to see what happens,” minus skipping purely negative things from your previous run(s). Most things I have encountered so far could be variably good, but a few are just unambiguously bad, and the only variation is how badly you are hurt for checking all the options on a card. Something feels wrong about going through a game and just knowing “that’s a trap, avoid it entirely,” although the game is almost certainly balanced around a bit of that expectation.

That presents a different question of longevity and replayability. When it takes multiple hours to play the game (5-12 for a first playthrough? I haven’t logged that many hours yet), and there is a permadeath mechanic, some of the longevity comes from failing and starting those hours over. I am not saying that the game should be a cakewalk with a guaranteed victory your first time through, but there may be grumbling about “thanks for playing for six hours, everyone dies, want to play again?” And if that is how you get 20 hours of play from the first curse, because it took you a few tries, that’s … suboptimal, especially if the early game is known and the first hour is just going through the motions and seeing what items you have this time. Plus spoilers you have in your head or on the team.

So far, not a great return on investment in terms of gameplay. It has been okay but clunky doing all of this with cards, combined with an aura of doom because you don’t expect to win your first time out. The journey had better be worth it considering the time and cost involved. The game and word of mouth suggest that I should keep going, see how the first playthrough goes as I get closer to the end and get quicker with the rules, and write up some second impressions. Not yet impressed.

The game has a save state “just like in a video game” that lets you pause between play sessions, because few people play for 5-12 hours at a time. I paused at a point where that looks exploitable, so I can keep refreshing a fishing card to refill my action deck. The game mechanics seem to encourage this, while the spirit of the game seems to push against it. I perhaps should not be happy that I was attacked by a bear while fishing, but it was really helpful because bears have a lot of meat.

: Zubon

Correcting Errors

I have previously mentioned tabletop games’ publishers and their eagerness to help their customers and fellow gamers, even at cost to themselves. Today’s example comes from Serious Poulp, publishers of Kickstarter smash The 7th Continent. Production inconsistencies led to some cards having a different shade on their back (effectively marking the curse cards in the deck) and some being cut up to 1mm differently in size. Neither is a huge difference, but gamers notice these things, as you might if you spent more than $200 on a card game. Their response:

After a lot of consideration and discussion we have taken the decision, in coordination with Panda, to reprint ALL the cards for the “second edition” core box as well as for the upgrade packs provided to Veteran backers.

So yeah, here’s another copy of that $80 game you bought, because the first one had some cosmetic flaws.

: Zubon

538 on BGG

I had somehow not noticed that fivethirtyeight.com (the site founded on political poll analysis, now expanded into sports, general news, and lots of politics) does occasional articles on board games. Being a data-driven site, they of course love boardgamegeek.com, which provides lots of data in terms of player ratings and logged play. I love data and board games.

The article of the day is about Gloomhaven, which has been atop the BGG rankings for a while as a very dense, rich game with heavy RPG elements. I have been tempted to play but would need a more dedicated, consistent group. Also, it’s $200, which is not a dealbreaker for me, but I want to get some play from that.

You can see past articles from when Twilight Struggle was #1 or on the worst board games.

As we have said elsewhere, ratings are not so much important as finding a rater whose ratings usually line up with yours. I don’t now if Kurt Loder is the best movie reviewer out there, but his ratings seem closest to mine since Roger Ebert died. BGG is full of people who have ratings globally similar to mine: serious gamers who do not like games determined primarily by chance. I am sure that I could argue with ratings all over the place, but it would be plus or minus two points. No one worth taking seriously is going to argue that Monopoly is a good game. (Monopoly was literally designed to be a horrible experience.)

: Zubon

Opinions Sought: Current Kickstarter Projects

[Update: after consideration and discussion with folks who responded outside comments, I am not backing any of these. This falls under the same rubric as not pre-ordering games without great confidence in them, along with the tabletop equivalent of “wait for a Steam sale.” The attractions of the deluxe game at full price are not great, and there is nothing exclusive to be lost by waiting. Still, please do back anything you’re really excited about, although don’t kid yourself that any of these would not have been printed without that support.]

I am interested in hearing from folks who have looked at/into the following projects, because I am considering backing but indecisive about getting yet another tabletop game without having played first. I have a mixed record of that on Kickstarter, with some gems acquired early and cheap, others that I have had trouble giving away.

Dice Settlers looks like an interesting mashup of mechanics with custom dice, empire building, and technology unlocks. The basic mechanic of the game is a bag of dice that you acquire over the game (deckbuilding), which you roll to determine your options for the round. You build the map as you “explore.” Lots of variation, several interesting mechanics, but expensive due to the fancy custom components and potentially just a mess of “throw in everything” design. Or maybe it works perfectly. [RULES LINK]

Edge of Darkness looks like a hella gamer game, although probably smaller than it looks when the components are in perspective. Still, just that box looks threateningly huge. There is a lot going on there with card-building (insert sleeves to change cards over time), group deckbuilding, variable locations, and worker placement. I like most of those, but it seems like there is a lot going on here and I have not digested it all. I haven’t even read all of this one, I am just taken by the apparent scope of it. [RULES LINK]

Sorcerer City is the other game I had looked at recently, but if I never played Carcassone that much, I cannot see me playing Carcassone plus Dominion plus whatever.

My recurring theme here seems to be that these games are tossing together a lot of mechanics, and I am not sure if that is exciting or a mess. Your thoughts?

: Zubon

“Language Independent”

I frequently see games try to minimize the use of text. This expands their market, internationally as well as across ages. I frequently see games do this badly.

You can see the reasons to do this. If your game is really intuitive (and of course it seems intuitive to you, you made it!), it should need minimal explanation. How often do you really check the manual (ha!) or help files, or go back to a tutorial? Some people are more visual than verbal, or they prefer what they can see at a glance to what they can read in detail. For an international market, localization is easier if there is little to nothing to translate. You see this outside games too; witness the action blockbusters targeting the overlap of the American and Chinese markets. Transformers translates better than Little Miss Sunshine.

Kingdom is an example of not explaining what is going on, then pretending that is intended difficulty or discovery rather than weak design. You can triple the playtime of your game by making players learn through trail and error, then make them lose for errors. Kingdom Builder and Hyperborea are games that try to replace all in-game text with icons. Some of those are clear, some of them are too similar to be clear, and some are completely incomprehensible unless you already know exactly what they are supposed to mean.

Language independence is good. Elegant designs frequently need little text to support them, and it is unfortunate if your board game needs a companion book of rules clarifications and explanations of edge cases. But you cannot just take the explanations out of your game and pretend it still works as intended.

I must also see this done well, but the better this is done, the more invisible it is. You notice more when the lack of text is incomprehensible, rather than transparent.

: Zubon

[TT] Ascension Standalone Expansions

I was not enthusiastic about Ascension after a little while with it, but I have been exploring the expansions to the game, and it has grown on me. It is not exactly deep strategy, but it is a fun little game that does some interesting things.

The best suggestion I saw was to try most sets in pairs. Where most Dominion sets do pretty well all thrown together, Ascension favors having one or two sets of cards. The link there has a good guide to which mechanics pair well together. I tried throwing a bunch in at once, and the game just stops working. All of the interesting interactions and synergies stop working, because each set explores a different design space without much overlap. The unique mechanic in each set is not shared between sets, so mixing 4 or 5 just dilutes everything interesting. Continue reading [TT] Ascension Standalone Expansions

[TT] Hardback

Hardback is a deckbuilding word game. Every card is a letter; to get their benefits, you must use them in a word. Earn cash to buy more letters, use ink to press your luck, and become the most prestigious author of your era.

The deckbuilding aspect is key to winning but feels minor in play. The “press your luck” and word game aspects take on greater prominence. Continue reading [TT] Hardback