Going through the stages of Through the Ages – App Review

Through the Ages has been a long time favorite game of mine, but long play time and fiddly components have made it difficult to get to the table. In the past there have been several online implementations of the game but none that do it as well as the newly released Android and iOs app.

Age I

Early on in my experience playing hobby board games, I remember being captivated by Through the Ages. I had only dabbled in civilization video games and this was my first foray in to the genre in board gaming. The rules were complex and the rule book was laid out in a bizarre way that I had never seen before. I poured over the rules making sure that when I got it to the table I had everything right, though I probably didn’t. I don’t remember much from my first play except that it was long. It took us around eight hours to play with four people. But contained in those eight hours were many tough decisions and strategic opportunities that had me excited to play again. It was clear that this was a game that would benefit from experience and each subsequent play would be even better.

Well, I only played it in person one other time nearly 8 months later. The long play time was a serious downside to the game. It was difficult to find the time or people to play. In addition, the physical version of the game had some serious detractors. The components themselves were small to the point of being awkward to manipulate; and cylindrical; and there were a lot of them. One bump of the table could send your civilization rolling under your refrigerator. Finding time to play the game was clearly going to be a problem going forward, especially now, years later when I became a father. Luckily I would soon find out that I had some other options.

The original artwork didn’t always shine

When I found out about Boardgaming-Online I was ecstatic. There was a way to play one of my favorite games online! I spent a lot of time playing Through the Ages here. It eliminated one of the biggest barriers to playing the game, the playtime. It just wasn’t pretty. The interface left a lot to be desired, but it was functional and worked well. Later on there would also be a version on Board Game Arena. Just a couple years ago there was a revised version of the physical game that streamlined some rules and eliminated some of the fiddliness. Since my initial plays of the game there are now several ways to play in a more time-friendly manner, but just recently CGE released an Android and iOs app that will likely be the only way I play the game from now on.

OK, I’m actually talking about the app now

The Through the Ages app is the best implementation of the game yet, hands down. The game offers several options for creating an online game, from asynchronous games all the way up through live games, where you have 90 seconds to take your turn. As you complete games you earn experience points that increase your in-game level and make your player avatar age. I don’t know how dramatic the aging goes, but at level 6, I now have a beard. As far as I can tell this has no actual effect on the game, but it is a nice touch that gives a sense of progression between games. In addition the game also offers a single-player mode, challenges, pass and play, and a tutorial. When you actually get in the game your civilization is laid out in front of you graphically. Each of your mines, farms and urban buildings is actually built on the screen in front of you. Every time you add new technology, change your government, or add a colony to your civilization, the screen expands to include the new additions. It is easy to quickly see what technologies your civilization has discovered with just a glance at the screen.

Obviously, having the game in a digital format alleviates a lot of the issues with the physical game. There aren’t dozens of little tokens to push around a board anymore. With the app, there is a screen that allows you to see an overview of each of your opponent’s civilizations, and when come back to take your turn, you get to see a sped-up play-through of each opponent’s turn. Maybe best of all, play time isn’t restricted to a single 4-8 hour session. You can play a turn at a time and wait for a notification to take your next turn. And if you were to play a live game, having the app do all of the bookkeeping will still drastically reduce your game time.

The app doesn’t have many downsides. It costs $10, which is usually well beyond what I would consider for any app. For me, it is worth the price of admission. So far it is well supported and has already had several updates that improved the game and fixed some bugs.  I have noticed that since buying Through the Ages, my phone battery has had a shorter lifespan. Looking at the battery usage screen on my phone, it accounted for 16% of my battery usage over the last 7 days. I have played the game quite often in the past week, but I’m left wondering how much of the battery is being used when I’m not actively playing. The only other downside of the app is more of a downside to playing any board game digitally. When I first played Through the Ages, the game was totally engrossing. Each turn was full of important decisions and with those decisions came a lot of tension. Playing now in a digital format, a lot of that tension is gone for me. I think this comes from the games moving so much quicker. If I make a bad move, it might be game-ending, but it’s not day-ending. I won’t be sitting at the table all day watching my opponents’ point markers rocket past me. Like I said I don’t think this is a negative, it’s just a different perspective on the game for me, but it’s one that I’ll happily take because of the increased accessibility.

Final Thoughts

If you’re a fan of any version of Through the Ages, I can definitely recommend the app. This is the game at its most accessible. If you’ve never played the game, but are able to afford the $10 I would still highly recommend it. Even if you just play the single player and challenge modes there is a brain-burning solo game there for you that rewards experienced play. I’ve been playing this game in different iterations for almost exactly seven years now; from the physical game sprawled out on the kitchen table of my first apartment, to logging in to Boardgaming-Online every hour at work to see if it was my turn during a particularly tense game, to now getting a notification on my phone and taking a quick turn while my one-year-old isn’t demanding any attention. At this point, Through the Ages has become something of a lifestyle game for me. I’ve been playing it since I got in to board gaming and it has followed me through several different stages of my life. Now with the most accessible and visually appealing version of the game yet, I don’t see any reason why it won’t stick with me for many more years to come.