I sit here covered in lesions. Great welts criss-cross my back, patches of my skin are raw and pimpled where the hair has been ripped out at the roots and there is the unmistakable whiff of Maddox crackling permeating the air. This is because I’ve been recently playing Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilisation, a game that has allowed me to tap into herculean reservoirs of masochism that I never knew I had. So much masochism, in fact, that I would easily walk away with a gold medal in it; if such a thing existed.
Through the Ages is a civilisation game without a map. The story of your nascent empire will be told through the acquisition of cards purchased, for actions, from a card row. These cards will improve your ability to produce resources, swap philosophy for science, build population quelling structures and recruit leaders to guide your nation through the tumultuous seas of history.
There are no little plastic soldiers, there are no dice to simulate fog of war, it is simply the interplay of your cards with that of your opponents that will ensure your success or failure.
On top of this you can improve your armies and drive your way up the military track and intimidate the others at the table before crushing their civilizations into the blood red clay.
If you can have the greatest cultural influence by the end of the game you condemn all the other civilisations to the wheelie bin of history and get to build faux-trendy coffee shops and fast food “restaurants” on every street corner across the scarred face of the planet.
The first thing to be said about Through the Ages is that it is unforgiving. Extremely unforgiving. Unforgiving in the Calvinist sense (look it up, it’ll blow your mind). Errors of judgement and tiny miscalculations are punished mercilessly and the game is designed to actively encourage beating the weakest player and so provide a perfect analogue for the story of the human animal up to this point.
Victory is achieved through the systematic destruction of those weaker than you which means that playing against more experienced players or players that simply have more aptitude will result in hours of you being swung around like a cat in a plastic bag.
Also the game is long. Don’t let the box fool you. A full game with a full complement of players will easily exceed four hours.
So, the game is long.
The game is brutal.
Then why play it?
It’s fucking fantastic!
This is a game that is as engaging as it is frustrating. As enthralling as it is infuriating. As exciting as it is maddening. If art should reflect life then Through the Ages reflects all the glorious unpredictability of being a sentient, upright human being except it edits all the boring bits out.
It is a puzzle, it is a rigourous economic exercise and it is an iron clad battle of wits. This is a game that manages to be unpredictable, rambunctious and gut screamilngly vicious whilst at the same time being serious, thoughtful and profound.
It appeals to those who revel in minutiae and those who enjoy smacking people across the head.
Then there’s the satire.
Probably more than other designer, Vlaada Chvatil reflects the world in which he was brought up. From the corner-cutting communist future worlds of Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker to the cute monsters in Dungeon Petz whose malice bubbles just under the surface and evokes memories of the surrealist nightmare-scapes of fellow Czech Jan Svankmajer, Chvatil seeks to comment on the world he sees around him.
Through the Ages is no exception and like Space Alert this is satire though mechanisms, something intrinsic to the play of the game rather than an appendage bolted on.
Wonders can be built during the game and bestow benefits on the players building them. One such wonder is the Kremlin and while it greatly improves the players military capacity, mean happiness plummets. Most of his scorn is aimed at the martial and tyrannical but his satire can take a more light hearted bent too. Sid Meier, for instance, increases the cultural output of your laboratories whilst reducing their productivity, as it’s difficult to focus on science when you could play just one more turn of Civilization.
Through the Ages fulfills all the criteria to elevate it into the realm of art while never forgetting that it is a game. A game that delights and infuriates and has the capacity, when played badly, to suck up your self-esteem like a malevolent cardboard vacuum cleaner.
This is not a game that I can play every week but when I feel the urge to emulate a Tory M.P. and swing around from a P.V.C. “discipline swing” with an unpeeled orange stuck up my arse then Through the Ages is my go to. It is a wildly arousing dominatrix of a game and although it treats me badly it’ll always have me coming back for more.