Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization

Saturday marked the end of Matthew's football season, the end of Jacob's regular season (they have a playoff game next weekend), and a chance for Jacob and I to try out a new Essen release: Through the Ages. This is another civ building game, but unlike many in the genre there's no map. This is essentially a card game that most reminded me of the 2005 release Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean. The map in Parthenon was largely superfluous, and I applaud the Czech Board Games folks for streamlining the game in this manner.

Through the Ages comes with three different play levels: simple, advanced, and full. The simple game is meant to introduce players to the basic mechanics with no direct conflict allowed between players. This is what Jacob and I tried on Saturday night, starting at 8pm and finishing before 10pm.

Through the Ages Simple Game

Each player starts with a basic civ - despotism government, a couple of farms, a couple of mines, a lab, and a warrior. These are represented by cards plus workers (little yellow glass stones). In general, a card represents the capability of building something (i.e., the technology). The yellow stones represent population, so when a yellow stone is on a card that signifies that you've built that building and are manning it to bring some good to your civ.

Your government determines the actions you can do on a turn, with the starting civ of Despotism giving each player 4 civil actions and 2 military actions. Civil actions are used to draft cards, increase population, play cards, and build buildings. Military actions are used to train new warriors in the simple game.

What I think makes the game special are the civil event cards. These are brought out on a holding board and are purchased using civil actions. These cycle through the board and get cheaper as they slide left (think of the drafting mechanism in Atlantic Star), with the three left-most cards leaving the game each turn in the 2-player game. The cards allow players to customize their civ and choose their own path, including leadership, government, technologies, and production.

Our simple game felt like it was over almost before it started, and the designers should take this as a compliment. It really is an introductory scenario and it served us well in teaching the basic mechanics of the game, and I was thrilled that we were able to complete this in less than two hours including setup and instruction. We thought I had won, but in hindsight Jacob probably won as we miscounted some of the bonus points.

Through the Ages Advanced

Jacob and I embarked on an advanced game this morning at 9am. The advanced game includes all of the rules of the full game minus the ability to declare war (though there is military conflict) but is played without the 3rd age cards.

There's a system of checks and balances at work in the game, not unlike Antiquity. You have to do some planning and forecasting to make sure that you keep enough resources (food and mined product) around to do the things you want to do, but not keep around too much. The advanced game introduces the notions of happiness and corruption which forces players to balance their development, keep their population happy (mostly by supplying religion), and not stockpile too much of their goods. It also forces a level of efficiency in production, as the finite number of resource counters can represent different numbers of raw goods depending on where they live. A token on a basic iron mine may be worth 1 resource, while the same token on a bronze mine is worth 2 resources.

Through the Ages Board

Jacob pulled ahead early in military strength which turned out to be a big advantage as the advanced game introduces military events, many of which benefit the player with the most strength (or hurt the player that is weakest). I clawed my way back, mostly through superior resource production, and was able to slingshot past him in the last turn in military strength. This gave me a 10 point bonus at the end which turned out to be the difference in the game. The bonus came from a set of 4 random 3rd age event cards that we flipped over at the start of the game which specify bonuses players can earn based on the state of their civs.

We completed the advanced game in just under three hours and had a blast. There's more interaction in the advanced game but this is still largely a do-your-own-thing sort of game. The downtime was minimal with 2 players, but I can see it getting excessive with more players. I do need to give the designers credit in specifying how to minimize downtime in the rules - they encourage the next player to start his turn once the current player completes his actions and starts end-of-turn production. We followed this guidance and found the time between turns to be no more than 5-10 minutes, sometimes even less. After 2 plays Jacob and I are rating this one a 9 and look forward to playing the full game.

Game On! Class Started this Week

Julie and I started the Game On! class this week at Matthew's school (read more here and here). We ended up doing two classes to accomodate the 40 kids that signed up. The Wednesday class is mostly 3rd/4th graders and the Thursday class is 4th/5th graders. Julie will usually teach Wed and I'll take Thu, though with my travel schedule we will often flip things around.

Julie and I tag-teamed our first class on Wednesday. We started with an overview of the class, discussed rules and guidelines, mentioned a few of the games we expect to play, then dove right into explanation of our first game: Walk the Dogs.

Julie Teaches Walk the Dogs

This turned out to be a great choice. Julie had the great idea of having the kids rate the games on a 4-point scale (we are using Chuck's system) and most rated it a 4 with just a few giving it a 3. Same results on Thursday.

Playing Walk the Dogs

All but one of the groups in the 2 days were able to finish their games. Turns out the setup time for Walk the Dogs is longer than I remembered, so on the second day I took the time to set up the doggies ahead of time. That is part of the fun of the game, but I figured it was a reasonable tradeoff to give the kids a better chance of finishing.

Next week we will likely play Pickomino, followed by Take it Easy. After that we'll revisit all three games and give the kids the chance to pick one of them for play during an open gaming session.

Essen Game Summary

This year I'd like to give a bit more information about the games I saw and played while at Essen. I'll do another post where I talk some more about the Sunriver Games booth, but this one will just be focused on the games. Most of you know it isn't my style to go into depth on any one game, so this post will give broad strokes across a wide range of games.

Fiji

Fiji

This was the first game I saw played at the fair while stopping in on Tuesday to hopefully get started on booth setup. This is one of the latest 2F games and I never got a chance to play it. The main reason: I heard it was almost a pure blind bidding game and one friend indicated that she would rather play a simple roll and move game than this one given the chaos involved. Maybe there's more there than I think, but this is one you should most certainly try before you buy.

Gloria Mundi

Gloria Mundi

Another game I watched folks play (including Valerie Putnam and Lorna Wong - not sure who the other chap was). This is the collaborative release from James Ernest and Mike Selinker and it is essentially a racing game with players trying to race to one end of the board while the goths race towards Rome. Players have equivalent decks of cards in their hands that they use to produce certain resources that allow them to advance along the track, with the goth movement causing certain not-so-good things to happen to those resources. I hope I got that approximately right. This looks like one I'd like to try.

Shogun

Shogun

All of you Wallenstein fans know about this one - the Japanese themed version of the now classic multi-player Euro-style war game based in Germany during the 30 years war. Wallenstein has been out of print for a while so many folks who've had a chance to play it online at Mikael's spiel-by-web site have been anxiously awaiting this release. I picked up a copy in a trade with Queen games and I'm quite excited. Here are some differences from the original:

  • A double-sided board. In the words of Barbara Henn (Dirk's wife), one side is nicer and the other isn't so nice. I'm certain nice meant "less confrontational" in this context.
  • There are some new action cards that allowe players to directly influence the player order, which was a sometimes significant random element in Wallenstein.
  • The cube tower appears to have a better construction than the original, though I'll need to see it.

One interesting piece of information I got from Queen was that they are generally releasing three versions of every game: German with only German language box and instructions, International A aimed at the Americas with English, French, Spanish, and German, and International B aimed at central Europe with French, Italian, Dutch, and German.

Alhambra the Dice Game

Alhambra Dice Game

Given the wide range of games that are now branded in the Alhambra series we tried to convince Queen that "Alhambra the Numeric Domino Tile Laying Game" would be a good idea - not sure they bought it. The new dice game is one I also picked up in the trade it looks like a nice dice rolling game that blends some of the Yahtzee mechanics with scoring based on the building styles/colors in the original Alhambra game.

Yspahan

Yspahan

I still feel that I don't know much about this game other than it is much lighter and shorter than its predecessors from Ystari (Caylus, Ys). Jim Ginn quite liked it and I think he bought a copy.

Die Saulen von Venedig

Die Saulen von Venedig

AKA the "other Saulen" game, I never got a chance to sit down and play or watch this new Gold Sieber release. The board makes it look fairly light but I could be wrong. Very attractive box and bits though.

The Thief of Bagdad

Der Dieb von Bagdad

The final new Queen release, this is a multi-player game where players play both the thieves trying to steal from Sultans (?) and the guards trying to prevent the thieves from stealing. Clearly all sorts of room for bribery and corruption and I'm glad I picked up a copy - looks to be fun.

Die Siedler von Catan: Kampf um Rom

Kampf um Rom

This is another Settlers game with a fixed board that appears to introduce a few new mechanics. Mayfair will have the English version in very early 2007.

TurfMaster

TurfMaster

My single most expensive acquisition over the weekend at 69 euro, this was an easy decision to buy after checking the 'geek and playing a game at their booth. The component quality is amazing - painted horses, plastic deck boxes, and a very attractive double-sided board. It also supports 2-8 players.

The game play is very tactical with just enough luck involved to keep things interesting. Each player starts with a shuffled 32-card deck with numbers up to 12 (I'm not sure of the distribution). A game is played over three races, with each player drawing 10 cards for each race. Because the decks are identical, luck of the draw should even out over the three races. The race is run by alternating moves where players play a card from their hand to move the indicated number of spaces followed by a move where one player rolls 2D6 to determine how all of the horses will move. The player who rolls gets to decide how the dice are used: he can use both dice or just one of the two. This responsibility rotates clockwise so a new player gets to choose each time.

The game really shines with the handicapping system whereby horses in the first three positions are limited in their maximum movement. This means that a hand of all high cards can be a hinderance, because when you play a card that is over your handicap limit you move zero spaces instead of the indicated number. This can be devastating towards the end of the race so hand management and planning is critical. Further, if the player rolling the dice chooses a combined die roll that is over the handicap limit, the handicapped horse only gets to move with one of the two dice.

There are also very interesting rules about lane changes and spacing that I won't get into, but the game is easy to learn and I expect it to be a lot of fun.

Imperial

Imperial

I thought this was going to be an automatic purchase for me but I decided to wait and see. This is the next game from Eggertspiele that uses the same rondel mechanic for action selection, but I've heard that that is where the similarities with Antike end. Interesting note: Matthias Catrein, our artist for Incan Gold, is also the artist for Imperial.

BattleLore

BattleLore

The game wasn't for sale but there were several demo copies at the Days of Wonder booth that saw heavy use. It looks as nice as you would expect it to look and I'm sure it will be a great hit.

On the Underground

On the Underground

Another game I would have liked to have tried, but when Erik, Jim, and KC decided to play early in the week it was just too late for me to learn a new game and still be fresh enough for the morning. Matthias also did the art and graphical design for this game. The obvious comparisons were to Ticket to Ride, but there's enough different about the game to make it interesting. Jeez, the map of the London Underground is enough to keep me interested! I was also very impressed with the compact box for this game - this is a big board with nice bits all packed in a very small box.

Hamelyn

Hamelyn

Didn't pre-order it, couldn't buy it, didn't play it.

Green Town

Green Town

This Bambus Spiel release had a lot of promise when I watched Rick Soued, his son Alex, and Ned Medinger from Funagain play it. The game involves tile laying, structure building, and traveling along increasingly lengthier routes in the town based on an objective card each player holds.

The problem is this - the game has a bad arc as it gets increasingly more difficult to plan moves as the game goes on, increasing downtime and analysis required for each player. It just dragged on towards the end and didn't have a satisfactory resolution. There's something good inside this game but I think it needed some more development.

Fowl Play

Fowl Play

The new Richard Breese design had favorable comments but I didn't manage to learn much about the game.

Die Baumeister von Arkadia

Arkadia

One of my top 2 games in Essen, I already wrote a more detailed description of the game earlier in the week.

Arkadia Closeup

Salamanca

Salamanca

The driest of the bunch I played in Essen, I also wrote about this game earlier in the week.

Die Saulen die Erde (Pillers of the Earth)

Die Saulen der Erde Cover

While I didn't see a full play of this game, I did watch Jim Ginn play for a turn and finished his game while he had to return to the booth to meet up with Ben. This game does have quite a bit of German text on cards, but they are always open so it is easy to discuss translations and recognition will be easy based on pictures and key words.

Saulen der Erde

The basic mechanics of the game work like this (I just might get some of this wrong so be kind):

  • Players allocate workers to a number of different resource areas (sand, wood, and stone) based on 7 of 9 different cards that are turned up each turn. A player chooses a card then allocates the proper number of workers to that area and will harvest those resources later in the turn. Extra workers can be used to earn gold.
  • Each player has three action tokens that get dropped in an opaque bag. A player pulls out a token at a time - the player owning the first token drawn gets the choice of going first if and only if he is willing to pay 7 gold. If he decides not to, his token goes on the seven marker on a semi-circle at the bottom portion of the board. The next player token is drawn and and offer to go is made at 6 gold, and so on, until it gets to zero gold. At this point, the player order is just in the order drawn. This is a creative way to randomize selection order while still making players pay for the right.
  • When a player opts to place an action token, he places it in one of several regions on the board that will grant some benefit (a special card, protection from taxes, etc.). These regions are then walked through in order where players take those actions.
  • It seems like the main way players earn victory points is by getting work cards that transform different resources into VPs.

There are certainly some details and subtleties that I left out, but that's the basic idea. Yes there are some similarities to Caylus but this is different enough to warrant a try if you like that sort of game. There should be a Mayfair release of this Kosmos title in early 2007.

Made the Frankfurt-Portland Flight

Barely... Again. Last year it was the crazy drive from Essen to Franfurt with five of us in a small car with bags stacked to our noses. This year it was a delayed flight into Frankfurt followed by the usual passport control and secondary screening. In the end we are all on board and safely on our way. One interesting catch was that we were only allowed a single carry-on for the first leg, forcing Carey and Linda to check two extra bags. Marty has settled right in and is explaining our purpose for being here and giving all sorts of details to a very attentive German woman sitting next to him.

At the Dusseldorf Airport

Bags checked in fine - no weight issues but all three bags I checked were about 24 kilos each. I guess I fit within the 1-2 kilo grace range. We had some good trades at the end of the day for some of our remaining stock. Picked up Frey's Folly, the Ned Kelley game, Big Kini, Crazy Diamond and Caraten (I might have the name wrong) and Guru.