The Daily Worker Placement

Monday, December 11, 2017

THROUGH THE AGES: The App

by | published Monday, September 25, 2017

Once again, I will date myself by saying that I bought my first colour monitor in 1991 just so I could play the original Civilization computer game. I still have it, in all it’s 5 ¼” floppy glory. It took up two whole discs! Massive! And boy, did I get a massive amount of play out of it. 

I’ve been a Civ fan ever since–up to and including the current incarnation, Civilization 6. (IMHO, I think Civ 5 is the better game, once you get all the DLC.) Since then I have had a hard time saying “no” to purchasing a 4X Civ-building game, whether onscreen or on the tabletop. And I am still waiting for the perfect Civ boardgame experience (that will have to wait for another article). 

Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, by Vlaada Chvaatil, was released in 2006 and of course I ran down to my FLGS to buy it as soon as it was out. But frankly, I was underwhelmed. It had no map, no tech tree, it took too long, and it was an analysis paralysis black hole. Plus the pieces were fiddly, oh were they fiddly. Whoever decided to make the most common bits in the game little cylinders that rolled everywhere at the slightest breath…well, after a while I just stopped bringing it to table.  

But my lack of enthusiasm was definitely in the minority. TtA has proved so popular that it was updated to a second edition in 2015. Both versions sit in the BGG top 20, with the new version at #2, second only to Pandemic Legacy Season 1. Furthermore, publishers CGE announced back in August 2015 at GenCon that a digital version would “soon” be released. 

Turns out that “soon” means “approximately two years” in Czech, because it was only last week that the app finally dropped for iOS and Android. I must admit that as the release date grew near I grew curious to see how good the port to tablets would be, and whether it would change my opinion of the game. 

The answers are “excellent” and “it did–a lot”. In this case, luckily, the long delay did actually mean that CGE took the time to perfect the GUI and make sure the app ran smoothly. It even runs well on my iPhone, though my ancient eyes struggle to make out the print on the cards. But on my iPad Pro it looks and runs like a dream. You can play locally against AI’s at three different levels, and believe me when I say that even at Medium level the challenge is considerable. Or you can pass-and-play, or create and play games online (though I haven’t tested that functionality out yet). 

Above and beyond regular games there are a bunch of “Challenges” you can play–not quite the campaign mode of the Galaxy Trucker app, more like individual separate scenarios you have to try to beat under different conditions. For example, in one you’re only allowed to have one leader through the whole game. In another, everything is 30% cheaper to build but your opponents are tougher. In another, there are twice as many yellow Action cards so the game is considerable longer. And so on. Each challenge comes in two or three difficulty levels, so the amount of variety is considerable if you tire of “vanilla” TtA. 

One thing the app does right is the tutorial. Not only does it run through all the important game mechanics and how to use the GUI, but it is hands-down the funniest tutorial I have ever played, except maybe the intro to Portal 2. (If CGE had got Stephen Merchant to play Vlad, it would be a dead heat.) 

This app finally makes TtA come alive for me. No analysis paralysis, so games are short. I can finally begin to get a sense of the arc of a full game and the evolving strategies needed to win. I am learning the deck compositions, which is key because like many games this one requires you to know when all the Government techs for one era are gone, or which Events have not yet occurred, and thus give you time to prepare for them. The CPU takes care of all the bookkeeping, so all I need to do to get a comparison of how everyone is doing is bring up a summary display (something not explained in the Tutorial, btw, a rare omission). 

There are only two faults I can mention. One is that the game takes about ten seconds to load–not a long time, but there’s no loading screen. It just sits there, either blank or however you left it. When I first fired it up I was afraid I’d spent $13.99 on a dud. Add a loading screen, CGE! 

The second is that it would be nice to be able to tap on a resource icon and get a pop-up with a calculation of that resource’s amount or differential. For instance, I could tap on my Strength icon and see exactly how the total was calculated, or tap on Food to see how much produced, then consumed, traded away, etc etc. A minor point. 

Quibbles aside, I think the app is great and it’s changed how I think and feel about the game. I no longer mind as much about the lack of dudes on a map, or the conveyor-belt nature of the card draft. I can concentrate on the big picture. I can try multiple strategies and play three games in an hour, at least. I’m not sure I’d necessarily play the game ftf again, unless I knew my opponents played quickly–but at least now I see the quality of the game, which I didn’t see before. 

A similar thing happened when I played the digital version of Uwe Rosenberg’s Le Havre. Again, this was a game with a fair amount of bookkeeping and a dozen different kind of chits for resources, so very fiddly. But the app cleared that all away, so I could concentrate on the game, and I played it a ton when it first came out, though I only ever played it once on the tabletop. 

All this brings up the question of whether games like Through the Ages or Le Havre are better in their digital than their analog versions. Is it possible that, in design terms, they are more successful as apps than tabletop games? What do you think? 


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