Through the Designer’s Notes, Part 3

To be honest, when I started this blog, I had no idea it will be this long. It was meant mostly as some intro text to the designer notes for expansion cards we are adding to the game web. But when I was digging through that old history, nostalgia surfaced, and the text is now living its own life. Let’s see where it takes us today 🙂

Through the Graenaland to America

Since the previous millennium, Czech players are visiting Essen “Spiel” show – to hunt for new games, to compete in Europe Masters tournament, and generally to celebrate their love for games. But in 2006, it was different. There was a Czech booth in Essen! And one of the games on that booth was the first print of Through the Ages. Just a few hundreds of copies, not that nice art or production value, but done with love and hope.

Well, it was a small booth, in a small hall, and those usually do not attract much attention. But Czech Board Games was an exception, that small booth was crowded since day 1. Because of Through the Ages? Nope. Because of another game called Graenaland.

It was another of my games, and we managed to finish it soon enough to send a few copies to reviewers. And lucky for us, Rick Thornquist, sure one of the most influential reviewers of that time, really liked it. He liked it so much he put it as #1 on his list of expected Essen games. That of course dragged attention to that little booth of unknown Czechs. Curious people came to see Graenaland – and they discovered also Through the Ages. Thank you, good old Greanaland 🙂

One of these people was Jeff DeBoer of Funagain games. He bought a copy of Through the Ages, and they played it back at the hotel that night. And the next day, he was back, with a publishing proposal. Whoa, my first business meeting with an American publisher!

When working in videogames, I had few formal meetings with suits from game acquisition departments, so I was curious how it is in the board game industry. And I must say I loved it from the first moment. Jeff and I were just sitting on stairs in the Essen hallway, next to an overflowing trash bin, friendly talking about my game. And this meeting then led to the US edition of Through the Ages.

Back to the Czechs (and Poles, and a Frenchman)

While that US edition was being prepared, in the Czech Republic, the first amateur print run of Though the Ages started something. Something that was going to hugely impact my life and lives of people around me, and indirectly also many players around the world. Czech Games Edition was born. During the hundreds of hours of work on the first edition of TtA, my friends and I realized this is something we want to do for a living. And thus, since 2007, CGE is visiting Essen show with new games every year (damn you, stupid virus, for breaking that nice tradition).

Well, this blog is about Through the Ages, and it was produced in China and published by a US company at that time. Yet, something important for the future of the game was just happening here in the heart of Europe.

Some smaller publishers were interested to have their own language versions, and since these were usually just small print runs, I agreed with the US publisher they will be handled by Czech Games Edition. One of our first partners was a Polish publisher, and they wanted to add something extra to the game, something that would convince Polish players they want their edition (such a heavy game was not for everyone, and many of those who might enjoy it already had English version).

So, they asked us to add a few extra cards with famous Polish historical figures and landmarks. Wow, that’s a great idea, said the Czech publisher. And then the Spanish one. They all came with ideas for their own national bonus cards, and we balanced and tweaked them a bit, and then included them to their language versions.

And here comes the Frenchman I promised in the caption– Nicolas d’Halluin, author of, the first site where you could play Though the Ages comfortably online. Besides all that great work on the online version, he also implemented those extra national cards. And he and the community around his server even came with some more extra cards just for his online site.

Why was it so important? I always knew Through the Ages would benefit from a bigger selection of wonders and leaders, but I never decided to go for it – I was aware it will require a tremendous amount of work to balance the game again, with all the new cards. However, after playing few games with a random mix of leaders and wonders on boardgaming-online, I also realized how much it actually adds to the game, and I decided it is definitely worth the effort, even if I spend a year with it. It was actually more years in the end, but yes, I still think it was worth it 🙂

— to be continued —

Through the Designer’s Notes, Part 2

In my last post, I was writing about how the leaders sneaked to Through the Ages from an older prototype of mine. You probably wonder also about the wonders. But before diving into it, I owe you one more explanation.

Who Leads the Nation

Even if you accept that kind of random approach to leader selection I described earlier, you may still wonder – why the heck I thought Aristotle, James Cook, or Sid Meier are leaders of a nation? Well, I haven’t. In my Czech prototype, they were called “osobnosti”, which means “personalities” or “great persons”. Their texts were not meant as effects of their leadership, it was rather the influence and legacy of those persons that affected the entire nation for centuries. The nation had only one leader, kind of timeless and transcendent – you.

When Jason, our translator, translated them as “leaders”, I was not happy with that. He argued that calling them “leaders” is much simpler and easier to grasp than “great persons”, and people get used to it. I was not sure, but I reluctantly agreed. As a memento, we still call them “osobnosti” in all Czech versions of the game.

When writing rules for the new version, I stumbled upon it, again. I tried to make it clear how it was meant (in the section about Leaders, there is written: “A leader is a great historical figure whom you choose to be the spiritual guide of your civilization. The leader’s legacy gives you special abilities and benefits.“)

But well, artificial reasoning does not work much. They are called leaders, so they are considered leaders. We are even displaying the current leader as the player avatar in the digital version of the game (and you usually remember your opponents by them), and when playing the game, players seem to accept the fact a nation can be led by Shakespeare. At least I sure got used to that – Jason was correct 🙂

And Those Wonders

As you might guess, that old game had wonders, too, as while having great persons is optional in a civilization-themed game, wonders are simply a must :). Although many wonders were shared between that game and Through the Ages, the changes of the selection were much bigger in this case. I might say it was because they worked very differently – they were only of three ages, they were dependent on certain techs, they were picked and constructed by different ways, they belonged to a certain territory, etc. – but well, the fact I had just a googled background image and not a hand-drawn a picture for each one of the original wonders sure made the decision to change them easier 🙂

Some remained for obvious reasons – how can you make a list of wonders without Pyramids or the Great Wall. But there were also some less typical that were amongst the original selection.

One of those I was proud of back then was Internet. You might say – why, Internet is a typical wonder included in most of Civilization games. But at the time when I was creating that game, Civilization III, where Internet first appeared, was not published yet. And I said to myself – hey, is there anything that changed humankind more in the last century than this instant access to information and the affordable way how to produce content for others? Sid Meier should include internet as a wonder into his games. I will sure do it 🙂

Well, today, when I see what Internet and social media do to people, I am not that thrilled, but still, Internet affects the world more than anything else. It does not have to be only positive. Which brings me to Fast Food Chains, another wonder that came from the first game. That odd “wonder” might cause some people to question my values :). But no, I am not a regular Mc-Taco-King-Whatever consumer. The idea was to show that the culture points mean how much you affect the world, and it does not have to be objectively positive. You can spread your culture by great artists, by your swords – or by hamburgers. So, I included Fast Foods also into Through the Ages, as a symbol of globalization, which sure affects the world a lot.

By the way, Age III wonders were more interesting in that old game, they had some strong and cool ongoing effects. But that just didn’t work well. You cannot balance effects if you do not know whether they will be in the game five rounds, or just one. Changing them just to “giving a crazy amount of culture when finished” was a good solution, I lost some of the thematic variability, but now, finishing an Age III wonder is the true climax of the game while considering “whether the wonder still pays off or not” wasn’t. In the expansion, I toyed with it a bit more, all the wonders are more interactive, but I was still keeping in mind their main effect should be lots of culture (in case of Manhattan Project, it may be culture gained by a war 🙂

Ah, I just went through those old cards and found something I already forgot. Statue of Liberty was a wonder in that old game, too (in Through the Ages, it was added in the expansion). However, its original effect was different – you had to build it on a territory of another player, you both produced some culture, but you both suffered huge culture penalty if attacking each other. Sounds familiar? Yeah, this wonder was the first pact in the game.

part 3

Through the Designer’s Notes, Part 1

If you have been playing Through the Ages for a while, I suppose you got used to that mix of leaders and wonders in the game. But there was probably a moment when some of you asked yourself – how the designer picked those wonders. And especially – why just those people as leaders? Such an experienced designer sure had very good reasons, right? Or, are we missing something here?

This text might help you to understand what’s behind that 🙂

Before The Ages

What is important to realize – Through the Ages was not created by an experienced designer. And it was actually not even created “for publishing”. Back then, I was designing various board games without any plan, just because I loved to, and then, I was playing them with my friends. I was actually quite surprised when a friend of mine who happened to be a hobby games publisher said about one of them (Arena): “This is good, I would publish it”.

One of these old games was an epic Civilization-themed game. No, it was not Through the Ages and the mechanics were different – there were big territory cards (with tiny cattle, wheat, iron or coal icons), players were competing for them and put little people tokens on that icons, there were wooden houses (for labs, temples or libraries) etc. But there was also some familiar stuff – four Ages, four types of units, science points to unlock new techs, cultural points that served as victory points, events that messed with the game, and more. And especially, there was a set of 24 great persons, six per age. When an age ended, you picked one of them secretly and used them later for a strong one-time effect.

When creating that game, I just picked random historical figures that came to my mind. You know, I didn’t even know whether the game will work. But I toyed with everything back then and wanted my prototypes to look nice. And since it was impossible to find pictures of all those persons in a similar style, I have just personally drawn a picture for each one.

Well, it was so many years ago I think I didn’t even have my own camera back then, so I have no pictures of that game. But I was digging deep in my old prototype boxes, found the cards and took a picture for you – as you can see, I am not kidding, you probably recognize most of those people… Sorry for the texts, this prototype never existed in other than the Czech language. But at least, you can realize how old these cards are – they come from the era when using Comic Sans was not listed amongst mortal sins! 🙂

Anyway, the game worked quite well, my friends loved it, but I was a bit unhappy with one or two parts of it. Several years later, I returned to it with fresh ideas – but instead of just replacing the problematic parts, I have built a completely new game around those new ideas. The one you know as Through the Ages now.

The True Ages

Well, the truth is, neither that new game was created with publishing in my mind. I was just not thinking that way, I had my job I loved (doing videogames) and creating board games was just a very passionate hobby, that only rarely ended with a publishing agreement for the local market.

So when I was looking for some great historical figures to test those new ideas on, I didn’t hesitate – I already had a set of 24 hand-drawn portraits :).

Well, I used only 23. One of the original ones was created specially for a particular mechanic of the first game (freeing the slaves), thus I had to pick another one. So, this is also a story of why Johann Sebastian Bach was the only leader without a portrait in the early prototypes of Through the Ages 🙂

Thus that random pick from many-many-years-ago made it also to another game many-years-ago. I wrote some mechanics for these personalities, my friends and I started to playtest with them… and when we started to love the game to the point when we were considering publishing it, we already got so used to them (and had their abilities relatively well balanced), so no-one questioned the selection.

It would be sure different today – someone would probably notice shameful lack of female leaders and strong dominance of western culture amongst the selection, but well, political correctness was not a thing here in Czech back then, and we were producing and publishing our first BIG game, so we had lots of other issues to solve. And also – for us, games were always first and foremost about gameplay.

So, be sure there were no hidden intentions behind the selection of the leaders for the game. There was just a young geek who sat down to his computer one evening around the end of the millennium, trying to recall 24 historical figures he remembered from the history lessons he had at school, to spice up a civilization-like game he was creating for his friends.

part 2

Hope you enjoyed this piece of old memories. Next time, I will tell you a bit more about the intentions behind leaders and wonders in the game. Meanwhile, you may read some interesting stuff about selected leaders and wonders from the expansion here.