I figured the last thing I needed in my game collection was another massive multi-player game. I finally got rid of ADG’s flawed masterpiece Empires in Arms, I disliked The Napoleonic Wars, hated History of the World, despised Age of Renaissance … 7 Ages wasn’t anywhere near to my buy list. But Milton got it, and I’m always game for these things. Once anyway.
The first exposure to 7 Ages is the rules, and they are a terrible mess. This is actually a fairly straightforward game, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the rules. The presentation order and lack of any overview makes them almost incoherent the first time through. The second time through isn’t so bad, though, and you start to get a handle on it. While not complicated, it’s still very fiddly. There is a lengthy sequence of play, lots of little non-interacting game systems, and the combat system is not what you’d call quick-playing and clean generally. Additionally, the rules are almost worthless as a reference.
The next whammy is then the lack of any reasonable player aids. There are tons of little details to remember, like unit costs, what you can do in the Civilization phase, what monuments do, leader functions, and so on, and there are basically no references included in the game. For those of you who sense that pitching this game to friends might be some work, get some player aids. If players have any doubts about 7 Ages, this omission might well kill it off.
And don’t even get me started on the layout of the counters. The units are fine, but the status counters are a nightmare because they are back-printed on the leaders, which makes them impossible to sort and access because you are always sifting through the leaders when new Empires come on-line.
Once you wade past these not-inconsiderable difficulties, what do you get? Basically, a much more involved History of the World. However, instead of History of the World’s static empires which burst on the scene and then are frozen in time, in 7 Ages, empires can continue to grow and flourish, so my Egyptians were still a major world power well into the 3rd Age. You can have a number of empires active at any one time, and each turn you allocate action chits to each, indicating whether they will expand, tax, trade, civilize, and such each turn. Each empire can do only one, and each action can be done by only one empire, with a few minor exceptions. This buys some interesting choices, but this is still a game with a simulation value little beyond History of the World.
The game is driven overall by a deck of 110 cards. Each card has three functions – either an empire which can be started in its historical time period; a take-that style event; or a monument, government type, religion, technology, or disaster than can be built/started/adopted/invented/inflicted. This deck is both the great strength and great weakness of the game. On the one hand, every empire you’ve ever heard of is in there, along with many you haven’t and just a few totally generic ones. Each empire generally has a well thought-out flavor and its own clear, simple ways to get victory points, which give the game a nice feel.
The weakness is that the deck appears, on playing through once, to make Age of Renaissance’s event deck look like a paragon of game balance. The empires are ridiculously variable in strength and potential, with the players who get the good ones being at a major advantage with no balancing costs. Perhaps even more importantly, each empire is playable in only a small selection of Ages, so players who simply draw a lot of playable empires are going to be a lot better off – you can have a number of empires in play depending on the number of players, but only if you draw them. In longer games, this will tend to balance as you can justify holding an empire that starts in a later age for a longer period of time, but if you play only a few ages (a 6-hour or so endeavor in and of itself), drawing well is a paramount skill. And unfortunately the attention to detail that went into the Empire portion of the card apparently exhausted the designer’s creativity, because the events on the bottom of the cards tend to be somewhat laughable (like a “wrinkle in time”, which allows a double move).
There are quite a few very powerful events in the deck. Some combinations can completely erase an empire in a single blow. Some events are borderline worthless. This gives the game a very uneven, random, take-that, whack the leader feel which I’m not sure is entirely appropriate for a game of this length and with this level of investment.
At this point you’re probably waiting for the bottom line where I pronounce this game DOA. But despite its many and possibly quite serious flaws, I still kinda liked 7 Ages. It does have nice historical flavor. The empires are well-done. Despite the tremendous randomness, most of the time you feel you’re in control and are making meaningful choices to progress your empires (there are some exceptions, with the game occasionally devolving into sheer frustration). And it really isn’t that complicated. I think 7 Ages basically works on the level of a fun ambiance game, one where you run the empires and do the best you can, but realize that the end is going to be essentially a) random and b) decided by who gets picked on the least.
The bottom line is that I’ll play 7 Ages again, as long as some decent player-aids can be found or produced. As long as the game moves along, I think it’ll be fun for long enough to justify itself. But play it with your friends. With all the gratuitously violent card-play going around, it’s not a game to play with strangers. Especially given the length.