• Designer: Luigi Ferrini
  • Publisher: Stronghold Games, Quined Games, et al
  • Players: 2-4 (2-5 with expansion, Cults & Culture)
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 90-180 minutes
  • Times played: 10, with purchased copy

I missed The Golden Ages by Luigi Ferrini when it came out in 2014, among the thousands of games that came out that year. I stumbled across it in reviews of Sid Meier’s Civilization: New Dawn among players who said they preferred it. Ten plays later, I can see how it compares favorably.

In most civilization games, any hidden elements of the board are explored rather quickly (e.g., Clash of Cultures) or the board starts out as fully visible (the first and third board games based on Sid Meier’s Civilization series of video games). A standout feature of The Golden Ages is how it handles exploration. Like Nations, The Golden Ages span four ages. You must explore at the start of each of the four ages, and get one tile: a 3 spot L-shaped tile the first age, then a 2-spot tile in subsequent ages. This enforces a pacing throughout the game of gradually exploring the world, a pacing that seems much more thematic than other games’ approach to this.

One element that did initially put me off was that the map is actually the world map, randomized; you could put together the actual world as a puzzle. In fact, twice I picked up the game at my FLGS and put it back because of this. But the style of the map doesn’t affect gameplay and has grown on me.

After placing your tile at the start of each age, you decide where to place your capital (in ages 2 through 4, you can opt to leave it where it was the prior age). Like Vinci or History of the World rather than most other civ games, you will play multiple civilizations over the course of the game. Here too you can decide, 10 of the 25 civilizations only give you one-time bonuses (such as a free thematic tech, e.g., Writing for Phoenicia) but most give you lasting abilities (Rome lets you take a building without an action, and Roman players often stick with Rome for more than one age).

Each age will comprise 4 or more turns. Each turn you can choose from 8 available actions, 4 having to do with colonists (you have 3 colonist meeples each age) and 4 other actions. Meeple actions:

  1. Artist – Remove an upright colonist from the map and place in the Agora (a separate card) for 3 victory points.
  2. Builder – Remove an upright colonist from the map and place it in the Agora and select a Building from the marketplace (which contains 1 Building per player) and add it to your playing card.
  3. Explorer – You may move as many spaces as your technology allows (one at the beginning, two with Carriage, three with Rail, anywhere with Flight). If no opposing city is there, you may build a city (place a cube) and collect income (1 per cube placed to start, 1 per Game resource). Place your colonist flat.
  4. Soldier – You may move as many spaces as your technology track allows. If you end in a square with a competitor, you may pay to attack. The game limits military from dominating; you may attack only 4 times, paying an escalating cost each time: 3, 5, 8, and 12 gold. The outcome is certain (the attacker always wins) but the amount of VP to be gained is variable – you draw a Glory token which will range in value from 2 to 6 VP (kept hidden from other players). After the attack, place your colonist flat. (See the designer diary for more on this design.)

The colonists give the game a strong worker-placement vibe, though the innovation here is that workers are limited by their geographic position on the board. Moving to the Agora as an Artist or Builder becomes a way to return workers to the capital, so that you can move them from the capital in a future turn.

The other 4 actions are limited by money or cards rather than by workers (colonists):

  1. Buy a single technology, provided you have its prerequisites (to the left of it in its row on your player card). The final tech in each row gives you an immediate VP bonus. Many early techs provide you an extra cube (so that you can continue to found cities). At the end of the game, techs in the first column provide 0 VPs, the second column 1 VP, the third 2 VP, and the fourth 4 VP.
  2. Buy a Wonder and take its immediate effect, if any (marked with a lightning bolt). Wonders in and of themselves aren’t worth VPs, though two cards provide VPs per Wonder.
  3. Activate a building or Wonder for its effect, turning the card upside down. Buildings and Wonders provide discounts on tech or provide money or VP for certain conditions (e.g., Library provides a discount of 2 when buying a tech, and Granary provides 1 gold for each of your upright colonists). Effects can be used one an age; at the start of the next age, all will be turned face-side up.
  4. Declaring a Golden Age is the unique mechanic. Once you have played all three of your colonists, you can declare a Golden Age. You choose which of the remaining History’s Judgment cards will provide VP at the end of the era (five are randomly drawn at the start of the game), trying to choose one that benefits you disproportionately from your opponents. You flip your city wooden column upside down so that its 2-gold sticker is on top. If everyone else on their turn declares a Golden Age, the age ends; if anyone else takes a different action, then you will collect 2 gold pieces that turn. You will continue to collect this bonus until all players declare a Golden Age. At the end of the game, the last Age provides everyone a single turn before ending the game, much to other players’ frustration.

Unlike most traditional civ games, your economy is not powered by the resources controlled but by the resources you grab each turn (think of the need to attack each turn in Risk in order to gain a card): controlled resources are instead eligible for VPs. This motivates you to constantly expand. Resources include game (animals), wheat, rock (minerals), and gems. For instance, you start the game with the technology Hunting, which lets you take 1 Gold every time you take control of a region with game. Metallurgy will provide 1 Gold per rock, Engineering obsoletes Metallurgy and provides 3 Gold per rock, and Computer Science provides 2 VP per rock you control when you discover it (silicon, I assume). Agriculture, Medicine, and Genetics provide corresponding abilities for wheat. Gems are a bit different: first, in a nice bit of design, there are no gems on the map to start the game; the second-level tech Currency provides 2 Gold per gem controlled, Economy 4 Gold, and Rocketry (on a different tech tree) 3 VP for gem. Gems become something to fight over (though one player found it unthematic that gems aren’t worth anything without a tech).

I typically prefer civ games where military comes in at the end, as the map tightens; here, there are good early cases for military, due to civ and Wonder powers. In one game, I lost by a huge amount after misjudging the military option: with each subsequent attack costing more, I didn’t have the finances to carry my plan through to completion. The movement/military tech branch doesn’t affect battle outcomes, which seems very unthematic; in another game, where I had concentrated on wonders, I defeated two neighbors with flight while I hadn’t invented the wagon yet (guerrilla warriors, I suppose).

The randomness of the History’s Judgment cards and your 4 Civilization cards and your Future Technology card provides high variability from game to game while giving you an ability to strategize. As one of my sons observed, these cards really force you to play differently from game to game. The game has an expansion pack, Cults & Culture, and a promo pack of additional Wonders is available. So far I’ve only used the expansion to play 5, adding no new rules; it may provide more replayability for games with two players.

The Golden Age action in itself is a fascinating mechanic. For one, it keeps the game from getting bogged down; while you will have expanded your civilization’s range of possible actions (through Buildings and Wonders and amassing gold), you typically won’t want to use all of those actions. One play was won by a player who always declared the Golden Age first, carefully choosing History’s Judgement. In one of my plays, I choose to launch attack after attack after the Golden Age was declared; everyone else pulled in 2 gold pieces per turn, but I amassed Glory so that I could buy the Porcelain Tower wonder. (I won that game, but I’ve lost the last 5 times!)

So how does The Golden Ages compare to Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn? My youngest son (12 years old) loves New Dawn and vastly prefers it, because it is highly evocative of Civ 6, his favorite video game at the moment. My eldest son (25 years old, for whom I got New Dawn as a Christmas present) likes the replayability of The Golden Ages. Because the Golden Ages uses VPs, there seems to be more varied ways of winning, where New Dawn is a race to achieve 3 out of 6 objectives. New Dawn is a game of optimization around its focus row. The Golden Ages is a game of constraints and careful management.

I’ve played 5 times with 2 players, once with three, and twice with four and five players. The BGG community says the sweet spot is 3-4 players, which seems right to me. With 5 players, the game still played in under 3 hours (after rules explanation). Even better, in one 5-player game, the first and second-placed players both took completely different strategies: the winner stayed as Rome the whole game and built lots of buildings; the runner up built no buildings but set the pace for each turn and declared every Golden Age but the last. (I came in third.)

For the full rules, see BGG.

As a Luddite who still prefers Vinci to Small World, and who would always suggest Vinci to someone who suggested we play Risk, I find The Golden Ages to be much more thematic than Vinci and with much less downtime. Since it minimizes combat (to no more than 4 attacks per player), The Golden Ages may displace Vinci altogether for me. It’s hard to do a civ-lite well; the inherent contradiction in the form is that the first Civilization board game (Avalon Hill) and the Civilization video games are epic affairs, and light board games are un-epic. The Golden Ages squares this contradiction far better than most civ lites.

This game is for you if:

  • You enjoy civilization games.
  • You prefer VP-driven games to 4X games.
  • You don’t mind some military combat, but don’t want to play a wargame.

This game is not for you if:

  • You dislike games with military conflict. It’s meaner than 7 Wonders, as you lose regions you settled and resources you controlled, while never devolving into a straight-out wargame like History of the World or Vinci. (Though one person in my game group who typically avoids more conflict-oriented games didn’t find the military overpowering, even after my sneak attack on her.)
  • You need more chrome than wooden cubes and cylinders. (Try Clash of Cultures!)
  • You need strong theme. One of our players initially derided it as too abstract, before warming to it. Some on BGG find the art off-putting and say that the lack of English on the cards takes them out of the theme. (Try Kevin Wilson’s version of Sid Meier’s Civilization.)