Designers: Rustan Håkansson, Nina Håkansson, Einar Rosén, Robert Rosén
Ages: 14 and up
Time: ~40 min / player
Review by Nathan Beeler
According to the designers’ journal, Nations began life, at least in part, as a reaction to the Vlaada Chvatil epic, Through the Ages. So obvious are the connections that surely every review you read on the game will draw some kind of comparison between the two. While I generally try to make an effort to go down the reviewing road less travelled by, I am not above taking the obvious route when warranted. With Nations, the well trodden path simply cannot be ignored. So pull on your hiking boots; we’re going for a walk through the world of nation building.
Nations has been described as a Through the Ages killer by some, or at least as another card based civilization game but with the direct aggression removed. Indeed, the latter is how the game first was first raised in my consciousness during the pre-Essen glut, and it was this highly appealing concept that made me seek it out at the recent orgy of newness that is the Sasquatch game convention. Having played Nations a few times now, I think I have a pretty good idea of how well it delivers on the promise of “Through the Ages fixed”, as well as how it stands on its own merit.
First, let me state that I love Through the Ages. I’ve played dozens upon dozens of times, mostly online, often playing multiple games concurrently. It’s probable that I’ve played it more than any other meaty board game except chess. I love it and find it highly addictive, but for me it falls far short of perfection just because of one aspect of the game that rubs me the wrong way. What keeps it from being absolute gaming nirvana is the targeted attacking of wars and aggressions, a mechanism I can’t stand in Chvatil’s classic or any other multi-player board game. And I’m not alone. Even if players don’t mind directed aggression, many dislike the way military is handled in the game for different reasons. Some think it’s too powerful, and that between wars, aggressions, colonies, and increased chances at end game scoring cards, you can’t ignore it and have much of a chance to win. Still others have complained that it introduces an unnecessary luck element by having the military cards get parcelled out instead of being drafted, as civil cards are. If you need a certain type of military card you just have to get lucky and hope to draw it. And if players agree that the military aspect sucks and they wish to ignore it, they are left with a card balance that is suddenly out of whack. Without aggression, there are a lot of leaders and military related political cards that do almost nothing but clog up the board and the player’s hands. The game was clearly balanced with attacking being an important component. So what to do about about a game that’s so frustratingly close to perfection but that seemingly can’t just be patched up?
Enter Nations. Like Through the Ages, it’s another card based civilization game where the cards are obtained from a sliding draft board. All the civ standards are in play, including building wonders, investing in military units, providing for increased population levels, researching technical advances, and electing leaders. Players act as stewards of various nations, working to balance their country’s needs and desires against the resources available to them: gold coins are the chief means of getting cards; stone is used to power technologies and build wonders; food generally keeps military units going and helps grow the population; books get you victory points and fill in the gaps when you’re short of other resources; and victory points themselves are what the whole enterprise is all about. While these fungible commodities are gained or lost during an end of round income phase, a country’s stability and military values are set to the calculable value immediately as they are gained or lost. These values are not spent, but are checked against the levels of other players at various points in the game.
All these commodities shift around as you take one of three possible actions on your turn: buy a card from the progress board, deploy a worker, or hire an architect. Buying progress cards is the main focus of the game, but the latter two actions are necessary to power buildings and militaries and to erect wonders. Players can continue to take an actions, one nation after another, until they pass out of a round. The action phase ends once all players have passed. A completed action phase, sandwiched between a maintenance phase and a resolution phase, constitutes one of the eight rounds played in the standard game. After the last round is completed players add any value of their workers to their colonies, wonders, resources, and any previously earned victory points. The nation with the most points shines like a beacon for all the world, and more importantly wins the game.
Yes, Nations does indeed scratch a lot of the same itches as Through the Ages. It takes a lot of careful timing, look ahead, and resource management to do more than tread water early in the game. As progress cards improve players can convert small early advantages into larger ones later, but only through continued diligence and a little luck. Deciding what to do with an action is still often delicious agony. Happily, the game is also a whole lot less fiddly than its predecessor. In one game I taught, the mechanisms of Nations were immediately understood by a player that had previously had struggled to learn Through the Ages under my tutelage. This relative simplicity does appear to come at the cost of some in-game depth of experience. Only time will tell how sorely that is missed.
But what about the military? The reason for the hoopla around Nations for me was not to find a game to simply approach the majesty of the best parts of Through the Ages, but to improve on the experience as a whole by fixing the game’s one huge flaw. Does it succeed? In this regard, I can safely say it is a total winner. The military experience in Nations is exactly what I would want it to be. There are no targeted attacks, and even war is an equal opportunity evil that happens at most once per round. War cards are progress cards, just like any other. The first person to give up an action and the necessary gold coins based on where the card falls on the draft board gets to set the level of the war’s attack strength based on that nation’s current military value. All nations whose military value is below that set value at the end of the round, possibly including the instigator, will suffer the sometimes steep resource losses that come with defeat. No one player is selected for pain, and there is no possibility to be hit multiple times in a round by multiple players. This is a good start.There are some interesting and more subtle implications to this mechanism, however. Having a high military value also means you get to go earlier in the turn order, and thus you would have the first crack at starting a war. But doing so means you give up any other advantages of going first, like hiring one of the scarce architects to work on a wonder, or getting the best or cheapest of the progress cards. Starting a war early means the other players will have the entire round to build up an army to keep them safe, should they desire. Or they can ignore it and plan to absorb the penalties. Or they can do a third option and build up their stability. The more stability a nation has, the fewer resources it loses to a military setback. And while stability is hard to come by, especially early in the game, the penalties in early round wars are smaller, so it is a viable alternative. Finally, if a stronger nation takes a pass on war with its first action, a weaker nation can start one and set the war’s strength at its lowly level, effectively ending the threat for the round. However, if starting a war is painful for the mighty, it is doubly painful for the feeble. By giving up their first action, nations late in the turn order effectively have to wait until the end of the second turn before they can do anything positive for their country. But on the other side they didn’t have to build up military strength in previous rounds, which might be even better than early actions in the current round. And it can happen that no war cards will come out on the progress board, anyway, meaning the only downside to weakness is going later in the turn order. Well, that and possibly missing out on colonies, beneficial progress cards that require a minimum military value to obtain. But war-free rounds do happen.
All this means military strength is very useful in the game, but not of the utmost importance at all times. In fact, players can and will intentionally gain and lose military strength at different times in the game. Soldiers will be shifted to work the fields in times of need. Librarians will be handed swords. Military play is another fun cog in Nation’s machine, but it doesn’t grind against the pleasure of the game like it does in Through the Ages. There’s no spite in it. This is definitely a big advantage for me for the newer entry.
There are many aspects to Nation’s play that I have glossed over or neglected so far. One is the event card, which comes out at the beginning of the round but doesn’t trigger its effects until the end of the round, once players have had time to prepare for it. The event card also dictates the number of limited and often highly coveted architects will be available for the round. Another aspect is the growth phase, where players can add workers to their pool at a permanent food or stability cost, or they can take a typically much needed infusion of one type of resource. A nifty adjunct to the growth phase is the game’s built in handicapping system. Before the game starts, players can voluntarily set the number of resources they get in the growth phase to a lower number in order to make their game harder relative to their opponents. This is a great and natural feeling way to keep the proceedings appropriately competitive. I really like this mechanism and don’t remember seeing it in any other games, though I’m sure it’s out there.In the end, I do not believe Nations has killed Through the Ages. Aside from that being a somewhat silly notion generally, the games have more than enough differences to offer unique playing experiences at the end of the day. Through the Ages is a lot more complex and deep, and the threat of having your civilization implode is very real and tense. There’s a lot more to track, and it’s a lot harder to calculate ahead enough to prepare for the next round. Nations is quite a lot friendlier, and if you mess up badly you will probably lose some points, maybe even the game, but your engine won’t completely die in the process. And while Nations gets its replayability primarily from seeing only a subset of the progress cards available each game or from trying one of the few slightly asymmetric starting nations, the absolute joy of constant puzzle solving that Through the Ages presents, the reason I have gone back down that path again and again, appears in early plays to be absent from the new entry. The games do indeed scratch the same itch but they do so in different ways, like the way a pit bull or a chihuahua might both fetch a ball for you, but no one would sanely accuse them of being the same creature. So what I’m left with is another very fun game that seems to fall short of perfection. That’s still better than most games, and is more than enough to warrant a spot in my collection.
Who will abstain from playing and who will carry Nations to the table?
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers:
Rick Thornquist: This is a hard game to rate for me. Taken on it’s own, I’d rate it higher. It is a well designed game that plays quite well. My only real criticism would be the possibility of downtime – possibly a lot of it – with more players. However, as part of the whole world of gaming, I have to dock it marks. It’s just too much of a Through the Ages clone. I do get somewhat irritated when a new game is just an old game with a few tweaks, and Nations strikes me as being just that. I know that kind of thing may bother me more than others, though. If it doesn’t bother you, and you’re looking for a Civilization card game, Nations is definitely one to check out.
N.B.:: Generally, I agree with you wholeheartedly, Rick. I give high marks to new games when they’re, you know, actually new. But in this case Nations just happens to be working from a game I’ve long thought needed exactly that change. If Vlaada were to release a “no aggression” version of TtA that was rebalanced, my need for a game like Nations would drop. Likely, I’d still enjoy Nations, as it has other things to offer, and it isn’t merely a tweak-job. But still, it wouldn’t have quite the pull it does for me now.
Jonathan Franklin: I have only played ¼ of a game, so caveat here. I appreciate that this is really a game where the players play each other. If you go up in something, someone else will react and pip you by one. Do you engage in that battle, or let it go and try something different? I have a touch of AP and this game brought it out worse than any other game of the past few years. When you add in the amazing array of cards, I froze. Part of my reaction to Nations is tempered by the fact that Patchistory is much closer to my ideal Civ game than Nations. Had they not both come out in the same year, I think I would have thought more favorably of Nations, but honestly, I would not want to play the game with me at the table. :)
Craig Massey (2 plays): Nate’s review is pretty much spot on for me and captures my thoughts nicely. I’m not sure I agree that Nations is just a tweak of Through the Ages though as Rick suggests. Given the choice which would I play? It depends on the players – both who and how many. I think Nations will be better with 3-4 (not sure if I want to try it with five at the moment). With two or three experienced players, I’ll probably opt for Through the Ages. I do agree that military is generally ignored in Through the Ages at your peril. First hand experiences in my second game of Nations showed that you can completely ignore military and do very well. This also tells me that you don’t have to play the players as Jonathan suggests. So at the moment I love it. The bigger questions are will it hold up over repeated plays. I think it will for three reasons. First, as Nate points out, you can scale the difficulty and potentially handicap the game. Second you only see a fraction of the cards available in any given game. Finally, the different starting civilizations provide some nice variability that should keep the starting moves from becoming too scripted. The games scratch the same itch, but in different enough ways that both will stay on my shelf.
Lorna: I like Nations quite a bit. For my style of play (not much interest in the military build up), it suits me much better than TtA. I like the building and advancing aspects of civ games but dread the military portions. In Nations you can choose to largely ignore the militia and still do well. If I choose to partake in the military build up it’s relatively painless and more indirect.
The randomization of the cards makes each game feel and play much differently.
So to summarize it’s a civ game I’d happily play with my civ loving buddies without fear of getting totally trashed.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it! – Nathan Beeler, Craig Massey
I like it – Tom Rosen, Jennifer Geske, Lorna ( I like it a lot!)
Neutral – Rick Thornquist, Jonathan Franklin
Not for me –