Nations

Design by Einar & Robert Rosén, Nina & Rustan Hakansson
Published by Lautapelit.fi
1 – 5 Players, 3 – 4 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser

Nations

Memories of my boardgaming past will occasionally surface, influencing my tastes and inclinations in the present.  For years my favorite boardgame was the classic Francis Tresham / Mick Uhl design Civilization.  Actually, I preferred the Advanced Civilization version, but was thrilled to play either.  I spent many, many hours—each game would take 10 – 12 hours to complete—attempting to advance my civilization, survive natural disasters and enemy incursions, and achieve dominance over all other nations.  The game absolutely thrilled me, but its excessive length prevented it from hitting the table more than once a year, at most.

Unfortunately, it has probably been 12 or more years since I’ve last played it.  A lot of years have passed and my tastes in games have changed considerably.  I am not sure I still have a tolerance for such lengthy games, and am not sure I would still be so enamored by the game.  Still, I still possess a fondness for Civilization-style games, but have yet to find one that surpasses, let along meets the wonderful memories I harbor of the Tresham / Uhl classic.  Still, my interest is piqued whenever a new one is released, and I am compelled to investigate.  While some of these games have been good, most have fallen woefully short of generating the excitement I experienced with Civilization.

The closest was Vlaada Chvatil’s Through the Ages, a terrific game that won the International Gamers Award.  It, too, was long, but at four hours or so, only a fraction of the time required to play Civilization.  The scuttlebutt is that gamers Einar and Robert Rosén and Nina and Rustan Hakansson were captivated by Through the Ages, but wanted to streamline it so it would play faster.  If this was, indeed, their goal, they have succeeded, but only slightly.  Nations is still on the far side of the time / length scale, with most of our games clocking-in at 3 – 4 hours, only slightly less than Through the Ages.  Still, it is time well spent, as Nations is an engaging game.

Nations utilizes the familiar Civilization-building theme:  begin with a small civilization and through skill, tact and sometimes aggression, build it into a powerful nation, one that dominates its rivals.  Unlike most civ-building games, however, Nations, as with Through the Ages, is a card-based affair.  Players purchase cards that represent leaders, military, advancements, wonders and more, adding them to their player board and enjoying their benefits in a quest for continued advancement.  The game progresses through the centuries and millennia, with constant upgrades required in order to survive and thrive in a very competitive and often cutthroat world.

Each player receives a player mat representing one of antiquity’s major civilizations:  Egypt, China, Greece, Persia or Rome.  In the basic game, all begin equal, but the advanced version gives players different mats, each with slightly different holdings and starting resources.  In the basic game, players each begin with five workers, but will have the opportunity every turn to gain one more.  The cost, however, is the ongoing obligation to feed these additional workers, something which can be quite challenging.  These additional workers will cost either food or stability, depending upon which worker is taken.

The central board serves as a repository for the available cards, which begin with Era 1 and eventually progress to Era 4.  The cost of acquiring a card varies from 1 – 3 coins, depending upon the row in which it is located.  The challenge goes beyond adequate funds, however, as each player’s board can only hold a limited number and types of cards.  In the basic game, a player board can hold 1 adviser, 4 buildings, 1 military, 2 colonies and up to 5 wonders.  When all spaces of a particular type are filled, any new cards of that type that are acquired must replace previous ones.  It is quite the challenge to upgrade at the right times and to keep one’s resource production in proper balance.  Another challenge is that all workers present on the replaced card are not transferred to the new card.  Instead, they are returned to the player’s supply and must be placed again on future actions, once again costing the player more resources.  So, while upgrading is usually beneficial and necessary, it comes with a cost.

Nations cardsThe cards are at the heart of the game.  Each are named, which helps add atmosphere to the proceedings.   Leaders / advisers are actual historical figures, and the wonders are actual buildings and monuments constructed by various civilizations throughout history.  The battles and wars that surface—as they have throughout the history of mankind—are also historical and contain the actual dates of the conflicts.  The artwork on the cards is nothing special, but it does relate to the subject of the card.

Cards convey benefits to a player.  Some, however, will need to be occupied by a worker in order to enjoy these benefits.  The benefits are multiplied for each additional worker present.  Buildings generally convey resources, money, knowledge (books) and/or stability, while military cards increase a player’s military strength.  The former is needed to place and feed workers (resources and food), purchase new cards (coins) and prevent adverse events (stability), while the latter is necessary to prosecute wars and enhance turn order.  As might be expected, it is extremely difficult to obtain everything that is needed and keep all of these in proper balance.

Each turn begins with new cards being placed, followed by players choosing to receive a set number of a particular resource (money, food or stone) or an additional worker, which each turn will cost the player more food or stability.  In a clever balancing mechanism, players can select (or be assigned) a particular level of expertise.  More experienced players will receive fewer resources.  It is always tempting in worker-placement games to increase one’s supply of workers, as this generally allows the player to perform more actions.  However, the recurring cost to support these workers can be severe, as food and stability can be difficult to obtain, and focusing on these items alters a player’s strategy and causes other areas—including progress—to falter.  Each turn presents this tough choice.

A new event card is revealed, so players will be able to prepare for the effects.  Event cards also list the severity of any famine, which players must mitigate by paying food at the end of the turn.  These events are mainly negative and force players to alter their plans in the upcoming turn.

Players then alternate taking actions, with the turn order being determined by military strength.  Players choose between three possible actions:

Buy a Progress Card.  As mentioned, the cost varies from 1 – 3 gold, depending upon the row a card occupies.  Leaders, Buildings, Colonies, Military and Wonders are placed on the player’s mat. The cards must fit within the limits imposed by the player’s mat, displacing previous cards if necessary or desired.  Progress cards are not placed on the mats, but rather convey immediate benefits, usually resources, coins or knowledge.  Battle cards also provide immediate benefits, but the player must have the specified military raid value in order to purchase the card.

Wars operate differently.  Only one War card can be purchased per turn and it is placed on the board.  The military strength of the player purchasing the card determines the strength of the war.  Any player who fails to have a military strength matching this value by the end of the turn suffers the consequences listed on the card.  This is usually the loss of resources and/or knowledge, and can be quite severe.  Failing to have enough resources to cover these losses has even further dire penalties.  Often it is a wise tactic for a militarily weak player to quickly purchase a war card so that he will not have to aggressively build his military or suffer the consequences.

Deploy a Worker.  Buildings and Military cards needs to have workers present on them in order to be active and derive their benefits.  It cost stones to place each worker, and an unlimited number of workers can be placed on each card, thereby multiplying its benefits.

Hire Architect.  Each wonder requires a certain number of architects before it is completed.  A limited number of architects are available each turn.  Thus, there is usually a race to acquire them if multiple players are simultaneously working on wonders.  It usually takes several turns to complete a wonder, at which point the player immediately begins to enjoy its benefits.  Some convey instant benefits, while others provide end-of-game victory points.  A player can only have one wonder under construction at a time, but can complete up to five wonders during the course of the game.

Players alternate taking actions until everyone passes, as which point the Resolution Phase is conducted.  Resources are earned and/or lost based on a player’s cards.  Any deficiencies cost the player knowledge and victory points, while a negative stability causes a revolt and further knowledge and an additional victory point.  Player order is reset based on military strength, the consequences of any war are handled, and the effects of the event and famine are dealt with.  Again, failure to have enough resources and/or knowledge to satisfy these requirements costs the player dearly.

A scoring is conducted at the end of every Age, each of which consists of two turns.  This scoring is quick and easy, as players only score based on their knowledge.  Each player scores a point for each other player who possesses less knowledge, so the most that can be earned each round is 3 points.  That may not sound like a lot, but it is a sizable percentage of the usual overall score.

At the end of eight turns (4 Ages), there is a final scoring, with players earning victory points for their colonies, wonders, buildings, military and resources.  The value of their buildings and military will be based on the number of workers upon them, but each card has a specified limit.  Thus, a challenge is to maximize these points by getting your workers onto the most valuable cards by game’s end.

Nations is not a short game; our 4-player games have typically taken 3 or more hours to play to completion.  This is, indeed, shorter than Through the Ages by about an hour or so, but still quite the time investment.  That being said, the designers have done an admirable job of trimming some time from what is traditionally a lengthy journey.

There is much to like here.  The mechanisms certainly appeal to my fondness of games wherein you have an abundance of things you would like to achieve and accomplish, but have limited resources and/or actions in which to do so.  This forces players to continuously make tough decisions, prioritizing their goals and acting accordingly…when and where possible.  There are so many things to consider and balance:  the constant need for resources; stability; food to feed a growing population and mitigate the seemingly ceaseless famines; a strong military to not only win battles and receive the resulting spoils, but to also avoid the potentially devastating effects of losing a major war; the ceaseless quest to gain knowledge so as to earn victory points and provide a cushion when resources are scarce.  The list of troubling concerns goes on and on.  Add to this the important of turn order and proper timing, and you have a game that presents a never-ending series of dilemmas and often agonizing choices.  That’s the kind of stuff I love!

Conversely, there are aspects about which I am not too fond, some of which do not fit logically with the evolving picture.  Wars are strange, and handled in a very abstract, non-confrontational manner.  Players only have to match the military strength of the player who selected the card, and if the penalties do not seem too severe, a player can opt to ignore efforts to increase his strength.  It seems strange that knowledge can be reduced to compensate for a shortage of resources, and the victory points and benefits rewarded by the Wonders seem arbitrary.  Fortunately, these concerns are neither severe or game-breakers.

The question, of course, is whether or not Nations succeeds in capturing the civilization building feel and experience.  Measured against the grandfather of all civilization-building games—Civilization–I would have to say “no.”  It is nowhere near as sweeping or detailed, and it really doesn’t provide an authentic feel of rival civilizations competing for dominance.  Of course, Civilization requires an investment of 10 or more hours, whereas Nations was designed with the intent to provide a game in the same genre that could be completed in a fraction of that time.  It certainly admirably accomplishes the time-shaving goal, and does offer aspects of civilization building (wonders, leaders and certain building accomplishments, in particular) that fit the theme and help generate atmosphere.  However, the game is mostly abstract in nature, with little real difference in the civilizations as they grow and develop.  It lacks authentic, palpable atmosphere.

That being said, Nations is still a challenging game.  It is tough to attend to all of the various factors and needs.  Some areas will need to be sacrificed, and these areas may well change each turn as the events can cause players to alter their strategy.  The game is a struggle, and there is a palpable tension to the proceedings.  These are usually marks of good games, and Nations is, indeed, a good game.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Mitchell Thomashow: I’ve played Nations about thirty times. I agree with Greg’s assessment that it is highly abstract. It’s also very much a derivative game with its card drafting, resource equivalences, and worker placement. And it does have a bit of a spreadsheet quality to it. The game is missing color, flair, and perhaps even humor. The art work is subpar and the materials are on the flimsy side. Still, I very much enjoy it as a two player game, as it can be played in about ninety minutes and the huge selection of cards is challenging. It’s a solid design, requires considerable skill, and you do play better as you gain experience. I find it immersive, engaging, and absorbing and I’m pleased to play it anytime.

Lorna: I am usually disappointed by most “Civ” games. I find Nations to be straightforward and that it moves along at a nice clip. It gets a little long with 5 but it’s also really challenging with 5. I like the handicap system it works pretty well when having experienced vs new players for example. Of course it’s kind of embarrassing to lose to a really good player on the hardest level when you are on the easy level.. The card text could be larger to see across the table.

Patrick Brennan: A nice streamlining of Through The Ages. While TtA was about the cards but also had a ton of accounting, this is all about the cards. You start with 5 cards, each of which give you various combinations of money, stone, culture, military, and food. Allocate your 5 meeples among these as you please, and that sets out what your economy will produce. Use gold to buy more efficient cards to replace those you have. Reallocate your meeples to the more efficient cards using stone. Make sure you get enough allocated to military, because even though there’s no direct aggression, being first in military gives you first pick of the new cards next turn (awesome advantage) as well as avoid penalties whenever someone pays for a war card. You can also buy cards to give you one-off benefits, cards that you can pay stone to build wonders (for ongoing benefits), and country cards you can take if you have high enough military (for more ongoing benefits). All of which should sound eerily similar to TtA fans. Build up your culture production as most culture each round earns VPs, but there’s plenty of VPs in building higher level stuff as well. Once you’ve spent your gold, racing in turn order to draft the best cards, then it’s just a matter of doing the non-player-interactive stuff, like allocating your meeples. So reviewing the new cards and re-evaluating when your pets are taken is where the downtime is. The decision tradeoffs are the inevitable ones of foregoing military and/or culture progression for a better production engine, short term vs long term gains and the like. Other than that, the game’s straightforward and relatively easy to teach. There’s an event to compete for each round, produce stuff based on how you’ve set your meeples up, pay for more meeples, etc. Standard stuff, but done neatly. There’s oodles of cards, and the order in which they come out makes for different strategies and should make for variety from game to game. As long as you play with fast-ish players, and maybe 3 players max, it should feel about the right length (but it has the possibility to drag out otherwise). There’s obviously plenty to explore, which is always attractive.

Larry (about half a dozen plays):  I had definite concerns after I read the posted rules for Nations prior to Essen last year.  It was so obviously derived from the superb Through the Ages, a fact that the designers didn’t particularly deny.  And yet, it really does have a different feel than TtA and in my opinion, the design team achieved their goal of a faster and more accessible card-based civ game.  Whereas I refuse to play Through the Ages with more than 3 players (and it still lasts at least 3.5 hours with that number), Nations is quite playable with 4 players and, while the 5-player game is a bit long for my tastes, at least it’s not something I’ll automatically veto.  And the gameplay is very good, very varied, and very challenging, with lots of angst as you try to balance all the many elements.  Just as with TtA, the absence of a map doesn’t bother me at all and while the game is more abstract than the Chvatil classic, the thematic elements still shine through, giving you the feel of a civ game and not a bookkeeping exercise.  Another plus is that this is a game that I can play with some of my gaming buddies that don’t normally like heavier designs; for some reason, this title resonates with them.

I give the game an I Love It rating, but there is one thing that could lower it.  While the game with just the Basic cards is good and plenty varied, adding the Advanced or even the Expert cards adds more interest and more variety.  In fact, you need to shuffle in the Advanced cards if you play with 5, as there aren’t enough Basic cards to play the game properly.  The problem when you add in those extra cards is that not all the cards are used and the game balance can get out of whack.  You can have shortages of certain card types or of certain effects and that can really make the game more frustrating.  The problem is, you don’t know which shortages, if any, will occur, so the player lucky enough to grab a card early on that turns out to be in short supply can get an undeserved benefit far greater than I think the designers intended.  What’s needed is a more refined way of adding the Advanced or Expert cards to the mix, presumably including weeding out some of the Basic cards in an intelligent fashion.  This is a problem cited by many on the Geek and almost everyone would like to see a solution for it.  But so far, none has been forthcoming, as no one, to date, has come up with a method that won’t be too burdensome or reduce the variety too much.  I’m hoping that either a clever individual comes up with a good variant or that the issue doesn’t turn out to be as troublesome as it first appears (it’s already spoiled one of the few games in which we used the Advanced cards).  If not, this could severely restrict the replayability of a game where the replayability should be one of its strengths.

To summarize and address the inevitable comparison, Nations isn’t nearly as good a game as Through the Ages, which remains my favorite game of all time.  However, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the newer game gets considerably more play time than TtA, as it is shorter, more accessible, can be played with more players, and is a pretty damn good game in its own right.  Quite an impressive achievement by the Swedish designing quartet!

Ratings:

4 (Love it!):  Larry
3 (Like it):  Greg J. Schloesser, Mitchell Thomashow, Lorna, Patrick Brennan
2 (Neutral):
1 (Not for me):

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About gschloesser

Greg Schloesser is the founder of the Westbank Gamers and co-founder of the East Tennessee Gamers. He is also a prolific reviewer of games and a regular contributor to numerous gaming publications and websites, including Counter, Knucklebones, Boardgame News, Boardgame Geek, Gamers Alliance and many others. Greg has been a gaming enthusiast his entire life, growing up in our hobby mainly on the war game side. His foray onto the internet exposed him to the wonderful world of German and European games and now nearly all of his gaming time is devoted to this area of our hobby. He travels to several gaming conventions each year and is the co-founder of Gulf Games, a regional gaming get-together held in the Southern USA. Greg was born in 1961 and lived his entire life in New Orleans before moving to East Tennessee in 2005. He is married and has one daughter (now married.)
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