If you want to hear me read this post out loud, you can listen to my Whatcha Been Playing Wednesday segment on Cardboard Conjecture podcast!
Civilization building games aren’t something that I explicitly seek out. I’ve played a small amount of Sid Mayer’s Civilization (mostly Civ 4 and 5), and I’ve played dozens of games of Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization on both Board Game Arena and on the Android app. Those two games capture the civilization building gameplay so well, I feel satisfied. I’m never seeking new experiences because that quota has been filled.
Nations, designed by Rustan Håkansson, Nina Håkansson, Einar Rosén, and Robert Rosén, and published by Lautapelit.fi in 2013, is a card based civilization game for 1 – 5 players. In Nations, you’ll take control of a civilization and lead them from the age of antiquity all the way through the industrial revolution.
How to Play
In Nations, you’ll need to balance improving your infrastructure (by purchasing building and military technologies, and employing your citizens on them), with the stability of your nation, and your military might. Completing wonders, hiring advisors, and claiming colonies will provide persistent benefits over the course of the game that could give you the edge. Wars and famine on the other hand threaten to steal away your resources, costing you precious victory points if you end up in a deficit of any resource.
While there’s no direct conflict, there are lots of points to interact with each other. On the Progress board, where all the cards come out, taking the precious cards before others can get to them is an important aspect, as is hiring the limited number of architects to complete your wonders. Whoever has military supremacy gets to go first each round, and should anyone declare war, each other player needs to meet or exceed the might threshold that the warmongering player was at when they declared the war, lest they suffer the ill effects. A way to offset those effects is to maintain your stability, a stable nation is able to weather the effects of the war, for every point of stability a nation has, they lose one item less during a lost war. Every player who lost the war will lose a single victory point, regardless of its stability.
Players take turns preforming a single action during their turn (take cards from the progress board, deploy workers, hire an architect, or pass) until all players have passed. At the end of every round, players produce all the goods from their workers (depending on which technologies they’ve been deployed to), the player order is adjusted, war is resolved, and two historical events happen. Generally, these events involve giving boons to the player with the most of a certain resource (often stability), and a detriment to the player with the least of something (often stability). Ties in this regard are as unfriendly as you can imagine, if you’re tied for ‘most’, no one gets the benefit, and if you’re tied for least, all tied players get the punishment. Finally, a famine happens, in which all players need to discard some amount of food (revealed at the start of the round).
Every two rounds, there’s a ‘book’ scoring, in which each player earns a single point for every other player that they have more book points than. Then, the world progresses into the next age. After 4 ages, the game comes to an end. You’ll earn points for the colonies and wonders you’ve claimed, points for workers on technologies, and for all the excess resources you’ve accrued (1 point for 10 resources, a really terrible trade). Scores in Nations are MUCH lower than other Civ games, the average score is ~35 points.
I think every review and how to play summary I read or watched of Nations before playing said something along the lines of “It’s kind of like a lighter Through the Ages”, which isn’t wrong. Both are card based civilization games. Naturally, games with similar themes and mechanics will get compared against each other. Nations feels lighter and faster than Through the Ages, but not by very much. I will concede that Nations was easier to play, less fiddly than TtA. But in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve only played Through the Ages physically once. During that play I found all the movement of cubes and cylinders and discs back and forth tedious. Nations does a bit better, in that you can only do one thing per turn. You don’t get to the end of a 6-step progress, only to realize you’re a single resource short and need to walk back your entire turn. I enjoy the turn structure in Nations; it creates tension as you need to prioritize what you’ll take with your first action and hope that the second thing you wanted will still be there when the turn comes back around to you.
The iconography in Nations was a bit confusing. Red is good, while black was negative (every accountant just shook their heads in despair). Circle icons only produce at the end of the round, while square icons take effect immediately. Once a player has passed, they’re out of the round. This can allow you to posture yourself as a peaceful, stable nation until your neighbours have passed, then move all your stable government workers into chariot positions, ratchet up your military and declare war in the last moments. Provided there’s a war on the Progress board that you can afford, and no war has already been declared.
Unlike Through the Ages, you won’t see every card in every game, and, there seems to be a much wider variety of cards. With 7 different types of cards in the game, and only a maximum 15 cards coming out every round (in a 3 player game), there’s a chance the card type you’re wanting isn’t going to show itself, or, if it does, doesn’t fit in your strategy well. Sure, the Samurai are powerful warriors, but they have a production cost of -1 gold. If you were already pinched for gold, and they were the only military card that came out that round, you might just be up the creek without a katana.
It’s common in Nations to feel a bit starved for resources, especially if a player is being a warmonger. Other players are forced to commit their few workers to keeping up with you in military might, or, keep their stability quite high to offset the cost of those wars. Coupled with famine sucking away your food stores, it can be hard to get ahead in all the different resources. Instead, you may find yourself sucking up the cost of redeploying your workers every round to cover any shortfalls that the round is introducing. It’s tough, but rewarding when you manage to have 11 grain and can move every employee into the mines for a few rounds.
One thing that really impressed me was a tiny touch, every card had a date and a place, showing when and where the item or person depicted on the card was representing. Augustus, 63BCE – 14CE, Roman Republic, the Hanging Gardens, 600BCE, Babylon. Marie Antoinette, 1755 – 1793, France. It felt great having that little historical anchor in this civilization game. Of course, some will complain that it’s not realistic, having Augustus lead a legion of Samurai into the Hundred Years War. And my retort to that complaint is that Augustus would never have fit on a card either, so, whatever!
A disappointment in Nations, is the art and graphic design is pretty dreadful. It’s the kind of art that I would expect to see on someone’s refrigerator. I feel hypocritical saying so, as my art skills are pretty much nonexistent. And maybe I’m spoiled by all the beautiful games that have come out in the last 10 years, but Nations is an eyesore. I would love to see a modernized version of this game be produced with colourful artwork, because I really did enjoy it! Nations was smooth to play, and while the rules were a little hard to wrap my head around, we all agreed that it was quite good! Streamlined and engaging, tense, and exciting. We thoroughly enjoyed playing Nations, and agreed that we absolutely would bring it back to the table soon, especially since Otter missed out on playing this game, and we think he would really enjoy it.
If you have Nations, sitting unplayed on your shelf, and you enjoy games like Through the Ages, but find them just a little too tedious or fiddly to play much, I highly recommend getting Nations to the table. And heck, if you enjoy Nations, but it’s fallen to the wayside in favour of much brighter, flashier, and newer games, this is your reminder that just because a game was published in 2013, doesn’t mean it’s not exciting or interesting. Get Nations back out and make your civilization stand head and shoulders above the rest!