The game: Nations, by Rustan Håkansson, Nina Håkansson, Einar Rosén and Robert Rosén, published by Lautapelit.fi in 2013.
Elevator pitch: Lead your nations from ancient times to industrial age, gaining glory and power while you’re at it. Through the Ages streamlined.
What’s in the box? Large box has two central boards and player boards (thin cardboard, not actual boards), hundreds of cards and cardboard tokens. The components are fine and practical, but not spectacular.
What do you do in the game? There are four ages and two rounds per age. On each round, players take one action at the time, until everybody passes. There are three possible actions: use money to buy a progress card from the card display, deploy workers with stone to benefit from your cards or hire an architect and pay stone to build a wonder. Everything’s a case of limited resources and a question of time: the good progress cards will disappear fast from the display, there’s a limited number of architects available, you have a limited number of workers and resources. Scarcity is the key.
At the end of each round, the workers produce resources, you feed your people, a war may be fought and an event happen. The events are known the whole round, so no surprises there, and usually the events are about military power or stability of the nation. Either the best player gets a benefit, or the losers suffer a penalty.
Lucky or skillful? It’s very much a game of skill. There’s actually a difficulty level system, where you can choose from four levels of difficulty. The difficulty affects your free resource production every round. I’m sure a skilled player will beat weaker players, even with a harder difficulty.
That said, there’s a strong luck element as well. The events can be swingy: with bad luck, couple of bad events in the early game can wipe you out of competition. Also, playing with all cards in the box can lead to unusual games, when smaller portion of the card set appears in play and some types of cards can go missing. So, don’t do that, at least until you know what you’re doing. Play with just the basic set at first, even if it sounds a bit lame. It’s much better that way.
Abstract or thematic? The classic civilization theme is well done (and will remind you of Through the Ages all the time). The concepts have been abstracted, and the game can feel a bit mechanical – the different military troops for example are just updated versions of the older troops, with slightly higher numbers, but on the other hand their payments make some kind of thematic sense. Jaguar warriors cost stability, basic axemen cost food, Viking longboats cost books (historical reputation)… there’s some thematic sense to things.
Solitaire or interactive? There’s lots of interaction. One key feature in this game is to be slightly ahead of the pack. There’s for example little point to amassing tons of stability, military power or books: it’s enough to be ahead of the other players. There are benefits for having lots of something, yes, but it’s better to split your efforts and be good in many things, instead of being excellent in one. So, you have to watch what others are doing.
Buying progress cards is a question of timing, and you generally don’t want to be last in turn order, because that means you’re last in military, and in the worst case are forced to buy a war card in your first turn just to avoid being hit by it, and then everybody else has already bought every other good card on the display.
Players: 1–5. I’ve got no idea how well the solo play works. The number of progress cards available depends on the player count, so things should be interesting with different numbers of players. Two-player game might be interesting because of the zero-sum nature, but I think most people will enjoy the 3–5 player games most. Considering many find Through the Ages untolerable with more than three players, that’s a clear bonus.
Who can play? Nations is a complex game, no doubt about, and playing well requires attention and skill. That said, this game is much easier to teach than otherwise fairly similar Through the Ages, and thus suitable to a wider audience, even people who aren’t experienced in heavy board games. It’s not a casual game, especially because of the length, but the basic game mechanics of Nations are not complicated or hard to learn, given a competent and patient teacher. Age recommendation is 14+, and I wouldn’t think of playing this with children who aren’t accustomed to long strategy games.
Length: 40 minutes per player is the official word on the game length, and that sounds plausible. The game length is always eight rounds, and I think the 40 minutes per player is easier to achieve than the 30 minutes per player in Eclipse. Slow players can of course slow down the game, but even with slow players and the general disturbances caused by playing in a con environment, we only took about 45 minutes per player in a game where everybody played for the first time. Playing faster than 40 minutes per player should be easy with fast, experienced players.
What’s to like: Streamlined game mechanics, easy to teach, plays reasonably fast, lots of replay value, works well with more than three players.
What’s not to like: Just a Through the Ages lite, not streamlined enough, still takes hours to play, the events can punish players, the game is generally very negative, using all cards causes way too much variance in the card type distribution.
My verdict: I originally loved Through the Ages. It seemed like a great game. However, the more I played it, the less I enjoyed it: the whole military thing made the game unpleasant for me. I just don’t like that kind of negativity in games. So, my rating for Through the Ages has fallen from the initial 9 to the current 5, and that’s probably generous. So, when I heard about Nations, I was optimistic: perhaps here’s a game that fixes what’s wrong about Through the Ages? Unfortunately that’s not the case.
I’ll admit freely that I’ve only played one game of Nations. That’s, however, just about the extent of how much I’m willing to play the game, so I think this is as good a point to review the game as any.
If I try to look about the game objectively, I don’t think there’s much wrong about it. It’s a well-done design, with some issues, but nothing serious. If you like Through the Ages, you’ll probably find Nations disappointing, too light and yet not light enough, so you’ll just rather play Through the Ages (I keep comparing the games a lot, but that’s because Nations is almost uncomfortably close to Through the Ages). If you enjoy Through the Ages in theory, but don’t like the fiddly book-keeping and want something that is easier to play and especially easier to teach to new players, you’re going to love Nations. Also, if you find Through the Ages untolerable with more than three players, Nations is going to work much better with four or five players.
My personal verdict, however, is that it’ll take lots of persuasion for me to play this game again. I like more easy-going games, really. I can enjoy more challenging games like Age of Steam or Brass, but in those games the game isn’t constantly tugging at the things I build, trying to destroy them. Nations feels like game hates me, and I’d rather play something that doesn’t hate me. I can’t tolerate that in shorter games (I’m talking about you, In the Year of the Dragon) and making the game three hours long doesn’t make it any easier.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Nations gets Avoid.