That copy of Nations had been sitting on a chair in my house for a fair few weeks before we managed to get it to the table. Not surprising, really – recently I’ve had limited time to play stuff and looking at the box… well, it’s pretty imposing. Produced by Lautapelit.fi, the folks who brought Eclipse to the world, I was a bit worried that it would prove a beast once it hit the table. A few readthroughs of the rulebook failed to settle my nerves, but soon the time came to bite the bullet, set the damn thing up and play. And my first thought after those first few rounds? “Why the hell didn’t I do this earlier?”
I do not get on with most Civ-style games. Through The Ages is great, but I’ve suffered from mind wandering when I’ve played it. Thankfully, Nations plays out in much less time and (to me at least) still offers a similar level of enjoyment, if not the complexity. That’s not saying that this one’s not a tricky undertaking if you’re looking to play it well, it just feels much less daunting once you’ve got a couple of plays under your belt.
Between one and five can play, though I’m yet to have any experience with the solo play, and in all honesty probably won’t do – too many other games on the shelves! Players select an ancient civilisation and take the appropriate double sided board. The A-sides are all the same, giving everyone the same amount of starting resources, though you’ll want to graduate to the B-side pretty quickly to get the full challenge from the game. Everyone grabs what the board tells them, a combination of Food, Stone, Money, Victory Points and Workers, then chooses at what level they’ll be playing at. With four levels to choose from, the more challenging ones will bring you in less resources through the game’s eight rounds – though you’ll probably want to make life a little easier for yourself and choose to give yourself as much of a chance as possible. Nations is hard enough without you giving yourself even more hassle.
As mentioned, the game plays out over eight turns that split over four ages, so, two turns for each age. Three lines of cards are laid out on the table that can be bought for one to three coins, all of which will help enhance your hopefully expanding civilisation. Spaces on your player board are devoted to the various card types, some of which require workers on them to trigger their effects. Turns work with players taking an action – either buying a card and placing it, deploying a worker or grabbing an Architect that can help you build up a valuable Wonder – then moving on to the next player clockwise until everyone has passed.
Most of the cards you’ll invariably pick up will be the blue bordered Buildings or red bordered Military ones. Buildings, when stocked with workers, bring in resources while Military affect your fighting strength. You’ll also be able to take over Colonies (green) that enhance your civilisation but require hefty military power, or employ notable historical Advisors (orange) who will bestow great benefits upon you. The Wonders (brown) are placed on your ‘Under Construction’ space and require a certain amount of Architects before they become an actual part of your board, but bringing them in will really give you a huge boost – and as you have space for multiple Wonders, you’ll see more and more resources and bonuses come in as the game progresses.
There are three other card types: Battles (grey), Wars (black) and Golden Ages (yellow). Battles are a quick and dirty way of pulling in a bunch of resources. Meanwhile, only one War can be triggered each turn, and once done all players must reach a certain level of military strength or suffer a pretty brutal penalty. Thankfully you can offset a lot of this by ensuring your people have a decent level of Stability; just because you may choose to take a more peaceful path, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get crushed under the feet of warmongers. Golden Age cards offer players a choice: either trade the card in for a few resources or score points by paying some stuff from your stacks, and in a game where points can be hard to come by, this can often be a big decision.
Playing workers to your board costs stone, but it’s a necessary thing to do – an unused worker is a useless one, as they’ll bring in much needed resources and have an effect on your Military and Stability. You have a choice to bring another worker in at the start of each round instead of claiming resources, but doing so can be expensive. As with many things in Nations, there’s a fine balance that must be maintained – it is very easy to screw yourself over and watch your civilisation crumble if you make a couple of poor decisions, and for me, that’s where the joy lies. For those couple of hours when you’re sat at the table, there’s a quiet focus and intensity shared between the players. You’re all desperately trying to build your own Nation up while keeping an eye on what everyone else is doing. If you boil it down, this is a fine example of multiplayer Solitaire but it still manages to feel like a well constructed shared experience – that’s a rather impressive achievement.
The game progresses through it’s four eras: Antiquity, Medieval, Renaissance and Industrial (essentially taking us up the the start of the First World War) and as you’d expect the available cards get stronger as time moves on. You end up building this extensive tableau with a surprising amount of cards laid out before you as you struggle – yes, this is a struggle, but an enjoyable one! – to carve out as many points as possible to grab that first place position. You’ll have to deal with an Event card at the end of each turn that brings in bonuses and punishments for players, depending on whether certain conditions have been met. With these, the good stuff is very good and the bad stuff… well, let’s not think about that, shall we?
Every card is based on an actual event, person, place – you know the deal – and it’s interesting as you create this alternate history. Who’d have though that the Roman Empire could last through to the twentieth century, claim the Phillipines for their own and be responsible for the invention of the railway system? There are a huge amount of cards for each of the four eras and it’ll be a fair few games before you manage to see them all, so there’s a good amount of opportunity of replayability with Nations. Of course, each card has its own individual artwork, and while most of them are fine, this is where my only real criticism of the game rears its head – some of the images are laughably poor. Mostly I’m talking about the Advisor cards which feel like they were the last things done for the game and just had to be put together to hit a deadline. If there’s ever a second edition of Nations, I’d love to see some consistency in the art, perhaps getting just one person to do the lot rather than going for the team-based approach we’ve got with this version.
Aside from that (admittedly small) issue, Nations is a bloody excellent game. You’re tested from the very start, and every decision you make is important – even which board you pick up at the start of the game. It’s certainly not something that I’d bring out for a group who were just getting into gaming, but for players who have a bit of confidence in them and fancy being a little brave, it’s ideal. Nations is not a difficult game to play, but it’s certainly a challenge if you’re going to play it well. For those who are looking to add a great civilisation building title to their collection that’s not going to take an entire day to play, I’d say that Nations is an essential purchase. For everyone else, try before you commit, but I reckon you’ll love it.
Designed by Rustan Håkansson, Nina Håkansson, Einar Rosén and Robert Rosén, Nations was originally released by Lautapelit.fi in 2013. Between one and five players can take part with games taking around the two hour mark for three players. A copy of the game will cost you around the £60 mark, but you can get yourself one cheaper from Gameslore for a mere £48! Bargain!