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Nations

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Lautapelit.fi/Asmodee, 1 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 40 minutes per player, $99.99)

The story of humanity’s growth and development is, in a word, fascinating. From our species’ earliest beginnings, the cultural, scientific and political advancements over hundreds of years make for a compelling story. This story has attracted many game designers, drawn to the challenge of recreating and simulating the events and personalities that have shaped civilization and the search for the “perfect” civilization building game is ongoing. The latest candidate for that honor to appear on the scene is Nations, designed by Rustan Hakansson, Nina Hakansson, Einer Rosen and Robert Rosen.

nations1Nations comes in a large, heavy box, filled with lots of quality components. There are two main boards (one to chart the important characteristics of your developing civilization as well as turn order and difficulty level, the other to serve as a display for the all important Progress Cards) and smaller boards, one for each player, which represent the five civilizations in the game: Persia, Greece, Egypt, Rome and China, each with an A side (all A sides are identical) and a B side (with each civilization receiving some, unique, advantage). The game is played through four ages (two rounds per age).

All civilizations begin with buildings (blue) which will produce needed resources or aid in advancements and with military power (red). (On the B side, Egypt begins with no military force but with an already built Wonder.) There is also room for colonies (green), leaders (orange) and Wonders (brown) which are the great achievements that your particular civilization may accomplish.

With starting civilizations selected, players begin with some resources, some Victory Points and some workers. The resources in the game include gold, stone (or ore), food and “books”. Player order is, at first, randomly determined and, in turn order, the first player begins at 1 on the “Heritage” track (which uses “books” as its symbol) with the second player beginning at 2, the third at 3 and so on. (After this, military power will determine turn order.) The Heritage track is one of three that chart the progress of your civilization. The Heritage track displays the culture (or education) of a civilization (hence the books). The “Stability” track indicates how stable your civilization is. The “Military Strength” track quantifies your nation’s military might.

nations2Progress cards represent the “investments” a nation makes and they come in 8 different categories: Advisors (leaders who offer certain advantages when activated), Battles (which reward a specified military strength with an infusion of resources), Buildings and Colonies (which will both generate and cost various resources), Golden Ages (offering a choice of gaining resources or converting resources to Victory Points), Wars (where military might and stability play a part) and Wonders (which, once completed, bestow advantages on a civilization). These cards are laid out in three rows, each row being a bit more expensive (the first row costing 1 gold, the second 2 and the third 3 per card). As the game advances, the Progress cards go from era to era, increasing in power and ability but also increasing in the cost in resources it takes to put them into action.

In preparation for a round, players will experience some “growth” for their civilization. In game terms, this mean either choosing additional gold, food or stone (how much depending on the level of difficulty chosen for the game) OR adding another worker to his supply. In a worker placement game, it would seem apparent that adding workers is the way to go. But not necessarily. Adding a worker has a significant impact, either in requiring additional food (when totalling up expenditures at the need of a round) or reducing a civilization’s stability. Workers should only be taken when you can absorb such a hit. Once all players have chosen their growth, an Event card is drawn.

Event cards will go into effect at the end of a round. These cards display two different events that will reward and/or penalize players depending on conditions that have been (or have failed to be) met. They also alert players to any additional architects that will be available for purchase this round and the degree of famine that will affect all civilizations at the end of the round (which will require an additional outlay of food). Finally, we seed the board that holds the Progress cards which will enable your civilization to grow and, hopefully if you play your cards right, prosper.

On a turn, a player may do one of three things: deploy one of his workers, buy a Progress card or buy an architect.

Deploying a worker means moving one of your workers onto one of the cards on your board, paying the required outlay of resources. Such deployment generally costs 1 or more in ore. Once placed, that card is activated and its benefits are unleashed (and so are the negatives such as requiring additional food at the end of the round). Unlike other games, more than one worker may occupy a building or military card, multiplying both the positive and negative effects. Another difference is that workers assigned to a card may be reassigned freely and used in a different position. (Of course, any resource spent in placing that worker in his original sport are lost. There are no refunds.)

If buying a Progress Card, a player spends the required gold and places the card on his personal board. The card must be placed in a permissible, designated area (by color). It may cover a previously placed card but, if that happens, any worker already on the card is returned to the player (for future deployment). But Progress cards do more than just provide resources; they can also triggers wars!

War is handled in a very stylized way in Nations. The civilization purchasing a War Progress Card places the War black disc underneath his disk on the Military Track. At the end of the round, any civilization whose military strength is ABOVE the black disk has won the war and suffers no ill effects. However, anyone BELOW the disk suffers the consequences. Depending on the card, players will lose 1 Victory Point for being defeated and an amount of resources (sometimes, a very significant amount). A nation’s stability acts as a modifier here and can reduce the number of resources lost but, no matter what the stability is, if you lose a war, you lose the Victory Point. Fortunately, only one War Progress Card may be bought each round.

The third turn option is buying an architect and this is necessary if you wish to build a Wonder. Each Wonder has room for 1 or more architects (brown wooden blocks) and costs a varying amount of ore. Bought architects are placed on the Wonder. Wonders can provide sizeable advantages once completed and are worth Victory Points during final scoring. Once all architect slots are filled, the Wonder slides down into the “completed” section of the player board and awards its particular bonus to the player.

nations3Play continues until all players have passed. Now, players calculate how many resources they receive or must pay according to their activated Progress cards, resolve the two historical Events of the round and pay the necessary food to prevent famine. (Failure to pay necessary resources results in loss of Victory Points and a decrease for the player in his standing on the Heritage Track.) At the end of the round, any remaining architect cubes are returned to stock. Progress cards from the first two rows are removed and are out of play, those on the third row shift down to the first, and the remainder of the Progress board are filled with a fresh supply of cards. All players now undergo “growth” and receive an influx of resources (how many depending on difficulty level chosen for the game) and a new Event card is drawn which will be resolved at the end of the next round. If this is the end of an era, there is an additional bit of scoring.

At the end of each era (rounds 2, 4, 6 and 8), players will get Victory Points based on the their relative positions on the Heritage Track. Each player receives 1 VP for each player BEHIND him. So, for example, if Red is at 12, Blue at 11, Green at 7 and Yellow at 3, Red will get 3 VPs, Blue 2 VPs, Green 1 and Yellow nothing.

With the last era completed, final scoring occurs. Players now total up Victory Points collected along the way. To that total are added Victory Points awarded for Colonies, Wonder, Buildings and Military. (Building and Military without workers deployed on them score NO Victory Points.) Finally, the amount of Gold, Stone, Food and Books you have accumulated are added together with your Stability and Military Strength values added to that. The total is divided by 10. For each full 10, you get 1 VP. The player with the highest score wins!

Graphically, Nations is a pleasure. The artwork on the board and cards is beautifully rendered with the icons used for positive and negative effects and whether they are immediate or at the end of the round easily recognized. Speaking of the cards, the backs of both the Progress Card and Event Card decks are slightly different, going from a “faded” look to a brightly colored back, to make differentiation between the different eras easy. It would have been better, though, to make the icons separating the advanced and expert cards bigger so they are easier to find.

Interaction in Nations, while indirect for the most part, can still be powerful. For example, buying a War Progress Card can force your opponents to abruptly switch gears and pick up military power to avoid severe penalties. By the same token, a player weak militarily can buy a War card to keep the amount of military strength needed low to avoid penalties. (But you need to be careful here. Once War is bought and the military value is set by the black disc, it stays at that level. Go below it, even if you were the one to buy the War card, and YOU still suffer the penalties!) But you can’t get too wrapped up in military. The fun – and challenge – of the game is to try to strike a balance so that your military strength is sufficient to withstand the penalties of war while building up stability as well as a cultured civilization so that your place on the Heritage track is, if not dominant, at least strong enough to generate those all important Victory Points. Competition for Progress Cards can be intense too as, sometimes, the card you want is snatched away from you before you can get it.

Nations is a game of worker placement as well as “engine building” as you are trying to maximize the effects of your work force to create an “engine” which will fuel your resource requirements, generate military power, increase stability and increase your culture. As the game continues, Progress Cards get more and more powerful requiring more and more resources to activate. Very often, you will need to decide what you will have to sacrifice in order to achieve SOME of your goals. There is also a built-in “handicap”. At the beginning of play, participants can actually choose different amounts of resources for each during the “growth” phase so players new to the game can generate more resources on a turn than more experienced players. This levels the playing field so newbies and experienced players can compete in the same game. The rules suggest – and I completely concur – that first plays should be done with the A sided boards, using only the basic cards (rather than the expert or advanced). This makes the dynamics of the game easier to handle. Still, with so many important decisions to make, many impacting on the relative positions of the players, you need to be wary of the player who tends to overanalyze everything. This can slow the game down.

Nations is a beautifully produced, finely crafted game of civilization building, one that ranks high on the list of the “Perfect Civilization Building Game”. Nations certainly lives up to its promise as a highly engaging game and can certainly stake a claim on being one of the top releases of the year.


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