Posted by: gschloesser | December 22, 2014


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


NOTE:  This review was first published on the Opinionated Gamers website

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.



  1. I think Greg’s comments are extremely fair. Our group was ‘in’ on CIVILISATION from the day it was published and I regularly put it on the table almost out of duty to its sweeping concept. But although the make up of our group of players changed over the years the result was always the same. No game was ever finished, and this was nothing to do with its length. Players simply got bored about two-thirds of the way through at the repetetive actions resulting from the ‘events’. In other words, in our view it succeeded as a concept but failed as a game.

    NATIONS, on the other hand succeeds as a game. Only one player has not thoroughly enjoyed it but that was because he set out determined not to like it because it wasn’t THROUGH THE AGES.

    Another feature of the game that is often unmentioned is that the very large number of cards in the game enable players to play with (a) a perfectly balanced deck that is always the same as was in TtA, (b) a balanced deck but one that is different each time, or (c) a totally unpredictable and different mix each time.
    We started off with (a), then moved on to (b), but now enjoy the ‘fun’ aspect of (c).

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