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Subject: Nations by Zeb rss

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Zeb Larson
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Note: This review was largely written for
Dundy O
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"Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
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who has been my most vocal/only fan. I’m the Kilgore Trout of Boardgamegeek.



Nations was a game that I had heard a lot about before I finally had a chance to play it. I’m one of those guys who keeps Boardgamegeek open in the background at work, mostly so I can read reviews of games I haven’t played and scroll for trades I might be interested in. It first popped up for me a few years ago when I passed up an opportunity to playtest it, an opportunity I’ve since come to regret. After finally having gotten to play this game, I can report that I liked it, although I’m not wild about it.

For those who haven’t read up on the game, Nations is a 1 to 5 player game which simulates the passage of history for several ancient powers. Players take on one of five different states: Greece, Rome, Persia, Egypt or China. The game is played through four different historical eras: Antiquity, Medieval, Renaissance and Industrial, each of which last for two phases. Players can build up strong militaries, develop sophisticated cultures, conquer colonies and build wonders to accrue victory points. At the end of the game, whoever has the most victory points is the winner. Gameplay integrates some aspects of worker placement and some aspects of card drafting, which I’ll run through in a few paragraphs.



The game comes with a lot of different components, which I’ll run through briefly. There’s the score board, which also tracks the military strength of each player, their culture, and political stability, as well as holding space for all of the cards and player order. The player boards are two-sided. Side A is generic, with each player’s attributes being identical, and Side B is unique to each nation. The Progress Board is home to all of the cards that are available for purchase, which are called progress cards. Event cards introduce random effects into every play phase. Resources in game include food, gold, stone and victory points. Each player gets worker tokens of their color, some of which are available immediately and others of which are only available after being “purchased” with food. Finally, there are architect cubes which are necessary to building wonders.



A quick word on important symbols in the game. Red signifies income of some kind, while black signifies a loss. Numbers in a circle are a continuous income or cost, while numbers in a square are a one-time cost. Thus, a card with the food symbol and a 3 in a red circle would provide three food a turn, while a -1 in a black square is a one-time cost.

There are eight kinds of progress cards in the game: advisors, battles, buildings, colonies, golden ages, military, wars, and wonders. A number of cards depending on the number of players are dealt in each of the three rows on the progress board and cost whatever the amount is for that spot. Advisors simply grant a bonus to your civilization of some kind or a special ability. Buildings grant a certain income in certain resources (and possibly costs as well) that are activated each time a worker is placed on them. Military cards are similar to buildings except that military levels only remain as long as people are placed on them. In addition to military strength, they also grant a raid strength, which is denoted in a small circle next to the picture. World wonders are built by taking architects and paying the appropriate cost in stone.

Notice that buildings and military have victory point icons next to person icons. That means that those will receive points for each person on them at the end of the game, up to the number of person icons on the card. The hoplite, for example, has two 1 point icons with two people on it, so if you had two on there in the last turn, you’d get two points.

Battles, when purchased, grant a certain amount of resources depending on the raid value of the player’s highest military unit. The raid value is only calculated once, so if you have multiple workers on a 3 value unit, it’s still only a 3 raid. When a player purchases a war, the war’s strength level is capped at that of the player who purchased it at that moment; subsequent increases or decreases do not affect it. At the end of the round, all players who did not meet or exceed the total will suffer losses printed on the card, including a loss of 1 victory point. Golden ages are purchased and confer either a set number of resources or a victory point for resources. The respective resources or victory point cost can be modified with “golden age bonuses.” Finally, colonies can be acquired by having sufficient military strength to conquer them. Once acquired, they grant ongoing bonuses.



Event cards are drawn at the beginning of each phase, and the events occur at the end of each phase. Each card will list how many additional architects come out for the turn and what the end of the round food cost will be. There are two events for each card, and some will be negative while others will be positive.

Books (or as I prefer to call it, culture) grant points at the end of every historical era. For every player that you are ahead of, you receive one victory point. Political stability has several benefits, but one of those is allowing players to ignore resource loss from wars. For every point of positive political stability, players may ignore 1 point of resource loss, though they still lose a victory point. On the other hand, negative stability places a society in revolt. When in revolt, players lose a culture for each negative stability they have and a negative victory point. If a player is required to pay for resources and does not have the sufficient amount, it loses a victory point and a culture for every missing resource. If a player is ever required to lose culture and is unable to do so, he loses other resources of his choice and a victory point.

A nation board looks something like this. There are spots for advisors, buildings/military, colonies, and wonders as well as a wonder in-progress slot. On the bottom of the board, there are printed instructions for how many of each resource and worker the players start with. There is also a track for workers. Players can pay the cost of these spots either in food, which is a recurring cost, or political stability, which is temporary. Any cards that are down on the board may be replaced with others throughout the game.




Lastly, the game has a designed difficulty setting that is intended to handicap more experienced players. Players have the option to take resources or activate a new player at the start of every phase, but the number of resources depends on the setting that the player agrees to. At the chieftain setting, the player can choose to receive 4 gold, food or stone at the beginning, while at emperor, the player receives just one. The game also comes with basic or advanced cards, and the game recommends sticking to basic until you have a feel for which strategies to play with.

So, how do turns play out? At the start of each turn, advance the round marker. Progress cards should be put out. After the first turn of the game, the cards in rows 1 and 2 are discarded, row 3 is moved to row 1, and new cards are then placed. Players may either take resources or acquire another player, paying the appropriate cost for the latter action. An event card is drawn and the architect space is filled up.

Players may take one of four actions on their turn. They may buy a progress card from the board, paying the appropriate cost to put it into action. A person may be put onto a building or military unit to activate it, paying any cost to do so. A person may also be removed at any time during their turn. The third action is to take an architect, paying the cost in stone, and progressing in building a wonder. Lastly, any progress card that might allow you to take an action can be played at this time. A player can take no further actions by passing, removing themselves from the round.

Once all players have passed, production for all the resources are tallied up, including any costs incurred. Military strength determines player order for the next phase and players check to see if they meet any strength levels for a war. Event cards are resolved and players pay the necessary food for famine at the end of the round. At the end of the age, each player scores the appropriate amount for culture. At the end of the game, players tally points based on what they've received, any colonies and wonders, buildings and military units occupied by people, and a point for every 10 resources that they possess.

So, overall, I liked this game, but it didn't exactly wow me either. The mixture of card drafting and worker placement is an interesting mechanic, though it's not necessarily unique. The playing length was appropriate (40 minutes per player seems reasonable), the rules were not especially difficult to digest, and there were certainly a lot of options to take for various strategies. It didn't feel as though there was a set or more powerful way to win than any other, which is important for a strategy game of this type. Production values were competent, and while the rulebook is a bit of a brick, it's certainly straightforward.

So am I not giving it a better review? Well, for one thing, I didn't really enjoy the way player interaction figured into the game. Obviously, the interaction is supposed to be somewhat indirect in terms of military, and that all worked out pretty well and feels well put together. The real competition to me felt like the cards that were coming out, as they weren't necessarily guaranteed to be perfectly balanced. It could be really cutthroat in terms of buying the right engine cards or military cards. It certainly is competitive, but it's also punishing and sort of swingy. If you don't get the right stuff (particularly in production), you find yourself lagging behind pretty quickly, and there's a fair amount of chance that goes into what comes out or whether you'll be able to purchase.

The real frustration for me was that picking a strategy and sticking to it was very difficult, because of the random nature of the cards. It feels like RftG in that you have to swing your tactics very rapidly, but in some ways this game feels much harder to do than that game. You can't fish for progress cards like you can for cards in RftG, and if you bet early on a strategy, be absolutely ready to jump ship when the cards aren't looking hot. It sort of takes away from the scope and scale of an epic civilization game when you need to change directions rapidly. It's not the game is random or chancy, but it really pays to know the deck ahead of time and be prepared to abruptly change. Compare that with Clash of Cultures, where there are several paths to victory that you can commit to, rather than needing to change periodically.

There's something about a tactical 3 hour civilization game that just feels sort of weird, especially when so much of the tactical element is down to a progress board that only changes so much. The fact that it is longer is also sort of a downside, because this is a game where you can rapidly fall behind and start suffering for it. I don't think that's inherently bad, but it does mean when your tactics suddenly fail you can get a real kick in the gonads. And when that happens, you've 90 minutes of game left to feel that kick. You get kicked for things beyond your control, which is just sort of frustrating, as opposed to being kicked when you make bad choices, which is at least true to life.

I've heard some people saying that it depends on a lot on knowing the deck well, so that you can reasonably anticipate what might appear. That might be true, I'd need to actually look over each of the cards and run the numbers. That might be a downside to some, but that's probably just the reality of any game with a card drafting mechanic.

This is by no means a bad game or even a mediocre game. It's a good game, but if I owned it, I'm not sure how often it would make it to the table. Maybe if I play it a few more times my rating will go up, but I'm not sure how often that will happen (also a reality of a student's income). If you want a more tactical civ with an intermediate length, this might be your baby. Use my review if you like and give it a shot.

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Roger McKay
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Re: Darling Dork-Nations
A competent article by this review-writing machine. I think the game-buying machines out there will find it useful.

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Shane Larsen
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Re: Darling Dork-Nations
I personally don't think knowing the deck helps the issue of randomness, because in each game you only use a certain amount if cards from each era. If all, or even close to all, the cards from each era entered the game every game, a la Through the Ages, then knowing the deck would make a difference.
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Zeb Larson
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Re: Darling Dork-Nations
Good point, Shane. Which sort of adds to my frustration by removing more information from the game and lessens my ability to make informed guesses about what comes out.
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Jesse
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Re: Darling Dork-Nations
thedacker wrote:
I personally don't think knowing the deck helps the issue of randomness, because in each game you only use a certain amount if cards from each era. If all, or even close to all, the cards from each era entered the game every game, a la Through the Ages, then knowing the deck would make a difference.


I don't get why so many people aren't going through most of the cards in a game. In our 4 player games, we see probably 80% of the cards in each age, if not more. There are usually just a few cards left over. Granted, we've only played with the basic decks.

Still, even if you added in the advanced/expert decks, you're supposed to remove cards from the basic deck. So, you really shouldn't be having many (if any) more cards.
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