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Subject: Nations: More Than Just Soldiers and Grain rss

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Dave Lartigue
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Civilization games, board games especially, are kind of rough for me. I love the concept, but my experience has been too many games that promise empire building but deliver Risk with a tech tree (in which each tech advance lets your soldiers fight better). I understand the need for military, but too often it's clear that this has been the main focus of the game. I want a civilization to be about civilization. Yes, that includes wars, but it should include more than token references to other factors. If I want to play just a straight-up dudes on a map game, I'll play History of the World, which, despite its name, is just that. No tech tree, no grain, nothing but soldiers fighting soldiers and occasionally building a monument. It's a fun game, but it's not a civ game.

The game Through the Ages got criticized for being mapless ("How can you have a civ game without a map?") but that was the appeal to me. No map meant that hopefully I could focus on actually building a civilization and not have to worry that this particular unit wasn't well defended or that I needed my borders were insecure. And I really like Through the Ages. I've thought about getting a copy, but I talked myself out of it on several occasions because I already know folks who have it. It's not perfect, but so far it's the closest thing to what I want. Still, even in that game you can get into a military arms race that overshadows everything else.

When I heard that Nations was a less fussy, slightly kinder version of Through the Ages, I jumped on it. Let me briefly tell you how it works.

It's all card based. Cards represent buildings, military units, wonders, leaders, and so on. You have four resources: gold, stone, food, and books, which sort of represent culture. You also have a military level and a stability level. You buy cards with gold, and deploy your workers on to them with stone. These cards will generate resources you need. Military is important because it's used to gain colonies, which provide long-term resources and win battles, which provide short-term ones. Military is also used to win wars, but wars are odd. When someone buys a war, his current position on the military track is marked. At the end of the round, anyone lower than that suffers a penalty: a VP and a resource loss. However, if you have a high stability, it mitigates the resource loss. So losing a war is not as terrible as it could be.

More interestingly, and this was something I didn't get until later, military should be used tactically. You can't really completely ignore military, since colonies and battles can be huge, but you also can't rely solely on it because military units are a big drain on resources. Optimally, you build up your military for a war or colony, then once you don't need it, disband those soldiers to once again work on the farms and sacrificial altars and stuff.

At first glance it does look like there's an emphasis on military, with those cards working with wars, colonies, battles, and turn order, but when you're playing correctly, a constant high military is going to bring you down. You'll go first, and you can keep having wars, but wars don't gain you anything, they just hurt the other players, and the other players are probably gaining stuff faster than you're making them lose it anyway. If all your guys are perched on their horse archers, they're not getting you food, gold, stone, books, or stability, and you're going to suffer.

There are four eras, and the card decks are different for each one, so you'll be upgrading buildings and things as you go along, unlike in many "civ" games where the library you originally built to house cuneiform tablets is the same library you presumably access the Internet from, but seventy-four different gradients of archers are available.

At the end of the game you score your VPs plus VP bonuses for buildings, wonders, and colonies, and then you add up your resources, military strength, and stability and divide by 10 and add that to your score. High score wins. Apparently some people dislike that last part, but I think it's a good way to assess the value of your whole civilization.

There's a ton of replayability in the game. In each era there are far more cards than you'll use in a game, so each game you'll see a different small slice of them, and that alone is going to change how you deal with them. Each nation board has an A side, which are all the same, and a B side which is unique, so you have different starting points. There are also event cards, and though you have about a dozen of them for each era, you only use two, so again, the experience can be very different each time. It's not hard to see where the game can be expanded in the future as well.

I had a miserable experience with Nations thanks to overlooking an important rule (if you're in revolt you lose 1 VP + books each production phase -- something that should probably be on the player aids), but since correcting that I've had great games. It goes a little long with five players and there's a weird rule that kicks in at that point, but I think three or four is just fine. I like the artwork, though I'm not crazy about the main card font (check out "Harry Potter and the Hydro Plant" here). The rulebook isn't bad but there's a lot to it and we've overlooked things. All in all it's a great game and I'm glad to have bought it. It may very well be the civ game I've been waiting for.
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Alan Goodrich
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Why can't more games have a handicapping mechanism?
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Great review. I do own Through the Ages, and won't be divesting myself of it anytime soon - I find it to be deeper and richer than Nations, and love managing the player board - but, all the same, Nations is my go-to game now. Not just my go-to civ game, but really one of the best Euros you can play in 120 minutes.

For me, what makes it better than TtA is exactly what you emphasized - the way war functions in the game. In TtA, war is still too powerful, and unbalanced overall. Nations deals with it perfectly. If you are totally out of military, you will be missing out on a lot of good (and helpful) cards, but at the same time, you can play without it and find other ways to win. The fact that you can buy techs and pop out workers for them is great; it means you can go from a measly army to a powerhouse fairly quickly, if you have the rocks to invest in getting workers on the cards. Unlike every other civ game I've played, you can't really be locked out of military competitions, and you don't have to commit early and grind through upgrades you'll likely only use as deterrence. I know many find this unrealistic or unappealing, but for me it makes the game a winner.

I'd also put in a good word for 2 player. TtA is a very good game with 2, but Nations is even better. I've played with many counts, and the game scales incredibly. Yes, it is a little long with 5, but a 2er can be played easily in 90 minutes.
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Craig Cowley
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Maybe try Civilization/Advanced Civilization(Avalon Hill)?
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Dave Lartigue
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days of rain wrote:
Maybe try Civilization/Advanced Civilization(Avalon Hill)?


I'm also not crazy about 6+ hour long games.
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