Small, simple, consistent, and unfair. So why am I still playing Nations?

, | Game reviews

The problem with the march of history is that the rules change. What starts as a charming little war with spears and bows soon becomes a whole big kerfluffle about the Enlightenment and suddenly you’re having to manage airplanes on your aircraft carrier. Who needs the headache? The marvel of Nations is how it manages so much consistency across eight simple turns that span hundreds of years. What you’re doing in the Industrial Age is more or less what you were doing in antiquity, yet it still manages to capture the march of history from spears to aircraft carriers. Well, dreadnaughts, at least.

After the jump, through the ages

Nations might seem like a grand strategy game in the tradition of Through the Ages, Vlaada Chvatil’s notorious five-hour-plus tapestry of complex interactions that you’ll never be able to get your friends to play. But it’s not. Nations is simple and disarmingly tactical. It’s mostly about looking over a board of cards and choosing which one you want, much like picking from a salad bar. Romaine or iceberg? It’s an adapt-or-die representation of history, about making do with what’s available, based on the impact of a handful of immediate simple decisions. On your turn, there are only ever two things you can do. Do you buy a card? Or do you place one of your workers on one of the cards you’ve previously bought? That is the extent of your mechanical interaction with Nations. This is an easy game to learn.

It’s also deceptively interactive. At first, this might seem like the sort of game where everyone hunkers down over his own tableau, working out the economic intricacies in isolation. But it’s not. Each turn begins with an event card that will resolve at the end of the turn, after the players have taken all their actions. These event cards almost always pit the players against each other for a set of goals. For instance, the player with the highest military rating will win this reward, and the player with the lowest stability will be hit with that penalty. The ensuing turn becomes a balancing act between cultivating your civilization and climbing to the top of the heap, or at least staying off the bottom. Feet will be applied to necks. Elbows will meet faces. Eyes will be poked. Nations is at once an elegant economic engine and a dogpile.

The representation of military power in Nations is unique. Armies are mainly used to secure resources that aren’t available to weaker nations. They decided to spend their resources on economic advancement. Sure, you might have a thriving industry, but my armies get the spoils of battle and they can seize colonies. Wars are also a unique concept. They aren’t about direct conflict so much as they’re an arms race. A war card sets a minimum military rating for the turn. If a powerful military nation sets the war rating, everyone who doesn’t army up sufficiently will suffer. But if a weaker nation sets the war rating, everyone can breathe easily. But the trick of it is that military rating determines turn order, so a military nation gets to choose first from the cards. Warmongers sit in the catbird seat. But then there’s the stability rating, which serves as a sort of armor against the effects of war. Even when it comes to war — especially when it comes to war — Nations is a game about maneuvering, and countermaneuvering, and guessing who’s going to do what. Mere fighting would be too simplistic.

The economic engine in Nations is deliciously elegant for how few resources there are and for how consistently each of them is used. Gold buys cards, stone powers the cards you buy, food staves off famine and buys new workers, and books award victory points each turn. It’s that simple. As the ages advance, they don’t fold in more rules. Instead, they force you to make decisions about where you’ll be more efficient. Will you be a nation of industry, commerce, population, agriculture, culture, war, or stability? Or, more precisely, what combination of those things? And what are your opponents going to do? For instance, it’s never enough to have a lot of books to represent a cultured nation. What matters is how many books you have in relation to the other players.

Like Through the Ages, there’s a beginner’s mode in Nations. Everyone starts on a level playing field. The deck for each age uses fewer cards, all of them basic. The idea here is partly to minimize the luck of the draw; it’s mostly to keep new players out of self-inflicted economic death spirals. But like Through the Ages, you’re not really playing Nations until you’ve moved beyond this beginner’s mode. Nations is at its best as a full game, where each nation has unique powers and unique starting conditions, where the deck is full of cards that can pull the gameplay into weird corners, where the events are far more dramatic, and where the distribution of cards can hobble even the most efficient economy if it doesn’t adapt. As a tactical game about flexibility rather than a staid grand strategic planner, Nations is at its best when it’s at its wildest and woolliest.

For instance, the typical military card gives you military points and requires some sort of upkeep. In the basic game, the pattern and the specific numbers won’t change much. In the Medieval age, the rate of exchange is five points of military power for one resource. Horse archers eat one unit of food, cho-ko-nu crossbowmen are paid one gold, and camel archers require a point of stability. It’s a consistent five-to-one exchange, and you’ll want a card based on what you can most easily afford. But when you play the full game, cards come into play that violate the basic rates of exchange. For instance, in the Medieval age, the Greek fire galley and the cataphract give you six points of military in exchange for two resources. That’s new math. That’s breaking the rules. That’s a new question. Can you afford them? Then there are the longbowmen, who require no upkeep. The math is newer. The rules are more broken. The question now isn’t whether you can afford them, but which player gets the longbowmen.

Or perhaps no players get the longbowmen because that card never comes into play. In the basic game, most of the cards will cycle through the progress board. But in the advanced game, with nearly twice as many cards in each age, each game explores an unknown landscape. You might start off playing Egypt, which excels at building wonders of the world. These expensive cards require a strange mix of luck and economic investment, but when they’re complete, they give you powerful bonuses. But what if no wonder cards come into play? What if they’re among the cards that didn’t get dealt? What will Egypt do now? Nations is that kind of game. If you’re so keen to mitigate the luck of the draw that you just play the basic game, you might as well stick to something safely Euro without cards or dice or tile draws. Like actual history, Nations is about how you respond to opportunity, or the lack thereof. Nations isn’t fair.

This can be a long game at first, but not because it’s paced poorly. On the contrary, this is one of the best paced boardgames I’ve ever played. But one of the reasons to play the basic game is so new players can see how this engine runs, so they can witness the reverberations of early decisions down through the ages. Once the players understand the economic and military engine, Nations moves at a snappy pace, with the caveat that anyone prone to analysis paralysis might freeze up, and anyone not paying attention will have to catch up all over again when his turn rolls around. To really play Nations, you have to watch what other people do and think about how you’re going to react. Again, despite the appearance, this is not a game where each player hunkers over his own tableau. Mechanically, your turn will be simple. But like any good tactical game, you have to make difficult and important decisions based on what’s happening when it’s not your turn. There is no downtime.

The theming is superlative, with sharp historical flavor for even the simplest concepts. Although you just got two stone, it was because your nation invented the cotton gin. Those three food you just earned were because you fought the battle of Cannae. Colonial conquests in antiquity won’t just earn you gold, food, or culture; they earn you Nubian gold, Hispanic grain, and the religious impact of ancient Israel. Everyone but Persia didn’t just have to pay gold because their military was low. They had to do it because Blackbeard raided their ships. I don’t know what the Ionian Colonisation [sic] is, but because I stored up extra food this turn, it means I alone get more gold. Thanks, Ionian Colonization! I should look up Ionian Colonization on Wikipedia.

If I have a beef with Nations, it’s that I really expected it to be taller. These cards are so tiny, the size of the petty resource cards in Battlestar Galactica or the rickety inventions in Robinson Crusoe. Yet the stuff on the cards is the size of history, so much larger than life. I suppose Nations already has a big enough footprint with its board for available cards and its separate scoring board. But these cards with their stamp-sized artwork are so unassuming, so modest, so much like having a tea party. The cards should sprawl large and in charge, easy to read from across the table so you can see what everyone else is doing in the wider world.

I should also point out that I have never won a game of Nations. Never. Yet I love playing. Most of the time when I’m terrible at a game, I only have so much patience to keep at it. But in Nations, the scoring is flexible enough as history rolls on, with unexpected developments and reversals of fortune, so that I don’t mind playing a losing game because I’m eager to see What Happens. These cards may be tiny, the gameplay decisions may be small, and the rules simple. But as Nations unfurls itself, it is as grand as history.

  • Nations

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  • From the humble beginnings of civilization through the historical ages of progress, mankind has lived, fought and built together in nations. Great nations protect and provide for their own, while fighting and competing against both other nations and nature itself. Nations must provide food and stability as the population increases. They must build a productive economy. And all the while, they must amaze the world with their great achievements to build up their heritage as the greatest nations in the history of mankind! Nations! Yes, Nations! Yea, verily, nationally, Nations! Say it with me: NATIONS!