What are we all doing now? I am ironing my socks. You are reading a board game review. There are so many things we could be doing instead. Many promising developments that are almost within our reach. Space exploration, genetic manipulation, technological integration, unlocking the mysteries of the mind - all prospects that the bright youths of our nations can strive towards to and then deliver us to a new golden age. But as Confucius said: "Study the past if you are to define the future."
And now we can with Nations - a boardgame where you choose one of five Civilizations and lead them from Antiquity all the way to the Industrial Age. This big box of cardboard was delivered to us by Lautapelit.fi, a Finish publishing company that are responsible for the space-economy phenomenon that is Eclipse. It is by no means a new concept thematically - even a seven-year old could tell you that this sounds so much like Sid Meyer's Civilization (apologies to seven-year olds, I don't mean to be ageist). Neither is it a new concept mechanically - the game was initially developed as a modification to Through the Ages to make it faster, sleeker and more streamlined. Apparently the mod wanted to be a real boy so it grew legs and is now a full fledged game.
And you know what, I could do what so many have done and compare this game to Through the Ages but how about I don't, and just tell you about the game itself? Oh no Efka, why would you do that? Us readers want answers to such important questions as "Does it replace TTA?" or "Have they fixed the war mechanic?" Well if you're hungry for that sort of thing I guess you'll just have to starve. Life is cruel.
On to the game itself. In Nations you will go through twelve rounds (four ages containing three rounds each) building improvements, deploying workers and hiring architects. Each round you will lay out some cards on a shared board where each player can buy them - and this pretty much feels like a battle at the Pick-and-Mix section where each container is really low on candy. If you grab the fish and chips, some other kid will probably get to the cola-strips before you. These cards are either improvements that you can get for your personal board (like Wonders, Buildings, Military, Colonies or Advisers), one off boosts like Battles and Golden Ages, and War - which puts players with lower military under more pressure.
The improvements are placed on your personal board, and this is where all the action happens. Imagine the personal board like your Civilization's tax ledger - at the end of every round you will have a production phase where you will not only make resources - you'll lose them as well. And then there's famine which makes you lose food. And then there's also events (which were revealed at the start of the round) that have to be accounted for as they might incur you a resource penalty. So most of the time what you're doing is you're trying to balance the books and edging out a small profit every round - all in the name of Victory Points.
This is were Nations shines. There are so many options every round, and also so many things to consider. If you are like me and like things to fall into place, then you'll enjoy micromanaging your actions every round to see your plan executed to perfection. Can you afford to hire an extra worker this round? Probably not, because of the high famine cost and the increased food consumption the worker will generate. But if you do take him (or her- hers can be workers too), maybe you can deploy him (or her) on a building card that's available to buy that makes lots of food - you just need to buy it before anyone else. And sometimes you'll curse when you realised you left a cog out (like that worker you took that you had to deploy on that building you bought but forgot that you couldn't pay the deployment cost) and now your marvelous construct is crumbling into bits. A victory feels so satisfying because it reaffirms your choices and a loss just makes you want to come back and try again. The plethora of cards will make sure that no two playthroughs are too similar.
So would I recommend this game? Tisk tisk - we're getting way ahead of ourselves. OK, I'll be upfront this time - I really like this game and I'll gladly play it anytime anyone asks me to, but boy do I have to say a thing or two to the Lautapelit.fi guys. First of all - the rulebook. Really? What were you thinking? Not only is there an annoying ancient-greek-esque guy who pops out from the side to inform me about things I might like to know (if you are thinking of Microsoft Word's paperclip - you are right on the money), but also he insults my intelligence. OK, it's not him but the rulebook itself. There are three sets of cards: basic, advanced and expert. If I am a beginner, the designers tell me, I should only play with the beginner cards. But I'm quite an experienced board game player. No no, the designers tell me. Even if I play board games a lot, I should start with the beginner cards as the game is just so complex (it's not) that I will really struggle to grasp it.
You can tell from my attitude that I think this is utter tosh. I've played the game now in many different ways and have found very little change in complexity. In fact, the advanced and expert cards just make the game more interesting and varied - which is good. The basic mode does feel a bit flat. Same goes for the dual-sided player boards. If you choose the A sides - all of them will be identical. However B sides will make every nation different and give it strengths and weaknesses. This is great because you can either play a very fair game or one that pushes people into developing their boards in different ways. But once again, the guardian rulebook warns us of the dangers of flipping to side B for those of us yet uninitiated into the deepest mysteries of Nations - just ignore it - it's fine.
OK, maybe that's stupid advice. Maybe advising someone to ignore the warnings is just as bad as making a general assumption on your audience's intelligence and warning them to begin with. Maybe, just maybe, people can make that decision themselves (I have high hopes for you readers, make me proud).
And now we come to the solo variant. Yes, that dreaded room that you were told never to enter when you arrived at the creepy mansion. Games just find it so hard to get this right and this is no exception. Mechanically the solo variant works, it's jut not very interesting. You really do feel like you're an accountant who's just doing some bookkeeping - and there's nothing exciting about that. Still, if solo-play is your kind of thing - you just might find this an enjoyable experience.
There are a few other things that irk me, like the ability for every player to handicap themselves at different levels. And it can be as obnoxious as playing a co-op game on a console with your friend and saying, "Hey friend, I'm really good at this so I'll play on Hard, but maybe you should start with Super-Easy." Still, it's a valiant effort at innovating and trying to balance out the game for experienced board-gamers and those who are just starting out.
This is where I'm done saying nasty things because I think the game is wonderful. If the publishers/designers are reading this, I hope you take this as constructive criticism rather than an angry stab at you, because I think you made a stellar game that I'll be proud to keep in my collection. Would I recommend it? Hells to the yeah, as the kids say these days. This is a deep strategic game that feels satisfying and rewarding which makes it a winner to me.
addendum: Someone just broke into my house and they're holding me hostage. They say they are from the BoardGameGeek forums and that they won't let me go until I tell them whether this works as an update to TTA. So, yes, yes, it is a sleeker faster version although, just as anything more polished, it looses some of the charm. Yes they have fixed the War mechanic where you can no longer target one player specifically. Now quick, call the police before they club me like a se....