I wasn't keen to try Nations. From the reviews that I had read, it seemed to be just a simplified and inferior version of Through the Ages. However now that I have played it, I think it is a decent civilisation game in itself, and the similarities with Through the Ages are just skin-deep. It has it's own engine and tempo, and it's own mechanisms for handling the various aspects of civ games. I guess it is hard not to compare it with Through the Ages, because it was indeed inspired by this Vlaada Chvatil magnum opus. It has no map and it uses cards as the main mechanism.
It is a good civ game. Relatively easy to teach and play, but still satisfying. It is not short (around 2hrs), but I think civ games shouldn't be short anyway. E.g. I'd call Tempus a civ-themed Eurogame and not a civ game. Civ games need to be meaty and epic. I'd happily play Nations again if anyone suggests it.
Nations is played over four ages, with two rounds per age. Within a round, players take turns executing one action, until everyone passes. There are only 3 types of actions: (1) buy a card from the central board, (2) deploy a worker to a building or army card, (3) employ an architect to build one section of a wonder. Each player has his own player board representing his nation, and there are limited slots for different types of cards - leaders, buildings, armies, colonies and wonders. When building and army cards are claimed and placed onto your board, they don't give any benefits yet. You need to deploy your workers onto them to trigger resource production or gain military strength. Colonies can only be claimed when you have sufficient military strength. They give some benefits every round. Wonders usually require a few architects to complete, and architects need stone. The number of architects in the common pool each round is limited, so they need to be fought over. You can only construct one wonder at a time. Once completed, it gives a long-term benefit.
This is the central board from which players buy cards. With four players, six slots are used for each row. Cards in the top row are the most expensive, $3 each. Cards in the bottom row are $1 each.
This is a player board. It comes pre-printed with four basic building cards and one basic army card, so they are already available to you at the start of the game. At this point I have deployed two workers to become soldiers, so my strength is 4 now. The slots on the board are a hard limit. For each type of card if you buy more than you have slots for, you will have to discard an older card to make way for the new one. The eight workers at the bottom left are for population growth. You have one opportunity for growth per round, but every growth means a permanent grain consumption increase or stability decrease. Making babies must not be taken lightly.
There are three resources to manage. Money is mainly for buying cards. Everything in the game is about cards, so running short of money is a bad idea. Stone is for hiring architects and deploying citizens. If you are short on stone, you can't shift your people to better buildings or to become stronger armies. Your people will be less mobile. So stone is important too. Grain is usually for feeding armies, and every round there is a famine which will consume grain. If you increase your population, you need to consume more grain or decrease your stability level. So you can't live without grain either.
Warfare is non-directed. You don't attack a specific opponent. Every round only one player can buy a war card, which will later affect everyone. When you buy that war card, you mark your current military strength. This is the scale of the war. At the end of the round, anyone with a lower military strength will become losers in the war. Losers lose 1VP (which is a lot), and also some resources as depicted on the war card. Resource loss can be mitigated by your nation's stability level. War cards can be used by militarily strong nations to bully all other nations. It can also be used by weak nations to protect themselves. By setting the scale of the war low, they won't need to fear losing the war.
Another aspect that players compete over is the culture level ("books"). Culture scoring is done at the end of every age, i.e. four times per game. You score 1VP per less cultured opponent. In a 4P game, the best case is gaining 12VP for being most studious.
There are some opportunities for scoring points during the game, but most of the scoring is done at game end by evaluating your nation - the wonders, buildings, armies, colonies and resources accumulated all give points.
I played this at Boardgamecafe.net with Ivan, Dith and Jeff. Ivan had read the rules and taught the game. Dith had played solo before and helped. Jeff and I were the pupils. Turn order was randomly determined, and I found myself the start player. The initial card distribution had many colonies, so up front I decided to go military so that I could grab colonies. It turned out I stuck to this motto throughout the game. I never spent much effort on my culture level, and as the others sprinted ahead, I decided to drop out of school (kindergarten) and just focus on being a gangster. No point trying to do both and end up being good at neither. However it was not all smooth sailing for me in the military world. Jeff competed with me, and later on so did Ivan. I had to keep up the arms race, which costed much effort and resources. Dith was the only one who ignored military. He focused on culture, and used stability to protect himself from wars. However he still had to lose the 1VP for each time he lost a war. No mitigation for that.
Nations has a worker placement feel, and it's not because of the workers that you deploy. At the start of every round, there will usually be multiple cards on the central board that you want. However you can only pick one, and you need to be prepared that whatever you don't pick may get picked up by your opponents before your turn comes around again. Not everyone will want the same things. So, you need to observe your opponents' nations to guess their intentions. E.g. if no one else is building a wonder, it is probably safe to postpone claiming an architect for the moment.
Yellow border cards are golden age cards. You gain goods or VP. They are single-use cards and do not get moved to your player board. Grey border cards are battles and are also single-use. You gain resources based on your military tech. Black border cards are the war cards. The lower half shows what resource and how much of it the losers must discard. Orange border cards are leaders. Red border cards are armies. Blue are buildings. Brown are wonders.
This is the tracking board. The outer track is for culture. I (green) am still an uncultured barbarian drawing stick figures on cave walls. The track at the top is the stability track. Dith (yellow) has the most stable nation. The track at the bottom is the military track. Jeff (red) and I are the strongest. On the left are two slots for the war card and the event card for the round. On the right is the round tracker. That section in the middle is the difficulty indicator. We all played at Chieftain level (easiest). At the start of every round we received 4 free resources. This bonus is reduced at the higher difficulties.
I now have a leader (top left) and also two colonies (bottom left). Three of my five citizens are soldiers. This is Sparta!!!
Near game end. I started building wonders late, but managed to build four before the game ended. I grew my population twice (two blank spots at the bottom left). The red (army) and blue (building) cards have VP indicators (small yellow circles with laurel wreaths) which means workers on them are worth VP's.
The final scores. Ivan and Dith tied for the win. The five rows are: VP chips, colonies, wonders, buildings and armies, resources. At game end, stability level, culture level and military strength are all treated as resources and converted to points (at the rate of 10 for 1VP). At the start of the game everyone starts with 7VP chips. Throughout the whole game I had a net gain of 1VP chip!