Building an empire is so demanding. You have people to feed. Cities to build. Territory to conquer. Monumental engineering projects to construct. Scientists to mollify with conciliatory funding. It just takes so much out of you. Such taxing responsibilities have undone countless ill-starred monarchs. Wouldn’t it be so much better to just roll them bones and let fate decide all the dirty work?
How to Play
Nations: The Dice Game tasks you with leading an industrious people from floundering infancy to imperial greatness – developing infrastructure, conquering territory, advancing in knowledge, erecting world wonders and of course feeding the masses. All with the magisterial wave of a wrist – kind of like Queen Elizabeth.
This dice-building design is loosely based on Nations (2013) the board game. With the emphasis on loosely. Imagine that designer Håkansson dropped Nations into a wood chipper and then gave the detritus to a Japanese itamae for further slicing and dicing. The result is Nations: The Dice Game.
While borrowing the artwork, concepts and terminology from its progenitor, Nations Dice is ridiculously more streamlined and a completely different experience. In a good way, all revolving around its dice-pool/dice-building mechanism.
You start with a historically named, but otherwise generic, nation providing you with five basic white dice corresponding to the standard, pre-printed developments on your civilization board. These dice provide resources, two faces for food and then one each of gold, stone, swords and books. You also begin with a renewable gold and re-roll token. The game endures four ages (as in the number of rounds, not the expression meaning it goes on forever). At the beginning of each round you randomly fill a market board with progress tiles and flip a new event tile, both corresponding to the current age. Then everyone rolls their current dice. The result, along with any collected tokens, are the resources you have available for the round.
In an age’s first phase, players alternate performing one action at a time. You can spend resources from dice or tokens to purchase a progress tile. Tiles require spending between 1-3 gold or swords depending on which row they lie in the market. Blue development tiles upgrade your starting white dice to yellow (gold and food), blue (books and stone) or red (swords and food). Yellow leader tiles provide re-roll tokens. Brown wonder tiles provide other resource tokens and victory points. Those three tiles cost gold. You can also expend swords to take green colony tiles, which grant various resource tokens, as well. In the fourth age, most of these all grant points.
You can also spend stone to complete a wonder if you’ve purchased it previously. Unfinished wonders are placed on your civ board and require a number of stone to complete. When you do so, you can place it off to the side and begin another when available. The third possible action is to expend a re-roll token to roll any number of your unspent dice.
You won’t spend all of your dice during the action phase because you’ll likely want to conserve some books, food and swords for the final phases. In the books phase, you’ll cash any of those in to score on wisdom. The more you know, the more you earn. In the famine phase, you consult the event tile. If you collected the indicated amount of food, you’ll score the designated number of points. Finally swords become important. First, turn order for the next round is determined by sword count among players. And then you score points in the war phase based on the event tile in a similar manner as with famine and food.
After the fourth age, the player with the most points wins, which is of course how history judges all great civilizations. Then, as you’re riding in your victory parade replete with laurel wreath and wrist waiving, you can confidently confirm that indeed Rome wasn’t built in a day. More like half an hour!
The Roll of Nations
Lately I’ve found myself gravitating towards a lot of dice games. They tend to be accessible and relatively quick. The feel of the cubes and cacophony of the rolls typically generate excitement while keeping everyone involved and on a level playing field. I even broke down and tried Roll for the Galaxy to appease my comrades on the ‘Dragon when they slanderously claimed it was better than Marvel Dice Masters. I’ve also recently opined on the concept of turning popular board games into dice and card versions. So I won’t revisit that industry strategy. Instead, let me just examine how Nations: The Dice Game stacks up against its peers. As long as you’re not going into it thinking you’re playing a distilled variant of its predecessor, it’s a light and laid-back romp.
To be clear, this is a no-frills streamlined design meant to play quickly with some flavorful theme. It’s definitely a dice game in a civ-building context, rather than a civ-builder with dice. So you won’t feel like Hammurabi reincarnated. Or even Dan Quayle. There’s a noticeable lack of epic decisions and long-term planning. Still, it’s a bit more involved than many dice games, including its most obvious comparison Roll Through the Ages. And the dice-building mechanism is intriguing and works well.
That’s because your dice pool represents your progress, an evolution that any civilization game must convey. In the absence of acquiring rules-breaking advances, owning unique buildings or conquering vast territory, your dice pool instead denotes that growth at a visually-stimulating glance. Yet it’s not just perception, as all those colorful dice provide the actual benefits of your development: more resources. The more you invest in progress tiles, the greater things you can accomplish in subsequent ages, especially as costs increase for meeting the demands of famine, war, and construction of world wonders. You may also be able to surge ahead of your opponents in knowledge, or catch up to the leaders.
The dice-building element also injects the game’s one real measure of variability. The only difference between the balanced distribution of progress tiles are providing either upgraded dice or renewable tokens. So while the cost depends on where the tile lies on the market and point values are fixed based on category type, each player at least will be developing his/her pool of dice and tokens differently, which uniquely affects your general strategy and what you’re able to do. One may be awash in cash, while another has an abundance in books or stones or swords.
The irony is you don’t generally get to decide your path from the beginning; rather the design sort of clears the trail for you. Here is where one of the title’s bigger issues arises – first player advantage. Randomly determined by draw with player order cards, whoever starts the game gets to pick from her choice of progress tiles. The design tries compensating by giving players in later order more books, and thus a head start in scoring, to begin the game. However, that’s minimally consoling when you have to pay three gold for a tile, when one very similar or just like it went for only one gold right before your turn. You have some control over turn order in the next three ages by conserving swords to retain or improve your position. Alas this is a dice game, so to achieve that you’ll need the dice and of course good rolls.
Therefore Nations Dice often falls into scripted play. Since there’s not a lot of variation in tiles your choice will usually be obvious. That is you’ll grab the type you need at the cheapest available slot. This aspect is more profound in the first age. The cheaper tiles available to you can easily dictate your main strategy for the duration. After all, you can only work so much with that very first roll of the basic dice.
Now that’s not to say you’ll never agonize over a decision. You actually will find yourself debating the merits of paying a little more to gain tiles with specific resources, but you won’t be pulling your hair out. Again, as with player order, you have a little more control in later ages and can afford to loosen the purse strings – if you have dice.
If you are the unfortunate recipient of bad rolls (again, dice game), there are a couple of ways to alleviate unwanted results. The most immediate is with re-roll tokens. You begin with one and it’s reusable once per age. Leaders and a few other tiles can grant more, so one sound strategy might be to collect multiple tokens for greater flexibility in managing your dice pool. Again, if those tiles are available to you. You can only have one leader at a time (makes sense), but at least after the first age, they provide 2 tokens. If you’re out of the re-roll option, you can finagle an extra resource by converting any two dice for one food, gold, or stone. While not helpful in grabbing an extra sword or book, it’s still handy for when you’re short one of those basic resources and you’ll take advantage of it more than you’d think.
The player boards are well-designed and implemented. They evince a sense of progress as your civilization expands with every additional tile. But it serves an extremely intuitive and practical purpose, as well. At any moment, you are able to look at your tableau and determine at a glance what kinds and how many dice and tokens you should have. The initial board has printed your five blue developments each with a white die, plus your re-roll and gold token. You see exactly what you start with. As you add tiles, either covering something up or laying it to the side, you’ll see exactly what you own – and can even double-check your actual pools if you think you’ve gotten off-track.
Regrettably, the game missed a few opportunities to really increase its reach. The most striking is lack of variability. The tiles are so standard and generic that you won’t even mention them by name. You’ll just say, “I’m going to buy this blue one.” I get that giving each one a special benefit would probably seriously upset the design’s careful balance. Unfortunately, the replay value suffers as a result. What could have been an easy addition, however, is assigning each civilization a unique power. It wouldn’t upend the game’s flow and would have gone a long way towards combating the design’s rote nature.
There are some other minor quirks. The game set-up is rather lengthy for a design of its weight and length. The starting book track to compensate for player order seems disproportionately skewed in a 2-player game as opposed with 3 or 4. Food often seems pointless as the only thing it’s good for is meeting the famine requirements, which points may not be all that interesting every age. It can also run a tad long – again considering its style and nature. Individually these aren’t terribly glaring, but when experienced together really drive home the design’s abstract core.
That said games tend to be pretty close and tight in points. That makes the lack of variability and generic theme relatively palatable and creates a nice delicate tension. On the other hand, if you make one mistake early on, it means you’re likely not catching up. To me, this game’s sweet spot is with three players. You can play solo, if you really don’t have a good computer game to blow some time. So that’s at least an option. With two players, there’s very little contention over tiles and the aforementioned book scoring is unbalanced, in my opinion. It works, obviously, but just not as interestingly. With four players, the tile competition still isn’t tremendous because it adds another column of available options. Plus it makes the session a little long. The timing and pace is just about right for three players, while also creating some tension over the progress tiles and player order. Which is nice because solid 3-player options are generally lacking in the hobby.
Nations: The Dice Game: okay, so kind of a lame name, but not a bad game. As long as you don’t expect simply a distilled version of Nations the board game, this re-iteration of civ-building is a nice, light and fast filler. Approaching it as a thinking game and over-analyzing things will drive you, or more likely your opponents, mad. The title is down and dirty – exactly as it was designed and intended. The theme is extremely thin, but enough to give its interesting dice pool mechanics some context and direction. But its lack of variability and meaningful decisions will unfortunately relegate it to the rarely played pile for many. Still, most every game has its place and purpose. This as a simple and smart dice game if you need to flesh out your collection with the style. Ultimately it would have been better served with a different name and branding so as not to confuse others that it’s just Nations, but with dice.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee USA for providing a review copy of Nations: The Dice Game.