The Game of Nations seems an appropriate game to play at the time of writing, given the current world situation; which has changed from the time of the game's inception only in so far as there is direct intervention in the region of the real world that the game models. The game took its title from a book written about the delicate politics in the Middle East by one Miles Copeland, a former government agent for the USA from all accounts. The rules state the game was "taken from an original idea by Michael Hicks-Beach"; so perhaps this game was one of the earliest for which the designer was credited.
The Game of Nations was first published in 1973; and two versions were made which, despite using almost all the same equipment, were very different games due to some significant rules differences. The inventory of the "American" version (the version I am certain was sold in America, though its origins may be elsewhere) differed from that of the "British" version (which certainly originated in Britain in the early 70's and was possibly sold elsewhere) in the addition of a deck of espionage cards, which allowed the Secret Agent to carry out special missions, and a home port card for each player, to which the player had to move his or her oil tankers in order to generate revenue (earlier British versions may have carried the same inventory, but I have seen this game a lot and never witnessed this version). Thankfully, neither the chaos of the espionage cards, nor the cumbersome rules for generating oil revenue made it into the British edition, which I will review here.
The Game of Nations takes place in a pseudo-OPEC region, which goes by the name of Kark. Players represent superpowers vying for control of this oil-producing region; inevitably (and perhaps in the viewpoint of many, unfortunately) this is a game of elimination. The region of Kark is divided into nine countries between two seas; four inland, oil-rich countries; four coastal countries which produce less oil, and U.O.R., which is the poorest of all but controls a canal which is the only route from one coastline to the other. Each country has eight spaces, which are part of a fairly abstract ring layout. There are two or four border crossing points depending on whether the region is coastal or inland, a "chance" space which allows a player to draw an International Incident card, a number of ordinary spaces, and most importantly a red Capital space.
The Capital space is most important, because it is key to both control of a nation, and its oil production. Also key to oil production is each country's oil producing capability; this is represented by one, two or four oil derricks depicted inside the country's movement circle.
Before the start, there is nothing on the gameboard except for a shuffled pack of International Incident cards, and players are each in possession of six leaders (two Kings, two Politicians, one Dictator and one Guerrilla), one Secret Agent, one tanker and seven million in money.
Players start the game by installing one of their puppet leaders in a Capital of any one nation, and bringing their Secret Agent into the game next to him. A tanker is also placed next to this leader, and players then have their first oil-producing nation. Placing a leader costs more for some leaders than others; a Dictator or Guerrilla costs only 1 million to install, but a Politician or King costs 2.
Oil revenue is generated each following turn by having a combination of tankers and derricks in a nation controlled by their leader, and naturally different leaders generate different income; Dictators and Guerrillas generate one million for every derrick-tanker pair, and Politicians and Kings two. If you don't have a tanker to every derrick, then you don't generate revenue for any oil you can't transport; likewise, too many tankers and not enough derricks will only generate as much as the derricks will produce.
Of course, inland countries have no ports, so in order to generate income from an inland territory a pipeline must be installed to a coastal territory. Leaders and tankers are required on both the inland and coastal territories if oil revenue is to be received; and naturally these must be under the control of the same player.
All this revenue is then used to expand the tanker fleet, install more leaders in unclaimed nations, and move existing leaders on the assault into other territories. This all sounds very simple, but the rules restrict heavily the manner in which this is executed. Players are only allowed to place or move one leader, place or sell or move one tanker, and place one pipeline each turn. This can all be very expensive; tankers cost five million each and sell for three, pipelines cost three million (they cannot be removed) and most expensive of all, leader movement is paid for by the space (and as above, some are cheaper than others).
Once players have established some sort of income, they start expanding. Leaders are sent into neighbouring countries and take over. Then new leaders fill the political vacuum left by the aggressor, and the ebb and flow of The Game of Nations begins. The Secret Agent becomes very useful as a defensive measure; it always moves four spaces, and moves every turn, but leaders cannot move past it. An excellent, albeit temporary, method of employing the Secret Agent to block a potential threat can buy valuable time.
Those difficult decisions so familiar in the designer titles of late are ever present here; but rather than looking for a move that will most benefit the individual and helping others least in the bargain, The Game of Nations puts players in a position where the decision is often one of damage limitation to the ever-present threat of another player's coup. The oscillatory political situation eventually threatens all players; there will be many occasions a player must decide to cut and run when faced with the threat of war.
Though the game employs money, its use is less of a scoring mechanism and more of a useful commodity in this game; indeed without it a player is powerless to do anything other than try to stir up a hornets nest with his Secret Agent. This is a good aspect of this game; as a player earns money there is no room to bank it, it has to be spent on the next coup, or more tankers, or pipelines. Sit on your money and lose momentum; possibly lose the game. Fritter it away and watch your political power disappear. In my last game, another player was about to pounce upon an opportunity to depose one of my kings when he realised he was two million short to move his politician into the Capital.
Players will eventually reach a point where they have to make critical decisions for the safety of their power in the region; do they remove their leader from power voluntarily in the hope he might regain power after a short time, or do they try and ride out the storm? Is the potential risk of a coup in neighbouring Zulfi worth taking, or should the Guerrilla be kept back to protect your King in Kurut? Should they pull out a tanker to safety, or risk the loss for another two million next turn? This game is well-balanced where power in the region is concerned, and as a result such decisions get very difficult.
The key to success is timing. A good player must be very careful in timing his coups and takeovers, not least because to eliminate a player requires that player to be unable to move or place a leader. Sitting on your oil money means he can sit on his; overstretch your resources and you will become vulnerable yourself.
Leaders are vulnerable to attack only when in power - on a country's Capital. Any leader not in power cannot be attacked, so the odd leader floating around a nation is both a useful offensive and defensive asset. Leaders on a Capital are only vulnerable to attack from a different type of leader; Dictators cannot depose Dictators, and Politicians cannot depose Politicians, for example. Once a leader moves off a Capital, the leader is invulnerable, but is no longer in control, and the greatest downside is any tankers left behind at the Capital are anybody's.
The only way to keep your tankers safe is to move them out to sea; the trouble with this is that they don't generate revenue at all. The advantage of this is that they are no longer vulnerable to the attack of other players. Tankers are key to this game; there are only sixteen available overall, and without them no oil revenue can be made. Players must, above all else, aim to protect their tankers. Tankers out at sea can move to the opposite coastline if the same player or no player controls U.O.R., thus this minor oil producer gains strategic value in another important fashion. Not having a tanker in port means revenue cannot be generated; having a tanker in port earns revenue but can be attacked.
In general, one should only risk taking a chance on an International Incident card if the situation is desperate; the cards have around a half-and-half mix of good and bad; but then if a card doesn't apply to you (e.g. "Tanker Sinks" when you have no tankers) it is neither good nor bad. If you have money and time is on your side, and there is no strategic reason to do so, avoid the question marks.
And if you try to force a stalemate, you have already lost. A position of invulnerability is possible if players allow it to happen (it's not too difficult to work out the requirements for this, but it is difficult to meet them). However, this takes up two thirds of your power; the best you can hope for with such a defensive strategy is stalemate. You will never win the game whilst maintaining such invulnerability; it is impossible to achieve.
The game provides an excellent abstraction of real world politics; this doesn't mean that the game can be classified as "abstract", merely that it deals with the theme in (at least seemingly) a fairly accurate fashion. Dictators depose kings, guerrillas fight for freedom, and politicians rally for support - but of course behind it all is the hidden face of a major world power in the form of the players. The game and its mechanics meet the requirements of such a theme rather well.
The game is fairly easy to learn; yet like so many great games can take time to master. This is mainly because of the way the game plays; there are moves and counter-moves. A player might install a King in one country because he knows he will have to move it off next turn, and his opponent only has politicians in play (thus placing one on the newly-vacated Capital leaves it under immediate threat to an inexpensive coup from a nearby King); but if his opponent does not take the bait and instead moves a King himself from a nearby nation into the newly vacated one, that could put the cat amongst the pigeons.
The Game of Nations is a fluid game; the situation is ever changing as players each vie for power through their own strategies. This not only means a constantly shifting balance of power in the region, but it means the decisions players make must account for every eventuality.
There are few games without bad points; The Game of Nations has its share, but top of the list is the concept of elimination. Lose your money, lose your leaders, your tankers and your power; then you've lost the game and you don't get to play anymore. However, I think this is the only fitting way in which a victor can be determined in a game such as this; a points system just doesn't work.
A knock-on effect of the elimination process is that the game can get fairly lengthy, with two players of similar ability battling it out for the region having picked on the weak. Somebody will eventually wipe out all opposition, but to get there can take time; so be prepared to go at it for around two hours - possibly more - in a four-player game.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the game from my viewpoint is the inclusion of the International Incident cards. These are a set of chance cards, one of which is drawn when either a Leader or a Secret Agent lands on a question mark. They add an element of chaos to the game which may be good or bad to the player drawing them, either giving them free moves, more money, sinking one of their tankers or deposing one of their leaders. I do not object to their use in the game by any means, though I do make a point of avoiding their inherent risk. What I dislike about them is their lack of variety; for what they do they might as well not be used, despite their usefulness in pulling an already defeated player back into the game. I could also criticize them in this respect for prolonging the game; though a player could also quicken his own demise by chancing one, it is highly unlikely a powerful and rich player is going to take that chance. As a result, the cards merely serve to increase the game length, and perhaps reward the losing player a little just for taking a chance.
Having said that, I don't totally object to their use, and feel that a bigger deck might add interest. Perhaps cards affecting all players could be introduced; increasing the price of tankers or pipelines, forcing some tankers to be returned, making the movement of certain leader types more expensive during the game, or raising the price of oil (and hence the revenue in circulation rising).
The Game of Nations is perhaps one of the best designed strategy games of all time; and while it employs the elimination mechanism, considered an archaic and even at times antisocial mechanism, the game is still a challenging and thought-provoking game of strategy. This game will remain a favourite of mine indefinitely; partially through nostalgia, but mainly through the thought provoking play generated whenever it makes it to the table.
Its availability is a difficult thing to assert; whilst the game has been out of print for around two decades (in the UK at least; last printed by Gibsons who took on many of the old Waddington's titles) I have come across many second-hand copies so it shouldn't be too difficult to get hold of one.
Those readers in North America may already have a copy themselves (or maybe can get hold of one), but it is likely they have played it only with the American rules. I urge you to try this game with the rules that were available in the UK; you can download them from BoardGameGeek, linked from the game's entry in their database.
- Anthony Simons