16 December 2018

Nemesis: the board game - review

If you have watched "Alien" then "Nemesis" will be a very familiar setting for you. In this 1-5 player game, the characters wake up from their cryo-sleep as their ship "Nemesis" stops due to an emergency. One of the crew is dead, and the rest of you try to figure out what's going on. The engines sound weird, the interior in many rooms has been smashed, the auto-pilot has been messed with and strange sounds come from ventilation shafts. You need to fix the ship, make sure it is still heading for earth and hurry back into your cryo-pods before the ship settings initiate the next hyper jump.

You all work together to solve the problem. Well not really. Everyone have secret objectives, one of them is personal the other being orders from the corporation that employed you to this ship. As the game progresses all of you begin to realize what everyone else is up to. And it is not your survival they have in mind! Also, quite soon you will also turn a corner and stumble upon one of the intruders, (aliens), that killed your friend in the cryo-chamber.
Nemesis is (mainly) a semi co-operative game where each player controls one unique crew member with a unique set of skills and starting gear. When I say mainly it's because the game comes with the option to play it both as a single player experience, and as a pure co-op variant, I will explain this a bit later. 

Every player also begins with two secret objectives which pretty much always collide with what everyone else want to achieve. So while it is useful to help each other out to some extent, you will reach a point where you will just initiate the self destruct sequence and get the hell of the ship in an escape pod by yourself. Co-operating is recommended as the ship needs extensive repairs, and in order to put out fires. Moving in pairs or small groups also limits the noise you generate navigating the dark corridors of the ship, to some extent.

The game comes with miniatures for representing the human crew and the intruders (aliens). The humans are each unique characters, such as a Pilot, a Soldiers, the Captain etc. The core game comes with 6 characters, a 7th optional add-on character (the Medic) will be available early next year. There is also a second crew of characters being added to the game with the expansion "Aftermath" which also adds a completely new set of aliens to replace the aliens from the core box. As only the core game and crew has been delivered by the Kickstarter so far, this review is solely based on the core game content.

Each character has 10 action cards, most of the actions are similar in between characters, but each character also has cards and abilities that are unique and that set them apart. Other than that, all characters work the same way, have the same amount of wounds and can do pretty much the same things.

The game also comes with a ton of item cards, representing weapons, medical supplies and tools that you will find in the various rooms when performing search actions. The game comes with a single - but double sided - board. One side is used for the normal game, while the reverse is used for the campaign and pure co-op variant. The game comes with objective cards for the normal game, and also separate objective cards for single player and pure co-op games which is really nice.

You also get cards that show the various ship destinations, you randomize this as the beginning of the game so players will never be sure which of the 4 available settings lead to Earth unless you manually check the co-ordinates at the bridge with an action. Two engine tokens for each of the 3 engines (one broken and one working version for each pair). Alien eggs, universal tokens to represent wounds and ammunition, transparent status tokens, fire and damage tokens, room tokens and room tiles.

The ship always comes with a number of fixed rooms that will always be present, as well as a handful of rooms that are drafted and where you can never be sure what they are until explored. All rooms begin the game randomized and placed face down,  and you will uncover/flip them once you explore the rooms. In each room, a small room token will also be flipped to indicate an event that occurs when you enter the room - as well as showing the amount of items available in the room.

The game has a fixed number of turns, and can also come to an early end if the ship explodes or breakes apart due to too many damage/fire tokens being placed on the board. Of course, initiating and completing the self destruct sequence will also end the game early. This means that players don't have much time to loiter about, and usually split up to explore the ship and attempt to figure out how to achieve their personal goal.

As players start moving about the ship, they will begin to attract the attention of the lurking aliens. Every time a player moves into a room which is empty, a noise roll is made and noise tokens are placed in corridors leading to the room you entered. If ever two noise tokens appear in the same  corridor an alien appears. When this happens for the first time, the characters panic and you must discard one of your two objective cards - playing the rest of the game with only a single objective card.

The aliens range from larva to full grown aliens, brutal Breeders and the imposing and pissed off Queen. The aliens are very deadly, and your counter measures are limited. Picking a fight means spending your meager amount of ammunition trying to shoot the aliens. Going out of ammo and having to fight in melee is crazy as you always have to draw "contamination cards" and add them to your character. Running away when out of ammo is oftentimes the most sensible, but not always a possible option.

The aliens inside the ship also multiply and evolve as the game progresses. The game will always begin with a fixed array of alien tokens in the "alien bag" (1 queen, 2 lurkers, 4 larva and 3 tokens representing adult aliens to which you add 1 additional adult for each player). At the end of each turn there is always an event card being drawn. The events are a lot of bad things that happen, such as fire spreading or escape pods being dropped. This is followed by pulling out a single alien token from the bag and consulting a chart. Oftentimes the effect will be that players need to roll additional noise rolls - which in turn can spawn more aliens on the board. Other times, the token will evolve into something else. Eggs being turned into larva, larva being swapped for adults, lurkers being swapped for breeders. 

This mechanic works in two ways - one being the obvious evolution and increase in number of aliens, and of the increasingly deadly sort,  that are available to spawn as the game goes on. The other effect is that it  forces players to keep moving, as you will be rolling a lot of noise rolls due to the alien tokens pulled from the bag. Being stuck in a room with several adjacent corridors already covered in noise tokens is a great risk. 

Nemesis also features a very nice and clean action mechanic with card managment. At the start of each turn, each player draws up to 5 cards to keep on their hand from their action deck. This means that the actions available are not playable each turn, as you will spend cards to perform basic actions such as moving about and searching rooms. Cards are also spent for combat and special actions such as activating room equipment, checking engines, checking navigation co-ordinates. So in order to perform action, you need to spend cards from your hand. Each turn players take turns performing 2 actions each, or passing. After the first round, players can perform up to two more actions if they have enough cards to do so - or pass. You will always be able to draw new cards next turn, and spent cards are re-shuffled and make up a new stack of cards when you have cycled through all your actions.

This is where another clever mechanic is put into place and offers players the choice of risk/reward. Spending lots of cards allows you to do expensive powerful actions, or move across the ship swiftly. But the fewer cards you have in your hand the more likely it is for you to be ambushed when aliens appear in the same room as you. Being ambushed means that the alien gets a free attack against you out of sequence with the alien/even phase at the end of each turn. Furthermore, the more contact you have with aliens, the more likely you are to be infected and have to draw "infection cards". Infection cards are added to your action deck and you will be drafting these cards in future turns. Infection cards can never be used to perform actions, and are essentially wasting space in your hand. You need to rest and perform medical procedures to remove them.
This leads us to the next thing, infection cards that actually have the text - "infected". This is when you are in serious trouble. You see, all the infection cards have a hidden text, that is visible if "scanned". All cards that you scan, that don't contain the text "infected" are simply discarded from your character. But if you find a card that is actually "infected" you need to place an alien embryo on your player sheet. If you ever get a second card that is "infected" or if an alien larva infests you - then you die immediately!

It is not unusual to carry an alien embryo during the game, and look desperately for the emergency room to remove it with surgery. As long as you remove it before going back to cryo-sleep / leaving the ship in an escape pod you are good. Should you however not manage to remove it, you will also die in the post game sequence. Players that have "infection cards" in their deck will also scan all cards at the end of the game. If an "infected" card is exposed they shuffle their deck and draft 4 cards. If any of the cards is the "infection card" then the character dies.

There are so many ways to die in the game. The only thing not possible is to directly attack another player. But nothing prevents you to lock doors, suck people out in space or blow the ship up to cause fatalities.

In a lot of ways the game succeeds to strike the balance between group goals and selfish motives that you character has. The objectives are difficult to achieve, even if they may appear very simple on your objective card. Oftentimes you are required to fulfill several steps to unlock your personal victory condition, sometimes you need to wait for the right trigger before being able to achieve your goal.

For instance the goal of leaving the ship require you to enter the escape pods, which will remain locked until either a character gets killed, the self destruct sequence passes the point of no return, or if you are lucky then the ship has a special control room that manages the locks to the escape pods. 

Still, it is often a long way and at least one or two player turns in between the objective being achievable and you actually being able to fulfill it. In one of our games, two of the players both had the objectives that required them to leave the ship. However, one of the players had to be the only survivor, that player jumped into the escape pod right in front of another character and launched it. The remaining character had to run through half the ship with the self destruct sequence counting down and was able to launch herself just prior to the ship exploding. 

So far we have played this game several times. Single player, 2-player full co-op, 2/3/4 player normal mode. A great time was had with each variant. I really like that there is a full co-op game as me and my wife usually don't like to play games where you backstab each other (at least in 2 player mode).
However we did really enjoy the normal semi co-op mode a lot. 

The only problem you may encounter in the game is permanent player elimination. This can happen in one brutal fight if you are unlucky. It has not been something common in our games. When it occurs, it is usually towards the end of the game. The most common way to die is for everyone to perish in a ship explosion due to too much damage dealt to the ship. There is one variant that allows the first player killed by aliens to become an alien player with his own alien deck. This is a neat option, and reminds me of "Alien: Legendary Encounters". We have not yet explored this option though so I am not able to judge whether or not it is fun or worthwhile.

On the other hand the game is very fast paced and you can play through it within 2 hours, 3 hours at the most. I don't think that the player elimination is as bad as in games such as Game of Thrones or Twilight Imperium which are games that last a lot longer.

A final note, and this is something that I feel has grown increasingly important to me in the past year or so. Nemesis is easy to prepare for the table, it is a clean design and it is a fast process to pick it up and put it back into the box once you are done. I've come to really appreciate clever design that does not require you to put hundreds of tokens and decks of cards on the board and around table. The components also don't interfere with each other and the board does not feel crowded in the least. My patience has grown thin lately with games that are too cluttered. I love miniatures, cards, components and great artwork - but if there is not enough room to actually place them on the board or the table I get really annoyed. The design of Nemesis, despite offering a very complex game, is very clean and streamlined experience which I can really appreciate.

The game also comes with a small campaign book that has 4 "legacy" style scenarios, where the gameplay carries over in between plays. I have not yet had the time to check this out, but the campaign book itself is very nice and presented as a comic. What's not to like?

I purchased my copy through Kickstarter, and went with the pre painted option for the models. I did however fully paint the human crew. I also repainted the bases, and added several layers of washes to the alien miniatures to make them a bit darker. The core game comes with grey plastic miniatures in the retail version.

Nemesis final verdict, 9/10

+ Solid gameplay for 1-5 players
+ Multiple game modes, single player/full co-op/semi co-op
+ Clever action point/hand management mechanic
+ Atmospheric theme
+ 2-3 hour per session, offers a fast paced game that can be played twice in one evening
+ High quality components, especially the cards which are of sturdy stock
+ Plastic inserts to keep everything in the box, such as miniatures, aliens, tokens etc

- Player elimination is possible
- The alien models are a bit on the large side compared to the humans
- Plastic inserts can't hold sleeved cards if you use the common brands such as "Arcane Tinmen"


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