Game Name: Nemo’s War First Edition
Publisher: Victory Point Games
Designer: Chris Taylor
Artist: Tim Allen
Playing time: 45-60 minutes
Genre: Solo game set in the world of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
As I’ve played Nemo’s War on various occasions lately, in order to prepare for this review, a couple of questions always come to mind. How did Chris Taylor fit so much of Jules Verne’s classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea into such a small gaming package? And, why aren’t more games, costing two or three times more and released by companies with extensive production budgets, as much fun as Nemo’s War?
In Nemo’s War, the player takes on the role of Verne’s famous anti-hero, Captain Nemo, as he travels under the world’s seas in his fantastical submarine Nautilus in this solitaire title. Much of the detail in the classic novel is presented in the game and somewhat elaborated upon allowing for a wonderful gaming experience. Interestingly enough, I don’t think many out there remember enough of the novel to realize that Nemo is not simply a villain sinking the world’s shipping but a very complex character with rather noble (if at times misguided) goals. He and a crew of his followers cruise the seas battling injustice, especially imperialism, by preying on the shipping of the European colonial empires. They derive bullion from the various shipwrecks that dot the ocean with their most notable plundering ground being the Spanish wrecks in the Bay of Vigo.
Nemo claims to have no interest in the affairs of the surface world above, but occasionally intervenes to aid the oppressed by giving salvaged treasure to the people of Crete who are revolting against their Ottoman Turkish rulers; by saving (both physically and financially) an Indian pearl hunter who was the unfortunate victim of a diving accident; by saving the castaways from drowning once the secret of the Nautilus is discovered early in the story.
Nemo’s War is one of Victory Point Games deluxe titles so you’ll find that it comes in an 11″x13″ (or there abouts – I didn’t break out a measuring tape) bag instead of the standard smaller polybags the majority of VPG games arrive in. You’ll also find that this deluxe edition comes with quite a few more components than usual.
At the beginning of the game, Nemo’s Motivation must be chosen to determine how scoring will be tallied. There are four choices of Motivation: Science, Exploration, War, and Anti-Imperialism. Each choice determines how many victory points are scored, so if Nemo pursues his anti-Imperialist motivation then sinking non-warships and freeing native peoples will yield more points than completing adventures or discovering Wonders. The system is interesting as it plays on the motivations of the novel’s character depiction of Nemo. There even comes a point in the game where you can change the Motivation to pursue a different strategy if you’d like. This aspect obviously adds a great deal to the replay value.
The game map of the world is divided into regions corresponding to its seas and oceans. Each region contains an area holding ship counters in play as well as a treasure token. The Nautilus travels these seas and oceans looking for warships, commerce shipping, adventure, and treasure. It’s important to note that Nemo must always look to sinking ships, regardless of Motivation, because if at any time every ocean area is filled with ships the game will come to an end with a massive Victory Point penalty to the player. I’ll get to winning the game a bit later…
Each game turn is broken up into three phases: Preparation, Nemo’s actions, and Advancing the turn marker.
In the Preparation Phase, two dice are rolled and the number rolled will determine if additional ships are added to an empty ocean region, if a treasure is replaced on the board, if Imperial powers step up their efforts to squelch rebellion Nemo has incited, and if an Adventure Card is drawn. Only one roll determines all of these factors.
The Adventure Cards are either Events or Tests. If it is an Event you might have to resolve the event immediately or hold the event for later play – this is determined by the text on the cards. If the card is a Test then you must resolve the Test immediately. One mechanic that provides an interesting wrinkle is the ability to gamble or Exert resources (listed on the card) to the die roll. Here’s an example of how the mechanic works: Say you receive a Test card and the required die roll to pass is “10”. This is a tricky proposition since this is a 2d6 roll. You can Exert resources to receive a die roll modifier in order to help you reach that target number. The resources available are hull, crew, or Nemo points and the card will list which resource or resources you may wager. It’s important to note these points are also a sort of damage track and if any of the three reach zero the game immediately ends. If you exert these resources and pass the test you don’t lose any of the points gambled. If you miss the roll however, you’ll lose what you’ve Exerted in addition to any penalties already listed on the card for failure.
There are also special “one shot” resource characters from the novel such as Ned Land, Professor Arronax, and Conseil which can be used as a onetime DRM but are discarded (with a small deduction from your Victory Points) once used. The Nemo track in particular is worth mention because the bonuses added actually get higher as he takes more damage and becomes more personally invested in the adventure – it’s another great example of how the setting of the novel is thoroughly woven into the gameplay.
The Exertion mechanic creates a fascinating experience of risking the very survival of the Nautilus, her captain and her crew in order to pass Tests and prevail in combat. If you don’t gamble with the resources at hand you’ll find it difficult to pass these Tests or win enough battles. If you recklessly throw your resources around you’ll find the game ending early or lose out on Victory Points at the end of the game. When and how you gamble your resources is a constant quandary that adds a nail biting element to play.
The second phase is Nemo’s Action Phase. In this phase the player may choose one of the following actions: Rest/Refit/Repair, Incite, Search for treasure, Move, or Stalk shipping. Rest/Refit/Repair can only be used every other turn and never on consecutive turns.
Rest allows the Nautilus the opportunity to possibly add one crew point.
Repair is simple enough and you recover one hull point.
Refit is interesting because you can spend a Salvage Point (gained from ships you have sunk) to upgrade the Nautilus or draw an Adventure Card. There are a variety of upgrades to choose from. I especially like the Monstrous Design, which many times helpfully reduces your Notoriety when you sink ships – in the novel the Nautilus is originally thought to be some sort of giant sea creature and not a man made submarine. If you choose to draw an Adventure Card you may choose to resolve the result or discard it.
Incite allows the player to spend an earned treasure to try to advance the Liberation Track (especially helpful if you’ve chosen an Anti-Imperialism Motivation).
Move is straight forward and the Nautilus moves to a connected ocean region and the Turn marker is advanced the number of weeks indicated on the board.
Stalk allows the Nautilus a +1 DRM to attack any ship that is currently in the same ocean region.
Combat is resolved very quickly, as commercial shipping and warships are destroyed with a single hit whereas the Nautilus can take multiple hits. This isn’t to say that taking on the shipping of the world is a cake walk especially as Nemo’s Notoriety increases and the naval powers add more warships into the randomly drawn pool of shipping to be added to the board each turn. Nemo and the continued existence of the Nautilus alone increase the Notoriety level and there are two points in the game where the Notoriety track is automatically increased and more warships are added to the mix. If Nemo’s Notoriety ever reaches the maximum (easily achieved if pursuing a War Motivation) all warships receive an attack modifier, making it more likely for them to damage the Nautilus.
The final phase is the simply to advance the turn marker one week. This is in addition to whatever time has passed based on Nemo’s Action that turn.
The game continues until you lose all points in any of the three categories (Nemo, crew, or hull), every ocean region is completely filled with ships, all ships in the game have been sunk, 52 weeks have passed, or you’ve concluded the final adventure (which is randomly shuffled into the final four cards in the Adventure Deck). If either of the first two conditions take place you’ll automatically lose fifty Victory Points!
Once the game ends you’ll add up your Victory Points based on Tests you passed, Adventure Cards unused, ships sunk, how well your resources have held up, treasures collected as well as a few other factors. This is where your Motivation really comes into play as most accomplishments carry a different modifier; i.e. if your Motivation was War you receive the highest modifiers for sinking warships and advancing the Liberation track. Once you’ve calculated your Victory Point total you’ll check your Victory Level and cross reference that with your Motivation to learn how Nemo’s story has ended.
Nemo’s War is a huge, epic game and you really get the feeling as you’re playing the novel itself! In fact the flavor text on each card comes directly from the Verne classic. There’s so much action going on, and you’re weaving a marvelous adventure with the completion of every turn, it’s hard to believe that you can bring most games to a conclusion within an hour or so. The game demands decision making at every turn and each choice you make has a real impact on the tale being told. Solo gaming doesn’t get any better than this my friends!
I suppose some people may not appreciate the number of die rolls or the amount of luck involved in the game but I believe an adventure game thrives on the rolling of dice. Nemo’s War is by no means an easy game in which to score a major triumph but you never feel as if the game is unbalanced in any way or working against you unfairly; focusing on Nemo’s motivation and wagering your resources smartly will certainly provide you a better end game result than simply racing around willy-nilly.
I will point out that there is a small expansion for Nemo’s War that adds some additional variants such as some battleships brought into the fray to deal with the Nautilus as well as additional Adventure Cards and alternate endings to the story. I’d recommend automatically picking up the expansion due to some additional wrinkles it adds to the base game and it only bump’s the cost of the game by a few dollars anyway.
At the end of the day I would say Nemo’s War ranks up there as a penultimate example of solitaire gaming done right! If I ran across someone who had never played a title from Victory Point Games, and they told me that they could only purchase one game to give VPG a shot, there would be no doubt in my mind this would be the title I would wholeheartedly recommend. Granted, if they were seriously into wargames I’d tell them they had to buy two games from VPG (Zulus on the Ramparts anyone) but number one on the list would have to be Nemo’s War!
I can honestly say if The Gaming Gang had been around in 2009 Nemo’s War would have been a serious (and I do mean SERIOUS) contender for game of the year!
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Just thought this could make a great gift – along with the novel. Giving a book and a related game would increase the likelihood of satisfaction from the recipient and help grow the hobby. I recently gave a history buff Tide of Iron and a large book on the Marine Corps. Haven’t heard back though. At least everything was at a huge discount!
Also I’d like to comment on your ratings: please stick to whole numbers! I mean, you have a scale from 1-10, stick to it. I don’t know why people feel a need to give these decimal scores, as if you could really be that certain of a game’s rating- a highly subjective evaluation that changes with your mood and experience. Once you make a decision to rate in whole numbers you will realize how silly your previous ratings were… I am a recovering decimal rater myself!
Actually we do have a breakdown of how the ratings work and the decimal scores do matter. Especially since we grade on a bell curve.
I have to agree, I had a blast playing Nemo’s war. I’m going to take your suggestion and see if I can come up with a copy of the Disney movie, so I can watch it while playing. I think I’ll try the variant where you play all the cards in the order of the book events. Sweet.