As an avid solo gamer, even before many of us unihabitors were forced to be by COVID-19, I relished any opportunity to tell people how much I love Shadi Torbey’s Oniverse. Onirim (O-NEE-rim? O-NYE-rim?) was the first proper solo game I bought. Aerion (AIR-EON? ERRI-UN?) was my first review for Zatu. Then there is Castellion (Cast-ELL-eon? Castle Ian?) and Sylvion (Sil-VEE-on? SILV-yon?), both great games.
Navigating the correct pronunciation of each of Torbey’s solo/two player co-op games is just the first puzzle you encounter in these deceptively whimsical, tense battles between the forces of light and dark. Nautilion (Naughty Lion) takes that enigmatic mix of charm and pressure, packs it aboard a kooky ship and launches it onto the high seas. So, did I get seasick or find my ship legs with ease?
I really admire how Shadi Torbey has managed to create a coherent series of games in the Oniverse while basing each title on a different game mechanism. Onirim is a set collecting hand management game. Aerion, a solo Yahtzee. Sylvion, a critter fuelled tower defence game.
Nautilion brings to this compendium of mechanisms a classic roll and move.
Gameplay is simple. Each game, you create a unique track by shuffling the crew tokens and creating a chain between your start base, the Happy Isles, to The Abyss. This is where your nemesis, The Darkhouse, dwells. To play, you roll three dice and assign one to your ship (The Nautilion), one to the enemy ship (The Phantom) and one to The Darkhouse, which may trigger nasty things happening to your boat and crew. The enemy moves. You move. First to the opposing island wins.
Not only must you reach The Abyss before The Phantom reaches the Happy Isles, you must also collect and assemble a crew strong enough to defeat The Darkhouse when you get there. Each step of the track is a numbered crew token and you must collect all nine before the end of the game to win. To make things harder, you will need to collect them in a certain order depending on which of the six available Nautilions you choose to commandeer. And on top of this, The Phantom will steal tokens it lands on, removing them from the game and sometimes making it impossible to complete your crew.
Not a Lion
I’ll confess to being tricked by Nautilion the first time I played it. Its roll and race element meant I didn’t give the puzzle the respect it deserved and I soon found my Nautilion beached with no hope of assembling a crew before it reached The Abyss.
The real core of Nautilion is in how you assign your rolls and how you manipulate them using bonus tokens. While you need to beat The Phantom in the race, giving yourself the highest die is not always the best strategy if it means The Phantom movement will take out a piece you might need later. Having to collect tokens in a particular order creates further challenge. You have to look further up the track to plan what you might need and when. then work out what you can afford to sacrifice and skip now.
As with all the Oniverse games, Nautilion starts open but quickly tightens the thumbscrews in a satisfyingly fiendish game arc. Decisions feel important and tough with increasingly little room for error. Though it is a roll and move, the game gives you enough scope to manipulate and mitigate your luck with tactics and strategy. In particular, you can choose to add crew tokens to your ship or flip them and use them as bonus tiles that allow you to manipulate rolls or provide a shield to The Darkhouse’s rays which will otherwise destroy your crew.
Once you have mastered the base puzzle, Nautilion comes with the array of trademark Oniverse mini-expansions and modules included. I will say that, of all the Oniverse games, the expansions in Nautilion felt easier to assimilate into base play. Some of the expansions provide an entirely different feeling game while others provide an enhanced challenge. The Darkhouse, for example, expands the role and powers of this mysterious enemy, while The Mercenaries expansion throws in a battle when the two ships cross. You can mix the expansions, but I prefer to just chuck one in at a time depending on my mood. This modular approach adds a ton of replayability.
My first impression of Nautilion was that it was Torbey’s first fail in the series. A simplistic roll and move and not much else, I thought. I was wrong. The simple shallows of its exterior belie hidden depths of strategy. Like its brothers and sisters, Nautilion transported me fully to its watery world. This is done through gameplay and art (I accept that the artwork is Marmite, but I’m firmly in the LOVE IT camp). It’s a game I often take from the shelf if I want a quick play with a cup of coffee. Or even to keep my brain ticking over on a lunch break. Nautilion is also a welcome addition to the evenings when I have a go at all the Oniverse games in succession. It’s a big thumbs up from me for Naughty/Not a/Nutty Lion!