Oooh a solo game? Excellent, I like a good solo game. Well usually. I can completely understand the opinions of those who don't appreciate solo gaming - at the end of the day, board gaming allows us to be social with each other and have good times. I'm all for that. But I live alone and sometimes I can't get to a game club or everyone else has got plans or kids (the one true enemy of social interaction - yeah, I don't want kids, it shows)! So, a solo variant or a true solo-only game has its place in my collection - lord knows I've banged on enough about Coffee Roaster in my time!
Now the more involved solo-only games I don't go for quite as often mainly because of the time sink and complexity. I like my LCG's, but they're quick to set-up and get playing and are just highly enjoyable in general. But I've played games like the DVG range and they're just a bit too fiddly and over the top for my liking. Nemo's War had me a little worried at first because it reminded me of those kind of games - it looked complex and had a bunch of chits with a huge rule book. But when I did my Top 10 Solo Games, many viewers asked me about Nemo's War so I felt I should give it a fair chance.
Nemo No Mates
Nemo’s War is predominantly a solo game for one player, but if you really want, you can turn it into a 2-4 player co-op and even a semi co-op. Now I've not tried the co-op versions, nor am I really fussed about doing so - pretty much everyone who has asked me to try this game out plays it solo and brought the matter up because of my Top 10 Solo Games list.
You take on the role of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo as he commands his ship the Nautilus through the oceans of 1870. Through the game, the player will combat all kinds of hazards and creatures as well as fighting vessels of all nations who just seem to have something against you for some reason (I've never read the book so forgive me for any blatant confusions over the background). While staying in one piece, you'll also be finding treasures and new wonders in the oceans to further your quest for knowledge or in other words, collecting various tokens for victory points.
Your mission in Nemo’s War is simply to survive until the Finale card is drawn from the Adventure deck, an event deck with a built-in timer mechanism. Along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to upgrade the Nautilus, cause a few uprisings and sink enemy ships. . . . a LOT of enemy ships.
It sounds like a lot of choices, but your initial "motive" will dictate how much these various activities contribute to your final score. For example, Exploration will reward you more for discovering wonders and new science advances, but Warfare wants you to go on a killing spree and sink as many ships as possible. Once the Finale card is drawn, you'll check your Victory Points against your original Motive (basically your goal for the game) and find out how well you've done based on a ranking chart.
Victory Point Games 2.0
I was really apprehensive when I first opened up Nemo's War and glanced at the board, rulebook and tokens. It's a pretty bulky rulebook and I couldn't fathom (pun intended) what everything on the board was referring to or how I was ever going to learn this game. However, things became clearer when I devoted the time to sit down, unbox everything carefully and work through the rulebook from start to finish for my first game without skipping pages or being distracted. I know you ideally should do this for every game, but you'd be surprised how quickly you pick up games without having to analyse every sentence in a rule book after doing reviews for so long.
It looks like a busy board and there's certainly a lot of text in that rule book, BUT if you take the time to read it and go at a slower pace, you find out that everything just clicks, and the rule book is actually really good. A lot of important rules are reconstructed on the board for reference. And the rulebook is laid out in logical steps with clear references to other sections, colour coding for difficulty amendments and pictorial examples galore in the sidebars. For a game that isn't light by any means and looks pretty complicated, this is one of the best rulebooks I have seen for getting you through it all - it just requires a clear head and some devoted "peace and quiet" time to absorb it all.
From a presentation standpoint, Nemo’s War isn't anything I would write home about, but it's still pretty good, especially considering this is from Victory Point Games, who aren't well known for their production quality - I still have Trieste with its subpar artwork in its 1990's-esque cardboard case. I know that the publisher has recently made some changes in its supply chain, so they can now up their game on production quality - good to hear!
You do have to put up with a few cubes and a bunch of chits everywhere, but they're pretty sturdy and illustrated. The highlight is probably the artwork, which has remnants of light pastel blues and pencil drawings that all help to bring the theme out, courtesy of Ian 'O' Toole, who is better known for putting Eagle Gryphon Games in the spotlight for their beautiful heavy Euro's recently.
If I have one complaint, it's that the bags for holding counters were Kickstarter Exclusives, yet you have to keep two sets in different bags for game purposes so you have to come up with some alternative and fair means - seriously don't make important components exclusive and you reviewers out there who didn't mention this in your articles, shame!!
Was Nemo this Bloodthirsty?
From a thematic standpoint, Nemo's War scores high marks, with all of the events that can occur being taken straight from the novel it's based on. Now that being said, I've not read 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, nor do I have any prior background knowledge of the story behind Nemo and the Nautilus.
This does mean that a lot of the references and theme are lost on me, however that doesn't detract from the fact that Nemo's War does tell an abridged story throughout your playthrough from prologue to epilogue, which will change dramatically each game depending on the composition of the Adventure deck and the Motive you chose to begin with. My story when on a voyage of exploration is fundamentally different from when I'm on a warpath. . . sort of!
Why only sort of? Well I found that the combat aspect kind of dominates your experience no matter what motive you use. As Nemo's War progresses you have to place more and more ships on the board and these are no slouch, you need resources and upgrades to stand a decent chance against a lot of the warships and you'll be lucky if you're getting a +2 bonus at best to handle them. But there's an auto-lose condition if the whole board fills up with warships so you can't ignore them entirely even if your Motive choice minimises the victory point gain for them.
So even though I want to focus on finding treasure, I still have to spend a good 60-70% of my game, possibly more dealing with ships. Again, I'm no expert on the lore, but did Nemo really have to sink so many ships? I feel like I'm not sure whether he's meant to be a good guy or not with the amount of cold-blooded murder he's involved in. In my first game using the Explore motive, I was somewhat surprised at just how little actual "exploring" was done compared to multiple attack runs.
We'll Let Fate Decide
Players looking for a heavy strategic experience may want to look elsewhere. You have plenty of choices as to what you can do (albeit dominated heavily by the need to keep the ships down given that they enter the table quicker than you can physically dispatch them), but there is a lot of dice chucking here. I mean A LOT! Now this is mitigated by several measures in place that modify your rolls, but you are going to have to accept that sometimes the dice just hate you and will muck up your chances to succeed, not something that is wanted when you've been playing for over 60-90 minutes, this isn't a short game by any means.
But you're throwing dice for combat, for incoming damage, for event card tests, for multiple different actions, for ship placement, even for how many actions you get on a turn. Mitigation only works so well and I'm not keen on any mechanic that says you only get to perform as many actions as the dice say you will.
If you know this going in like I did, it's not a huge bugbear as it adds to the tension with your choices, but still I would have appreciated a bit more control at times or just a fixed set of actions per turn at the very least. Needing 3-4 actions to stand a hope in hell and having the dice give you 2 Lull turns in a row is pretty frustrating as you still have to place ships out, but you don't get to do anything!
There is an optional variant that you can include, but it looks pretty minor and I didn't bother with it. I like that you can change the difficulty of the game as well by tweaking some rules/set-ups and I certainly recommend that you start on the easiest mode. It won't be a cakewalk, but at least it's a bit more forgiving if the dice hate you. I actually found it more fun to play on Easy after my first Explore on Normal was still classed as "Failure" despite surviving to the end and having what I thought was a decent amount of high scoring tokens. I can't imagine ever wanting to play this on Hard mode with the amount of luck in this game so consider that an aspect of the game I'll never be using.
Final Thoughts on Nemo's War
This was a bit of a surprise for me. I had lowered expectations going in based on my lack of knowledge of the lore and the publisher track record. But after putting in that effort and patience at the start (and believe me you'll need it), it was definitely worth it.
Firstly, once you've studied that rulebook, everything begins to flow pretty smoothly with lots of reference aids present on the board to minimise the time spend consulting the book mid-game. Secondly, it looks like Victory Point Games has got back on par with production quality now that they have changed their business practices. Both aspects I was not expecting to be impressed by.
The story is a bit of a sidebar factor however, at least for me. The epilogue book is just a selection of single paragraphs, each being a slight variation from each other depending on motive and outcome. And if you've no experience with Nemo or 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, none of the theme here, as fairly strong as it is, is going to draw you in.
Given that this is not a short game by any means, I found myself rushing through the adventure cards rather than taking in the flavour text. And I've forgotten the last time I rolled dice so often in a game, so you need to be comfortable with swings of luck deciding your fate at times, particularly in combat, which I felt dominated the experience a bit too much.
It's a solid design and production overall and I can see why Nemo's War is popular among solo gamers, hence the special request for me to review it. I'm glad I did and I'm going to hang on to this for a bit longer and see how it fares over time. I do wish I had more of an interest in Nemo's lore to really enjoy the theme, but I'll still be happy to set sail again sometime soon.