I’ve never played a solo game quite like Nemo’s War from Victory Point Games. I went into it prepared for the usual solo/cooperative game tropes–turns divided by a “bad” phase, more fires to put out than you have hoses, a general sense of being completely screwed–but found none of those. Instead, Nemo’s War felt more like one of those open-world video games like the Elder Scrolls series. Do whatever the hell you want, when you want, and have fun doing it. There’s never that moment, as in other cooperatives, where you “beat the game”. It’s strange, yet mesmerizing.
You won’t be shocked to learn that the game places you in the polished boots of the titular Captain Nemo, captain of the Nautilus submarine, bane of English imperialism, and all around good guy. You might remember our hero from the tales of Jules Verne unless, like me, all you remember is an old ride at Disney World that’s been replaced with something from Snow White. In other words, knowledge of the Nautilus or its crew isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying the many tales you’re about to weave when opening the box cover.
While most games have little things like, I don’t know, win conditions, Nemo’s War lets you pick and choose how you’ll play. There are four game “motives” to choose from–War, Exploration, Anti-Imperialism, and Science–each changing the point values of certain activities. For example, if you’re playing with the War motive, destroyed warships earn more points than if playing playing with the Science motive active. That’s as close to forcing gameplay decisions down a certain path as Nemo’s War ever gets.
Each turn begins by revealing an event, following its instructions, and proceeding with your turn which consists of spending an allotment of action points before returning to the Event deck for the next go around. Unlike other cooperatives where Events exist solely to make life miserable, Events in Nemo’s War can go either way with bad events only happening if chosen or a skill check goes awry. Each event comes with a bit of fluff text on it explaining the reasoning behind the card’s outcome creating an small addendum to the game’s overall story. Nothing happens in this game that wouldn’t be written down in the Captain’s Log and make a pretty good vignette in your memoirs once the adventure is done.
Actions allow you to explore seas, battle military and civilian ships, repair your hull, hire new crew, search islands for treasure, free those subjugated by the British colonial machine, and more. It’s up to you. Are you an explorer? Search away and see what’s found buried below the ocean’s depths. Are you a warmonger? Then it’s torpedoes away at every ship you lay your periscope on. Of course, warmongers can also free colonies or search for treasure, just as explorers can hunt down and sink British freighters if the fever grips them.
The point of all this is just that, points. Score enough of them and you get to read a triumphant epilogue from the Epilogue Book (a real thing!), but score lower and you’ll have to read a sad tale of your shortcomings. If the hunt for points turns you off, you could simply play for the hell of it and leave the Epilogue Book in the box.
The game does a good job of ramping up the difficulty as it progresses. Ships are added automatically each turn and more deadly ships come looking for you as your notoriety increases. Thus, even the most pacifist of all captains has to take out a ship here and there. Repairs to the nautilus or attracting new sailors will cost you treasure, however, so warmongers have to spend some time digging for gold. Or, you could just wing it and hope the dice are on your side.
That’s really the only issue I can see “hardcore” gamers having with Nemo’s War: randomness. Much of the game relies on randomness, starting with drawing from a deck of cards and climaxing with the roll of dice. You’ll be rolling dice a lot in Nemo’s War, beginning with seeding the board and determining your number of action points all the way to those damnnamble skill checks. Luckily, skill checks can be mitigated by gambling your health, upgrading the nautilus, or having a crew mate sacrifice themselves at just the right time., but there’s always a chance for failure and, as usual, it will strike when you can least afford it to.
That said, Nemo’s War is a story-telling game, not a game for armchair strategists looking for a perfect-information-brain-burner. Sometimes failure makes for a better story, and in Nemo’s War that’s more often the case than not. Dice feel natural in a game like this and if VPG had replaced the skill checks with a different resolution method (the way Fantasy Flight often does) I think much of the game’s tension would be lost.
From a presentation standpoint, Nemo’s War is a piece of art. The board is painted in a beautiful 19th century style, every card is illustrated with a pencil drawing that evokes the age of Pax Brittanica. The boats are all painted on heavy chits, and there’s even a plastic Nautilus to track your location on the board. Glittering gems rest on the board to remind you which seas are currently hiding treasure beneath their waves.
Nemo’s War feels as if it were made with solo play in mind, but there is a cooperative mode in which others can take over as crew members and climb aboard the Nautilus. Unfortunately, I haven’t tried the cooperative version yet, but the game feels like it should be a solo endeavor, at least for me. I’ve not had much luck in having story-based games retain their immersion with groups, as chatter will eventually turn to topics outside of the game’s universe and immersive games just become an exercise in rolling dice and moving chits. For those of you with groups that can handle it, the cooperative mode is there. Solo, however, works perfectly.
Being a grizzled old gamer, I had honestly assumed the ability for a board game to surprise me had come and gone. I’m still excited when I see a new mechanism or a hook that I wasn’t expecting, but to find something completely and utterly unlike anything I’ve ever played are those gaming moments you remember. Getting Nemo’s War to the table is like the first time you played a really good euro, saw the genius behind Dominion, or tasted your first 18xx game. I’ve only played six solo games of Nemo’s War thus far, and haven’t come close to earning the “winning” amount of points, but each one has stuck with me more than 90% of the games that populate my game shelves. Think you’ve seen everything? Give Nemo’s War a try. It has the power to revitalize that love of gaming you probably haven’t had since you first broke into the hobby. Yep, it’s that good.