Nemesis is a semi-cooperative sci-fi horror game by Awaken Realms for 1-5 players. The concept will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Alien film franchise and dozens of reviewers have already compared the themes, creatures and events of Nemesis to those classic movies. While there’s no avoiding the overlap between the board game and the movies it emulates, this is no tongue in cheek parody, far from it in fact. Nemesis is one of the finest sci-fi horror games I’ve ever played and one of my favourite board games overall, easily making my top five games of all time. That’s not to say it’s a perfect game, and it does have its share of issues which I’ll get to, but I wanted to share why it sits so highly for me, and the reasons I think more people should play it.
I Just Run the Ship
The first thing you’re likely to notice when opening the Nemesis box is the sheer amount of stuff they’ve packed into the vacuform inserts. There are minis, cards, acrylic tokens, more minis, tokens, room tiles, a double sided game board, larger minis, player aids, rule books and a bag just to name a few. Each of these components serves a particular system of the game and at first glance many gamers might feel the familiar pangs of being in over their head. But as you read the rules and run through the initial setup each of these systems interlock one by one resulting in an engine that, while a little clunky, gets great mileage!
At its core, Nemesis is first and foremost a hidden information game. Each player begins with two secret objective cards, one personal and one corporate, and each card has two objectives. To win, a player must achieve one objective from one of their cards, but need not decide which until the first alien intruder appears. At that point the game shifts gears and each player must choose which objective card to keep, discarding the other. This alone is a great narrative hook, imagine having several tasks you want to achieve, your mind paralysed by indecision, then suddenly panic sets in and you’re forced into a course of action. Even after you’ve settled on your objective, since each card has two options, you’ll still be presented with a choice. Up until this point the characters may have been working towards a common goal, but now, things start to get interesting.
Each player takes the role of one of six crew members each with their own deck of cards tailored to their individual skill set. For example, the engineer can repair or disable rooms and use the service ducts to move quickly throughout the ship, while the pilot has an intimate knowledge of the ship’s layout and its systems, so can navigate rooms with greater ease. The game’s rationale for not knowing the layout of the Nemesis is that the characters are all suffering from the amnesiac effects of cryosleep. The crew has only 15 rounds in which to complete their objectives and return to the hibernatorium (cryo chamber) or escape in one of the four escape pods before the ship’s autopilot kicks in and sends the ship back into hyperspace, the resulting hyper acceleration making paste of anyone not in the safety of their hibernation capsules. Which leads us back to those objectives I was talking about earlier.
Nemesis is semi-coop, which means while not necessarily enemies, the other crew members may not be making decisions that are in your own best interests. For example, your goal may be to ensure the ship makes it back to Earth. So you need to ensure at least two of the three engines are working and the ship’s navigation systems are set to Earth. The trouble is the rooms to check these systems are at opposite ends of the ship and you likely won’t have time to make your way to both and then get to the hibernatorium in the centre of the ship in time. So you check the coordinates on the bridge, while the enigmatic scientist generously offers to ensure the engines are working. The thing is, the scientist’s objective is to destroy the ship and get to an escape pod. He does this by sabotaging the engines. As all of these actions take place secretly, there’s every possibility that you won’t know if you’ve failed or succeeded until the end of the game. This creates a fantastic sense of tension and mistrust, and of all the aspects of the game I feel this most accurately evokes the emotional turmoil the designers hoped to create.
We Must Go On, We Have to Go On
Nemesis, the ship, is brought to life by a series of game mechanisms that I’ve taken to referring to as subsystems. Just as the ship has subsystems such as security, life support, navigation, engines etc, so too is the game made up of a collection of subsystems that combine to keep everything running smoothly. There’s hand management for character turns/actions, tile placement to explore the Nemesis, dice rolling for noise and combat, token drafting for enemy development, a countdown clock to manage the rounds and so on. The darkened corridors, and unexplored rooms are chilling. I’ve rarely experienced such a cinematic experience while playing a board game, and this is one of the biggest draw cards that has me coming back time and again.
The layout of the ship changes every game and with a standard configuration on one side on the game board and a more challenging arrangement on the other, every play though puts you squarely in the shoes of the crew, awakening to a ship that should feel familiar, but just isn’t. This makes the Nemesis itself the true threat, even beyond the intruders, this vessel that’s purpose is to keep you alive and return you home is working against you every step of the way! Speaking of steps, you’ll need to watch yours as you navigate the ship, as noise is a real problem. If two noise tokens accumulate in the same location, that player must draw and resolve an intruder token from the bag, which brings me to my next point...
Here we are approaching the end of the review and I’ve barely mentioned the main antagonists, the intruders. These terrifying creatures are a force to be reckoned with and the collective groans of despair from players whenever one rears its carapaced head says all you need to know about the threat they represent. If one shows up on your turn, it's nothing but bad news and things will not go well for you. You may survive, but it’ll cost you, if not life and limb, then the most precious resource you have in the game, time! Fifteen rounds may sound like a lot, but games of Nemesis frequently approach the redline and you’ll wish you had just one more turn to get to safety. Wasting one or more of your precious turns contending with an enemy means you could fail your objective as a result of that encounter.
Intruders themselves have a host of fascinating gameplay elements to keep things interesting, the most thematically intriguing being the concept of contamination. Having a run in with the vicious beasties could result in your character becoming contaminated. That player adds a contamination card to his character deck and unless you can find a surgery and remove it, it could mean death even after you’ve completed your mission and escaped. Contamination cards can be scanned using a red filter revealing lines of text on the card, if one of those lines reads ‘infected’ you’re in trouble! If you’re still in play, you have a chance to find medical aid and remove the larval intruder, however, if the game is over and you’re already in stasis or an escape pod, then that’s the end for you!
The thematic elements serve a wonderful emergent narrative
Gameplay is loads of fun with the various systems combining to create a compelling experience
High tension and some great social moments in multiplayer games
An excellent solo experience, playing with a lone character creates a real sense of isolation
The production quality is second to none, Awaken Realms has outdone themselves.
Semi-coop, full coop and solo variants included in the base rules.
There’s a lot of moving parts to keep track and several times I found we missed a step in the round
The game board can be a little dark and under the wrong light you may need to move your head to see clearly
Semi-coop may not be fun for everyone, so check that out with your group first, full coop may be a better fit for some
The price tag is up there
I Won’t Lie to You About Your Chances, But, You Have My Sympathies
Nemesis is a big game, it’s a pricey game, it takes time to learn, it takes time to set up, and it can take a while to play with a larger group, but the final result is a gaming experience unlike any other I’ve had and, for myself, well worth the investment of time, money and well, time again, I guess. I couldn’t think of a third thing there. So invested was I, that I actually painted my miniatures (the retail game comes with unpainted minis), something I haven’t had the motivation to do on this scale since high school! Nemesis has proven to be a hit with members of my gaming group too and even if I can’t find any takers, Nemesis is such a solid single player experience that it’s coming close to knocking Mage Knight off its solo pedestal.
We all died!
I’ve lost more games of Nemesis than I’ve won and I can’t remember having so much fun losing at a game before. By the end I feel like I’ve sat through a great sci-fi thriller and lived (or died) to tell the tale. The after game banter makes for some memorable stories to tell and, if after all of this, you’re still wondering if it’s worth the investment, then I urge you to weigh up the pros and cons I’ve presented here and the types of games you’ve enjoyed in the past. I’ve spent more on worse games, and I’ve spent less on better ones, but Nemesis draws me back more often than most games in my collection, and to me, the best games I own are the ones I play. This is Brian, last survivor of the Nemesis, signing off....
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