Friday, October 30, 2009

Nemo's War

I've really seen a resurgence in solitaire wargaming over the past year, partly because I live just far enough away from other wargamers that I'm lucky to get someone out here to play something more than once a month. I'm getting a lot of good gaming in, but in-between it's been nice to play some of these new and really great titles that have been coming out recently.

I've blogged before on quite a few of these titles - B-29, D-Day at Omaha Beach, RAF: Lion v Eagle, Soviet Dawn, Where There Is Discord, Fields of Fire - just to name a few. These are titles that are specifically intended as a solitaire experience, and do an excellent job of covering different subjects using different systems while also having different levels of complexity, playing times, and levels of abstraction.

So it was that I was very happy to see that Victory Point Games had put up a few more titles just for the solitaire gamer - Nemo's War and Empires in America. The latter title concerns the so-called French and Indian War, really a colonial extension of the Seven Year's War, and uses the base system from Soviet Dawn, Israeli Independence, and Zulus on the Ramparts, also all from VPG. I've got that game set up but have yet to run through the rules, but it looks very interesting.

What I'm going to discuss today, however, is Nemo's War. As with so many aficionados of classic, nay, protean, science fiction, Jules Verne holds a special place in my heart. Going to see the Disney adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea as a child, back when we had five television channels and no way to record them or distribute movies other than through theaters, was a huge treat for me, and I briefly considered a career as an oceanographer at the time until I realized that you spent most of your time cold and wet. Heck, I even read an incredibly boring chapter from the book on the physics of how you could have a ship that went underwater. You can also learn a great deal more than you ever needed to know on how fish are classified.

The game is a retelling of the story from the point of view of Nemo, rather than Professor Arronax, the unwilling passenger whose account makes up the literary work. As Nemo, you have one of four "motives" for your actions in sinking ships, inciting revolutions of oppressed peoples against their imperialist masters, and seeking science, wonders of the world, and other treasures from sunken ships. These various point sources may be very valuable or worthless depending on whether Nemo is acting to thwart Imperialism (his motive in the original story), sink military vessels, research science, or just explore. There may also be a chance for the player to change motivation during the game if you are finding the "wrong" kind of victory points - for example, finding wonders when you're an anti-Imperialist (they are worthless).

The game system is very simple - you have two real phases in the game, one of which is the AI admin portion, which comes first. You roll 2d6, which generates (possibly) ships on the map. The map is very simple, just six regions representing different oceans (North Atlantic, East Pacific, etc), which in turn consist of a slot for the Nautilus, a slot for a treasure marker, and between two and four slots for ships. If a ship would normally go into an ocean that is "full" no ship is placed. Also, if you roll doubles, you may get to place a treasure on the map if that treasure has already been found, but you may also see your colonial agitation efforts lose ground as a result. Finally, if you roll a high enough number, you generate an event.

Events come in one of two flavors - Events, and Tests. Some Events in fact allow you to optionally take a Test. Events are either Immediate or Retained, but if you retain an event you can fulfill it's requirements later on without a cost to the actions you can take. For example, I could either retain an event until the end of the game for victory points and/or science points, or I can use it in a specific area to gain back crew points.

Which brings me to another system I should mention before discussing Tests. As Nemo, you have three different resources - Nemo's Stability (emotional, not tightrope walking skills), Crew, and Hull. Each of these fits on a track that does two things. Firstly, if your levels are high enough at game end, you get extra VP, but you lose VP if the levels are too low. There are also a few spots on the various tracks (such as Nemo deciding on his final Motivation, which is the only time you can change this particular setting) that have special actions associated with them. Secondly, you can "risk" a resource to gain a DRM to a battle or Test roll by moving it halfway down to the next slot in the track, with the applicable DRM displayed right where it should be. Make the roll, your resources return to their original positions. Fail, and they drop down one notch.

With Tests, you can use any and all resources listed on the event card, but with combat you can only use Crew *or* Hull points. At 15 VP, Hull and Nemo constitute 20% of the points you need to break into a narrow victory, so they're points I personally was loathe to give up in my game. However, while Crew and Hull DRMs drop as your levels drop, Nemo's actually get *better*, although it's also a shorter track (and you don't want *anything* hitting bottom, or you lose the game). The result is the chance to manipulate the track in order to maximize your end result, and it's not only clever but improves the game significantly.

Back to Tests. A Test is just a 2d6 roll to meet or beat a stated number, but you *can* risk resources to get up to a +6 modifier if your resources are at the appropriate levels. Different things will happen when you pass or fail tests, from getting some sort of DRM later in the game to gaining science and VPs to gaining/losing resources. When you discard both events and tests in this game, they go into a "Fail" or "Pass" discard pile. At game end, cards in your "Pass" pile will be counted in your favor. Note that some cards *must* end up in the Pass pile to count, while some must remain unplayed, so read them carefully.

One other interesting note about Event cards. The nominal roll to draw an adventure card is 10+, but if you don't draw a card that turn you flip the turn marker over to show it's 7+ side, and next turn that's all you have to roll. Once you get an event card, you flip it back to the 10+ side. The game can end when most of the cards are drawn from the pile, but there are always 4 cards set aside so you never know what mix of cards you'll get.

That's it for AI management. Now it's up to Nemo to take an action, of which you have several choices. The obvious ones are Move and Attack. Moves may cost extra time (you only have 52 weeks in the game, and every turn will eat up one week for sure), but they simply move you from one area to an adjacent one. Attacks come in two flavors - stalking and attacking. Stalking gives you a +1 DRM to combat, but you only attack one ship that turn. Attacking allows you to attack as many ships as you wish until you either fail, "capture" a ship, or run out of ships in that area, but you gain notoriety for every additional ship you attack.

Which brings me to Notoriety. There are a couple of ways that additional ships enter the blind draw pool, one of which is the simple passing of time - two different groups of ships come in through that method, as seen on the calendar track. The other way is through notoriety. If you sink a ship with the right symbol(s) on it, you will gain Notoriety. If you *fail* to sink *any* ship, you gain one. If you are Attacking, and go after an additional ship, that's one more. When you get to a certain point, more ships are added to the pool, and again later on the track. If you peg out at 33, warships get a bonus when they attack you. Since you can end the game early by running out of ships in the pool or on the board, I guess there's some motivation to keep your notoriety low, especially as most of the ships coming into the game through that track are badass, but in my game I didn't worry too much about it.

Combat is very simple. If the ship you revealed (or attacked) is a warship with a red cannon symbol and red number, you roll 2d6 and try not to roll below that number. If you do, you lose a Crew or a Hull resource. Then you try to sink the ship by rolling at or above it's defense number, applying any risked resources or other DRMs. If you sink the ship, you can choose to "capture" it, which lets you use it to gain special mutant powers like an armored hull, or sink it and put it on the Sunk Ship Matrix. This gives you extra VP at game end for being an equal-opportunity ship sinker in all of the areas of the board. If you manage to sink 36 ships, 6 in each area, you can gain an extra 35 points, but if you are short in just one area, you only get the bonus points for the smallest number of ships sunk per area. I misread this, and ended up with no ships sunk in the Indian Ocean, and thus scored no points on this track.

You have a few other choices as well. You can Search for treasure, which I was terrible at. If you roll a 1, you lose Crew or Hull. On a 2, nothing. 3-6, you get the treasure in that area. Guess what I rolled most of the time? Treasures can be a number of VP (which is modified according to your Motivation), a mini-event, or a Wonder. Numbered treasures are also useful in that they can be used to Incite revolutions, yet another action.

Inciting revolution can pay off really well, but as I learned you want to do it kind of late in the game, and unless your motivation is Anti-Imperialism, you probably won't see it as a useful tool. What you do is take a numbered treasure to "finance" the revolution with, roll 1d6, add the treasure number to it, and subtract 5. The result, if positive, is how many spots up the track you move the Incite marker. For me, these were worth 5 points apiece, compared to 1/2 value for treasure, so burning a 3 treasure was no big deal. The downsides: Roll a 1, and the level drops one. During the Ship Placement phase at the start of each turn, if you roll doubles and the number on one die is below that of the Incite track level, you lose one level. Roll a natural 6, though, and you gain an extra level. On my first roll, I burned a 3 treasure, rolled a 6, which was worth 4 levels plus one bonus. By near the end of the game this had been whittled down to a 1. Much better to save up your treasure and do the Inciting late when it won't get chipped away, that was a 25 point loss over time.

Finally, you have the option to Rest/Refit/Repair, although you can't do any of these on a turn right after you've done one of the others, so you can't Repair one turn then do *any* of them the next turn. Repair fixes your hull, Rest adds to your Crew, and Refit uses those captured ships you got earlier to buy improvements (or gain extra adventure cards, if you wish). The improvements can cost from 2-4 points in ships, and of course you'll want to get them early if you get them at all, so a good early game strategy is to go for that refit in a focused manner, if it's important to you. For instance, something that would have given me extra treasure so that I could use them to Incite would have been a good call, had I thought of it at the time. One note: These actions tend to take extra time off of the clock, so you want to consider them carefully. If you keep running into warships and your Crew/Hull are taking a beating, probably worth your time to Rest or Repair, or if you're at game end and one of these would put you back into the Green Zone for a given resource, and thus 10 or 15 more points.

For those of you suffering from a Deansian Statistical Distortion Field, there are three markers that allow you to either add pips to your dice *after* the roll, or reroll the dice completely. They are all one use only, and once used they will cost you VP (-9 for the post-roll +2!), so use them very carefully, perhaps when death is on the line. They each map to one of the three "heroes" of the book (Arronax, Ned Land, and whoever the hell it was that Peter Lorre played), and while trying to figure out how these folks would be *helpful* to Nemo can be a bit of a stretch, it's really the only non-thematic mechanism in the game.

So how did it play? Considering that the SoP consists of roll 2d6, see what happens, then do one thing, it was really very engaging. The trick is to figure out which of the four Motivations you want to follow, then make that your priority. With War!, you want to sink warships. With Anti-Imperialism, you want to sink non-warships and Incite! revolutions. With Science, you want lots of events with Science symbols. With Explore, you want Wonders and treasure, and to a lesser extent, science points.

If I had a complaint, it was the usual problem I have with remembering to advance turn and status markers when I'm supposed to. I had several turns where I couldn't remember if I'd advanced the Calendar, or when attacking a bunch of ships if I'd advanced Notoriety. That's my own bad, so not really something that's an issue for most players, and certainly not restricted to this game.

Because of the way the ships are added to the pool (via time and notoriety), you have a pretty good idea of what ships are out at any given time, at least early. There are some ships that show up according to events as well, but you get to fight them for free. You even get to at least try to mitigate the many rolls you make during the game, even if most of the time you're gambling.

Here's a good example of how this game allows players a fair amount of control in the midst of chaos. Nemo is in the South Atlantic, where there are four ships and a treasure present. One of the ships is revealed, and is a fairly nasty captial with a defense of 10, but worth a nominal 3vp if you sink it. Your Hull and Crew have been reduced enough that the best you can get is a +2 to your attack die roll, which means you need an 8 or higher, not great odds if you'd have to lose a resource. As such, you have three choices - Attack the ship in order to have a chance at others and gamble a resource, but at slightly less than 50% odds. Alternately, you could not gamble the resource, but have very little chance of success. Finally, you could *only* go after that ship using Stalking for that extra +1, which would give you a slightly *better* than 50% chance, a 1-in-6 improvement, but you wouldn't get to go after other ships. You could even ignore the warship entirely and go after another, so far unrevealed, ship, although the presence of warships gives you a negative DRM. You could even Stalk the ship without gambling the resource, an improvement from 6-in-36 to 10-in-36 (needing a 9 instead of a 10).

In other words, the game lets you play the odds the way you want to. They may still go against you (I had one, count 'em, one successful treasure search in the first half of my game, compared to two lost resources and three unsuccessful searches), but at the very least you know the odds going in.

I also strongly recommend that you read all of the flavor text on the event cards as you go, as I would with any game like this. It's really amazing how many things happened in the book, especially compared to the Disney movie, which focused on giant squid and cannibals. Funny how some things don't change...

I found Nemo's War to be a very light but short and enjoyable solitaire game with elegant rules but a surprising amount of control over how you play the game (and a certain ability to rejigger the VP schedule).

That said, I do have to note two things: there's an expansion set in the works, if not already out, and this is a DTP-quality game in terms of components, although the counters are die-cut if not at the same level as a professionally done game. The cards are heavy card stock, and will wear over time to a fair degree. Also, the game is a bit pricey for what you are getting, but this is part of Victory Point Games' growing pains - they started out as intending to produce a certain size and quality of game at a certain price point, but when they attempt to do larger games with more components, the costs rise quickly and can't take advantage of economies of scale. As such, really brilliant games like Bulge 20 are going to struggle to find an audience as they are kind of expensive for what they are. Nemo's War is no exception, as it's list price is a startling $35 before you get into shipping. That may be more than you want to pay for what is essentially a DTP game, but keep in mind that with most games of this ilk it's *you* who are mounting counters, cutting out cards, etc. I find them to be worth the money, but then I don't have the same fiscal limits that many wargamers have. If you dislike light games, this is probably not a good choice for you. On the other hand, if you travel a lot, these kinds of games are great because they fit in your suitcase and don't take up a huge amount of table space in your hotel room (although Nemo's War's map is 11"x25.5", slightly larger than most VPG titles).

If you've been happy with other VPG titles like Zulus on the Ramparts, you'll probably like Nemo's War. For those of us with a bit of a vintage sci-fi jones for Wells and Verne, it's a pretty easy call. The game is very thematic and gives a nice balance of elegance to decision making, and I highly recommend it. Having multiple Motivations only increases it's replayability. And hey, it's got an expansion pack coming.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I may have to check this out. I have a constant jones for this genre.

Just last weekend I started in a roleplaying sci-fi campaign where you first collaboratively build the cluster you'll be playing in. (Diaspora)

The name of the two star systems for which I had primary authorship? Wells and Verne.