Drifting through the murky blackness, the squared off bulk of the spaceship designated “Nemesis” slowly flickers into life. Where once the steel-clad corridors were still and silent, now the whirring and clicking of a thousand awakening systems fills even the darkest corners of the ship. You awake to brightness as the hatch of your hibernation chamber lifts, releasing you once again to the cold hard drudgery of ship life. Peeling off the various pieces of medical equipment you stumble out of the chamber to a sight that brings you to full awareness with a speed that risks whiplash. One of the pods isn’t open, isn’t… going… to open. From the look of the blood coating the inside of the glass this had happened some time ago. And from the look of the hole in that glass whatever had caused it has long gone… from this chamber at least.
Time: 90-180 mins
Designer: Adam Kwapiński
Publisher: Awaken Realms, Rebel
OK, it’s basically Alien the board game, complete with chest bursting, creepy industrial space ships, and a mahoosive queen miniature to dominate your tabletop. In space, no one can hear you scream “copyright infringement!”
Now it’s a little cheeky of me to call this a review as I have only managed to play this twice, but it doesn’t really feel like a first impression either, after having spent 6 hours amongst it’s systems. Especially when those systems aren’t particularly complicated. Nemesis, while introducing some clever and original ideas, falls fully into the Ameritrash genre, with all the baggage and expectations that come along with that. If you don’t care for such games, you can stop reading now. If you do, or you think you might be tempted anyway, then let’s take a look (while keeping a close eye on our motion detectors).
Noises in the dark
Nemesis is a big ship with a lot of rooms and corridors – a lot of places for the impressively proportioned and detailed miniatures to hide. And hiding they are. As you initially start to move about the ship you’ll hear noises, represented by a token in a randomly determined corridor off the room you just entered. Is this a creature? Is it nothing at all? This is the tension the designer’s are trying to create here and it is a fantastic idea.
It doesn’t quite manage to execute on its potential, however. The noise never dissipates, meaning even if you try to avoid that area the board steadily fills up and you inevitably trigger its effects. When that happens you are guaranteed to get a creature. Of course, the game would be dull if those miniatures stayed in the box all game but noise ends up being something inevitable, and because ultimately you can’t avoid it’s outcome, it feels like an elaborate randomisation mechanic rather than what it could have been.
Imagine instead if your character were generating the noise. So that even the actions you perform in a room created noise and risked attracting the creatures. You’d be faced with a push your luck dilemma, to move slow to be safe, or to do more and risk danger. Certain actions, like firing weapons could cause more noise. It would make you feel like you were being hunted, rather than, as is, you were bumbling along into them and then running away like you’d walked in on your parents having sex.
That’s not to say the creatures aren’t threatening. Only that, since there is little you can do to avoid them, they are roadblocks to overcome rather than an ever present danger you are scared to come into contact with. Of course, they are pretty vicious and tough to kill! Which brings us to some other interesting elements.
Nobody panic! I’ve totally got this
Fighting a creature is incredibly simple: roll a die and hope to hit, and that’s all it needed to be. Managing your ammunition is the tougher challenge and that feels right in a survival horror game. The cool bit is you never truly know when one of these creatures is going to die. You flip a card and if the number of wounds taken is higher than a random value on that card, the monster bites it. Much better than it biting you. I really liked this not knowing, even when you got a hit in, whether you had done enough. It’s a small twist, but just adds to the alien nature of the menace you’re facing.
Your own demise is similarly unpredictable. Most basic attacks will cause a light wound, and enough of these will cause a serious wound, with its own debilitating effects. But a given attack might kill you outright if you’ve taken enough damage, you just won’t know exactly when it’ll happen. The aliens also cause panic, and the more player cards you have in hand when they appear, the better you’ll be able to master your fear. This is the push your luck mechanic I was kind of looking for with the noise: you want to do as many actions as possible, but if a creature appears, you’re in even more trouble as your character reacts outside your control.
Speaking of characters, above you see the determined storm trooper in full battle gear ready to fight the aliens. He kicks ass. The determined captain giving an order to the crew. The scientist hard at work sciencing.
The scout busy scou- oh, she’s… lying seductively across a chair. OK then…
Help me? Maybe?
The final integral element to Nemesis, that will really determine if the game is for you, is its semi-cooperative nature. There are two elements to winning Nemesis. You must survive, which requires either escaping in an escape pod (easier), or preparing the ship to return to Earth (harder). You must also have achieved your secret objective, which can easily put you into conflict with the other players. Indeed, some will see you wishing one of them dead. This is all very thematically fitting but, as with many semi-cooperative games, your enjoyment of this element will likely have a lot to do with your play group.
I’m also concerned that the elements that require cooperation, getting the ship back to Earth, or researching the aliens in order to reveal their weaknesses and make them easier to kill (a very nice idea by the way) are so difficult that it takes a concerted effort by the crew to achieve them. The paranoia when you do work together, though, is still there and satisfying and works to corrupt a good group. Because to survive you still need to get into the hilariously named “Hibernatorium” and sleep… but are you willing to do that while the rest of the crew are out there?
I’ve had one game where the crew worked together and the ship was ready by the halfway point, but I certainly didn’t trust the others. My other game saw complete betrayal by one character and the rest of the crew fending for themselves. This game really highlighted the potential imbalance in the objective cards. There are a few too many elements (like killing a young intruder, or making an opponent enter the signal chamber) that you could wait all game for and never see happen.
Were Nemesis a Euro game I would have been ready to eject it out of the airlock for this but this is not a Euro game. Nemesis is about creating an experience and it mostly succeeds. You don’t trust each other. You know something is out there… even if I don’t think the noise system reaches its potential. Combat is desperate. Your turns, thanks to the card driven action system, are interesting. There are wonderfully good story moments thanks to how players will interact, and the behaviour of the creatures. But all of this does come at a price: a burdensomely long game time.
For 3-4 players you are looking at 3-4 hours play time. And most of that will be spent watching other players take their turns. Of course, you do want to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing but it is a lot of down time for an experience that might not justify it’s length. Now, that will be more frustrating for some than for others. I’m a Euro gamer first, and a run around a board rolling dice while being chased by monsters was always going to struggle to hold my attention for multiple hours. Nemesis has some very clever mechanics (most of which I’ve tried to discuss here) that makes it more interesting than many games in this genre, but when, after the length of a “normal” game you’re barely half way through the time track, it starts to lose its appeal.
You probably already know by now if this is a game for you or your group. It will never be my favourite game, and given the time investment required, I will probably never play it again. If it lasted 2 hours max, Nemesis would be an easy recommend. There are so many clever elements (hell, I didn’t even mention the brilliant, if gimmicky, card scanner system!) and I am a fan of the Alien franchise, but as it is I think only a very certain subset of gamers need consider it.
Rating: Game Over, Man
I received a copy of the Nemesis prototype from another reviewer.