Monday, February 1, 2010

Board Game Review - Nexus Ops

I'm not always very smart. I'll wait for the smartasses in the back of the class to compose their witty comebacks, and then I'll explain.

I started writing game reviews about ten years ago. It took a little while to get rolling, but after a few years, I managed to land a huge contact - the PR guys for Wizards of the Coast. They loved me. They sent me EVERYTHING. I have a huge collection of Third Edition stuff, all of it read exactly once and then shelved. It was great, but the problem is, I don't really play RPGs any more, and really wanted to write about board games.

And then I scored with the Avalon Hill contact, and it was brilliant. I got Monsters Menace America, Skull & Bones, Betrayal at House on the Hill - and Nexus Ops.

This was a long time ago, which is the only way I can explain the next statement: I didn't like Nexus Ops the first time I played it.

I know why I didn't like it, though. It was because I played a two-player game against my wife's friend who was only a gamer when she came to visit us, and frankly, Nexus Ops confused the piss out of her. Had I been a better reviewer then, I would have realized that the problem was that the game is a little too involved for a casual gamer, and that I didn't enjoy it because I was doing it wrong. Sadly, I did not realize that, and not only did I give it a fairly lukewarm review, but in a move I have regretted for years, I traded it away. It took me five years to get another copy.

And now that I have played Nexus Ops against capable, intelligent gamers, I can tell you that this game is frickin' AWESOME. It's just as involved as I remembered, but if you're playing against someone who can handle a game more intense than Scrabble, you should be fine. I'm not saying there isn't a fair amount of stuff going on, it's just that any halfway serious game nerd is going to pick it up by the end of the third turn and be all over it.

I'm not sure if you could do a completely different theme with this game and still make it work, but the theme that's there works great. You're all playing rival mercenary companies trying to mine a resource-rich planet, and in order to do that, you end up enlisting the locals. And since the locals are some seriously freaky aliens, that just means you get to party with mushroom people, giant spiders and dragons that look like blowflies. Each of the six different races of alien has its own sculpt, including the rather wimpy humans, and this is where this gets visually brilliant - the pieces all look like gummy bears. Not like actual bears, or anything, but they're cast in this neon translucent plastic that would look totally amazing under a black light.

The planet's surface is built from randomly assembled hexes, and each has a type of terrain, whether it's fungus forest, crystal woods, rock plain, or lava field. And every time you explore one of these spots, you might find a rubium mine (yes, it's called rubium. Yes, that's a little gay). You can spend the rubium to buy more wacky aliens to fight for you, and then you can send the aliens into battle, and try to get control of the monolith in the middle of the board. Because if you get the monolith, you get access to some really great cards that can totally turn things around for you when the chips are down.

The key to the game, however, is succeeding at the secret missions. Since the goal of the game is to get 12 victory points, and these missions all earn you points, you want to succeed at them whenever you can. That can be hard, though - if your card tells you to kill something with a lava leaper and all you have are rock striders, well, you better go shopping.

It helps that every different alien has a specialty. Lava leapers are more powerful in magma pits, and can leap over spaces if they start out in lava. Plasma dragons can burn enemies without having to get into the fight. Fungoids can mine, and are powerful in the fungus forests. The only units that don't have special powers are humans, and even they're useful because they're wicked cheap. Some units can't enter the monolith. Some units can't operate the mines. Some units are great fighters, and some are just cheap. With all the different considerations for each unit, it can be a little tricky to decide how to spend your rubium (yep, still gay) when you're buying troops.

And this is where my non-gamer friend got lost. You've got energize cards with powers on them, but you have to time them right, and you've got secret missions you're trying to accomplish, and you've got dragons that need to be at the monolith and humans that need to be at the mines and all the while you have to keep track of what kind of unit you want where because the enemy dragon is coming and you're about to be in one hell of a hurry. For the tourist gamer, this is way too much to handle. For the guy who can read 40 pages of rules and remember what happens when a Descent spider webs your ranger, these are just tactical factors to exploit.

The big picture here is that with all this happening all the time, there are lots of ways to make mistakes. There are critical decisions all over the map, and you need to be able to remember when to play an energize card, and where to move your support troops, and which guys to call up. Pay for a dragon when you can't afford it, and you're swarmed by crystal dudes. Buy a bunch of cheap guys when the other guys have a good number of hard-hitters, and you just wasted your money as they all get eaten. This is the kind of decision-making I like - tons of options, none of them exactly right, but some far better than others.

Nexus Ops is a very tactical game, and it's also decidedly strategic. You have to plan ahead. You have to try to outwit your opponents. You have to make the right move at the right time, or you might just wind up watching all your mines get claimed by one foe as you fight the other. It's an incredibly well-designed game, and while luck certainly plays a role (blow a couple battles you should have won, and you'll be cursing the dice), good game play is going to make a hell of a difference.

I am really glad I got Nexus Ops again. It's a seriously enjoyable game, and I'll play it whenever I can. It's not getting traded away again, I can promise that. If you like tactical strategy games with an element of luck and great pieces, you should probably run down a copy as soon as you can.

But you can't have mine.


Meaningful decisions galore
Really cool alien troopers
Interesting premise and fun theme
Great tactics and great strategy equals a great game

A lot to track (at least until you get it down)
Out of print

I wish I could send you to Dogstar Games for this one, but they don't have it. Instead, here's a link to a Troll & Toad copy that will set you back 70 bucks:


Unknown said...


That was a great review! I have a copy of that tucked in my closet unopened. That's cool! I'll have to open it up and see what's what.


Dogstar Games

Enrique said...

I was lucky to pick up a copy for 30 bucks at Madness games in Dallas when we evacuated for Ike. That alone was worth the evac. This is one of my most cherished games, probably in my top 5.

You still owe us Shadow Hunters!

jason said...

Great game and great review. I was lucky to pick up this and Vegas Showdown for $20 each when they were getting cleared out a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

How does it play with 2-player, or specifically with your wife? I don't know how mine will deal with black-light aliens this early in her gaming career.

Lignum said...

It is no longer out of print. It has been rereleased as of the end of 2011.