I – Introduction
Author: Chris Taylor (I), Alan Emrich
Publisher: Victory Point Games
Illustrations: Ian O’Toole
Year published: 2017
Player count: 1-4 players
Recommended player count: 1 player
Length: 60-120 minutes
Set-up and teardown time: medium, 10-15 minutes
Mechanisms: dice rolling, action points, risk mitigation
Card size: 63X88mm
Copy obtained through: backing the Kickstarter campaign
Welcome aboard the Nautilus, a submersible ship way ahead of its time. At her helm is the Imperialist’s blight, Captain Nemo. As Captain Nemo, you will manage the ship and her crew throughout the year 1870, and direct her actions according to your motivations. Will you look for scientific discoveries, wonders of the world, revolt, or straight out war? The choice is yours, but rest assured the Nautilus‘ actions won’t go unnoticed and the seas will soon blacken with masts bearing the Imperialist flag, on the lookout for the notorious captain.
This review was written after 27 plays, including the first 3 released expansions, and will focus solely on solo play.
It does not take into account the supplementary rules from v2.1.
II – A quick rules summary
To play a game of Nemo’s War (NW), the player selects a motive, prepares the adventure deck accordingly by seeding special cards into the deck, selects a difficulty level and adjusts bits and pieces accordingly (starting hidden ships, gemstones, notoriety level for adding ship reinforcement groups, starting action points), and selects one of the four revealed upgrade cards to purchase if the difficulty level allows it.
Each turn, the player draws the top card of the adventure deck and resolves it, either by placing it into their tableau, by resolving its text, or by initiating a test. To do so, they wager the resources they want, as allowed by the test, for their dice roll modifier (DRM), then roll two dice. If the result is equal or higher than the required number, they pass, otherwise, they fail. Either way, they follow the instructions of the card, and discard it into the relevant pile.
Once the card is resolved, the player rolls as many dice as indicated by the current act card, picks two white dice to use for their differential roll, and gains as many action points as the difference between these two dice’s values, to a maximum of five action points for the round. If they roll doubles, the turn is a lull turn, with its own set of rules, and they receive no action point. They then place a hidden (or revealed if they cannot) ship token in the ocean corresponding to each die result rolled.
The player is then free to spend their action points as desired to perform the actions they want and can afford. The actions are moving, attacking ships, searching for treasure, drawing an adventure card from the draw pile, inciting a revolt, recruiting crew members, upgrading the Nautilus, or repairing the hull.
They keep on playing until one of these endgame conditions is reached: earning too much notoriety, losing all of one of their resources (Nemo, crew or hull), not being able to place a revealed ship token in an empty ocean, or obtaining the The game ends! text on a finalé card.
Should the player survive, they then tally their points, applying their current motive modifiers as depicted on the motive tile, and read the relevant epilogue in the epilogue book.
III – A measure of Nemo’s War
– Nemo’s War is built around longevity! This is a game with a lot to learn about how to optimize actions to attain a decent to high score. The four motives completely change priorities and the pace, inviting the player to attempt each several times before they can fully excel in each.
– Nemo’s War is a game of skill! While the amount of dice rolled may indicate otherwise, the game is all about good timing, taking the right actions, and placing revealed ships in the right place to manipulate the Imperialist’s navies to Nemo’s advantage.
– Nemo’s War is thematic! Each card comes with a fair chunk of flavor text, the research on navies is impressive, the board is gorgeous, and while one can find Cleopatra’s temple in the Arctic, most of the events make a lot of sense — as does Nemo’s slow descent into madness.
– Nemo’s War is a long game! Especially during early plays, the game can feel like it overstays its welcome as the player needs to reference the rulebook often. It sometimes feels like the game could have ended somewhere during act II or III. This is especially true when the finalé is the very last card of the draw pile.
– Nemo’s War is punishing! Failing to grasp the gameplay’s subtleties, most notably ship placement, can have drastic consequences. Failing to pass tests often is devastating, especially if the player committed resources. Not being able to see the game through to the finalé and to tally scores can be frustrating.
– Nemo’s War is mechanical! While the player may want to adventure around the world and move the Nautilus around, it is often best to remain in the same ocean, and good players tend to think in “points per round”, min-maxing more than playing thematically. While this is true in many games to reach expert level, it is not necessarily what new aspiring captains have in mind for a game that is acclaimed as highly thematic.
IV – The wall of text (a.k.a. the Comboteur Fou’s opinion)
It takes a lot for a player to accept spending $60 to $80 on a single solo game, and while Nemo’s War officially comes with multiplayer cooperative rules, it is public knowledge that they are not where the game shines. The solo mode is. And yet, the game is widely known for its deep, immersive gameplay, praised for its thematic approach, and sells out rapidly, often being out of print. But in the end, is it a simple dice-rolling game, or is there depth to it, and if so, how many leagues deep is it?
Aye mates, ready yer torpedo, we’re sinking that turtle
For many a player, NW will amount to nothing but randomness, as one gets to roll dice for practically everything they do in the game, and even for what they don’t do in the case of resolving a TEST card, which is usually when it comes from the main deck; or during ship placement. The only action that never initiates a dice roll is in fact the move action, and it is not an action that will — or should — be performed often.
With that many dice rolls, luck evens out and the results average out, but many of the required values are rather high, with only a few ships requiring a seven to be sunk, seven being the average value a player can expect to naturally obtain from rolling two d6. Tests more often average around a nine or a ten, making it feel truly impossible to obtain, and requiring that the player exerts resources: their Nemo, crew or hull resource can be wagered, once per test and, for the vast majority of them, at a rate of a single resource per test — with the notable exception of TEST cards that will indicate which resource(s) can be exerted, usually making it possible to put one or two of them on the line in that specific instance — prior to rolling the dice, to add their current value as a Dice Roll Modifier (DRM) to the rolled value. Said DRM can vary from +1 to +3 depending on the shape of the resource. In the case of the crew and the hull, the resource is worth more the fresher it is. Nemo, on the other hand, is worth more when it gets slightly damaged.
Doing so is not without risk, though, as failing a test, on top of the potential penalty from the test itself, which is dependent on the type of test initiated, will lose the player some amount of the exerted resource, an amount linked to two different factors: the difficulty level played at, and the lower dice rolled. If the lower roll is 1, then the player loses one unit of their wagered resource, which can reduce the value of the DRM it is later exerted for and ultimately lead to a defeat altogether. If the lower roll is higher than a one, depending on the difficulty level, the player loses one, two, or the face value’s number of units of the exerted resource. Additionally, a roll of double ones, or snake eyes, will always result in failure and will sometimes yield additional nefarious consequences.
Luckily, a player window allows the player to use DRMs and rerolls after the dice are rolled in the form of emergency help. These resources are few and precious, taking the form of retain treasure tokens, usually found when performing a search action or as a result of an adventure card, or of character tiles, of which the player begins the game controlling seven. But using these emergency help tokens is not without cost, as the treasure tokens are worth points at the end of the game, and so are the tiles, which can also have an immediate consequence when sacrificed, usually notoriety but also a unit of the Nemo resource in the case of the first officer. More on emergency help further down this review.
As such, NW is indeed a game revolving around dice rolls, but which also necessitates for the player to curate and manage resources at their disposal to prepare for the complete duration of their voyage — it is, after all, symbolizing a whole year of adventuring and sinking ships — remembering that they will be anything but everlasting and that preserving them will be rewarded at the end of the game. There will be many situations when it feels like the player just cannot allow themselves not to pass a test, when experience shows that it is sometimes better to not risk anything and be happily surprised or to suffer a minor loss, than to overcommit and be left damaged so intensely that it will require several actions to put the Nautilus back in shape.
I have had it with these motherf***ing snake eyes on this motherf***ing deck
The main factor for a player’s doing well or not will be the way they make use of their action points and limited luck mitigation resources rather than actual dice results.
While it will be tempting for the player to exert resources every chance they get, and to spend resources to ensure that they will not fail any dice roll, doing so will inevitably lead to lowering their score, and potentially to their demise. This is especially true once motive modifiers are taken into account. It would be tempting, for instance, to spend treasure tokens on a regular basis to increase the odds of passing an incite test with a Science motive, but doing so will cost the player an important amount of victory points, whereas the blow will be lessened with an Anti-Imperialist motive, which gets less value out of treasure icons and more out of liberation cubes. The same is true for character resources and ship resources, which will be worth more points according to certain motives, such as the Nemo resources being worth an interesting fourteen points for the Explore motive, should it be pristine at the end of the game.
One of Nemo’s War‘s strengths is that luck mitigation occurs both before and after seeing the dice result. There are two windows for the player to apply DRMs, which are
1. before rolling, by exerting their resources or, if applicable, spending treasures or adventure cards from their tableau, and
2. after rolling and before the dice result is applied, during the emergency help window, where characters and retain treasures can be sacrificed to allow a reroll or the addition of DRMs to the result. This serves as giving the player both a high level of control over what they modify, and a high level of temptation to try and pass as many tests as possible. It may at first not appear so because the ship resources are always available, but both mitigation types are equally precious, not in terms of victory points, although they almost all are worth some, but also because of their rarity. While successfully wagering ship resources has no negative incidence, failing a test will make them one step closer to being less efficient, whereas replenishing them, when possible, is costly in terms of actions, potentially the most valuable resource of the game, and can also result in the loss of even more resources since it more often than not will require a test of its own.
The dichotomy between preemptive mitigation — the one applied before a roll is made — and emergency help leads to a fascinating thought process of weighing options and consequences and creates a shrinking net of options that will submerge the careless player with an ever expanding sea of troubles, while proper management of risks and rewards will award the involved player with a versatile range of almost assured passes for key tests. Interestingly, both those mitigation sources work remarkably well as a safety net for one another, as the preemptive mitigation spares the player from having to use emergency help whereas the latter can be used to prevent the player from losing ship resources to a failed test.
The position of the finalé card is an interesting addition to the game and one that can change a lot of things regarding the player’s ability to finish the game without suffering a defeat, and their score. A difference of, on average, ten actions, is non negligeable when the game was adapted from having fifty-two actions in total. When the finalé comes early, it may strip the player of much needed victory points, as they may not have been able to sink as many ships as they wanted to to max out on their scourge track, or pass some of the KEEP cards in their tableau. When the finalé comes late, though, the player will be at the mercy of the notoriety track for a longer time and will have to struggle with the ever-increasing amount of appearing Imperialist ships, the potential exhaustion of their luck mitigation resources, and the increasingly fast destruction of their submersible ship, as, with the exception of the Nemo resource, the more resources are lost, the less efficient exerting them will be. Preparing for the long run is one thing, making it is another one. It is therefore difficult to determine whether a late finalé is more desirable than an early one, as it is very much dependant on the board’s state once the player enters the final five cards from the draw pile.
One major skill factor is ship placement. An easy rule to overlook at first is the one that lets the player select where to place a ship they’ve just drawn after revealing it, according to ship placement rules: it doesn’t have to be in the rolled ocean, but can be put in any available space in a connected ocean, taking the place of a hidden ship there. For instance, when rolling a three, the player can elect to place the revealed ship in oceans three, four or five, or in a minor ocean connecting one and three. Doing so lets the player control the enemy fleet and helps them single out dangerous ships that they wish to sink without penalty from other ships sharing their ocean, or avoid, and also lets them control how they fill the tonnage track and maximize their scourge points, especially in regard to transitional oceans that can yield a wreck in either one of the two oceans they are connected to. As such, even the “enemy turn” keeps the player involved by giving them meaningful decisions to make.
The most important source of unmitigatable randomness will come from the differential roll and the number of actions it will grant the player over the course of the game. It goes without saying that the more actions the player gets the better they’ll fare, and while the number of action should even out and is calculated by the publisher to average around 52 per game, there will be turns when a higher number of actions is needed and not obtained, or times when the player suffers from multiple lull turns in a row. The odds are that such result should not end in direct defeat for the player, but they will force them to expend resources such as retain tokens to benefit from additional actions, or to use consecutive bold attacks at the cost of a higher notoriety gain in order to clear out oceans faster when they start welcoming too many sails and engines. The issue is more prevalent in acts I and II, when the player only rolls two white dice for their differential rolls, while in act III they can choose from three white dice, increasing the likelihood that they get a higher number of actions, which they will be inclined to considering the number of ships appearing will also increase at that time. Unless they opt for a voluntary lull turn to reduce said number and better control them.
We cannot afford for the crew to rest. While we conduct repairs, send them ashore and make them sweat!
The reason why the player would opt for a lull turn is because it would make them place a ship for each white die only, ignoring the black die or dice for the turn. Doing so would grant them no action, but would reduce the cost of actions costing two action points to one action point. It could thus be greatly beneficial, should the player have additional action points at their disposal, through characters or retain tokens, to spend them during a lull turn, losing the player points from their sacrificed resources but saving them a good number of actions which, ultimately, could convert into additional victory points, or save them the game should they be spent on repairing the Nautilus or recruiting new crew members. The main appeal would be to draw adventure cards from the adventure deck, furthermore because having a lull turn puts a gemstone in the doubles ocean, but also on top of the adventure deck if there isn’t one already, being the main way to replenish said gemstones in a search-heavy strategy. Cards do exist that put gemstones back in oceans, but they’re seldom and cannot be relied upon.
An important drawback of lull turns is the Imperialists crushing revolts, which translates into the possibility for them to remove one cube in each ocean with one or more cube on it, unless the player chooses to, instead, gain a number of notoriety determined by both the roll and the ocean’s state at that point. Losing a cube isn’t entirely negative, though, as inciting revolts is a mean for the player to decrease their notoriety total. Considering the number of cubes is limited to ten by design, once they’re all placed, the player is unable to incite further revolts. Freeing them during a lull turn therefore grants the player an opportunity to further decrease their notoriety by inciting revolts again. This is especially interesting if it frees spaces close to the Nautilus, sparing it the move actions to reach an ocean with available spaces. Depending on the current motive, cubes are worth a fair number of points, and the decision of whether to remove them from the board, should it present itself, will often warrant be worth considering.
When rolling a lull turn will rarely feel good to a new player, they give recurring players an interesting perspective and are sometimes, if not often, desirable, as it is possible to greatly benefit from them if they happen at an opportune time. Saving an action point at the end of a turn to prepare for the eventuality of a lull turn is a worthy gambit, which will pay off should it happen, but will leave a sour taste should the player obtain a rare five action points on the following turn, in which case the saved action point will be irremediably lost.
Sir, would you like some Kraken with your calamar?
NW allows for a highly customizable experience in the form of it’s three difficulty settings, which are much more lax than a mere “tweak all these aspects by following these rules”. The player can simply mix and match the desired modifications to suit their needs and make the experience more enjoyable to them. Such settings come in three difficulty levels and include:
1. The starting number of hidden ships.
While they are supposed to start in each highlighted box, Sailor (thereafter referred to as S) and Captain (thereafter referred to as C) settings give the player the option to remove a number of ships in crowded oceans — which is to say removing a ship from each ocean that has more than one starting hidden ship, for a total of -3 hidden ships — or to add more in oceans that aren’t as crowded to begin with — meaning adding a hidden ship in each major ocean that should begin with only one, for a total of +3 hidden ships, or a net difference of six hidden ships total between the lowest and highest difficulty level. This will have an important impact on the early apparition of ships hunting for the Nautilus, forcing her to go fighting earlier or letting her take more time, and therefore impact Nemo’s notoriety, snowballing into resource management etc.
2. The notoriety thresholds for the entrance of the blue and green reinforcement ships.
There is a six notoriety points gap between the highest and lowest difficulty level for determining the time these two reinforcement ship stacks get included in the ship pool, with S making it happen three points later than the normal difficulty level, and C three points earlier. Considering that these ships are surpassed only by the red reinforcement group in terms of deadliness, and the fact that it is possible and probable that the only two ships comprised in said group displaying an impressive defense of thirteen, therefore being the only two ships deadlier than any of amongst the green and blue goups, avoiding their inclusion in the pool for as long as possible is of the utmost importance for many motives. While they yield a high number of victory points, they also curse the player who should sink them with many notoriety points, therefore hastening their demise.
3. Purchasing a motive-specific upgrade before the game starts.
Each motive possesses a signature upgrade that should number among the four available upgrades during setup. While purchasing it on normal difficulty is done through spending a number of ship resources of types chosen by the player equal to its purchase value — paid in salvaged ships during the game — this upgrade becomes free on S, and unavailable before the game begins on C. These upgrades are usually desirable as they play on the motive’s strengths, weaknesses, or special demands. Having them built before the first turn can be game-changing, as having to hunt and sink three to four ships — and what it entails in terms of notoriety gains and potential resource loss — and spend two actions refitting the submarine to purchase the upgrade will represent an enormous tempo loss for the Nautilus, and not having the upgrade equipped immediately will translate into the loss of an additional upgrade to purchase during the game, as the starting upgrade, if purchased before the game begins, is immediately replaced by a new one available for purchase afterwards.
4. The number of gemstones on the adventure deck.
Reduced by one on C, raised by one on S, this change will not have as much of an impact as the previous three, and will merely encourage the C player to wait for a lull turn before taking the adventure action, whereas on S it will generally be more rewarding by granting the player additional treasure tokens, which could offer a couple of retain ones and thus give the player more control over the following events.
5. The number of starting action points.
Deducting one action on C and adding one on S, this change will give the player more or less leeway to prepare themselves before things heat up. While it will have little impact on the very first turn, except if the player rolls a lull turn, its impact may be felt later during the game.
Uh, captain, this giant sea serpent has a… periscope jutting out of its head?
The game comes with ten upgrade cards, four of which are associated with a motive, the only consequence of which being that they always appear during setup for their motive when chosen (other motive-related upgrade cards are still shuffled with the others and have a chance to show up in each game).
As mentioned above, these upgrades have a cost in salvaged ship, ranging from two to four resources: two upgrades cost two resources, five cost three resources, and three cost four resources.
Upgrades are worth points at the end of the game, according to their points icons as modified by the chosen motive.
Upgrades are a costly asset to aim at, as they will require two actions each to be fitted onto the Nautilus, except on a lull turn when that cost is reduced to one action. Most of the time though, fitting an upgrade onto the Nautilus will actually cost the player between four and six actions, as they will need to sink between two and four ships and salvage them, which would end a string of bold attacks, then spend the two actions necessary to perform a refit.
Because they provide a passive effect, they are best obtained as early as possible in the game, but doing so will mean actively hunting ships at a time when placement only makes hidden ships appear, therefore hastening the clock and pulling non-threatening ships out of the pool which, unless playing a War! motive, isn’t desirable.
The bonus provided are well worth the hassle, though, as they range from reducing notoriety gains, therefore releasing pressure on the player and making it more likely that they survive the endgame, to granting the Nautilus more efficient move actions, to gaining unconditionnal DRM for certain action types without having to spend limited resources. Two notable exceptions to the previous statement are Fog Machine, which is a one-and-done, sacrificeable upgrade that allows the player to reduce their notoriety by a randomized value of two to twelve points for one action, and Steam Torpedo, which grants the player an additional, free action each turn that can be used to attack a ship with no DRM. While extremely powerful, as it sinks a regular ship on a five and a warship on a six, from a 2d6 roll, it unfortunately becomes much less reliable in case the player should miss their attack, as the following rolls are afterward performed with a single d6, making it that much less likely that the torpedoes will hit their target. But it remains a free action even then.
A final upgrade card, Magnetic Mines, can be found among the adventure cards. Costing two resources and worth one Science at the end of the game, it requires the player to succeed a test of ten to become available as an upgrade, but lets the Nautilus attack first versus metal-clad warships, making it likely that the submersible doesn’t get attacked in return, as opposed to normally being attacked before she attacks back, therefore potentially saving the player a large amount of ship resources.
The rather limited number of upgrades makes having passive DRM boosts a reliable possibility, but also reduces the diversity, contributing to making the upgrade pool feel more similar and predictable, and thus “game”-able than it would be with the addition of an expansion focused solely on upgrades, such as the Upgrades Expansion Pack.
In which subtle changes have a cyclopean impact
Along with its upgrade card, each motive also comes with a list of variables, the first of which to consider is how to seed the draw pile. While the number of cards it contains will remain the same regardless of the chosen motive, where to seed act III will depend upon it. From being placed three cards after act II for War!, it will appear ten cards after it for Science. The impact on the gameplay is enormous, as the placement phase during act III includes an additional white die, which gives the player the choice between three different numbers of action points for their turn and an additional opportunity to select a lull turn, but will also be taken into account to place an additional ship each round. This means that between War! and Science, there will be seven additional ships being placed in the world’s oceans, forcing the Nautilus to take down ships faster to prevent an Imperialist victory, with the already debated impact on notoriety looming over her. Additionally, since the Rising Action card is seeded in act III, it also translates into seven rounds during which the card can be drawn early and add the red reinforcement ship group to the pool, including the most difficult ships to defeat.
The notoriety defeat threshold also depends on the chosen motive, imposing a much different playstyle on the player as their demise will be reached much earlier during Science, on twenty-six, than during War!, on fifty-one. A higher notoriety threshold gives the player much more leeway to attack and sink ships, and therefore to look for upgrades, while not having to fear the random notoriety gains coming from the adventure deck, the draw pile, or the treasure tokens pool — only two treasure tokens grant notoriety gain, however, but they give respectively two and three, which is nothing to scoff at. Moreover, it gives the player more time before they start needing to incite revolts in order to try and decrease their notoriety. It of course plays on the fact that motives with low thresholds will not score as much on warships as those with higher thresholds. While there are only eleven non-mitigatable notoriety gains through adventure cards, either as PLAY, or as the result of failed TESTs, notoriety gains loom around many other cards that give the player an alternative choice that may not be desirable or possible, such as losing units of their hull resource, and others that increase their likelihood, such as those that give the player treasure token draws. A good number of them also offer the player the option to perform special actions that also have a notoriety cost. Among the eleven cards, most grant a +1 notoriety, but some grant +2, a +1d3, or even a crushing +4, that can very easily end a game if the player is tiptoeing around defeat when playing Science, as twenty-two is a rather low notoriety total, all things considered.
The selected motive will vastly influence the value of a given action and the opportunity it gives the player to score points or, as mentioned above, to avoid or reduce notoriety. Similarly, it will change the way the player will commit to adventure cards depending on their scoring icons. It will be more interesting for War! to sink warships while Anti-Imperialism, which also wants to sink ships, will prefer to take regular ships down. It is worth noting that the tonnage track will remain the same regardless of the chosen motive, although it is much less likely for “peaceful” motives to score many points on it than for “stern” motives.
An interesting manoeuver, but not one I have ever used myself, is to accept the offer to change motive upon entering act III. Savvy players will probably be able to take full advantage of it to ensure the desired duration for acts II and III and a fitting choice of starting upgrades, but for this reviewer, the game is complex enough that this change isn’t yet needed.
Overall, while the game’s intrisic mechanisms will not be modified regardless of the adopted motive, the seeding of the draw pile, the notoriety defeat threshold, and the scoring modifications are a strong enough incentive for the player to approach the game in a completely different manner, with extreme switching from avoiding combat entirely unless absolutely necessary while drawing as many cards as possible from the adventure deck, to focusing almost entirely on sinking ships and inciting revolts, which will result in increasing difficulty where enemy ships are concerned, both from their values, dictated by the addition of the blue and green reinforcement groups to the pool and the fact that the ships will be flipped to their more difficult purple side once the 36 notoriety threshold is reached, and their numbers, as when the forty-four notoriety threshold is reached, an additional black die will be rolled each placement phase. It is truly impressive how the game manages to enforce those gameplay changes while requiring no other different component from one play to another than a single tile, which only use is to alter the scoring modifiers.
While the War! motive is pretty straightforward in how it is going to be successful — which is far from saying that it will be easy to do so — some of the other three motives are much more subtle to master, such as Science and Anti-Imperialism.
For instance, while the incentive to draw treasure tokens is pretty strong for the Explore motive, as wonders are worth seven points and each treasure symbol is worth one point in itself, Science, a motive that has the lowest threshold for notoriety defeat and which will equally want to avoid direct conflict, only yields respectively four points per wonder and +0 per treasure symbol. In addition, it discourages the player from sinking non-warships by having them worth -1 points when Explore doesn’t modify their value and instead applies the -1 to warships. This will encourage the player to instead salvage the sunken non-warships and use them to refit upgrades, which goes well with the fact that science icons, often found on upgrades, are worth six points each. Adventure cards are also worth one point each, which in addition to the high science value and the moderate wonders value, gives the player a good incentive to draw from the adventure deck, as it hides many of those icons.
Similarly, Anti-Imperialism won’t reward treasure draws, and will encourage the player to sink non-warships as these become worth a strong +2 points, while the biggest modifier for this motive applies to liberation tokens. An interesting modifier given that a regular game will only have 10 of them, with the Sunken Fleet token raising that number to a maximum of 12, meaning that it will not be possible to score more than 72 points on that icon. What makes this motive difficult to apprehend is that none of the other sources of points are actually giving the player a strong score, as treasures are worth -1 points and science and wonders are only worth two and three each. There are only so many non-warships one can sink before warships start appearing. It is then up the player to play on liberation cubes in a way that consistently keeps their notoriety total below the reinforcement thresholds while keeping on sinking as many white ships as possible, carrying on their destructive habits once warships start appearing as, even though they are not modified, these will still yield their normal points value and contribute to the scourge points on the tonnage track.
Ram it Down
The decision whether or not to attack a ship should not be taken lightly. There are many things to factor in that decision: the notoriety increase the action will inflict upon the player, should the attack fail and should it succeed, as depicted on the ship token; the necessary value to sink the ship and whether it’s easily reached or it will require some resources to be sacrificed; whether the target will attack first and, if so, if its attack value is high enough to inflict damage. Warships attack first and the player needs to roll two dice to see whether they succesfully defend or not. If they roll lower than the value, they suffer as many hits as the lowest rolled die. Hits take the form a 1d6 roll each, with the roll depleting a unit of the associated resource, typically 1-Nemo 2/3/4-Crew 5/6-Hull. Considering there aren’t many ways to influence the defense roll, attacking warships quickly becomes risky and taxing in terms of resources, especially given that the Nautilus will suffer another attack should they fail to sink the ship and try again, tests made all the more difficult as the player spends actions and time doing so and other warships start appearing, adding negative DRMs to the rolls.
When attacking, the player must select whether to make a bold attack, or a stalk attack. The difference is that stalk attacks grant a +1 DRM to the attack and, should the player attack a hidden ship, stalk attacks let the player opt out of the attack after revealing and placing the ship. When making a bold attack, the player doesn’t get any DRM, nor can they decline attacking, but, after the ship is sunk, they have the opportunity to perform another bold attack at the cost of 1 notoriety. They can only do so if they do not keep the sunken ship as salvage, and can string attacks this way as long as they succesfully sink their targets, which is a very action-efficient way of clearing an ocean. Which attack to use will greatly depend upon the chosen motive and oceans situation. While stalk attacks are generally adivsable to make it more likely that ships are sunk, it may at one point become necessary to be bold and clear oceans faster than they start filling up, which, in the endgame, can happen really fast, especially when playing an aggressive motive that gives an additional black dice to roll during placement.
Whales that go bump in the dark
The ship pool is not the only source of blind draws the player will have to face. The draw pile, the adventure deck and the treasure pool will also lead to random draws. As opposed to the ships, those can be rather positive, depending on the chosen source. While there is no way to opt out of drawing a card from the draw pile at the start of each turn, it is possible for the player to decline resolving a card they would have voluntarily drawn from the adventure deck. While doing so would be an important tempo loss for the player who has spent one to two actions to reveal and decline resolving a card, being denied the gemstone in the process, it is worth considering depending on the card’s type and the effect it triggers.
The main reason to decline a card would be because it is a PLAY card. These take immediate effect and are discarded in the relevant pile. Out of the fourteen that are comprised in the deck — which includes fifty-one cards — nine of those are clearly damaging to the player, gaining them notoriety, losing them resources or forcing them to fight a warship. Required Repairs is also a card that the player would wish to avoid, as this KEEP card stays in their tableau until they perform a succesful repair action and foregoes one of the gained hull units, lest they lose eight victory points at the end of the game, while Captain Nemo’s Diaries is a KEEP card that could turn a win into a loss right after passing the finalé, as it forces a test to which no resource can be committed and which can lose the player 1 Nemo resource. The Diaries aren’t as negative as the Repairs, though, and can be an interesting card for the Explore motive as they yield a wonder icon that would benefit them, but will force them to save some emergency help resources if the player lost a lot of Nemo resources throughout the game — a resource that, given its icons, they should have done their best to preserve to begin with, and which the Diaries can partially restore should the test succeed.
Most of the other cards would only be avoided for situational reasons. Aside from the aforementioned Required Repairs and Diaries, most of the seventeen KEEP cards either offer an opportunity to obtain additional benefits immediately, such as placing liberation cubes, drawing treasure tokens, or gaining actions, but will then deny the player their victory points as they are put in the fail pile, thus encouraging them to keep them in their tableau until the end of the game if possible; others will present the player with small optional side missions that will offer beneficial effects and give the player incentives to visit some parts of the map, and be put in the fail pile should the player fail to do so by the end of the game.
The remaining cards are TEST cards that, for the vast majority of them, will give the player points and/or positive effects if they’re passed, and will therefore not be declined except if their fail effect is too daunting and the player is not in a position where they can afford to sacrifice resources — at which point they probably shouldn’t have taken an adventure action to begin with. Considering the vast majority of the other TEST cards offer an advantage and go into the pass pile for endgame points if succeeded, the main reason why a player would decline risking resources for the test would be because the result doesn’t immediately benefit them given the current game state. Such would be the case with, for instance, The Coral Realm, which “only” grants the player two crew upon passing, which, while a fantastic reward on its own, is not worth the risk of solely exerting the crew against a value of ten if said crew is already at the top of its track, and would therefore not benefit the player at all since the card is worth zero adventure point.
While the main source of treasure tokens is a PASS when performing the search action, it can prove difficult to rely on it as said pass will remove the gemstone, a requirement for being able to perform the action, from the ocean. And while two cards and lull turns will replenish some of the gemstones, they cannot be depended upon. It is therefore adventure cards that will, for the most part, provide the player with treasure tokens, either through passing a test, or by activating a card from their tableau, of which nine cards allow a treasure draw.
While not all motives benefit from treasure tokens, they remain a desirable asset as the retain tokens can be a powerful source of both emergency help and supplementary action points that can make a remarquable difference during a lull turn, allowing the player to take full advantage of the action cost reduction of certain actions. The plain treasure tokens can also be a way to maximize the efficiency of actions that allow the player to spend them as a preemptive DRM. The wonder tokens will either be a good draw or a dull one depending on the player’s motive, as they are not usable in any way and only grant points that will range from two for the War! motive to seven for the Explore motive, each. There are relatively few of them as, with expansions included, eleven wonder tokens are present in the bag while seventeen retain tokens are ready to provide the player with some assistance, ensuring that even War! can benefit from the search action or from drawing treasure tokens through other means, albeit with a greater risk of gaining little benefit from doing so. Only three of the tokens are negative, as one forces a player to sacrifice a character or resource while the other two give them two to three notoriety, meaning the risk is present, but minor.
Of failures and successes: a tale of broken esperances
Because of the way the different scoring threshold are named, the game manages to never feel like a Beat Your Own Score kind of game — games where the only incentive to play again is to perform better than last time rather than beating the game and clearly winning or losing — instead confronting the player to varying degrees of success and failure and making it clear to them that they have or not in fact won the game, which is welcome in a game of this weight and length where a simple “good mariner” or “scourge of the seven seas” wouldn’t have provided the same satisfaction nor the incentive to confront oneself to the vexations of rolling snake eyes and the demanding journey leading to such a random and devoid of meaning title.
While at first, simply completing the game is in itself its own reward and reading the victory levels can be demoralizing for the player — giving everything and ending up with Inconsequential can be a terrible feeling — they also give a strong indication of how well the player did, more so than trying to do better than one’s previous own score. Achieving the elusive Triumph for the first time on a given motive is a highly satisfying feat. (bound to be even more difficult to achieve in the next version as the thresholds have been revised and Triumph will require a much higher number of points, accountable for the incredible expertise of the game’s main playtesters and their complete mastery of every facet of the game) and one can consider that it is in fact the only point threshold that qualifies as a win. The additional flavor text will be a nice touch for those who play for thematic purposes.
We may have cell batteries, but they will eventually run out
A game of Nemo’s War can be played in around sixty minutes by an experienced player, but during their first play, it is more likely to last double that, and possibly more. The reason is that while it is a simple game at heart and turns do not usually take long, there are a lot of different actions a player can take, with many DRM opportunities to factor in, and consequences that are different from one action type to another. Thus will the player often need to remind themselves of what they can do during a turn and what it entails.
While there is a profusion of actions that can be taken, the new player will also be more focused on moving and attacking than on taking advantage of more subtle ones that will become more of an acquired taste, and the game will therefore sound more repetitive to them than they would to a seasoned player who knows what they are going into and what they need. The consequence may be that the game starts feeling “samey” during act III, and overstays its welcome, especially when ships start appearing in large numbers and the player doesn’t see a way out of attacking en masse, moving around to clear oceans before they start filling up too much with defense-efficient navies and reducing their luck mitigation tools to nothing while their notoriety level grows out of control.
The length of the game will therefore depend upon the player’s familiarity with the game, but also upon the position of the finalé card, as there can be a four cards difference between its earliest and its latest apparition, and thus a four turn difference, which induces that the player can perform from 0 to 20 or more actions between these two extremes, depending on their differential rolls and the retain treasures or other resources at their disposal.
Offering a highly customizable experience through the various difficulty settings already, Nemo’s War also comes with four optional rules for the solo player, the most interesting of which is the Deadly Seas small expansion. Consisting of ten tokens randomly selected and added to the ship pools at the beginning of the game, this expansion will make the game more challenging but will also offer brief respites for the player, as whenever one of these tokens is drawn, if it is not ship themselves, it will free up an ocean slot by not being replaced with a ship token. With this marginal upside in mind, most of the effects are detrimental to the player as they force them to lose characters, resources, suffer a relatively high attack, or even immediately end the turn, a terrible situation should the token be drawn when the player is attacking and has some actions to spend still, as these will all be lost without recourse. Some tokens still will offer pleasant surprises, such as a free +2 DRM retain token, a free cube placement with no notoriety decrease, or, if timed right, the Cyclone! which will remove every ship from the ocean it’s drawn in, an event that can be both positive or detrimental to the player depending on the situation and the planned course of action. I had it drawn at a time when I was preparing for a good string of attacks to fill my tonnage track, which made it slightly annoying, but in a situation where ships are growing out of control, Cyclone! can postpone an Imperialist defeat by giving the player some room to breathe and potentially perform some repairs. The last tokens are warships with rather low values but an important downside, as they force two additional ship placements, which in itself can be highly damaging.
Deadly Seas is an interesting addition that adds a good amount of variability to the game with little additional setup and rules, and is highly recommended for a slightly more challenging and unpredictable game that comes with the odd benefit.
The other three optional rules add minor modifications to the original ruleset that add to the difficulty of the game. Taking the Blows adapts to the chosen difficulty by modifying how many of the exerted resources are lost upon failing a test, from a maximum of 1 on Sailor to the value of the lowest rolled dice on Captain. Relentless Pursuit gives the player the opportunity to sink ships for zero action as they must roll a die for each warship in their ocean at the beginning of the action phase and suffer an attack they can respond to with a bold attack if the result is lower than the VP value of the ship. While the attack is bad news, a free attack can gain the player a lot of tempo, especially during lull turns. It is an unreliable source of actions, though, and one that can inflict a good deal of damage, and might force the player to take preemptive actions, while the lack of DRM on the bold action makes it less desirable than the stalk attack, but it also lets the player string attacks at the normal notoriety cost. Imperialist Naval Coordination introduces a slight modification, in that instead of suffering a -1 DRM when performing a relevant action if there is a revealed ship token in their ocean, the player instead suffers a -1 DRM penalty per revealed ship, a devastating change that will force a strategy rehaul on the player’s part.
A word on expansions
As of the time of this writing, three expansions have been released, out of a dozen planned, to be condensed in the v2.1. of the game. The first three expansions were released in booster packs.
The first expansion adds twelve new upgrade cards, and new rules, in three difficulty levels, to allow the player to customize their upgrade deck for a given game, with the opportunity to purchase a second upgrade during setup, at a much higher cost than the first.
The second expansion adds two new motives complete with additional rules, upgrades, tokens, and epilogues. Those motives are similar to the base game’s motives in setup and defeat thresholds, but bring the players new opportunities. Adventure, for instance, nullifies the penalties and benefits from lull turns and adds adventure tokens that encourage the player to use the move action much more than any other motive.
The third expansion focuses on adventure cards and adds a new finalé card for increased variety.
These expansions are nowhere near necessary for Nemo’s War to have an impressive amount of replay-value, but are nice to have for additional variety. I especially recommend the first one, as the additional upgrade opportunity during setup, on Sailor difficulty, greatly helps the struggling player.
Theme, artwork, and components
Not being a theme person, I’ve decided to approach that point without rereading the source material, and to view the theme as a coat of paint that disappears as soon as I start drawing a card, the way I do when I play.
The way the theme comes through Nemo’s War‘s gameplay is very satisfying. Nemo’s actions throughout the year the player acts as him have direct repercussions on the world’s navies, hastening the arms race as his deeds become more notorious, be it ramming ships down or anchoring the Nautilus to look for treasures and wonders. The crew and submersible’s gradual exhaustion leading into their being less efficient is well depicted, while Nemo’s descent into madness turning him into a more powerful resource to exert also makes a lot of sense. It is clear from the rulebook that a lot of research has been conducted to make the navies as close to what they were in the depicted period as possible.
Many of the cards make much sense in terms of how they mechanically impact the game, such as the Ned Land’s Temper event card that forces a test during which the player can commit both Nemo and the crew to try and keep the harpooner under control. Failing to do so will result in either the loss of some crew members or of Ned Land himself, while succeeding will allow the player to keep the card to be used as DRM later in the game, depicting Ned’s new allegiance and will to assist Nemo after being reasoned with.
There are some theme failures, though, such as the ability to find Cleopatra’s Palace or the Lost Mayan City off the coast of New Holland (or Australia), and while the As Master Wishes card immediately whiffs if the Conseil character is not in play, it is entirely possible to suffer from Ned Land’s Temper even if the Ned Land character has been sacrificed. This is not held against the game as I’m of the opinion that gameplay should take precedence over theme, but some players will find these inconsistencies difficult to accept or forgive in an otherwise highly thematic game.
Each adventure and upgrade card contains a decent amount of flavor text, narrated, just like in the novel, by the Professor Aronnax. The rulebook also contains a healthy dose of flavor justification for most of the navies and the Nautilus’ actions.
While the game advertises itself as an adventure game, some players will be disappointed by the fact that adventuring through the oceans is, in fact, discouraged, and that reducing the amount of movement performed is strongly advised to achieve a decent endgame score. Those players will enjoy the Adventure motive from the expansions, which was tailor-made for them.
NW is a visually outstanding game. The board is phenomenal, both from an artwork and a legibility standpoint. Almost everything the player needs to remember is written on it, and it has slots for most of the game pieces that will see regular play. The artist managed to make it look like a captain’s cabin, littered with maps and notes, and the player truly feels like they’re on the Nautilus, planning actions and moving pieces around, ruffling through papers for the right piece of information. Except they don’t have to, as most of it is already available. After a couple plays, the player will only rarely need to consult the rulebook.
Ian O’Toole‘s artwork lends itself beautifully to the game’s theme. The pencil strokes apparent throughout his drawing give it a strong and unique personality, and while some proportions feel a little off, such as Nemo’s figure on the cover, and some pieces are too similar to one another, such as the numerous iterations of the Nautilus simply cruising through empty seas across cards not being notably imaginative or exciting, the overall result is a triumph. The upgrade’s pseudo-blueprint rendition is particularly successful to this reviewer. As a card back enthusiast, I am also happy to say that NW‘s are sober, but done well and in-theme.
Each ship token bears a different illustration sometimes even each side does, and the attention to detail is stunning. The information is easily found and understood on each single component.
The components are sturdy, with thick cardboard for the tokens, barely showing wear, if at all, after around thirty plays of heavy shuffling. I noticed a single treasure token peeling ever so slightly, the others otherwise looking as good as new, without indentations or shuffling marks, which is impressive. The card stock is average, but the cards are linen. They are slightly curved, which is not an issue for randomness given that it applies to all of them. Two different box versions are in circulation, one rectangular (the first version) and one square (the newest version). The square box’s insert is well thought-out and helps accelerate setup, partially thanks to slots allocated to the different ship groups. The player will still need to use ziplock bags for the other tokens. It accommodates sleeved cards with room to spare for the expansions. It is unfortunate that the drawstring bags offered on Kickstarter remain an add-on as they would have been a nice default addition. The player shouldn’t have to provide their own cups.
The dice not being custom ones is a perplexing choice, as they are the most manipulated and prevalent component of the game. They are square, chunky dice with engraved pips, and there isn’t much more to say about them. They do what they are supposed to do, unexciting as they are, and seem well balanced, rolling highs and lows alike and respecting the laws of averages, which is probably the reason why the publisher opted out of custom dice to begin with.
Not being a mini person, the only thing I can say about the Nautilus one is that it exists.
While the game features cardboard tokens, a miniature, and wooden cubes, there is no conflict between these different materials that all serve their own purpose, and once laid out the game is nothing short of beautiful, as these components merge together to a very pleasant result and nothing feels out of place or like it could have been upgraded.
The one component that would have been better swapped out are the victory point tracking tokens, which would have gladly been exchanged for a notepad. Currently, the player has to track their victory point for each icon type by using two tokens, one for the 10s and one for the 00s, on a scale that cannot host as many tokens as there are victory points category, and then remove them to add them together and use generic point tokens, going up to 300, to determine their total score. It is not advised to do so as it takes much longer than simply writing down each category and then adding them together. It is possible, but strongly advised not to do so, even in the rulebook, to dynamically keep track of the score during the game, but doing so will take a lot of unnecessary time and brain power.
The epilogue book feels unnecessary and could have been done without, as it doesn’t add much to the game and is best forgotten for most players who will be frustrated by the fact that their scores aren’t high enough to qualify for anything but an inconsequential outcome when they gave the game their everything just to try and survive. It serves no mechanical purpose, only giving context to the player’s actions in regard to their chosen Motive, and is therefore a nice addition to those that are immersed in theme, while those that are more involved into the mechanisms can simply ignore it. The artwork is nice but the fact that the same four Nemo’s stances are reused for each motive is a bit of a letdown.
A word on optional buys
As far as optional buys are concerned, the drawstring bags are of high quality, thick, made of cotton, very enjoyable to the touch and deep enough to make them easy to use. The cloth map, on the other hand, is difficult to use, as it comes folded and remains deeply creased, offers no grip to prevent the components from moving around, and the printed text is difficult to read. It is not recommended to use it unless the player is extremely familiar with the reference tables and rules, and even then it isn’t a very practical version of the mounted board which it is recommended to stick with. It is best used as a wall decoration, a testament to how amazing the board art is.
The rulebook is an impressive piece of work. Using the margins for examples, reminders, or summaries, it uses the rest of the page for a highly detailed explanation of every bit of gameplay, and is one of the most comprehensive rulebooks I have read. While it makes for a long read, making the learning experience a little fastidious, it is easy to browse through afterward for a specific piece of information. As mentioned above, the fact that most of the relevant rules are written on the board facilitates the gameplay, and in the end, while it remains a rather heavy game, Nemo’s War is relatively easy to play through where rules are concerned, and feels like a light game once they have been mastered.
An achievement on its own, Nemo’s War (2nd Edition) is a true deluxe solitaire gaming experience that manages to be highly thematic, impressively replayable, and unquestionably riveting. Carried by Ian O’Toole‘s stellar illustrations, the game unravels along numerous plays, to reward the faithful player with new layers of strategy and an even more pleasant time, attaining, in my opinion, the status of work of art.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
A big thank you to Mike D. Kelley from One Stop Co-Op Shop for his patience and proofreading skills.
Nemo's War (2nd Edition) belongs to Victory Point Games. Header image from Boardgamegeek.com