Sometimes I like to sit around and just think about how awesome Nemo’s War is. Like right now.
Note that my love for this game may be tainted by my bias for the source material. I wouldn’t recommend that you read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea if you haven’t, because it turns most modern mortals away from sci-fi permanently, but the core story is phenomenal. Unfortunately Verne’s obsession with science in general and ichthyology in particular obscures the brilliance of the tale of Captain Nemo and his “guests.” Many of the chapters read more like a sushi menu than a gripping tale of adventure.
But forget all that. Nemo is one of the great anti-heroes of all time, waging his one-man war of utterly mad vengeance. Alternately gambling with his crew and suffering immensely when they are hurt or killed. Obsessed with science, but sailing in perpetual self-imposed exile. Targeting civilian ships, then scooping treasure from the ocean floor to help the poor and oppressed break the shackles of imperialism. Rescuing shipwreck victims only to permanently imprison them on his vessel so they won’t reveal his secrets.
And what a vessel. The Nautilus is one of the most amazing, wildly imaginative creations in the pantheon of sci-fi. A nigh-invulnerable submarine packed with wondrous technology. Capable of astonishing speed and punching holes in massive ironclads, yet furnished like a Victorian palace. It is the headspring of Steampunk, for better or worse, and Verne conjured it more than 150 years ago.
How could anything other than a paragraph-driven game capture all this?
Let me show you.
Playing the Game
I was underwhelmed when I opened the ziplock bag this game ships in, just as I am with all of Victory Point Games’ other excellent yet underproduced releases. Everything plays out on an 11×17 unmounted board that contains a map of the world’s oceans and several player aids. It is full of useful information but cluttered, and after playing on it a few times I ended up making my own graphical redesign.
The map has a Time Track with 52 spaces (representing one week each), a Notoriety Track with 33 spaces, and a Liberation Track with 10 spaces (though flipping its marker to the +10 side gives it an effective 20 spaces). There is a Sunken Ship grid, a Salvage Track for captured ships, and a place to put Collected Treasures. There are also three resource tracks. One represents Nemo, and the other two represent the Crew and Hull of the Nautilus.
The map is divided into six areas (W. Pacific, E. Pacific, S. Atlantic, N. Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean) that each hold one Treasure and various numbers of random, face-down enemy ship counters. Lines connect them to one another, and normally it takes one week to move between connected areas, but some have a symbol indicating it takes an additional week.
“I am the law, and I am the judge! I am the oppressed, and there is the oppressor! Through him I have lost all that I loved, cherished, and venerated–country, wife, children, father, and mother. I saw all perish! All that I hate is here!” – Captain Nemo
At the beginning of each turn you roll 2d6. If the numbers are different you place two more face-down ships from a Ship Holding Box in the indicated areas. Each area can only hold a fixed number of ships, and if they ever all fill up the game ends in an immediate loss.
If you roll doubles on the initial roll you place a Treasure in the area labeled with that number if it no longer has one. You also check for Imperial Pushback by comparing the number that came up twice to the current position of the Liberation Track marker. If the number on the dice is lower, you must move the Liberation Track marker back one space.
Finally, the marker on the Time Track has a 7+ side and a 10+ side. If this initial roll meets or exceeds the number currently displayed you flip the marker to its 10+ side if it isn’t already there and draw an Adventure Card (if it’s lower, you flip the marker to its 7+ side if it isn’t already there and don’t draw a card that turn).
Adventure Cards trigger events that happened in the book, and most involve passing a test by rolling 2d6 plus whatever modifiers are listed on the card. Passing generally gives you victory points, Treasure, special actions, or other bonuses, while failing often hurts Nemo or the Nautilus.
“It is not new continents the earth needs, but new men” – Captain Nemo
After resolving the initial roll you can take one Nemo Action. The simplest is a Move, which lets you place the Nautilus in an area connected to the one it is already in.
A Rest/Repair lets you automatically repair the hull of the Nautilus or roll to restore one crew. A Refit lets you spend Salvage Points (captured ships) to add new capabilities to the Nautilus. Both types of actions cost 1d3 weeks each time you do one, and they can’t be repeated two turns in a row.
Nemo can also Search for Treasure if one is available in that area by rolling 1d6 and consulting a chart. Treasure is placed randomly and face-down, and some have numbers and are worth that many victory points, while others are labeled Wonders and count differently for scoring. A few also trigger special actions.
Incitement is another option. Here you commit one Treasure you have with a number on it, roll 1d6, and subtract 5 from the final result. You then move the Liberation marker that many spaces and lose the committed Treasure.
Finally, you can start a brawl.
“Strike, mad vessel! Shower your useless shot! And then, you will not escape the spur of the Nautilus.” – Captain Nemo
Fighting is simple. The Nautilus can Stalk an enemy, which gives +1 to its combat roll but ends the turn whether the target is sunk or not. Alternatively, it can Attack an enemy with no bonus and continue attacking if that target is sunk. This is a good way to clear out ocean areas quickly, especially early in the game when the ships are weakest.
The Nautilus can attack a face-up target or flip a hidden target. Some targets are civilian vessels with no defenses, and the Nautilus rolls 2d6 against their defense value. Other targets are warships, and they have an attack value to go with the defense value. The Nautilus first rolls 2d6 to see if it gets above the attack value. If so, the warship misses and the Nautilus rolls 2d6 against the defense value. If not, the Nautilus loses one random Nemo, Crew, or Hull resource before it gets to counterattack.
These tracks serve another purpose. During combat, when the Nautilus fires on an enemy, you can bet one of these three resources to add one or more points to the combat roll. If you hit the target you don’t lose the resource you bet. If you miss, you lose the resource you bet. This is bad because most resources get worse as they take damage, and you are granted victory points for keeping track levels high (or lose victory points for letting them get too low). Most importantly, if any of the three track markers ever reach the end, you immediately lose the game.
Aside from a few event cards, there is one other way to modify rolls. In the book Nemo rescues Professor Pierre Arronax, the Professors’ steadfast assistant Conseil, and a feisty harpoonist Ned Land. He lets them live, but on the condition that they never return to civilization again. These skilled captives are represented in the game by three tokens that can be discarded after a roll to boost its results. Arronax adds 2, Ned Land adds 1, and Conseil allows a re-roll. The downside is that you then throw their token in your Captured Treasure pile and they count as negative VP at the end of the game. They are for emergency use only.
Once all these modifiers are applied and the dice are rolled you check to see if you meet or exceed the target’s defense value. If not you gain +1 Notoriety, the target stays where it is, and your turn ends. If so you hit the target, gain Notoriety equal to the number of skull-and-crossbones symbols on it, and can choose whether to sink it or capture it.
Sunk ships are placed on the Sunken Ships track and generate bonus points at the end of the game. Up to four captured ships are placed face-down on the Salvage Track and do not generate extra points, but can be cashed in for extra adventures or permanent ship upgrades. The latter are very important for surviving the tough ships that appear late in the game.
At the end of any Nemo Action the Time Track marker advances by one and you begin a new turn.
“God Almighty! Enough! Enough!” – Captain Nemo
So you sink or capture ships, gather treasure, and liberate the oppressed. What does it all mean? Well, that depends.
One brilliant element I haven’t mentioned yet is Nemo’s Commitment Track. Captain Nemo fought his own expansive and vengeful mind as much as he fought his imperialist foes, and this is reflected by the four different motives of Explore, Science, Anti-Imperialism, and War you can choose for him. Scoring changes dramatically depending on what you select. Ships sunk by a Nemo with a Science motive count far less than they do when Nemo has a War motive. Wonder tokens count far more when the motive is Explore than when it is Anti-Imperialism. Everything shifts, and you must shift with it depending on how your turns play out.
The big twist is that if the Nemo marker hits its fourth position on the Nemo Track, you must immediately commit to one of the four motives. You can’t change it for the rest of the game, and must work desperately to pick up points that will do you the most good.
Another brilliant element I left out is that the stakes are raised as the game progresses. Ships at the beginning are weak, and only truly awful rolls will keep you from sinking them with impunity. This raises your Notoriety, though, and once it hits 14 a group of more powerful ships is released. At 26 another really bad bunch appears. At 33 all warships get +1 to their attack value, which doesn’t sound like much but thanks to the bell curve of 2d6 gives them a real edge.
More groups of ships come in when the Time Track hits 16 and 28, and there are some particularly nasty ships that enter the fray due to Adventure Cards. The seas fill up relentlessly, and you must clear them just as relentlessly to avoid losing the game due to full oceans.
Is it Worth Your Time?
There are three main elements that separate good games from bad ones for me:
Are the Decisions Interesting?
Yes, yes, a million times yes. There’s room for some overall strategy, but you must modify it based on treasures and ships that appear, good or bad rolls (especially bad rolls), and Adventure Cards. Keeping a low profile is important if you want to avoid adding tough ships to the ocean, but you must fight to keep the oceans clear and obtain enough salvage to add critical Nautilus upgrades. Of course, every ship you salvage denies points at the end on the Sunken Ships grid. But maybe that doesn’t matter much because of the motive you committed to. Decisions, decisions…
Much of the tension in this game comes during combat or when rolling for Adventure Card tests. Deciding what resources to gamble, when to gamble them, and when it is critical to discard Arronax/Land/Conseil is a delicious exercise in risk management. Sometimes you have to throw up your hands, put everything on the line, and kiss the dice. Just like Nemo did.
Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?
You can get hosed by the dice in this game, but your decisions factor mightily into the final outcome. Often what feels like a minor risk or a safe victory point grab is a rolling pebble that triggers an avalanche of disaster that could have been avoided had you been more sensible early on.
There is a complete scoring system at the end, and you can cross-reference the results there with an epilogue sheet that provides a narrative of how things turned out for Captain Nemo and the gang. The game plays out like a storyline, so having this final bit of closure is much more satisfying than tallying up a clinical score.
If There is a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated With the Design?
I’ve never played a board game that does a better job than this one at translating a piece of literature into a series of interconnected and compelling game mechanisms. The Event Cards are ripped straight out of the book. There’s the Arabian Tunnel, which served as Nemo’s shortcut between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, and does the same thing here, letting you play a card at a critical moment to seriously reduce your travel time. Ned Land throws temper tantrums (one of which lost me a game). A Giant Squid attacks. Nemo discovers (and claims) the South Pole. Finally, there is The Maelstrom that ended the book, and can end your game before the Time Track is complete. You can even play a version where you stack the deck in the order things happened in the book. So amazing.
And then there’s the rest of the game. Powerful warships are released as the world becomes wise to Nemo’s anti-imperial plans. Treasure can be used to liberate oppressed natives. The crew and hull get weaker as they are gambled away, while Nemo actually lends more support to rolls as he becomes increasingly unstable. The theme is the game. Brilliant.
Can you tell I love this? It’s always refreshing to see a solitaire title from VPG that doesn’t use the States of Siege model (which is also a great system), and this one is an absolute masterpiece. Chris Taylor somehow managed to incorporate all the best parts of the amazing source material while eliminating the boring parts and exploring interesting aspects the book only hinted at. He made a solitaire game with multiple fail states and multiple win conditions, guaranteeing replayability.
Nemo’s motto was “Mobilis in Mobili,” which loosely translates to “moving in the moving element,” or as I prefer to think of it, “being chaos in the chaos.” It’s a motto perfectly suited to Nemo’s mind, which was as wild and alien as the oceans his beloved Nautilus traversed. It’s also a motto perfectly suited to this wonderful game, where time and attrition constantly work against you, and constant motion and action are the keys to victory. If you love solitaire games, don’t miss it. And if you love Jules Verne, buy it yesterday.
Now if you’ll excuse me there’s an expansion I haven’t even tried. Time to get working on another review…
“So it was a sad day I spent, between my wish to regain freedom and my regret at saying goodbye to the marvelous Nautilus…” – Professor Aronnax