In Nemesis, from Awaken Realms and Rebel, players take on the roles of the crew of the titular spacecraft, awakened rudely from hypersleep to find that something has gone terribly wrong on their ship. As well as competing with the unknown hostile presence onboard, the crew must also deal with the treachery of their fellow crewmates. All have hidden agendas and ulterior motives that could make them more of a threat than the alien hitchhikers.
There are few finer things in the tabletop sphere than a good evening with a well-designed semi co-op game. Anyone who saw my gushing retrospective of Battlestar Galactica won’t be surprised by that sentiment. In Nemesis, designer Adam Kwapiński has delivered a game that marches right up to the table of King Battlestar and throws down its slimy, organic gauntlet. A pretender to the throne has emerged.
The key to a good semi co-op is a queasy wave of suspicion and uncertainty. Every decision taken by the player must be clouded by doubts about how and why that decision is playing exactly into the hands of those who do not wish them well. To that end players in Nemesis are given a pair of objectives at the start of the game; one corporate and one personal. The requirements of these objectives can range from performing research on the intruders, stealing one of their eggs, simple survival, killing a specific player in the game or giving a decent burial to the unfortunate crew-member who begins each game as a corpse token on the hibernatorium floor. A great many of these objectives are at odds with each other. Alliances will be formed and trusts broken again and again over the course of the game as circumstances force players to work together and then to turn on each other.
The player does have some control over this process, however, as they only need to complete one of these objectives. At a certain point in the game they will be asked to discard one of their two objectives and choose one to focus on. This gives an element of choice and results in players keeping things nicely coy and ambiguous until the fateful moment of decision is thrust upon them.
The meat and drink of gameplay in Nemesis involves managing your hand of cards. Each of the different characters (there are six in the core game though the player count is only five) has a different deck of cards consisting of a combination of broadly generic abilities and actions specific to their class. The scout is very good at moving through the ship, the captain can order other players about, the scientist is an expert in the ship’s computers, the soldier is the only class capable of reliably killing intruders, the engineer can move through the ship’s system of technical corridors (vents to you and I) and the pilot knows her ship like the back of her hand.
Each character’s deck of cards gives them actions they can take but there are also a set of basic actions available to all characters (move, shoot, trade etc.) as well as location-specific actions that can be taken if the character is in the correct room. Every action, regardless of source, has a cost however. This is paid by discarding cards from hand. Moving from one room to another will require the player to discard one card, for example, whereas using most room actions cost two cards. When a player runs out of cards to pay for more actions (or chooses not to take any more) they must pass.
One of Nemesis’ strongest mechanics is movement around the ship. At the start of the game most of the rooms in the ship are unexplored (hyperspace apparently makes everyone forget the layout of their own ship). As players move around the ship they will reveal locations, many of which are necessary for the completion of objectives. As players move into rooms they will hear strange sounds from the ship, represented by noise tokens placed by rolling a special die upon entering a room. If at any point, a noise token would need to be placed in a corridor that already has one then a distinctly-not-xenomorphs-for-legal-reasons has found the player and a whole new world of hurt has begun.
The saving grace for the players is that if their character moves into a room that already contains another character they don’t need to roll the noise die. This is a wonderful mechanic that encourages the characters to stick together for survival; racing off on your own will quickly result in being surrounded by sickly, yellow noise tokens. Sticking together, in turn, offers many exciting opportunities for teamwork and even more exciting opportunities for betrayal.
Still, even if the players moved around the board as a single team then that moment of intruder attack is inevitable. Sooner or later they come for us all. Nemesis does an excellent job of playing like a horror film. At the start of the game the characters move cautiously from room to room, jumping at every noise and with a sense of (justified) impending dread. For this to be effective the intruders have to be scary and the miniatures team have not disappointed. The intruder miniatures are grisly, spiny and, crucially, massive. Even the standard adult intruder towers over the player miniatures and the queen and breeder intruder minis are half as big again. Normally the size of miniatures in a board game is not a priority for me but looking at your tiny, insignificant space trucker in a room with one of these beasts conveys the appropriate level of dread.
When an intruder puts in an appearance a token is drawn from a bag to determine which type of intruder it is. That token also has a number on the back, indicating the number of cards the player must have in hand to avoid a surprise attack. Being caught short on the card front can be disastrous and each player turn comes with the tough choice between taking more actions or keeping cards in hand to protect from these devastating surprise attacks.
The intruders are extremely dangerous and, whilst it is possible to kill them, the survival horror elements of Nemesis ensure that this is no simple feat with guns often running out of ammunition or the vagaries of the combat die leaving a character hung out to dry. Thankfully the ship is full to the brim with odds and ends that the players can collect. These range from precious energy charges (ammo clips, effectively) and med-kits to duct tape and tools to self-destruct keys and decoy drones. The variety of items that can be collected is large and is another factor that contributes to the high replayability factor of Nemesis.
Winning a game of Nemesis is not an easy task. The objectives in the game, even the ones that look simple, can become devilishly hard due to the actions of other players or the cruel twists of the event cards (a deck drawn from every turn that will quickly become the bane of a player’s existence). Completing your objective is not enough to win, however. Most objectives also require the player to reach Earth which can be done either by hibernating in the ship again (making sure that the engines are functioning and that the nav computer is actually heading to Earth) or by shooting off in an escape pod.
This last option is another beautiful mechanic. Unless your objective specifically cares about the fate of the ship, leaving in an escape pod is the surest way to get to Earth however at the start of the game every escape pod is locked. There are a few rooms and items that can help with this but the two main circumstances under which this will happen are the death of a character or the self-destruct being set off. This can lead a self-serving player to look to get other characters killed or begin the process of blowing the ship up, just to make an easy escape. Add to this the fact that some objectives will demand that players kill each other or blow the ship up and Nemesis often descends into a swamp of mistrust and betrayal. Players will have to choose between being a team player or trying to take a shortcut to victory at the expense of everyone else.
The one drawback of Nemesis is that it does contain that most awful spectre of board game design; player elimination. It is arguably a necessary part of the game in order to keep the stakes high but that doesn’t make the prospect of having your character die halfway through the game (or earlier if you’re unlucky) any more appealing. There are three mitigating factors to consider here though. Firstly, Nemesis can actually be a very entertaining game to watch. That sounds almost ridiculous but it is easy to become invested in the fates of the other characters and the twists and turns of the game keep things interesting. Secondly, there is an optional resurrection rule that allows players to transport the corpse of a fallen crew member to a specific room and bring them back to life. This mostly only works in co-op games (another optional variant) however as the incentive to do this in semi co-op mode isn’t there for the most part. Lastly, the game comes with an option to let the first player who dies play as the Intruders. I haven’t experimented much with this so cannot speak to how satisfying it is but it’s a nice option to have.
The tone of this review should leave you in no doubt that I absolutely love Nemesis. It is a marvel of organic, narrative storytelling within a board game. I have played six games so far and each has left the players excitedly discussing the twists and turns of the game afterwards. It is surprising how often things will play out in a way that feels scripted straight from a movie and it is a real achievement of the game that it can organically create these moments. The barrier for entry here is quite high, however. Nemesis is currently out of stock in retail copies with uncertainty surrounding whether another print-run will be forthcoming. It can still be found for purchase on eBay but, unsurprisingly, at a considerable mark-up. Before you stump up the cash for one of those copies it should be understood that each game of Nemesis is a commitment too. It is a complex game with many moving parts and can be expected to take upwards of four hours to play (unless everything goes really badly wrong). If none of this puts you off, however, then Nemesis comes highly recommended as one of the most immersive and pulse-pounding board game experiences around.
Nemesis is really only available to purchase at eBay however keep an eye on board game price aggregators like Board Game Prices to see whether random copies come into stock anywhere. If you’re interested in a fuller experience (and money is no object to you) look to see if you can find the Kickstarter copy of the game which comes with two alternate alien races, six additional characters and a whole host of options such as alternative boards, game modes, campaign rules, turrets and other exciting possibilities.