Whilst it’s a bit of a niche area, Victory Point Games have become known as the almost undisputed champions of solo specific board game experiences, having created a number of systems specifically designed for lone play. Nemo’s War is one of the most iconic games in their catalogue, and having been out of print for several years, Nemo’s War: Second Edition has recently been fulfilled following a successful Kickstarter.
Unusually, I’m going to cover components first, because Nemo’s War: Second Edition is just gorgeous, even despite being a relatively traditional game rather than one which comes dripping in pointless Kickstarter regalia. The board is large and made up of six leaves, and what I really like about it is that is attractive, very clear, and most importantly, it has room on it for almost everything that is pertinent to play — there are very few off-board components.
The artwork on the board and the cards is a modern take on the Jules Verne story that of course gives the game its name. With that in mind, you can expect a lot of charts and measuring implements, as well as the strange machines that power the Nautilus. Event cards often feature text from the original narrative along with pictures, which have a sort of pen and ink on sepia kind of colour scheme that is classy and detailed.
Nemo’s War: Second Edition features a lot of tokens for ships, treasure and other things, and whilst the sheer volume of them can be daunting at first, a detailed and thorough setup guide takes much of the pain away. The tokens require some organising, but can be placed back into the box in specific slots to aid with setup on future occasions, and the tokens themselves are clearly colour coded, with pertinent information set out in a straightforward manner.
The rules themselves are relatively verbose and you’ll likely need to assign an hour before your first play just to read the manual from cover to cover once or twice, perhaps referring back to sections that weren’t immediately clear on the first pass. Once you’ve done so, you’ll be ready to start setting up and, much to my surprise, you’ll learn that Nemo’s War: Second Edition is actually very straightforward.
The board itself will be setup for one of three difficulty levels, with a few differences to the notoriety track, the starting action points and the number of unidentified ship tokens on the board being the key differences. The game you see in my pictures is setup at the easiest level, since that is certainly how you should set things up for your first few games, and if you ever need to teach anyone who is interested in investing in the game for themselves.
During setup, the player will choose Nemo’s motive — with choices like Exploration, Science or War as the options. The choice dictates which plate is placed onto the board, and depending on the motive, points will be added or subtracted from the end game score as a result. For example, in the pictured game, Nemo is focussed on exploration, and gains an extra point for each treasure token, whilst losing a point for every warship he sinks.
WIth all of the setup done, the player will simply begin to work through a three phase turn structure until the game ends — either because the Adventure Deck runs out of cards (and the Finale card is completed) or because Nemo and the Nautilus are defeated. There are a fair number of possible end game conditions, but the main ones are that any one of the three Nautilus resource tracks is depleted. These tracks represent Nemo, the crew and the hull, but I’ll talk more about them later.
On their turn, the player will first draw a card from the Adventure Deck. In most cases, this will be an event card with an effect on it. These cards have several classifications, including those that result in a Test, or some that should be kept for later. Almost all come with some thematic text which is generic enough that it can always apply, but that has enough interesting content to enhance the theme of the game.
A test will commonly result in the player having to roll two dice to achieve a specific number that means that the test is either passed or failed, but it also introduces us to one of Nemo’s War: Second Edition’s most interesting mechanics. Most tests are hard to achieve with dice alone, and depending on the test in question, the player may bet one or more of his Nautilus resources to help them succeed. Doing this is risky, but essential to victory, and it’s another feature that is exceptionally well represented on the board.
Let’s imagine that a test allows a player to bet crew and hull against the success of a test, and to succeed, a modified eleven is needed. In this example, the player can slide the crescent tokens that track crew and hull halfway between the current value and the next lowest, this space will show a bonus of plus one, two or three, which will be added to the roll. In this case, let’s say that the crew bonus is two and the hull bonus is two as well, for a modifier of plus four.
In our example, imagine that we roll a seven, which when added to the four results in eleven – a successful test. In this case, the test is passed, both of the crew and hull tokens slide back to their original value (so nothing is lost) and whatever benefit the test provides will be taken. If we had rolled a six, then the test would be failed, and we’d lose the crew and hull points that we bet, as well as taking the negative impact of the failed test. An important aspect of playing Nemo’s War: Second Edition is in knowing when to bet and when not to.
After completing the Adventure Card (or keeping it in your tableau, should it say so) you’ll move on to the placement phase. During this phase, two dice (three in the final act of the game) will be rolled, and the difference between them will be how many action points the Nautilus gains for the final phase. The two numbered dice are the oceans into which an unidentified ship token will be placed, and should any ocean be full, there are several possibilities including adding ships to adjacent oceans at the lighter end, through to having existing peaceful ships flip to become warships.
There are a few other rules here that I won’t go into in detail. For example, if doubles are rolled on the dice then the turn is called a Lull Turn, in which the Nautilus gains no action points and a different set of possibilities are played out. The way in which ships spread outwards should one ocean be considered full is also a little complex, even though the manual is very thorough about the order in which each possibility plays out. Ultimately, the Placement Phase boils down to; ships are added to the board, and if Nemo has failed to adequately patrol the seas, he risks being overwhelmed.
On the final phase of the turn, the Nautilus and its crew take actions by spending their Action Points. Movement costs one Action Point, Searching a location (which must have a treasure gem on it) costs one, whilst drawing and attempting an Adventure Card (from a side deck, rather than the story deck) costs two. Attacking a ship via either a Sneak Attack or a Bold Attack also costs one, but a Bold Attack allows the player to continue attacking ships in a streak for no additional action points, as long as they keep winning.
Combat, whilst also daunting at first, is simple. Enemy ships are split into two categories, with warships displaying both attack and defence values, and all other ships showing only a defense value. Warships will always fire first, and in simple terms will score a number of hits depending on how well the player rolls in comparison to the strength of the ship. When the Nautilus attacks, it will always destroy the enemy if it hits, which is achieved if the player rolls higher than the ships defensive value.
Once again, the player is usually able to bet one or more of their Nautilus resource track(s) on the outcome of the battle and there are several other modifiers — for example, if the attack was a Sneak Attack, then it gains plus one, but each revealed enemy warship will provide a minus one. Several cards and other effects in the game can further modify the outcome, and the Nautilus can be equipped with upgrade cards to become more deadly, or to use torpedoes, for example.
When an enemy ship is defeated, it can either be taken as tonnage, meaning that it is added to the appropriate track for the sea or ocean in which it was defeated (increasing the chances of powerful reinforcement ships being added into the pool) or it can be added to the upgrade track. When four ships are in the upgrade track, the Refit action can be taken to allow the Nautilus to be fitted with one of the (usually) four upgrade cards that are placed beside the board during setup. In short, tonnage provides points for the end of the game, whilst upgrades have a more immediate benefit.
The cycle of drawing and resolving Adventure Cards, placing ships and taking Actions continues, as I mentioned earlier, until one of the numerous game end conditions is met. On a good day, that will be when the final card (and a randomly drawn finale) is produced and resolved, at which point scoring will take place. The player then compares their score to the possible outcomes in the Epilogue book, which provides a narrative conclusion to the game — for better or worse!
Aside from how it looks, there are many things that I’ve enjoyed whilst playing Nemo’s War: Second Edition and at no point does the fact that it’s a solo game ever detract from the experience. Each decision is based on working out the optimal way forwards, and on almost every turn, there’s a need to make a tense make or break decision that could lead to disaster.
The most prevalent decision in the game is without doubt that of deciding when to bet a resource or not, and in this, the theme is also anchored to the gameplay. As Nemo himself takes damage on the track, the bonus he provides increases, whilst conversely, as the crew and hull lose points and become more beleaguered, their performance (and the bonus they can provide) reduces.
There are several tiles that I haven’t mentioned yet as well, each of which is a named crew member who has a specific benefit. Flipping one of these tiles allows you to take the benefit – for example allowing a reroll, or a dice roll modifier after the roll is made — but in flipping the tile, you’ll lose the crew member for good. Each crew member is worth points at the end of the game if they are not flipped, and this presents another thematic and mechanically agonising decision.
Nemo’s War: Second Edition is also quite challenging on its default difficulty and very hard on its hardest, making it the kind of experience that I really want when playing solo, but might not enjoy with other players. On that note, cooperative rules are included alongside a number of role cards (that dictate who makes what decisions) but in reality, you’re just playing the same game as a team, and these additional rules and components add little.
The review copy that we received included five mini expansions, which are The Deadly Sea’s (included in the main game,) Dramatis Personae, Bold and Caring, Nautilus Upgrades and Holiday’s on the High Seas. Each of these is relatively small, adding between two and fifteen new cards to the game, and in the case of Bold and Caring, a couple of new motives for Nemo. I personally add them all in to the game during setup, since none of them come with overly complex rules or have a demanding set of setup instructions that dictate a different layout.
I can see why Nemo’s War was considered one of the best solo games out there, and why Victory Point Games has the reputation it has. This remake, with the gorgeous Ian O’Toole artwork and the sharp production quality really shines, and if you’ve never dreamed of playing a solo board game, then the first one you try might as well be this one. Clearly, those looking exclusively at multiplayer games might want to look elsewhere, but for me, Nemo’s War: Second Edition is a keeper and a game that I feel offers a lot of replayability, especially with those expansions shuffled in.
You can grab a copy of Nemo’s War: Second Edition on Amazon.