Board Game Review: Nexus Ops

On Friday night CSSS had its bi-weekly meeting, during which I had the opportunity to play Nexus Ops twice. It's a fairly light war game from Avalon Hill that plays with 2 to 4 players. Without having read the manual, it seems as though the game revolves around... rival space corporations vying for control of an asteroid using genetically engineered monsters? I think they were trying to convey a cheesy SF aesthetic, and if so they certainly succeeded.

The components are above-average. You get a set of cardboard hexagons that you randomly array to make the game board. These are organized around a central tile, the Monolith, which is on a cardboard stand about 5 inches high. The stand feels a little out of place and it only serves to obscure the pieces on the other side of it. There's an array of cards to represent special powers, secret missions, and victory points, as well as some cardboard chips to represent money. There are also four sets of units made out of flexible plastic. The units are the best thing in the box; they're made from very detailed molds, they come in a selection of garrish neon colors (green, blue, yellow, and pink) and they glow under a blacklight. They have a slightly odd smell to them, but they go a long way to giving the game a cheesy 80s science fiction cartoon feel.

The game's rules are fairly simple, but there's still enough going on to hold interest for the length of a game. Hexagonal tiles are randomly arrayed in two rings around the monolith, with each player adding to this a set of three home hexes at the periphery. After laying out the hexagons, goody tiles are randomly placed face-down on all of the hexes other than the monolith and the home bases. On a player's turn, she first spends money to buy new units, then moves her existing units, then turns over any goody tiles on newly explored hexes and collects whatever swag they give her, then resolves combat, then collects whatever income is coming to her from her mines and draws a Secret Mission Card. Play proceeds to the next player, and the game ends either when one player reaches a pre-determined number of victory points or when a player is eliminated.

Players build their forces from a selection of six units. Units vary in price, combat strength, and special abilities (some are more mobile, others get advantages in certain terrain, others can work the mines that earn you money to buy more units, etc.). Combat is resolved in a manner somewhat similar to Axis and Allies. All units have a to-hit number. If you role that number or higher, you score a hit and your opponent must remove a unit from the board. Interestingly, the combat ends once all units have roled. This means that battles often end with both forces still occupying a hex. In that case, both side's pieces remain and the hex is considered disputed, meaning that nobody can draw income from it this turn.

If you win a battle on your turn (that is, if you eliminate all of your opponent's pieces from a hex) you get a victory point. The loser gets an Energize Card, which is a special ability that can be played to give her more money, alter combat rules in her favor, and so on. It's a catch-up mechanic that serves to keep the game interesting if one player begins to dominate, as suddenly players who have been losing a lot of battles can start using the cards to cheat in their favor. Players also get energize cards by having undisputed control of the Monolith at the end of their turn, which gives everyone an incentive to fight over the central hex.

Players get Victory Points by winning battles and by fulfilling the conditions on Secret Mission Cards (for example, "control more fungal forests than any other player," or "start a combat with at least four humans on your side"). The first player to get 12 victory points wins.

The game takes between an hour and an hour and a half to play, and has enough going on to keep the players' interest for the duration. The rules are simple enough to pick up in a few minutes without much confusion. The game encourages players to fight early and often, which is good in a war game. I have played games, and here I am thinking of Twilight Imperium, that reward players who cocoon and horde for four hours. This can be fine in theory, but in practice it feels silly to have a variety of units and elaborate combat rules if the game's going to punish you for fighting.

You can tell this game was designed by Americans for an American audience, because it has three things you almost never see in European games: War, dice-rolling for resolution, and a science fiction theme. I don't mind the use of dice in this game, insofar as it makes the game more exciting and uncertain. Nonetheless, people who don't like dice-rolling will probably not enjoy this game, as the random factor ensures that the best player won't always win. Still, because the game is fairly short and relatively strategic, it doesn't turn into a long, boring slog like Risk does.

My one major criticism of the game is the random distribution of mines (through the goody tiles) at the start of the game. In our second game on Friday, one player managed to have only one single-point mine in his whole quadrant, putting him at a massive material disadvantage for the whole game. Granted, his lack of resources meant he wasn't a target and could sit back and horde money to raise an army, but when he suffered losses it took him much longer to recover, and it was hard to argue that he had any realistic chance of winning the game on his own. He had to save up for three turns to buy units that other players could get in a single turn. So a player could be playing with a handicap the whole game based on poor tile distribution at the start.

Complaints about randomness aside, I really enjoyed the game. It's involving, it's exactly the right length, and it offers an opportunity to play a dice-rolling war game without the tedium of Risk or the grognardian attention to detail of hard-core war games. Moreover, right now Toys R Us has it on sale for $20 (marked down from $50), with free shipping.

My rating: Two apples and a can of garbonzo beans.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on September 17, 2006 2:28 PM.

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