Tabletop Review – Nemesis

Captain’s log. Realmdate 5151.9. I don’t have much time left. If you are hearing this, I pray it’s not too late. The Nemesis is compromised and they are closing in. I’m not going to make it, but humanity can.

Not long ago, my crew and I woke from Hibernation to find our Pilot torn limb from limb. Her chest had burst open and whatever was inside left a trail leading to the vents. Immediately, we knew that we were not alone. Stumbling from room to room, I could hear something shifting behind the walls. Then, I discovered something truly horrible: the Nest. Whatever these things were, the Mechanic was right, we needed to learn more about them to survive. On her recommendation, I ripped out one of the many eggs, but then I met what was behind the walls. The Mother towered over me and, as I turned to run, her tail sliced off my right hand. The adrenaline kept me going, and I continued towards the Mechanic to drop off the sample. Once we had met, she hurried to the lab as I struggled to find my way to the Comms Room. I’ve made it. My crew is dead, the ship is in critical condition and the Mechanic has left us all to die. I beg you, if this ship survives the jump, do not let it reach Earth. And as for the Mechanic… I fear she may have one more passenger than she was expecting.

In an Escape Pod, no one can hear your burst.

If this sounds like a scene directly from a movie, that’s because it practically is. The latest in an ever-growing list of titles from Awaken Realms, Nemesis is a semi-cooperative survival-horror game set in the dark and flickering corridors of an infected and malfunctioning ship where each player assumes the role of a desperate crew member trying to survive. Throughout the game, these characters will explore rooms, uncover secrets, meet horrible creatures and try to make it out alive before it’s too late. However, each player has their own dubious goals to fulfill in order to win the game. These goals vary from repairing the engine and ensuring the ship makes it to Earth to making sure you’re the only one that survives. In space, no one can hear you curse at your friends.

Save the world or kill all my friends? Seems like an obvious choice.

Each game of Nemesis consists of fifteen turns of two phases: Player Phase and Event Phase. During their turns, players will draw five cards and take two actions. To perform an action, a player must discard one or more cards depending on the type of action they wish to perform to either activate a basic action, a card action, or a room action. If, at any point, a player cannot perform an action or a second action, they must pass. Once all players pass, the game moves on to the Events Phase. Graciously simple and straightforward, the Event Phase steps are concluded quickly and rarely overstay their welcome. Usually consisting only of adding tokens to the board and determining creature movement, the game is never bogged down by this phase. A wise and intelligent decision by the designer to always keep the focus on the enthralling interactions amongst players and the increasing odds they face.

Hello Darkness, my old friend.

This is where the game shines. Every decision a player makes will have sprawling and lasting effects for the rest of a 3 hour session. Players will spend most of their time exploring and/or discovering new rooms quintessential to their missions. However, there’s an issue. Every time a player moves to an unexplored or empty tile, they make noise. Noise is bad, very bad. When a player makes too much noise by placing a second token where noise emanated from previously, they must draw a random Intruder, the true stars of the Nemesis, and initiate an Encounter. Intruders are large and persistent threats that can completely derail everyone’s plans. And if their brutish strength isn’t enough to severely hamper you, Contamination cards will. These cards will become part of your deck, and if any of them have the word “infected,” you’ve become a host. Surprisingly, theses are just some of the many obstacles a player could face as they explore. One wrong turn can spell disaster for you and every other player. It’s here where it all comes to life and each person at the table is truly immersed in what’s transpiring.

Fire can become a problem really fast.

Let’s use my most recent game as an example: I had been exploring the west side of the ship for some time trying to find the Comms Room, a unique space that allows players to send a message back to Earth. We were a few turns in, but had been fairly strategic in our movement and managed to never backtrack, allowing us to place noise tactically. Unfortunately, I had made my way to the very edge of the ship without any success. I was now forced to head back the way I came. And as soon as I did, I triggered an Encounter. An Adult appeared and I was defenseless. With one less hand after the surprise attack, I barely managed to survive. Unsurprisingly, that severed extremity would result in my eventual downfall inside the Comms Room I was so intent on finding. However, don’t worry too much about me, because what happens next is much more interesting.

The Intruder that I alerted never really left the area where it first attacked me. It consistently patrolled the upper west side of the ship, deterring anyone from coming back. A huge issue when both Evacuation Sections (specific rooms needed to abandon the ship) were right next to each other in that section. By the eighth turn, all the players had died but the Scout. She had completed her mission the turn before, and now needed to escape. Unbeknownst to her, the same Intruder that did me in had been patiently patrolling the Evacuation Sections for its next meal, and dinner was about to be served. You see, the Scout had been struggling for some time now, fending off and being followed by other Intruders from the East side of the ship. She was cornered in the room just in front of the Evacuation Section by 3 Intruders, one of which was our friend. As she tried to escape each Intruder attacked, two missed and the third one, the patient one, did her in.

Two’s a party, three is a bit much.

What’s fascinating about this particular scenario is how surprisingly common it can be. The game is chock full of a host of potential “Butterfly Effect” situations that are simply unforeseeable and wonderful at the same time. The fact that if I had taken any other path, the Scout would have won is mind boggling. It’s that snowballing effect that makes this such a fantastic experience. One choice, regardless of how small it may seem, can affect everyone. A trait I rarely ever see in most games.

It’s this sense of wonder and constant insecurity that helps nail down the game’s theme so well. Whereas other titles may struggle with disjointed mechanics and motifs, Nemesis feels like a well-oiled horror machine intent on destroying your best laid plans in wonderful, slimy spectacle. Every player left our game session reliving each moment in macabre detail, smiling and planning what they would do differently next time. No one complained about the difficulty or how impossible it seemed to conquer the game. They simply relished in the time we had together. It’s a true achievement when a lack of flavor text is offset by the fact that the game itself is so visual and its turns so steeped in alien-on-ship tropes that players can tell the story themselves. We went into the ship as players, and emerged as characters in a sci-fi cult classic.

Game over, man!

But that’s not how all stories may end. The game is not without its faults. Nemesis can at times feel chaotic and like it’s playing itself. The sense of almost no control may leave a sour taste for some players. Once things begin to escalate there is little that can be done to avoid most players from losing. After investing almost 3 hours in a session, being suddenly ambushed by 2-3 aliens due to an unlucky event draw can be the final straw for many. This is not a title for those faint of heart or who are looking for deep strategy. Nemesis makes some significant sacrifices to perfect it’s tone by taking control away from its players, restricting the space for the traitor to surface, and by not providing enough options to better respond to situations. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Nemesis isn’t a “gamer’s game”, but it is definitely catered for players looking to have an experience rather than a tightly designed engine.

Those who are looking for exactly that are in for a true surprise, mechanically and graphically. Every inch of the game is littered with intricate and beautiful details nodding to its sci-fi roots. From the unique art on every single card to the excruciating detail poured into each of the fantastic miniatures; the game is an ode to all things Alien. As a result, the design decisions here pay off spectacularly well. Each character has a story to tell across its ten action cards: the soldier fearlessly exploring the darkest depths of the ship, or the scout stealthily making her way across badly lit corridors; everyone has something important to add to the narrative. That includes the ship itself, probably the most telling of all.

The Nemesis is painstakingly handcrafted to house all of the dark, dreary, and terrifying locales we’ve come to take for granted in the cinema. Here each tile is the perfect canvas to live out the next scene. It’s through the careful coordination of fantastic art and intelligent graphic design that cinematic situations are at all possible. Iconography and descriptive text never overshadow any piece of the game. This allows for an almost seamless experience throughout. On the other hand, the minimalist approach taken to simplify and perfect the games visual flair does have its issues.

Every asset is a story in and of itself.

The rulebook, although easy to read and simple to understand at first, is a nightmare to navigate once the game is underway. I was constantly shuffling between pages to try and find either the definition of a symbol or a small, yet crucial, rule that was never where I thought it would be. Those who decide to learn the game will probably be as lost as the characters they’re portraying. The lack of official player aids is confounding for such a symbol heavy title. Moreover, creature tokens, those drawn for Encounters, are rarely ever intuitive in their function or design (I’ve yet to understand how multiple splotchy curves are representative of a queen). This constant shuffle between the rulebook and the game is a true detriment to an otherwise stellar production where immersion plays such a strong role. Players wary of fiddly games beware, as you’ll be doing a lot of cross-referencing during your first few sessions. Thankfully, supporters of the title have already produced a slew of helpful aids that I wholeheartedly recommend. Why the designers didn’t include their own though is a mystery larger than the Nemesis itself.

Say hello to my little friend.

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All things considered, this is a marvel of a game. The fast turns, simple to remember mechanics and cinematic feel make for an outstanding and unique title. Players who are brave enough to push through a disorganized and unintuitive rule book, will find plenty to love. Each session is brimming with triumph and heartbreak in equal measure. You can expect to hear your players cheering at the top of their lungs and sobbing shortly after. Everyone at the table will feel like a character in a gory sci-fi thriller due to the level of immersion and atmosphere offered. If your group of players is enthusiastic about the theme and are not averse to a fair amount of rules, you’re in for a night of gaming you’ll likely never forget. I for one can’t wait to invite that lovable intergalactic space demon into my chest cavity once again.

Player Count:

3-5 is vastly preferred, although all player counts are thoroughly enjoyable.

Play Time:

You can expect to live out your own “Alien” movie in 3-4 hours.

Core Mechanics:

Semi-Cooperative
Dice Rolling
Exploration
Slime

Accessibility:

Mechanics are fairly straight forward, but an abundance of small rules and lack of obvious symbology make it more complex than it actually is.

Artwork/Components:

Fantastic all around, almost every component is oozing with theme.

Replay Value:

You’ll be taking a trip on this interstellar Titanic every chance you get.

Nemesis will be available at retail hopefully this year.

A copy of Nemesis was purchased through Kickstarter.

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