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NEXUS OPS

Reviewed by Frank Branham

(Avalon Hill/Wizards of the Coast, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 60-90 minutes; $45)

 

“Sparkly!”

That was how I greeted the demo kit Avalon Hill sent out at my local game haunt. In reply I received a forest of groans. When you look at the production of this hardcore s/f sort of mining colony outpost wargame is all looks quite…precious. The pieces are in garish fluorescent neon pinks, green, yellows, and blues and are translucent to boot. The humans, crystal critters, and the slime beings all have a loose Muppet-like look to them, while the fat frog-like Lava Leapers are totally H.R. Puffinistuff. The landscape tiles have a slightly cartoonish Captain Power look to them, and a cheesy you-put-it-together cardboard monolith stands in the middle.

“It’s the Rainbow Brite wargame!”

I looked at the rules and saw some promise however. Finding players who were willing to sit down and war with gummi armies was a bit of a challenge, especially given that Avalon Hill’s previous outing (Skull & Sword, Spring 2005 GA REPORT) was a rather fluffy roll-and-move ode to Talisman. As it turns out, the game is a bit fluffy, but it is one of the best multiplayer beat-em-ups in years.nexusops

Reading through the rules won’t give you any idea of the cleverness of the game. In fact, it almost reads like a bog-standard checklist of the standard things you find in a multiplayer wargame:

Silly named resource (Rubium) that you use to buy new armies. Check.

Control points (mines) that you use to get your income of resources. Check.

Big funky thing in the center of the map (monolith) that give you special powers. Check.

Units with special abilities. Check.

Axis and Allies derived combat die roll system. Check.

Special wacky action cards that allow you to gain small advantages in battle. Check.

Initial phase of exploration as you turn up tiles to find out what is there. Check.

The best strategy is to sit back and mop up after players weaken each other. Che…well, it doesn’t quite work out that way.

Plays in 4-6 hours. Actually…um…it says one hour and… Once you sit down to actually start to play the game, it rockets out of the gate. The exploration phase lasts about 2-3 minutes, and by 10 minutes you are fully tearing into each other’s armies and fighting border skirmishes. The game actually tends to last closer to 90 minutes, but a group of fast playing experienced players could easily average 60.nexusopspcs.

The big difference here is the object of the game. Nexus Ops isn’t about knocking a player out, or building huge armies, or controlling territory. It is about victory points. It takes 12 to win, and the way you get most of them is by winning battles. In many of these games, the player who slowly grows territories and armies and stays out of battle can mop up the weaker opponents who are fighting border skirmishes. In Nexus Ops, those border skirmishes are giving player victory points.

Even better, players have secret victory condition cards. These range from 1-4 points, and mostly are various conditions to apply to battles. These range from winning a battle in various terrain types to killing certain unit types, to weird things like starting battles with only the weak human units. Point values for these are very well balanced. They also allow a player to jump from behind. I lost a game to a player who mopped up 7 points in a single carefully planned turn that he had been preparing for for some time.

There are a few other very subtle things hiding in the game that are quite clever. Like Axis and Allies, each unit has a particular die roll needed to kill an opposing unit. Unlike most games, the units go in order. The all-powerful Rubium Dragon attacks first, nearly always kills a unit and costs 12 points to muster. Humans attack last, and never hit, but only cost a mere 2 points. But you have to keep a mix of useful expensive units, and cannon fodder to get anywhere, or else you will start to lose the expensive units.

Tactics cards are interesting. While they are the typical “add +2 to die roll” or “gain an extra 3 resources” sort, you get one when you lose a battle. This encourages you to fight, and keeps players in the game. Also important is that at least 2/3 of your allocation of Rubium comes from your three starting spaces. If you get totally knocked back to your homebase and practically wiped off the board, you still have adequate income, and a terrifying hand of Tactics cards. You will be feared.

The final result is a game of small forces, constant battles, bursts of luck from the dice, and sudden dramatic outcomes. While a 90 minute playing time seems like a bit on the long side for a German-style game, it is but the blink of an eye compared to most multiplayer wargames.

The game took me totally by surprise. There was almost no early buzz about it, it came from a first-time designer (Charlie Catino), and has Care Bear aesthetics. But inside is a totally top shelf and remarkably fun strategy game, even outshining the rather stellar Risk variants we’ve seen in the past two years.

Highly recommended…and Smurfy! – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Frank Branham


 

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