Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Ascora Games, 2-6 players, ages 13 and up, 30 minutes; $35)


In the genre of science fiction, one of the personalities we love to hate is the “mad scientist”. Many of us tend to be fascinated by the visions of the insane inventions such a creative madman strives to bring to life. In recognition of these volatile visionaries, Donald X. Vaccarino, best known as the designer of Dominion (Winter 2009 Gamers Alliance Report) and Kingdom Builder (Winter 2012 GA Report), has come up with Nefarious, a game where PLAYERS are the mad scientists competing to design the most bizarre and wackiest inventions.nefariousbox

Each player is given a play mat (his “lair”) in his chosen color with a workforce of 5 minions (wooden meeples in the matching hue), a set of four Action cards and 10 money. The 64 card Invention deck is shuffled and all players dealt a starting hand of three cards. A game turn consists of four phases: Action cards, Collect money, Resolve actions and Check for a winner.

Turns start by having each player choose ONE Action card to play which will be their action for this turn. (A player may do only one of the four possible actions on a turn: Speculate, Invent, Research and Work.) All players simultaneously reveal their chosen Action card.

Money is collected depending on where a player’s minions are AND what the players adjacent to him decide to do. Each mat has, among other things, an area depicting the four possible player actions. A minion in the area of your play mat matching the Action card played by the players to your immediate right or left earns you 1 money per match from the supply. (Have 2 minions there? You double your income and so on.) With income collected, actions are resolved.

Actions are resolved in number order (Speculation = 1, Invent = 2, Research = 3, Work = 4). A player may choose to Speculate which allows him to place one of his minions in any of the FOUR Action areas on his mat. (Placing a worker in the Speculate area is free. Both Research and Work costs 1 and Invent costs 2.) Action 3 (Research) allows you to take 2 money from supply and draw an Invention card while Action 4 (Work) allows you to fill your coffers with 4 money from supply. But the core of the game centers on Action 2: Invent.

All players who displayed an Invent card may now build one of the inventions held in their hands. All Invention cards display a cost (in money although a few are free) which must be paid to the supply. They also have a Victory Point value AND, very often, an effect that happens when built. (Effects are one time actions.) Effects can affect either the player who built the invention (indicated by a green arrow) or all the other players (red arrows) or both! Effects are simple and immediate ranging from getting/losing an Invention card, gaining/losing money, placing/removing minions from your mat and more. Actions impacting the player who built the invention are resolved first and THEN, going in clockwise order, that player resolves any effects from other player’s built inventions on themselves. (The rules aren’t as clear on this as they should be for it’s not complicated. Going in order is DIFFERENT for each player! So, for example, when resolving MY invention, I take care of the effects my invention has on me and THEN, in clockwise order with ME as the starting point, suffer or enjoy the effects of the inventions built by other players that turn. EVERY other player does the same thing with each one being the “start player” in resolving effects in clockwise order.)
Once all players have gone, Victory Point totals are checked. Inventions reward the player who built them with VPs. Built inventions are placed underneath each player’s mat so that VP numbers are visible. If anyone has 20 VPs or more, the game is over and that player wins. If a tie, the game continues until someone accumulates an unmatched VP total of 20 or more.

Nefarious is fairly simple in concept and execution. But, you know when dealing with mad scientists, nothing is ever quite that simple. That is true here as well and that is because of the Twist cards. Twist cards do exactly what they sound like: they twist the rules.

Before the game begins, the deck of 36 Twist cards is shuffled andnefariouscardstwo randomly drawn. These cards modify and/or change the basic rules, staying in effect for the entire game. For example, “Academic Funding” gives a player 2 money if he/she has no built inventions at the beginning of a turn, “Cheap Fusion Power” cuts the cost of building inventions by half (rounded down), “Propaganda” increases the value of each built invention by 1 VP and so on. These cards are potentially very powerful and can completely alter the game flow. Also, since the drawing of Twist cards is completely random, it is possible that you may end up with two directly opposing or contradictory effects. In cases where we feel the cards damage or alter play too much (and that’s a judgment call), we just jettison the pair and draw two others.

Nefarious has some nice touches regarding art and ambiance. The box art has an eye-catching Art Deco look (reminding me of something lifted from a Soviet Union poster from the 1920s!) and the artwork on the cards captures the science fiction/otherworldly aspect of some of these extraordinary inventions. The play mat is quite functional as well as acting as a play aid, reminding players of the order of a turn. Dubbing the play mat the “lair” keeps the theme going and who can resist wooden minions shaped in the form of a hunchback like Igor from the classic Frankenstein films?

In addition to the obvious, Nefarious incorporates some subtle touches into its design. For example, Speculation can be a very valuable action – and a nice revenue stream – if you can deduce what your neighboring opponents will do on a turn. A little foresight in placing minions can result in a big money dividend – and you need money (and sometimes a lot of it) to build those inventions. Also, because inventions often have multiple effects – on you AND your opponents – you need to consider when to build your invention to gain benefits while minimizing any beneficial bonuses (and maximizing any potential carnage) to your opposition. And, of course, the effect of effects can VARY from player to player depending on the order in which they are resolved (such as in drawing/losing cards or money or placing/removing minions). Timing in this game, as in life, is important.

I like the “mad scientist” theme and kids will too which is a good thing since Nefarious works very well as a family game. The inventions are bizarre enough to strike a humorous note and yet familiar too (in an odd sort of way), undoubtedly due to exposure to novels, films and television! Admittedly, the game is light; it almost floats! Still, serious gamers can share in the enjoyment as they may find the game to be just the right heft for an early evening opener or for an end of the night closer for it is easy to learn and teach, plays quickly and, most of all, is fun. – – – – – – Herb Levy


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