Nemo’s War Second Edition is rad y’all. I normally like to set the tone of my reviews a little more subtly, but I can’t think of any clever maritime analogies at the moment that would really work to tease how much I like the game without giving it all away, so I’m going in full-steam-ahead. Besides, I’m still second guessing myself for going with a Bill and Ted reference instead of a Finding Nemo reference in the title. Even though the title reference is random, it was my choice to make, and regardless of the random elements in this game you live and die by your choices, which is what makes it awesome.
Nemo’s War is based on the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and places you in the role of the titular Captain Nemo. There is no linear storytelling here though, and instead the game weaves an emergent narrative that takes shape as you play. There are so many elements that are randomized from game to game and from moment to moment that you’ll never tell the same tale twice in Nemo’s War, but it’s not simply the randomization of components and dice rolls that alter the course of the story from game to game. Each time you set up the game you will choose a Motivation for your quest, which not only mixes up the timeline of certain major game events, but encourages you to chart a different course and set different goals based on your chosen Motivation for that game. The mechanical difference of each Motivation ultimately boils down to how many points you score for any particular action, but pursuing those point incentives has a significant impact on how the game feels thematically. Pursuing the War! motivation, which actively encourages you to sink as many ships as possible, almost feels like a different game than when you choose the Science motivation, which penalizes you for sinking certain ships, and places a much larger emphasis on exploration and discovery than on combat.
This game drips theme, and each and every play feels like a grand adventure regardless of the Motivation that you chose during setup. Each turn begins with an Adventure card that is like a snapshot of the moment to moment adventures that the crew of the Nautilus encounter on their journey. Many of the cards, and most other actions that you take, are resolved with a die roll, and lay out a number, or series of numbers, that you need to meet or beat in order to succeed. Yes, dice checks are everywhere in Nemo’s War BUT!.. but… Nemo’s War provides you with a plethora of options for modifying and tweaking your results so that the game doesn’t ever feel like a crap shoot. Don’t get me wrong, there are dice rolls everywhere in Nemo’s War, and the game can quickly slip into a disaster-spiral if you press your luck too hard or too often, but the choices you make have a bigger impact on your success than the dice will, even if you will have streaks of incredibly good or incredibly bad rolls from time to time.
Your main method of modifying dice rolls comes in the exertion of Ship Resources. Depending on the test, you can use your Crew, the Hull of the Nautilus, or even Nemo himself to add bonuses to your roll. Tacking on +3 to a roll is always a tempting proposition, but you need to be careful, because if you fail a roll, you risk losing some amount of that resource, be it Crew, Hull, or Nemo’s sanity. If you lose too many resources it can cost you valuable points, or even cause you to lose the game outright. You do have the option to attempt to repair your Hull, or recruit new Crew throughout the game, by spending valuable action points on it, and you will occasionally come across things that help stabilize Nemo, but you always need to consider the result you need versus the resources you are willing to put on the line for that result.
There is one roll every turn that you can’t alter (although as the game progresses you get to choose which of the dice you use to determine your action pool) and that’s the roll made during the Placement Phase of each round. For this roll, you chuck a pair (or three, or four, or….) and add ship tokens to the Oceans that match the faces of the dice. The difference in the two dice is how many action points you are given that round. As time passes, you will roll more dice during the placement phase, and thus add more and more ships to the board at one time, and you eventually get to choose which dice you will use to determine your action pool. That means that as the seas get more crowded, and more dangerous over time, you will generally have more actions to use to work with, although based on the probabilities (which are actually printed on the board) you usually only have a few actions each turn. Barring extraordinary luck you will constantly have more things that you want to do than you have points to do them with, which forces you to prioritize your choices which in turn lends weight to every choice that you make.
This balance between theme, player agency, randomization and luck mitigation is what really makes Nemo’s War great, and when you do get to the end of the game, and tally your points to determine your level of success (or defeat as the case may be) the game even has a short book of narrative Epilogues that match both your Motive and your level of victory (or defeat), so you get a burst of thematic closure to each play. Over time those paragraphs will become familiar, and lose a bit of that thrill (especially if you are as good at being Inconsequential as I am while playing using the default difficulty) but it’s still an awesome touch, and it gives you even more incentive to shoot for a better score the next time that you play.
A note on difficulty: Nemo’s War is a difficult game, especially if your goal is to achieve the Triumph victory level with all four Motivations. The game isn’t brutally hard though, and it rarely feels cheap, even when the dice do turn against you. With that said, there are three different difficulty levels that you can choose from, and there are even a few optional rules to make the game quite a bit more difficult than even the hardest setting for truly experienced or masochistic players.
A note on multiplayer: There are a few multiplayer variants to Nemo’s War, but they aren’t as good as the solitaire game. This game is best when played solo, but at least the option exists in the rules to bring other players on the journey with you if that’s something that you absolutely have to have, or for when your friends see how much fun you are having with the game and insist on joining in.
A note on “chrome”: The components in Nemo’s War Second Edition are fantastic. Victory Point Games has taken a more traditional route to creating this version of Nemo’s War and the care and attentiveness they’ve put into the production values of the game really show. The components and board are excellent, and the rulebook is well laid out and easy to reference. If you’ve ever looked at a Victory Point Games’ product and been turned off by the DIY-esque production quality then you’ll most likely be pleasantly surprised by just how nice Nemo’s War turned out.
The bottom line:
I’m absolutely enamored with Nemo’s War Second Edition. While it is a dice-driven game it’s structured in such a way that your decisions, not the luck of the dice, are what drives your successes and failures. The four different Motivations that you can choose from really do make the game feel different from game to game as each requires it’s own approach and focus, and the amount of component randomization ensures that even games using the same Motivation won’t play out the same way twice. Regardless of the path you choose to take during any one play of Nemo’s War, the game is satisfying, involved, interesting and thematic. Each play feels like a grand adventure, and this game has rocketed towards the top of my Personal Favorites list, as well as my list of Best Board Games of 2017.
Get this game if:
You enjoy solitaire games.
You enjoy games that ooze theme.
You enjoy games that put a strong emphasis on player choice.
You enjoy games that let you choose your path to victory.
Avoid this game if:
You hate dice.
You dislike solitaire games.
The copy of Nemo’s War Second Edition used for this review was provided by Victory Point Games.
Nemo's War Second Edition is a must have for any fan of thematic solitaire games, and it's accessible enough to recommend even to people who've never played a solitaire board game before.