Enlarge/ The intruders are… unpleasant.
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Youre roused early from cold sleep. The ships hibernatoriumand likely the remainder of the shipis running on half power. Theres a body nearby. More accurately, theres a body all over. For a moment, your sleep-fogged brain assumes somebody has splashed BBQ pork all over the floor and walls. Nope; thats the crew member who was supposed to be on watch while everyone else slumbered.
Welcome to Nemesis, a board game with strong (but decidedly unofficial!) echoes of Ridley Scotts Alien. It raised millions on Kickstarterbut is it any good?
At the table, everybody can hear you scream
Generally, board games dont do horror very well.
Oh, theyre plenty good at tension. Setting up a climactic play over multiple turns, waiting to see if somebody undoes all your hard work by taking that card youve been eyeing, wondering whether your spouse is secretly Hitler… these are the moments board games create almost effortlessly. One time, I realized Id been holding my breath during Exploding Kittens. Here was a game I wouldnt ordinarily confess to playing, and yet my entire body was rigid was apprehension. (Granted, this was because I hoped the game would end as soon as possible, but still.)
Nemesis takes that tension and weaponizes it. From its very first moments, this is a game about the terror of the known, the half-known, and the unknown. Such is its dedication to that prickle you get when somebody threatens to jab you in the kidney that the game even features player elimination. Note that Im saying Nemesis features player elimination, not that it suffers from it. Getting knocked out of a three-hour game within the first 40 minutes is a design decision, not an oversight. Sure, its a bummer. But dont you think Executive Officer Kane was bummed when that chestburster did precisely what its name implies? Ill bet he was totally bummed. Ill bet he wishes he could have stuck around until the ending and helped Warrant Officer Ripley jettison that bastard alien out the airlock. Ill bet he thinks its unfair that a single lapse of judgement resulted in having his sternum ruptured by an unknown lifeform. Too bad.
The same thing can happen in Nemesis, leaving a puddle of raspberry jelly and a freshly hatched creeper where once stood a human being. So it goes when you dont head to the surgery room as soon as a space monster roots around your esophagus with its multi-jawed proboscis.
Of course, even this doesnt come across as truly horrific. When your character makes too much noise and summons a queen from the depths of the ships utility level, you wont kick your chair to the floor and leap from the table. Maybe youll swear. But scream? Thats a tall order.
Still, when it comes to tension, theres plenty to go around here. And while youre creeping through corridors to avoid drawing the attention of the games aliens, Nemesis is leveraging an even more potent agentits players.
Fires, broken computers, and the cold hard vacuum of space
At first, the business of surviving feels pretty much as youd expect. When you start, you dont actually know the specific layout of the ship. The helm is located up front and the engines are back at the stubby end, but beyond that you cant seem to recall whether the hibernatorium is adjacent to the cafeteria or the escape pods. Is this amnesia? Awakening sickness?
OK, its a little sillyeven on a regular airline flight they take pains to point out the exits, and there youre just sitting in a plain aluminum cylinder rather than a sprawling space vesselbut the gameplay in Nemesis actually benefits from this sense of dislocation. For the most part, your job is to uncover the ship, scrounge together the stuff you need to survive, and ensure you get home with all your bits attached. This usually entails checking the engines, fixing some stuff, maybe reentering the ships coordinates, and climbing back into hibernation. But because the ships layout is unknown, youre feeling your way through the dark. Nothing is certain.
The obvious problem here is the aforementioned aliens, called intruders, and Nemesis smartly pitches them as unknowns. Successive plays see you growing more accustomed to the differences between creepers and adults, breeders and the dreaded queen, but the aliens aura of threat and mystery is never fully dispelled. For one thing, they lack firm details. You wont find any stat cards or damage pips. Instead, their behaviors are dictated by card draw. Does an encounter with an adult intruder pose bodily harm, threat of contamination, or the possibility of a new hitchhiker in your stomach? In each case, the answer is maybe. Will a shotgun take apart an adult in one hit? Possibly, but also possibly not.
Even worse, the buggers appear at random from a draw bag as your exploration of the ship makes more of a ruckus. This gives every decision some bite, especially when you need to reach a room thats hemmed in with noise tokens, youre already hurt, and you suddenly remember just how many monstrosities have been added to the draw bag over the past hour. When your life is on the linethat is, your elimination from the gamedo you really need to accomplish your objective?
- One of the game’s many characters.
- Behold the sprawling ship!
- An unpleasant confrontation.
You wont know who to trust
Speaking of objectives, there are more subtle (but also more important) shakeups to the game. Much like in Dead of Winter, each character has their own goal card. Two, actually. At a certain point, each player is forced to choose one over the other; this decision comes after youve explored a portion of the ship, but not so early that the decision isnt a bit of a gamble. Even tougher, youre always given both a personal and a corporate objective. Maybe you want to burn the intruder hive or pilot the ship to Venus so the company can take the aliens into its possession. When the time comes to pick your goal, you often push for whatever seems most within reach
Im not superstitious, but it almost goes without saying that objectives have a spooky way of flip-flopping in the middle of each play, with your long-discarded option suddenly seeming like a good idea compared to whatever you actually picked. Murder a fellow shipmate? What were you thinking?
Thats rightmurder. Not directly, of course. But its possible to shut your companions behind doors, spark fires, draw intruder attention to a nearby shipmate, or vent somebody into the vacuum of outer space. This is the true source of paranoia in Nemesis. The unknown is all around, but the real terror is the unknown right beside you. Theres no guarantee anybody at the table will behave in such a manner. But in Nemesis, theres no guarantee they wont. That somebody isnt an android or a company stooge. That they arent nursing a hidden grudge or a desire to leave everybody behind while they board an escape pod. Without trust, where are we? Trapped in a burning shower room with an alien whos got limbs like switchblades, thats where.
True, Nemesis has the occasional catching edge. Thats deliberate. Rather than elegant, the game is evocative. Dont let the piles of plastic fool youthis is one of the most carefully arranged storytelling games of the past year.