Saturday, September 24, 2005

Nexus Ops

First, there was Avalon Hill. Over its thirty years or so of existence it published many great games – probably more than any other game company, ever – including such classics as Titan, Dune, Diplomacy, Storm over Arnhem, Republic of Rome, Squad Leader, Roads to Gettysburg, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, and Breakout: Normandy, just to pick a few personal favorites. They were also early on the Euro bandwagon, with titles like Kremlin, Gangsters, and Adel Verpflichet.

Then it got bought by Hasbro.

Then there came the New Avalon Hill. Its 5-ish debut games contained more plastic than the old Avalon Hill used in its entire history: Acquire, Battle Cry, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit, Risk: 22-something, and Axis & Allies: Europe. The line showed some promise: Acquire is of course a classic (and I actually prefer the new tech theme to hotels), Star Wars: TQG was a solid design which is still worth playing, Battle Cry and Risk: 22-whatever were solid if unspectacular, and only A&A:E landed with a thud. It wasn't the old Avalon Hill, but as a starting point it was OK and I had some hope.

Then ... nothing for a while. Then, Cosmic Encounter, a Diplomacy and History of the World reprint, and a couple more A&A and Risk games (as an aside: I remember in an issue of The General in which he was listing his "desert island games", Don Greenwood mentioned once that after playing Cosmic Encounter, he put together the most generous acquisition package AH had ever done to try to get the game. Eon turned him down – which, in retrospect, he thought probably was for the best for AH. Now, after all these years, Cosmic Encounter was published under the AH label. I don't know what this means). Anyway, Diplomacy, Cosmic Encounter, and History of the World are classics, but not games that get a lot of play these days. The "new" games were by-the-numbers design jobs that weren't exactly taking any risks. The old Avalon Hill had helped bring in the next generation of games with titles like Kremlin, We the People, Hannibal, Adel, and Titan: The Arena; the new AH seemed to be going back to the 80s, or even the 70s.

At some point the AH brand was then transferred to Wizards of the Coast. Things then got a little weird. Recent releases have been all over the map, from the roll the dice and move around a track Sword and Skull to the horrible train wreck that was the awkwardly-named Betrayal at the House on Hill to RoboRally to Monsters Menace America to a couple new Risk and A&A games. Currently, the product line is still over a third Axis & Allies or Risk-branded products.

What? You want to know what I think of Nexus Ops, not get some long, rambling history of AH? All right.

Nexus Ops
 is a classic empire building game – perhaps the light version of Twilight Imperium. You've got a Settlers of Catan style board layout with a hill in the middle. Many spaces produces money. The hill in the middle produces action cards. Money buys different units. Units have different movement and combat capabilities. Combat involves rolling lots of dice.

The thing that's different, and the reason the game actually works, are the mission cards. Instead of trying to be the last one standing, you are trying to amass 10 VPs. You get these by fulfilling the missions on the cards. These are things like "win a battle in a lava bed" or "kill an enemy's Dragon-like thing". This is cool, and absolutely critical, because it avoids the time-honored problem of "turtling" – i.e., sitting around waiting for the other players to get bored, attack each other, and weaken themselves to the point that you can clean up. It's distressing how many of these sorts of game makes no attempt to solve this rather critical problem.

However, just because it's solved, doesn't mean it's an inspiring solution. McAllister and Trampier solved it brilliantly in Titan. Knizia solved it with his usual grace and elegance in Clash of the Gladiators. Nexus Ops is somewhat short of these, mainly because the mission cards are boring and fairly random. Maybe you get a 2-pointer for winning a battle in a mountain, and you have a bunch on your border; that's easy. Maybe you get a similar one that requires a jungle, and the jungles are either deep in your heartland or on the other side of the board. Maybe you get a big 3-pointer to kill an enemy dragon, and you neighbor happens to have one; or maybe not. Whether you can fulfill a mission or not seems to be related less to some perceived difficulty in actually carrying out the action, and more to the odds that the board situation is favorable. The other issue is that the supply of these cards is fairly limited (you get one on each of your turns), and since the winner is likely to be the player who can play most of the cards he draws, you don't have much choice except to try to fulfill everything you draw. The mission cards are also a bit samey, which probably will hurt replayability. And the action cards produced by the Hill, which provide a lot of the flavor and fun value, are a little too hard to get and a little too sparse.

Still, after all that, the game is OK. It's kinda fun. It's not too long. It's not an elimination game. It's control-light and there is unnecessary downtime, but it works, and empire-building games of this type that really, fundamentally work are rarer than you might think. I like the look of the game; it's neat and unusual, but the production is efficient and it's not glaringly overproduced (although I did have some difficulties telling some of the smaller units apart at times).

This is a game that I'm glad I got a chance to play once, but now that's done, I am unlikely to play again unless someone else in the group is lobbying for it. I could be talked into it, but wouldn't offer it up. On the other hand, it was definitely not bad, was much more satisfying than the recent and similarly-targeted but not-quite-functional Viktory, and if one wanted to play a high-conflict, knock-down drag-out empire building game, and wanted it to be a game without player elimination (actual or practical) and finishable in under 2 hours, I am hard-pressed to come up with a better alternative.

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