Nefarious: A four-sided game review

PLEASE NOTE: The review below talks about the components that come in the box of the copy I was given to review. After receiving complaints USAopoly is addressing this problem in later editions and is also making better replacement components available through its website. I received my replacement money tokens in less than two weeks, but the cards will be following later. 

NefariousNefarious* is a light-ish card game for two to six players that lasts around 30 minutes. It was designed by Donald X Vaccarino, more famous for hugely popular (and first) deck-building game Dominion.

The game is relatively simple, seeing players simultaneously choosing an action each round in order to either collect money and cards; or lay cards from their hands to score points and trigger effects.

The game was originally released in 2011 with little fanfare, but was re-released (in English) in 2015 by USAopoly. I mention this because while the game’s new art style is fantastic, its components are far from it. The original printing, from Ascora Games, may well have a much higher build quality.

The new edition of Nefarious is available in the UK for around £25, which may seem reasonable value for what’s said to be in the box: more than 120 cards, a game board, 30 meeples and 90 cardboard tokens (plus the rules). But once you rip off the shrink wrap and dive into the box, you’re in for a nasty surprise.

Of all the games I’ve played, from huge to the tiniest of publishers, this edition of Nefarious has the worst component quality I’ve come across. The ‘cards’ are better described as paper in terms of thickness, while the money chits do not have printed values on the cardboard itself – instead they have the colour stuck on as a film that peels off, it would seem, simply by looking at it. Even the meeples can be best described as cheeples.

It’s a real shame, as the artwork is really very funny – I guess they blew the budget on that and had nothing left for the actual bits. But if you can get past the fact you’ll probably get paper cuts from the ‘cards’ and may have to use currency from a proper game (or of course poker chips) after a few plays, is the game itself worth the effort?


Nefarious action cardsAs I mentioned earlier, Nefarious is a light-ish card game – not a light one. It attempts to take a very simple idea and add just enough complexity to it to get both gamers and non-gamers to bite; no easy task.

To a degree it succeeds. Each player is given four action cards and you all play one simultaneously each round. Three of these are very simple (you are taking cards and/or money, or laying cards), while the last action – espionage – adds that extra gamerly twist.

When you play the ‘espionage’ action you place one of your cheeples on one of the four action spaces on the board (these mimic the four action cards each player has). Once you’ve done so, from the next round onwards, if the player to your left or right uses that action you will get one extra coin per cheeple you have on that space.

Nefarious board

The other twist to the rules are the ‘twist’ cards. As we’ve seen with both Dominion and Kingdom Builder, Donald X has a real skill and desire to design games that are hugely replayable through variety in terms of both scoring and mechanics.

Here it’s no different, with two twist cards being added to each game (from a stack of 36) that slightly bend the rules. From a learning perspective you simply play the first game without them to get to grips with the basics, then add them in for the next game.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: The espionage action sums up Nefarious for me. It’s not a hard rule to teach, but simply feels fiddly for what it seems to add to the game in terms of strategy (do you use turns early to set yourself for more income later). It also adds a pretty irritating extra game phase where most players tend to get about the same amount of extra income anyway. It feels half-baked; an idea that was thrown into a game rather than finessed into it – something I find hard to believe from the man behind some of the most elegant games I’ve had the pleasure of playing.
  • The thinker: Early on I thought this might be an interesting filler game, with the twist cards and espionage adding enough to make a thinker have to think. But alas, it was not to be. Some of the twist cards add a bit of fun to proceedings, especially how some pair up – but of course, this works both ways. Other pairings cancel each other out, make for appalling maths problems every round or – at the other extreme – just make the game faster or slower and have very little other impact. And ignore the box – this is not a strategy game!
  • The trasher: There’s a bit of chaos in Nefarious, but unfortunately it’s on a pretty tight leash. Your hand size tends to be pretty small and there’s quite a spread of card costs, so it’s rare you really have much of a tactical choices in card laying. This is a shame as the card actions, when you play them, can be fun – making people discard cards or lose money can illicit all kinds of groans and swears. For me that is where the game should be – but other elements get in the way a little too much to make it the fun filler it nearly is.
  • The dabbler: I loved the art, the simultaneous play and the interaction – but wasn’t keen on the almost constant bookkeeping. I also like the fact you never know who is going to win, because getting that 20-point winning score can be done from quite a way back with the right card (you could get almost half your points in one hit if you play your cards right). The game’s the right length and I like the twist cards, but you’re much better off choosing a fun pair of them rather than choosing randomly. And don’t play with non-gamers – they don’t tend to grasp it, which is a shame.

Key observations

Nefarious card artIt’s fair to say reaction to Nefarious has been a very mixed bag. For each commenter praising its light, fast and fun qualities there is one calling it boring, repetitive or mediocre.

The game is a filler, so it has a lot of luck and randomness: not a problem. Plus the twist cards – when they work – really do add replayability. The theme and art are also great, if pasted on (quite literally in the case of the coins…). So if you like the theme and are in the market for a gamery filler this may be worth a look.

But I can’t help thinking this is a game that is cleverer than it is fun – more a lesson in looking for a new design angle than a game most players will keep coming back to. Much of the joy is in seeing the card art and experiencing the twists for the first time; but for those I’ve played it with these joys have been, at best, fleeting.

The most damning comments, for me, are along the lines of your choices being obvious depending on what you draw – which is certainly what I’ve found. You simply don’t have many real decisions to make – although you can be pulled along by it for a while before you realise this is the case. As one commenter noted, it’s vacuous; but unfortunately, and importantly, it has also proved to be a little too much for non-gamers.


When I saw the box art and designer I was excited to play Nefarious. Once I’d opened the box I really hoped I’d like it, because I wouldn’t even keep the components for prototypes. Now I’m just hoping someone wants a copy so I can move it on to a loving home.

Nefarious is not a bad game, but a divisive one. If you want an interactive filler that plays fast, has a mad scientist theme and has replay value in spades then take a look – but try before you buy. A certain type of gamer will and does like it, but for me and my group it had no staying power beyond the first play – and no amount of twist cards can help that.

And finally, in a day and age where anyone can start a Kickstarter campaign and put a well-made game into the market there is no excuse to print a game with components this bad – even if you later backtrack after complaints from the public and offer replacement components (see note at the top of this review). Frankly, it’s embarrassing.

* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

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