The Nemo’s War board game is a thematic adventure experience based on the classic Jules Verne novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The game was released in 2009, but got a substantial upgrade in component/art quality with its 2017 second edition (reviewed here).
The game can be played cooperatively by up to four players, but is very much seen by most as a solo experience. I have only played solo, so if you want to know more about how it plays with more please check other reviews (sorry). I’d suggest an age range of 12+ (some say a little older). And you can expect a game to last 1-2 hours once you have the rules down.
Nemo’s War is a strong narrative experience, with underlying dice, card and action selection mechanisms moving the story along. It definitely has an old war game feel, as you’ll be throwing a lot of dice and checking results on charts – but they’re all printed on the board. You always play as Nemo but follow one of four plot paths which subtly alter game setup, point scoring, tactics and strategy. The art and component quality in this edition are top drawer. And in the box you’ll find a large game board, 80+ cards, 200+ cardboard tokens, a few wooden pieces and dice, an epilogue booklet, plus a plastic mini of the Nautilus.
Playing the Nemo’s War board game
Your challenge in Nemo’s War is to survive through around 30 event cards, scoring victory points as you go. It is possible to fail before this point by gaining too much notoriety. As Nemo, you are captaining the secret Nautilus submarine. You want to stay hidden from society, so must stay under the world’s collective radar while gaining as much towards your goals as you can. You can also fail by running out of one of the ship’s three resources: crew, hull strength, and Nemo’s mental state. These can all be gambled during the game to gain dice modifiers, but can also be diminished via events.
Each turn starts with an event. All have a nice bit of flavour text, but come in three categories. ‘Tests’ see you rolling some dice, ‘keeps’ are put to one side (usually triggered when you go somewhere or do something later), while ‘play’ cards happen immediately (you’ll likely lose/gain something). With the event resolved, you next roll 2-5 dice (depending where you are in the game). This has two purposes: to add ships to the board and to determine how many actions (if any) you’ll get this turn.
The board depicts 12 separate ocean areas, with 1-4 spaces in each. You start with some unidentified ship tokens on the board and add more via the dice each turn (major seas are numbered 1-6, with ships spreading to the minor seas once these are full). Once the board is full of ship tokens, further rolls in those seas see the tokens replaced with actual ships. These in turn are flipped over (to their tougher side). And if you can’t do that, because the waters are so full of warships, congrats – you’ve found another way to lose the game.
Taking actions and rolling (lots of) dice
On most turns you’ll now have 1-5 action points to spend, with actions costing 1-2 points each. And no, that never feels like enough actions. You can move to an adjacent ocean, repair your ship or rest the crew. You can upgrade the Nautilus (giving it a new bonus), collect treasure (if there is some on your current location) or adventure (carry out an extra event card). Or you can incite the locals (helpful for lowering your notoriety). And, sooner or later, you’ll have to attack some ships.
Most of these actions, including ship attacks, require a test much like event cards. Roll two six-sided dice and hope you roll high. But you can almost always mitigate the rolls by gambling some ship resources (giving positive modifiers), or even trading in treasure tokens for extra boosts. Plus there’s the ship’s main character’s – valuable resources, as they can be expended after a bad roll to either add to it or re-roll it. Ship attacks can be further modified in your favour by attacking just one vessel; while you get quite a bit of freedom in the placement of ships, meaning you can often strategically line up a bunch of easy targets.
A partly pre-ordered deck means the action is guaranteed to ramp-up as the game progresses. And if you make it to the end, you’ll work out your score based on the motive you chose at the beginning. A war motive will see you actively arming-up the Nautilus and searching for warships to sink. While an explore motive will penalise any points for those actions, instead giving big rewards for discovering landmarks through treasure tokens.
The four criteria
In a change to my normal reviews, I’m instead looking at areas in which solo board games tend to be judged – either favourably or not, depending on your tastes.
- Elegance: Its 32-page rulebook will let you know The Nemo’s War board game is far from elegant. But it has a regular flow that makes sense and is easy to pick up. And many of the more fiddly, hard to remember details are printed on the game board as handy rules reminders. This meant that, despite its obvious complexity, I was rarely revisiting the rulebook on my third play. There are a few annoying omissions in on-board rule details, but nothing I couldn’t make my own short list of that now lives in the box and can be referred to when required.
- Meaningful decisions: Unless you’re absolutely in dire straights fighting fires, you always have options. And even then you may have choices. Yes, your motive will set you down a path as certain aspects of the game will score you more points. But there are usually several ways to tackle problems, and problems you will have. Importantly, the fact you have a say over much of what happens with your enemies adds to this. As mentioned, you’re often deciding where to place ships after seeing their strength. This can affect a lot, including giving negative modifiers if trying to do certain actions in that space. It feels as if you’re constantly working through a list of options.
- Replayability: As a narrative game based on a short novel, Nemo’s War has its limitations. You’ll see half or more of the 60 event cards each game so they’ll soon become familiar. And while Nautilus upgrades add a twist, there are only 10 in the box. But the four motives feel different to play (admittedly within a closed system) and there is a meaningful three-level difficulty scale. Even on ‘easy’ it is a challenge and I feel very much like I have a lot to learn. Plus the way events unfold each game make it a very different tactical puzzle each play. If you enjoy your initial game, I think you’ll find a lot of depth to keep you coming back.
- Theme, narrative & the ending: While the game board feels a little mechanical, the incredible art and graphics do enough to keep the theme strong. Being able to quote from a classic text on your game cards also gives it a head start. But Nemo’s War goes above and beyond. The ‘epilogue booklet’ includes a nice chunk of text for each outcome of each motive type. When you tally up your final victory points, you’ll end up with a ‘defeat’, ‘failure’, inconsequential’, ‘success’ or ‘triumph’. So you’ll have a well written narrative ending to your adventure, as well as score to beat next time.
Suggestions the game does not have enough dice mitigation surprise me. You’re rarely looking for more than an 8-9 on two dice, and can usually mitigate this by at least three (often more) – so you need maybe a five. If you need higher, you’re in the wrong fight – or the outcome isn’t likely to be that bad if you fail. You need to pick your battles, know the risks, and realise you’re not going to win them all. But if you don’t like a lot of dice rolling no, this game is not for you. There is a lot of dice rolling.
I’m also surprised some don’t find it thematic. Perhaps they don’t know the story or the characters? I guess your millage may vary. But for me the tension always mounts as the waters begin to fill with unfriendly, increasingly advanced/aggressive ships. Even many of the negative reviews admit the theme is strong. However, one truth is you don’t get that ‘zero to hero’ effect many crave in a solo game. You get a few ship improvements, but this is more a ‘fighting fires’ game than a ‘levelling up to be uber’ one.
Yes, the game is fiddly and complicated. It’s from Victory Point Games (a war game publisher), it has a 32-page rulebook and has a two-hour play time. What else would you expect? However the rulebook is detailed and well laid out. Most of the little details you won’t remember are printed on the board. And the iconography and layout and top notch. So while complex, I think it does close to the best it can in terms of approachability.
But taking all this into consideration, could Nemo’s War have benefited from being a little shorter? Or having a shortened variant? I think probably yes. But then, how big would its new audience have been? Victory Point Games knows its crowd. The game is ranked 300 (at time of printing) on Board Game Geek and as high as 40 in the ‘thematic’ rankings. It has an average rating of ‘8’, which is very rare. So putting all that into context, I think we can assume designer Chris Taylor and the publisher have largely done the right thing.
Conclusion: The Nemo’s War board game
Oh, how I dream of being ‘inconsequential’! This game is tough. But even a defeat feels like a satisfying play. Yes, you’ve lost – but it was likely your poor play, not the game, that defeated you. Yes, a few bad dice rolls can feel like they’ve decimated you. But regroup, heal up and move on. They’ll likely balance out – and if not, you probably took the wrong risk at the wrong time. And back you’ll go, a few days later, to try again. At least that’s how it has been for me. Nemo’s War is a definite keeper and I’d advise anyone into solo narrative adventures to seek it out. Clever, imaginative, original and a genuine challenge.