Sunday, July 31, 2005

Review: Nexus Ops

Nexus Ops is one of the newest games from Avalon Hill. This game is a sci-fi strategy combat game where 2-4 players represent companies trying to exploit an alien world. To further their aims they recruit armies of aliens and battle each other for control of the planet's natural resources.

Some have been calling this game a more playable version of Twilight Imperium. I think that's greatly oversimplifying things but the comparison to Twilight Imperium is understandable. The game is played on a series of hexagonal tiles joined to form a random board, it involves raising armies and battling one another, and it involves meeting certain objectives to gain victory points. All of these things are rather similar to Twilight Imperium. Unlike Twilight Imperium, there is no tech tree, there are no distinct player races, there is no clever role selection mechanism, and there is no diplomatic element. Also unlike Twilight Imperium, this game can easily be played in under two hours (the box claims 60-90 minutes).

The components are typical of Avalon Hill: cheap cards, lots of cardboard counters, some flimsy cardboard playing mats, some sturdy hexagons that make up the playing surface, some dice, and a whole lot of clear plastic figures in bright neon colors. The figures look pretty cool and they are easily the most interesting bits in the game. I've seen better components but these do the job nicely.

The rules are clearly written and simple to understand. This is not a difficult game to learn and most of the rules are neatly summarized on the playing mats that are given to each of the players. On each turn you spend a certain amount of resources (called rubium) to muster more units, you move your units, you resolve combat, you reveal newly explored resources, and you collect your income. At the very end of your turn you draw one secret mission card which may be played as soon as its condition is met. Each secret mission card lists some condition that you must meet in order to be rewarded with some amount of victory points. You can also earn victory points by winning battles. Be the first to collect 12 victory points and you win the game.

There's a lot to like with Nexus Ops. The game moves relatively quickly, the units are relatively interesting, and the game seems pretty well balanced. I liked how they give fewer starting rubium to the first players as a balancing mechanism to prevent them from gaining an unfair advantage. I also liked how the secret mission cards have the effect of giving each player his own set of goals. Also, since each player gets an additional secret mission card after each turn, everyone has a reasonable chance of scoring well. The game also provides a very good incentive for players to begin fighting each other right off the bat. Many games of this nature have a "turtling" problem where players tend to want to hide under their shells and amass ever larger defensive armies rather than attack; not this game. In Nexus Ops, you get points for winning battles and even if you lose a battle you gain cards that help you out, so there's plenty of incentive to keep the action going.

Combat is simple, and fast. Whenever two players occupy the same space they come into conflict. Each unit rolls a single die in a prescribed order determined by unit type: the more powerful Rubium Dragon units roll first, then the Lava Lepers, then the Rock Striders, then the Crystalline's, then the Fungoids, and finally the Humans. Both players roll simultaneously within each unit type so long as they both have units of that type. Each unit has a certain chance to hit based upon its type and sometimes the type of terrain it's on. For every hit, the targeted player must remove one unit of his choice, so a player could elect to sacrifice a Lava Leper to a Crystalline's hit in order to get a chance to attack with his Human before the end of the turn. If one player succeeds in eliminating all of his enemy's units, then he wins the game, but if both players still have units after the Humans have their go, then the battle is over and the space remains contested until the next turn. It's a simple system that works very well. Sure it's a little random, but that's to be expected with this type of game and the luck factor is hardly overwhelming. The more powerful force will almost always emerge victorious and yet the underpowered force has a decent chance of holding ground long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

If there is one big flaw with Nexus Ops, it is that with four players you can have some "downtime" issues: in other words, when it isn't your turn, you have little to do other than watch and wait. Also, I could see three player games becoming quickly lopsided while two players gang up on the third. But both of those issues are pretty common in games of this sort and neither of them is enough to ruin an otherwise fine game.

Nexus Ops isn't the best game I've ever played, far from it, but it's a fun game that I would gladly play again. It's a worthy edition to the Avalon Hill line and one that I'm happy to own and recommend. I really liked Twilight Imperium but I just can't find the six or more hours needed to play the game. Nexus Ops does a pretty good job of scratching that "galactic conquest itch" and at under two hours, it's a game that I'm much more likely to play.


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