Nexus Ops

If you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then the same holds true for board games as well. Take a look at the cover of Nexus Ops:

(image courtesy paw @ BGG)

Based on that, what are the odds you’d ever pick it up off the shelf at a store let alone purchase it? Slim to none would be my guess, assuming you knew nothing about the game in the first place. I got a copy of Nexus Ops on a whim as it was for sale at a great price over at Tanga. Little did I know a fantastic game was hidden inside that horrific box.

Nexus Ops falls directly into the category I would consider gateway games: games that are good for introducing people to the wide world of newer board games. It takes elements from classics like Risk that many will be familiar with and turns it into one of the best light war games I’ve played.

(image courtesy dsmeyer @ BGG)

In Nexus Ops, players are pitted against each other in an attempt to complete missions that earn them points; first to twelve points wins the game. The game takes place on a modular hex map forming two rings around the Monolith in the center. While the number and type of tiles are fixed their locations will be different each game. Each hex also has a random resource tile placed face down. As players explore the hexes the resource tiles are revealed, either showing a mine (to earn players cash) and/or a free unit.

On their turn a player first purchases new units. There are six types of units ranging from lowly humans to the massive rubium dragons with unit costs increasing appropriately. This means you could buy a bunch of cheap humans or a single dragon… it’s your choice. Then you place these units in your starting area and proceed to move as many units as you wish. Some units – like the lava leaper – have special movement rules; typically a unit is allowed to move a single hex. After movement battles are resolved and your turn is over. If you have units on a mine you earn the number of credits listed, take a secret objective card and play continues to the next player.

A couple of things make Nexus Ops stand out from war games many are familiar with (Risk, etc.). First, the combat system is very interesting. Units are ranked from low to high. All hits are determined by the roll of a six-sided die but the number needed to hit the enemy varies based on the unit type; the stronger the unit, the lower you need to roll. For example, the rubium dragons hit on 2+ while humans only hit in on a 6. What really makes the combat work, though, is that combat is resolved from high unit to low unit: first the rubium dragons attack, then the lava leapers, rock striders, crystallines, fungoids and finally the humans. When you take a hit you get to choose which unit to lose. This means humans are least effective in battle as they aren’t likely to hit but are the cheapest unit making them most effective as fodder. Likewise, having a army of rubium dragons look impressive but without fodder to protect them you’ll be taking casualties It’s a very clever system and while not entirely original it serves its purpose extremely well and adds for some fun decision making when figuring out what units to build.

(image courtesy Jezztek @ BGG)
What really makes the game shine, though, are the mission cards. At the end of each turn you take a mission card. These cards list a number of victory points (usually 1 to 4) and the condition needed to meet that objective. You may have a mission that earns you 1 point for defeating a lava leaper in battle: pretty easy. On the other hand you may have another mission to bring two rubium dragons to the middle of the map, teleport them to an opponent’s home base and win a battle; not quite as easy but worth more points.

These mission cards really give the game a great twist. All of the objectives are offense-oriented so there’s no reason to sit back and “turtle.” Generally, if you aren’t attacking someone you are probably doing something wrong! It’s a very fast-paced game and you’ll find yourself working hard to set yourself up to complete the missions you have in your hand. Your opponents are doing the same, though, so you don’t want to leave yourself open for an easy attack. Each battle you lose is one or more points for your opponent so you really have to plan your moves accordingly.

(image courtesy dsmeyer @ BGG)

In the middle of the board is the Monolith. If you control the Monolith at the end of your turn you get two combat cards; you’ll also earn a single combat card as a consolation prize if you are defending and lose the battle. These cards do all sorts of crazy things but often help you in battle or give you extra credits or further movement for your units. Combat cards will greatly sway the course of the game so you never want to let a single player dominate the Monolith for too long. This forces all players into the middle of the map, pretty much guaranteeing even more chaos!

I love Nexus Ops, there’s no doubt about it. It’s very easy to learn, fast-paced, has lots of combat, cool figures and plays in under two hours. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better light war game with this much variety, depth and fast play time. The victory point system is brilliant as the cards you pick up determine your focus for the game so it’s more than just trying to wipe everyone off of the map. In theory a player could be fully eliminated but that’s almost never going to happen. Due to the nature of the mission cards you can fall behind and make a huge comeback with a couple of well-played turns. At the same time you draw mission cards at random so it’s quite possible that the missions you have are simply going to be difficult to achieve based on the situation.

(image courtesy paw @ BGG)
Far as I’m concerned, Nexus Ops should pretty much replace Risk as the go-to war game. I really do think it’s a game most people should own. It’s fast, easy, fun and highly replayable. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. Just ignore the box art.

Cutthroat Caverns

(image courtesy Smirky @ BGG)
There’s something to be said for very simple games: games that you can teach in a matter of minutes that anyone can learn. “Beer and pretzel” games, as they’re often referred to. One fairly popular category of beer-and-pretzel games are “take that” games… games where you may (and will) play cards that directly affect other players in some negative fashion. Some popular “take that” games you may have heard of include Munchkin, Killer Bunnies, and Guillotine. Cutthroat Caverns is one of the newest entries in the genre and manages to bring a lot of interesting things to the table.

First off, let me say that I’m not a huge fan of games where you can directly screw other players over. It can be fun for awhile but after getting messed with time after time the gimmick wears thin. Add on to that the tendency for everyone to gang up on the leader and you have a style of game that can frustrate quickly. Take Munchkin, for example. I love John Kovalic’s artwork and the roleplaying satire is fantastic. In fact, the premise of the game is quite cool: romp through a dungeon, kill monsters and steal their loot. The game falls apart after awhile, though, as players will just keep piling on the leader. Combine that with the massive number of cards in the deck and there’s no real strategy and no way to plan ahead. I do feel that type of mindless entertainment certainly has its place in the gaming world, though, and these styles of games tend to be very popular.

Along comes Cutthroat Caverns. Like other “take that” games you can directly screw other players at the table. What makes the game so brilliant is that isn’t always the best idea. In Cutthroat Caverns the players are a band of adventurers killing of a series of nine monsters. Players must work together to defeat the critters as they take turns swiping at it. The catch is that each monster is worth a certain number of points but only the person who lands the killing blow actually earns the points.

That’s right: it’s a game about kill stealing (for you MMO fans).

(image courtesy sedge @ BGG)

This very simple but ingenious twist really sets it apart from other “take that” games out there. If you die before the last monster is killed it doesn’t matter how many points you earned because you won’t be alive to enjoy them. Each monster has a strength based on the number of players but if someone dies the monster strength remains the same. This means if you kill off too many party members the group as a whole will struggle; if nobody lives to see the end then nobody wins! You don’t see cooperative/competitive games very often and Cutthroat Caverns really nails that concept.

Each monster is revealed, one at a time, and the players must fight them. Each player is given a hand of cards. These cards usually have an attack value but others are potions that give you temporary bonuses or action cards that directly affect other players, usually in negative ways. A battle against a monster is made up of several rounds of combat. First initiative cards are dealt, then each player chooses an attack card in secret. Cards are resolved in initiative order, the monster attacks its target and you repeat until the monster is dead. Whoever kills it earns the points.

A few things make this whole concept work. First off, the monster powers are crazy. Some are certainly easier to kill than others but they tend to push the teamwork element quite a bit. You’ll need to work together in some fashion and just because you could cancel someone’s attack doesn’t mean that you should. For example, you might be counting on their attack to soften up the monster just enough so you can swoop in for the kill.

Second, you’ll go through the deck quickly. You draw a new card after each round of combat and between encounters you may discard and redraw new cards. There’s a good chance you’ll go through the deck two or three times during the course of a game meaning all the cards will be seen a few times; this helps to minimize the amount of luck as you’ll quickly become familiar with the deck. You’ll find yourself making some fun decisions on how hard you should hit this turn or how you can best work the monster’s special attack powers to your advantage. Do you go for the big hit and hope nobody has cards to cancel your attack or do you use a very weak attack and try to set yourself up for next round? There are real decisions to be made here, and while luck is certainly a big factor I think it is possible to make good and bad moves in the game.

Cutthroat Caverns isn’t without its issues, though. While I love the artwork and components I do think the glass marker beads are a little too hard to use, especially on the monster hitpoint track. Like most card games with lots of text there are also quite a few rule ambiguities and scenarios simply not covered in the rules. Common sense usually prevails without too much effort but the game’s fun is slightly diminished when you need to take a moment to discuss how to rule a should work. Finally I do think the game is a little fiddly. After each round of combat you have to collect, shuffle and redeal the initiative cards. I understand why initiative works this way but it does add a bit of overhead.

Even with those complaints I think that Cutthroat Caverns is the best light, “take that” style game I’ve played. It has a built in timer – nine monsters – so the game will never drag on too long. Luck is diminished a bit with the frequent cycling of cards and ability to refresh your hand between encounters. Plus the whole semi-cooperative aspect really adds in a new level of fun when trying to decide how to best play your turn.

If you like fantasy games, dungeon crawlers and/or have a fondness for Munchkin and its ilk, do yourself a favor and check out Cutthroat Caverns. It plays 3 to 6 players and due to the monster health scaling I think it works well with any number. The game is easy to teach, plays in roughly and hour and you’ll have plenty of great moments to laugh about as you play.