Wed. Sep 28th, 2022
The intruders are... obnoxious.
enlarge The intruders are… obnoxious.

Awaken Realms

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend take on table games! Check out our full coverage of board games at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

You wake up early from a cold sleep. The ship’s hibernation – and probably the rest of the ship – is running at half power. There’s a body nearby. To be precise, there is a body everywhere. For a moment, your sleep-obsessed brain assumes someone has splattered BBQ pork all over the floor and walls. No; that’s the crew member who should have been on watch while everyone else was asleep.

Welcome to Nemesis, a board game with strong (but decidedly unofficial!) echoes of Ridley Scott’s Alien† It brought in millions on Kickstarter, but is it any good?

Everyone can hear you screaming at the table

In general, horror board games don’t do that well.

Oh, they’re really good at that tension† Playing to a climax over several turns, waiting to see if someone undo all your hard work by taking that card you’ve been looking at, wondering if your partner is secretly Hitler… these are the moments when board games create almost effortlessly . One time I realized that I had been holding my breath during… Exploding Kittens† Here was a game I wouldn’t normally confess to playing, and yet my whole body was stiff, fear. (Admittedly, this was because I was hoping the game would end ASAP, but still.)

Nemesis takes that tension and arms it. From the very first moments, this is a game about the terror of the known, the semi-known and the unknown. It’s so committed to that sting you get when someone threatens to stab you in the kidney, that the game even features player elimination. Notice I say Nemesis “features” player elimination, not that it bothers it. Being knocked out of a three-hour game within the first 40 minutes is a design decision, not a mistake. Sure, it’s a downer. But don’t you think Executive Officer Kane was disappointed when that chestburster did exactly what its name implies? I bet he was all upset. I bet he wished he could have stayed till the end and helped Petty Officer Ripley throw that bastard out of the airlock. I bet he thinks it’s unfair that a single error of judgment resulted in his sternum being torn by an unknown life form. Unfortunately.

The same can happen in Nemesis, leaving a pool of raspberry jelly and a newly hatched creeper where a human once stood. That’s how it goes if you don’t go to the operating room as soon as a space monster takes root around your esophagus with its multi-jawed trunk.

Even this doesn’t really come across awful† When your character makes too much noise and calls out a queen from the depths of the ship’s utility, don’t kick your chair to the floor and jump off the table. Maybe you swear. But screaming? That is quite a task.

But when it comes to thrills, there’s plenty to do here. And as you crawl through hallways to avoid attracting the attention of the game’s aliens, Nemesis uses an even more powerful agent: his players.

Fires, broken computers and the cold hard vacuum of space

At first, survival feels about as you’d expect. When you start, you don’t actually know the specific layout of the ship. The helm is up front and the engines are back at the blunt end, but otherwise you can’t remember whether the hibernation area adjoins the cafeteria or the escape pods. Is this amnesia? Waking up illness?

OK, it’s kind of silly – even on a regular airline flight they bother to point out the exits, and there you’re just sitting in a regular aluminum cylinder instead of a sprawling starship – but the gameplay in Nemesis actually takes advantage of this sense of dislocation. For the most part, your job is to uncover the ship, gather the gear you’ll need to survive, and make sure you get home with all your bits and pieces attached. This usually involves checking the engines, fixing some things, maybe re-entering the ship’s coordinates and going back into hibernation. But because the layout of the ship is unknown, you feel your way through the dark. Nothing is sure.

The obvious problem here is the aforementioned aliens, called ‘invaders’, and Nemesis cleverly places them as strangers. Successive plays get you more accustomed to the differences between creepers and adults, breeders and the dreaded queen, but the alien’s aura of menace and mystery is never completely dispelled. For starters, they lack hard details. You won’t find any stat cards or damage pips. Instead, their behavior is determined by the drawing of cards. Does encountering an adult intruder pose physical harm, risk of contamination, or the possibility of another hitchhiker in your stomach? In any case, the answer is “maybe”. Will a shotgun tear an adult apart in one fell swoop? Possibly, but also possibly not.

Worse, the buggers appear randomly from a trekking bag as your exploration of the ship causes more commotion. This gives some bite to any decision, especially when you have to reach a room enclosed with sound tokens, you’re already injured, and you suddenly remember how many monstrosities have been added to the draw bag in the past hour. When your life is on the line — that is, your elimination from the game — do you? For real needed to achieve your goal?

You don’t know who to trust

Speaking of objectives, there are more subtle (but also more important) changes to the game. Just like in Death of winter, each character has its own target card. Two actually. At some point, each player is forced to choose one over the other; this decision comes after you’ve explored part of the ship, but not so early that the decision isn’t a guess. In fact, you always get both a personal and a business goal. You may want to burn the intruder hive or pilot the ship to Venus so the company can take possession of the aliens. When it comes time to choose your goal, you often aim for what seems most within reach

I’m not superstitious, but it almost goes without saying that goals have a ghostly way of flip-flopping in the middle of every game, where your long-discarded option suddenly seems like a no-brainer compared to what you actually chose. Kill a fellow shipmate? what were you think

Correct-murder† Not right away, of course. But it’s possible to lock your companions behind doors, fan fires, draw intruders’ attention to a nearby shipmate, or vent someone into the vacuum of space. This is the true source of paranoia in Nemesis† The unknown is all around you, but the real terror is the unknown next to you. There is no guarantee that anyone at the table will behave that way. But in Nemesis, there’s no guarantee they won’t. That someone is not an android or a company front man. That they have no hidden grudges or a desire to leave everyone behind as they board an escape pod. Where are we without trust? Trapped in a burning shower room with an alien who has limbs like knife blades, it’s true.

WHERE, Nemesis occasionally has an advantage. That’s intentional. Rather than elegant, the game is suggestive. Don’t be fooled by the piles of plastic – this is one of the most carefully arranged storytelling games of the past year.

List image by Awaken Realms

By akfire1

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