Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
Nemo’s War: 2nd Edition by Chris Taylor
Victory Point Games, 2017
Victory Point Games
Part 1: The Rise of Victory Point Games
Captain Nemo, the deuteragonist of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, gets his name from a Latin word meaning “nobody.” And indeed, while the rest of the cast of Verne’s prescient novel are painted with broad strokes—the Canadian harpooner Ned Land is brash and angry, Professor Arronax is measured and erudite, and his manservant Conseil is obsequious and classification-obsessed—the captain himself is a bit of a cipher. His physical traits are deliberately ambiguous: “Whether this individual was thirty-five or fifty years of age, I could not precisely state.” Ethnically, as well, he and his crew can’t be pinned down: “Neither English, French, nor German … as to whether they’re Spaniards, Turks, Arabs, or East Indians, their physical characteristics don’t give me enough to go on.” His nationality isn’t revealed until Chapter 3 of the book’s second half, while his motivations, history, and ultimate fate aren’t settled in the novel’s confines. (They’re elucidated in Verne’s sequel, The Mysterious Island, in one of the earliest specimens of the sci-fi genre’s fine tradition of the retcon, or “retroactive continuity.”)
Which makes the book, depending on your perspective, either a poor or an excellent choice for adaptation into an interactive medium. Poor because the enigmatic nature of Captain Nemo and the two-dimensionality of the other characters don’t give game designers much to work with. Puzzling because, despite the oft-retold combat against the giant squid in the closing chapters, the book is mostly devoid of action or incident; exhaustive catalogs of the ocean’s flora and fauna vastly outnumber the few scenes in which Nemo, Ned Land or the Nautilus battle sharks, dugongs, or warships. Excellent because the novel’s unsolved mysteries are fertile ground for potential and emergent narratives, which concern themselves less with what was and more with what might have been.
Either way, it’s an unusual premise for a game. Tabletop games adapted from novels or short fiction aren’t exactly unheard of, mind. Even overlooking the worlds that have thoroughly infused our popular culture—I’d hesitate to call The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, or Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective book adaptations, even though they all began in print—we barely scratch the surface with titles like Stefan Feld’s The Name of the Rose, Martin Wallace’s A Study in Emerald, and that neverending trove of stories, Tales of the Arabian Nights. In Verne’s own wheelhouse, we have Rüdiger Dorn’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Michael Rieneck’s Around the World in 80 Days. Granted, the ludic potential in a race to circumnavigate the globe is more readily apparent than in an anti-imperialist in self-imposed exile from the world of men, but the precedent exists.
What makes Nemo’s War unusual, despite this precedent, is its pedigree. Its designer, Chris Taylor, is best known not as a designer of tabletop games but as the creator of the postapocalyptic computer roleplaying games Fallout and Fallout 2. Its publisher, Victory Point Games, was only two years old at the time and was known as a budget wargame publisher, their prior catalog consisting of games with titles like Assault on Sevastapol, Waterloo 20, and Israeli Independence, games sold in plastic bags with paper maps instead of boards and graphic design realized in MS Paint. And Nemo’s War, as the name suggests, is a wargame (of sorts—more on that later), despite the fact that in the novel it’s adapting, outright combat occurs on only a handful of occasions.
As a pacifist, I wouldn’t have liked them much back then, but I can now say without qualification that Victory Point Games is my favorite board game publisher. As the Little Game Company That Could, they have taken risks that larger publishers couldn’t, innovated where others wouldn’t, and earned the right to refer unironically to their “avant garde reputation” and “unique idiom.” In many ways, Nemo’s War encapsulates the VPG story. Its first appearance in 2009 marked a shift within the publisher from historical conflict simulations to a more thematically diverse catalog. Nemo’s War resurfaced this year in a second edition that’s the bleeding edge of technology, and again, it heralds a change at VPG as they pack up their Costa Mesa factory and transition from an in-house, print-on-demand model to overseas mass production and more traditional distribution methods. While writing this, I received an email informing me that 2017 will be the first year the publisher will attend GenCon, the biggest board game convention in America and oldest in the world. After ten years of sailing subversively beneath the waves, Victory Point Games is rejoining the world of men.
Victory Point Games’ own Captain Nemo is a man named Alan Emrich. He is, to cite Nemo, the Little Game Company’s “captain, builder, and engineer all in one.” He’s the company’s founder—VPG is his vision of “part game company and part classroom,” a “‘Farm League’ for new game designers.” It began as an excuse to give his students at the Art Institute of California: Orange County firsthand industry experience, and many of VPG’s first titles were derived from his students’ course projects.
Thus, he is the company’s engineer, its designer. But he is also its leader. I mean, listen to the Nemo-esque way Emrich describes his involvement:
Alan put his lessons into practice once again and sought the ingredients of a capitalist venture: land, labor, capital, and the entrepreneur. Stepping into the later role himself to realize this company’s ideals, Alan started gathering the other three ingredients.
Although Victory Point Games is only a decade old, Emrich has decades of experience in the games industry, both analog and digital. He is a veteran and prolific writer of and about strategy guides, and he’s credited with coining the term “4X” in his review of the space strategy game Master of Orion. He co-founded Los Angeles’ own Orccon gaming convention and helped start up her sister conventions, Gamex and Gateway, so that Southern California enjoys three conventions a year under the Strategicon banner. Like Nemo, Emrich is a visionary; his gaze travels far:
What a look—as if he could magnify objects shrinking into the distance; as if he could probe your very soul; as if he could pierce those sheets of water so opaque to our eyes and scan the deepest seas…!
Emrich is a bit of a Professor Arronax, as well. If you read the unabridged translation marketed to adults, Jules Verne’s narrator spends a good 50% of his prose rattling off taxonomies, enumerating and classifying the wonders of the aquatic realm. Here’s just one of multitudinous examples:
Polyps and echinoderms abounded on the seafloor: various isis coral, cornularian coral living in isolation, tufts of virginal genus Oculina formerly known by the name “white coral,” prickly fungus coral in the shape of mushrooms, sea anemone holding on by their muscular disks, providing a literal flowerbed adorned by jellyfish from the genus Porpita wearing collars of azure tentacles, and starfish that spangled the sand, including veinlike feather stars from the genus Asterophyton that were like fine lace embroidered by the hands of water nymphs, their festoons swaying to the faint undulations caused by our walking. It filled me with real chagrin to crush underfoot the gleaming mollusk samples that littered the seafloor by the thousands: concentric comb shells, hammer shells, coquina (seashells that actually hop around), top–shell snails, red helmet shells, angel–wing conchs, sea hares, and so many other exhibits from this inexhaustible ocean. But we had to keep walking, and we went forward while overhead there scudded schools of Portuguese men–of–war that let their ultramarine tentacles drift in their wakes, medusas whose milky white or dainty pink parasols were festooned with azure tassels and shaded us from the sun’s rays, plus jellyfish of the species Pelagia panopyra that, in the dark, would have strewn our path with phosphorescent glimmers!
It doesn’t make for particularly gripping prose, but there is some verisimilitude at play: Verne successfully mimics a scholar of the natural world so engrossed with his subject that he frequently forgets his audience is less studied and less invested. For Arronax, simply rattling off the branches, groups, classes, subclasses, orders, families, genera, subgenera, species, and varieties he encounters in the liquid medium communicates also the thrill and wonder the sighting inspired.
Emrich has a bit more charm than that–you have to, to be a successful lecturer these days–but he’s also prone to flights of taxonomy. Here’s how he opens a strategy guide to the evergreen game of backstabbery and variable player powers, Cosmic Encounter:
There are four areas of strategy in a game of Cosmic Encounter. Simply put, they are the general play of the game, Alien Powers, Artifacts, and the psychological battlefield in your opponents’ heads.
Elsewhere, when writing about why he does what he does, Emrich enumerates:
There are three reasons why I get up in the morning and go do the work I do (four, if you count the paycheck, but it would be last on the list). These are: gaming, games, and gamers.
Arronax’s exhaustive lists reflect an ancient tradition of taxonomy that dates back at least to Aristotle. Perhaps this instinct to classify organisms fulfills a need to subvert the literally fathomless variety of the natural world to a human system of logic, to master chaotic, messy nature through the sheer force of rationality. This would explain why Aristotle was the first person of note to attempt it, and it would also explain why Emrich tends to break things down into lists. “Mastery through logic” pretty much defines the work of a writer of strategy guides and of a game designer/publisher. If he were alive today, you can bet Aristotle would have penned the ultimate guide to Civilization.
As mentioned above, Nemo’s War is basically a wargame. What this actually means is not immediately clear. Decision Games, publisher of the popular D-Day at Omaha Beach (not to mention Alan Emrich’s critically acclaimed Totaler Krieg!), defines a wargame as “a model of a military situation which players can control.” This definition is wonderfully fluid, depending entirely on your understanding of the term “military situation.” Is the systematic subversion of Diné culture in Navajo Wars a “military situation”? What about the (potentially peaceful) toppling of Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz in Pax Porfiriana? The Decision Games article proceeds in a more helpful direction by describing a wargame as “a mass of research information [translated] into an organized format.” By no coincidence, this could also be described as “mastery through logic”: an attempt to understand the bloody facts of history by filtering them through a rigorous set of rules and related systems.
This, to me, strikes at the heart of what separates wargames from other genres of tabletop game. They are simulations, shrunk-down and abstracted historical reenactments. These are games that concern themselves more with historical accuracy than with gameplay balance. When confronted with the feedback that rifles seem better than pistols in a certain game, a regular board game designer would work out incentives to increase pistols’ desirability; a wargame designer would reply, “But rifles are better.” That’s why wargames are also popularly known as conflict simulations, or consims.
As mentioned above, Victory Point Games began as a publisher of primarily wargames. But Alan Emrich has been vocally critical of this simulation enamoration. In a 1990 essay for Fire & Movement, titled “The Fall and Rise of Wargaming,” Emrich complained that “wargames today are hidden, overpriced, and too complex for new gamers,” a trend he blamed on a maturing demographic’s clamoring for games that are “better looking and more complex” but not at heart better games.
We’ve “matured” into enjoying more detailed, complex wargames, shunning the now “classics” as to simplistic. In Winston Churchill’s words, this may not have signaled the beginning of the end, but it was certainly the end of the beginning.
Thus, we have created a shrinking market by our own ‘maturing’ tastes. We have created the demand for overpriced, complex wargaming dinosaurs to the point where esoterica and elitism abound in our wargaming hobby.
If you go to the “About Us” page on Victory Point Games’ website, you’ll find the company’s mission statement the same as it’s always been: “to produce easy to learn, easy to teach, and quick to play games that are fun and accessible for any level of gaming experience.” This sheds some light on those early VPG releases, the ones shipped to consumers in plastic bags with laser-printed components, paper maps, and the world’s smallest dice. One of the primary targets in “Fall and Rise” was what Emrich called “‘Better Sales Through Better Graphics,’ not “‘Better Games Through Better Development.” VPG wasn’t ignoring art simply because they couldn’t afford it; these lo-fi productions were a deliberate act of rebellion on Emrich’s part against the established consumerism he felt was bringing a slow death to the hobby.
Captain Nemo has a lot of mottos, most famous among them “Mobilis in Mobili,” or “movement within the moving element”—a fitting creed for the first modern submariner. But one of his mottos is “Everything Through Electricity.” In fact, this is the novel’s most prescient and fantastical element; submersible vehicles as a concept have existed since the Renaissance, and mechanical submarines were deployed in the American Civil War, but an underwater craft of the Nautilus’s size and speed powered entirely by electricity was a novel concept. Apart from electric lights and electric griddles, Nemo also employs electric guns, electric lanterns, and a kind of primitive electric fence.
Victory Point Games also has a lot of mottos—I already mentioned “The Little Game Company that Could”—but the one that sticks out here is “The Gameplay’s the Thing.” To the uninitiated, this might be misconstrued as an apology for their low-budget production values. I once viewed it as such. But in the light of “Fall and Rise,” it isn’t an apology; it’s a battle cry. The gameplay is the thing, the only thing. “Everything Through Gameplay.”
So here, finally, is a brief history of Victory Point Games.
Number of Players
Victory Point Games began circa 2007 with Alan Emrich and business partner Vince DeNardo as “two guys in an attic” making games funded by Emrich’s poker winnings. In the first couple of years, their catalog included almost entirely wargames—the major exception being the deductive card game I Say, Holmes!, co-designed by Emrich and Roger Heyworth. Notable among the seeds of two ongoing series: Joe Miranda’s Napoleonic 20 system, so named for the (brace yourself) low unit density of 20 units or less, and the BATTLESSON (TM) series, a name that approaches without quite achieving the nails-on-the-chalkboard appeal of “edutainment.” In their product description, Victory Point Games echoes the Decision Games article by noting that “wargames recreate situations so that they can be studied and played…. The included BATTLESSON (TM) article helps explain this useful and fascinating field of study: wargaming.” The first BATTLESSON (TM) title was a reprint of an introductory wargame from 1975 titled Strike Force One, but the really important entry was BATTLESSON #4, Israeli Independence, which was also the originating entry in a new, arguably more important series: States of Siege.
2009 was, in many ways, a banner year for Victory Point Games. It saw the release of three new States of Siege games, including Joseph Miranda’s Zulus on the Ramparts!, one of VPG’s bestselling games, which simulates the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in which 140 British invaders successfully defended their mission station against a force of 4,000 Zulu warriors. States of Siege is a solitaire-only game system, which is surprising because Emrich seemed to disparage solitaire gaming in “Fall and Rise,” complaining that “three fourths of us play at least half of our wargaming solitaire because we can’t find opponents. We can’t find opponents because we’re not a growing hobby!”
Solitaire board gamers (among whom I count myself) are a growing and increasingly vocal minority in the overall board game hobby, and while many mainstream games these days are now releasing with solitaire variants, a solitaire-exclusive game is a sizable risk that VPG could only have pulled off because of its subversive business model. In spite of this, the series has thrived, growing to over a dozen titles in varied milieus—Levée en Masse, Ottoman Sunset, Mound Builders, Cruel Necessity—that consistently make their way onto VPG’s bestseller list.
2009 also saw the release of Nemo’s War, which was not a States of Siege title but was a solitaire game in its original incarnation (the new version plays 1-4, though it’s still a solo game at heart). Although Nemo’s War is arguably a wargame, it is not a historical simulation, and it represented one of the first instances of VPG dipping their toes into non-historical waters.
This was followed in 2010 by an explosion of new games that ventured outside of traditional wargame territory. Chris Taylor’s Toe-to-Toe Nu’klr Combat with the Rooskies is a BATTLESSON (TM) game, but it’s more of a satirical alternate history inspired by Slim Pickens’ iconic flight at the end of Dr. Strangelove. (It’s also a solitaire-only game.) 2010 also brought a bevy of space games: PARSEC, Astra Titanus, Final Frontier, Forlorn: Hope, and Star Borders: Humanity. Finally, 2010 brought two games with non-martial but true-to-life themes from Tom Decker: the solitaire-only adventure Disaster on Everest and the Euro-style resource management game Circus Train. They were no longer just a wargame company.
Beginning in 2011, Victory Point Games’ history will look something like the makeover montage of any ugly duckling story. They purchased a new “superprinter” and laser cutter to give their components a crisper, glossier look, repackaging bestsellers and new titles with the improved components under the Gold Banner line. In 2012, they obtained a stock of ridiculous, cherry-red pizza boxes and began to offer certain games in boxed editions including full-sized dice, a complimentary “Wipes-a-Lot” napkin to remove the soot from the laser-cut counters, and puzzle-cut boards instead of paper maps. This was the Victory Point Games I got to know, the publisher of games like Darkest Night (covered here), Infection: Humanity’s Last Gasp, Gem Rush, and Healthy Heart Hospital—any of which I hope to cover in a future edition. They began to release upgraded second editions of their most popular games, including Zulus on the Ramparts, Circus Train, and Dawn of the Zeds (another States of Siege title, and another one I’d like to cover in the future).
It was Hermann Luttmann’s Dawn of the Zeds that launched Victory Point Games into its newest incarnation. In 2015, VPG went to Kickstarter seeking funding for a third edition of Zeds that would collect all content from previous editions and their expansions, expand the solitaire game to a four-player cooperative experience…and send the manufacturing out-of-house for the first time. Using traditional overseas manufacturing methods, VPG’s new Premium Line, which launched with Zeds Third Edition, allows the publisher to reach a larger audience and enhance the components to meet consumer expectations, including mounted, folding boards (as opposed to puzzle-cut cardboard) and even plastic miniatures with the premium upgrades to Darkest Night and Nemo’s War, the Kickstarters for which followed closely after Zeds. Since that time, they’ve continued to publish new titles direct to the Premium Line using Kickstarter as a platform, and as of this year, they are packing away their Costa Mesa facility to transition entirely to a more traditional publishing model.
For me, this development is more than a little bittersweet. I’m happy that my favorite Little Game Company is seeing big success, and I’m glad that these great games are going to reach a wider audience. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling like I and the board game hobby have lost something special. When I read the words “The Little Game Company That Could,” I don’t imagine a small publisher succeeding in spite of itself. I think of the Little Game Company that could do things big companies couldn’t. I fear that they will lose their bearings. In the press release, VPG admits that “we must (of necessity) be less ‘niche-y’ in the games we publish,” and that’s exactly what I’m scared to lose. Its boxes were cute, its dice minuscule, and those laser cut counters were awesome, fireplace smell and all…but what really distinguished VPG was its ability to take risks in the pursuit of supporting new game designers and turning “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” into a reality.
Funnily enough, Nemo’s War is also about risking loss. I’ll continue with my review in Part 2.