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 2: Nemo’s War
I mentioned in part one that wargames are an attempt to model a “military situation” by organizing “a mass of data … into its components and system.” I also mentioned that Nemo’s War is both greater than and less than a wargame.
Nemo’s War‘s “military situation” is the coordinated hunt for the Nautilus conducted by the world’s navies. It is also, depending on your chosen motive (more on that later), Captain Nemo’s desire for revenge against the oppressive imperialist powers. Both the game and the book begin the same way: with global sightings of a mysterious “apparition,” described variously as a runaway reef, a sea monster, or a hitherto undiscovered species of giant narwhal. After the near-sinking of an English steamer, the Scotia, the world’s governments unite in an effort “to purge the ocean of this daunting monster.” Thus hunted, Captain Nemo and his Nautilus must maintain a low profile. Luckily, that’s exactly what his submersible craft was designed to do.
The hunt for the Nautilus functions as the game’s timer. The world map, organized into six major oceans interspersed with several minor ones, gradually fills with ships—first the anonymous hidden ship markers, which are no real threat to the Nautilus or her crew. But when an ocean and its neighboring regions has no more room for hidden ships, they become replaced with specific ships drawn from a bag or cup. These ships come in two varieties: white non-warships and warships of increasingly threatening hues. If an entire maritime region has been filled with revealed ships, then a random warship must be placed anywhere in the world as a “hunting ship”; if it’s in the Nautilus’ ocean, it attacks immediately, and if there is no place to put it (because all oceans are filled), the world powers have cornered the Nautilus and the game ends in an “Imperialist victory,” which is one of only three ways to actually lose the game.
The other loss conditions also contingent on naval combat. As you sink ships (or, as Nemo would have it, leaving them “in a condition where [they] could do me no harm”), you will move up on the Notoriety track depending on the prominence or infamy of your target. Not only does higher notoriety make the seas more dangerous for the Nautilus—by adding new, higher-tech warships to the draw pool, flipping warships to their more dangerous purple side, or increasing the rate at which they appear—it also can trigger an immediate loss if your notoriety exceeds the maximum value (the so-called “Pariah” spaces) allowed by your chosen motive (more on that later), which ranges from 26 with the pacifist Science motive to 51 with the aggressive War motive. Finally, the game can end in a loss if any of your ship’s resources reach their lowest value: Nemo is broken, your crew is killed, or your hull is shattered. Resource loss can come from a variety of sources—this is the Nautilus, so having your hull crushed by whales isn’t out of the question—but a primary one is failing to evade a warship’s guns.
Even though Nemo’s War‘s setting is ultimately fictional, the game’s design still demonstrates the historical thoroughness typical of wargaming—a mass of research into Nemo’s historical moment. The rules are framed by several educational insets explaining the state of the naval art in 1870. Every ship token in the game represents a different vessel that Nemo might actually have encountered in his submarine world tour—or actually did encounter in the book, like the Scotia or the Abraham Lincoln. There are some fantastical elements thrown in there for fun—the Mary Celeste, a genuine sea serpent and child, the whaler Pequod, and the airship La France—but the other ships represent real powers and real technology: American steam cruisers like the Idaho, Confederate raiders like the Shenandoah, British ironsides like the Prince Albert, Russian battleships like the Kniaz Pozharsky, as well as passenger ships, mail carriers, slavers, pirates, whalers, rams, frigates, and capital ships.
It’s this blend of historical and fantastical details that gives Nemo’s War its charm. In between the ramping tension of hunter versus hunted on the tactical map, Chris Taylor has managed to squeeze every memorable moment from the novel into the deck of adventure cards. Vanikoro, the Coral Realm, Ned Land’s Tempers, the Arabian Tunnel, Vigo Bay, and a Pearl Worth Ten Million are all in the offing, including paragraphs of prose straight from Verne’s pen and some lovely woodcut-style illustrations. If you get too abstracted from the naval combat, the adventure cards eloquently remind you that you are the captain of a technologically impossible vessel witnessing wonders that no terrestrial eye has encountered.
And there’s so much more to do and see in the wide oceans than sink ships. You can search the seabed, which might contain treasures or wonders, be they natural landmarks like the Mariana Trench or the Great Barrier Reef or sunken cities like Alexandria, Dwarka, or the pyramids of Yonaguni. You can seek adventure by drawing one of the adventure cards that were removed from the deck at the game’s start. You can incite rebellion on the land, drawing some heat away from the Nautilus and decreasing on the notoriety track. Or you can salvage parts from ships you’ve scuttled to make improvements to the Nautilus, like adding steam torpedos, a fog machine, or magnetic mines.
The adventure deck is broken up by Act cards that signal crescendos in the action and concluded by a randomly selected Finale, like the Maelstrom or a Return to Mysterious Island, which offers some closure to the journey, and there’s an epilogue depending on your motive (more on that later) and how well you scored. Nemo’s War is just as much a narrative adventure as it is a historical simulation.
This isn’t the first time wargaming and narrative have mingled their currents, and it’s not the first time it’s turned out awesomely. Working for wargame publisher Avalon Hill in 1979, Richard Hamblen designed Magic Realm, which brought a wargame’s fondness for simulation to fantasy setting with wizards and wyverns. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson also emerged from the wargaming milieu to design Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop roleplaying game.
Nemo’s War effectively demonstrates how wargaming’s statistics-inspired toolkit of event tables and die-roll modifiers (DRMs) can support a narrative structure and vice versa. The three-act structure gives the game a reliable increase in tension—there’s even a “Rising Action” card hiding somewhere in the third act. The moments work well as self-enclosed scenes: Ned Land threatens to escape! A shark attacks the captain, jaws wide open! Nemo discovers the location of the sunken Chinese treasure fleet! But the details of the simulation—that negative DRM because there’s a warship in your ocean, the chance to risk your crew or the integrity of your hull to help you out of a jam—keep everything tied together so that the narrative doesn’t feel jumbled or piecemeal. These moments of adventure are happening now, in the midst of the larger, emergent story, and the mechanical interplay of action points, lookup tables, placement rolls, and your position on various tracks are constantly there to remind you.
While Captain Nemo’s motto is “Everything Through Electricity,” Nemo’s War‘s motto might as well be “Everything Through Dice.” Hexahedral random number generators are omnipresent in the game in a way that normally turns me off, but Nemo’s War makes it work at least as well as those self-charging sodium batteries aboard the Nautilus.
Here’s a typical round: I start by drawing the top adventure card from the draw deck. It’s “Accident or Incident?” which tells me I have to make a test: achieve a roll of 9 or better on two dice to pass the adventure, or fail it and take the consequences. After dealing with that, I check how many dice I have to roll for ship placement. I’m in Act Two, so it’s three: two white and one black. I place a ship (either hidden or revealed, as appropriate) in each ocean matching a number rolled. I then figure out how many action points I get this turn by subtracting the smaller value on the white dice from the larger one; this is called a “differential roll.” Let’s say I rolled a 6 and a 3, so I have three actions for this turn. First, I attempt a search action, hoping for a draw from the treasure cup; this is another 2d6 test, with various results based on the lookup table printed on the board. Next, I try to repair some of my hull—another test. Finally, I decide to shoot down a warship in my ocean, which is actually two tests: one to avoid its broadsides, the other to ram the ship’s keel with the Nautilus’ pointed prow.
Normally, nothing sinks my enjoyment of a game like over-reliance on dice, particularly when I spend one of my precious actions attempting something innocuous like giving my crew some R&R and have a die roll turn it into a dud or even a backfire. But there’s more to these rolls than meets the eye. For each one of them, I could have exerted one of my ship’s resources—Nemo, crew, or hull—for a positive die-roll modifier. When your crew is fresh and your hull is ship shape, these modifiers are significant, especially when the minimum threshold for most rolls is only a 7. This turns failed rolls into the exception, not the rule—but when things do go wrong, they go disastrously wrong, as you must now lose some of the exerted resource in addition to suffering the loss of whatever test you were attempting. For example, if I exerted hull for a +2 DRM to help with “Accident or Incident?” and wound up rolling a three, I’d have to suffer hull loss for the card and for the exerted resource.
There are a hundred other little ways to modify your rolls. If I passed “Accident or Incident?” for example, I could keep the card and spend it later for a +2 DRM, even after I’ve seen the result of my roll. Characters like Ned Land, Arronax, Conseil, and some of Nemo’s crew behave similarly: they can be sacrificed as a sort of clutch resource to reroll an abysmal roll or nudge an almost-there result over the edge. And then there are the other ways to manipulate the odds: in that search roll, I could get a +1 if I’ve installed Nemo’s Arcane Library aboard the Nautilus. When repairing my hull, I could spend the treasure I’d found in my search for another positive DRM. I’d get +1 versus the warship’s attack if I had Reinforced Armor, and I’d get +1 to my own attack if I had installed Strengthened Prow or if I was performing a stalk attack from below the waves. Of course, it works both ways: that warship in my ocean would give me a -1 DRM to all my other rolls, and every ship in my ocean gives me a negative DRM to search or incite actions, which are best carried out in subterfuge. The key to all this luck mitigation is that your actual probability of success isn’t the familiar, gentle bell curve of a 2d6 roll; it’s a choppy series of ever-shifting breakers with shapes reflecting and amplifying a bedrock of strategic choices about where and when to devote your resources.
At the same time, it always is a 2d6 roll. Nemo’s War keeps things simple by using a consistent metric to apply gradients of success to every test (except those found on adventures or ship combat, which give you a specific number to beat instead). These are more than just pass or fail. A roll of 7-8, for example, results in a qualified success: I find the treasure, but my presence is “suspected,” raising my notoriety; or my attempt to refit the Nautilus is “expensive,” forcing me to discard a treasure. A roll of 12 or better is a triumph: the normal outcome of the action is doubled, or my engineering brilliance lets me install a Nautilus upgrade at reduced cost. Failed rolls in the range of 3-6 either have no impact (aside from the loss of exerted resources) or carry a slight penalty, while any roll of snake-eyes is disastrous, regardless of the modifiers in play, resulting in calamity, desertion, damage, frustration, or resentment.
The only time the dice feel truly arbitrary is when determining your available action points for the turn—there’s some statistical voodoo going on there, but the point is that it feels capricious in a game where little else does. A turn with five actions will be much more lucrative than a turn with one or none, and when you experience several of those outliers in the same game, it can have a profound impact on your final result. This is also, notably, the only point at which the game’s mechanics feel totally abstracted from the narrative. Everything else—risking the crew in a deep-sea dive, offering some of Nemo’s aquatic wealth to incite rebellion in South African diamond mines or Kamehameha’s Hawaii, or sacrificing the chief engineer to squeeze a few extra actions out of your turn—feels thematically appropriate to Captain Nemo’s character: brilliant but ruthless, driven but unknowable, “this dreadful executioner, this true archangel of hate.”
Because, ultimately, should we detest or admire this man? Is he the persecutor or the persecuted?
There’s an inherent drama to the risks Nemo’s War forces you to take. And you will take them, because exerting your crew for a +3 DRM to a roll that requires only 7 or more is too good to pass up, because it’s almost impossible not to succeed with those odds. (My back-of-the-envelope calculation puts the probability of failure at only 8.3%.) So you’ll push the crew or the hull as a matter of course. You’ll feel invulnerable. And then, when you do fail, you’ll throw good men after bad, sacrificing Conseil, Ned Land or the First Officer in sheer disbelief at the audacity of the dice. Soon, your crew is spent, the Nautilus is listing, her captain is unstable, and your only confidants are dead. And the burden for all of it rests on your shoulders; you can shout down your fate, blame your strange, sublime destiny, rail against your oppressors, but ultimately, your hands never left the rudder. Your choices led to this conclusion.
But the drama isn’t solely narrative. The mechanics support it, also. Losing ship resources is always bad: not only does it bring you closer to defeat, but as your resources are worn away, exerting them provides less of an advantage. (The exception to this rule is Nemo, who in a Melvillean way becomes more powerful as he grows increasingly unhinged—but unlike hull and crew, there’s no reliable way to recover this resource.)
But each of these losses also represents a hit to your score. If you survive to the surprise finale without triggering any of the loss conditions, you get to appraise your adventure in a ridiculously thorough scoring system. There are ten discrete scoring categories rewarding you for warships and non-warships sunk, adventures passed, treasure collected, oppressed peoples liberated, science discovered, wonders witnessed, characters and crew preserved, columns filled on the tonnage track (the “scouring the seas” bonus)—and resources overexerted, which actually gives you a victory point penalty. Each of these values is then augmented by your chosen motive (more on that later), and the final tally qualifies your victory, with five levels of success: defeat, failure, inconsequential, success, or triumph. Your level of victory combined with your motive (more on that later) sends you to a page in the Epilogue book, where you find out how things turned out for Prince Dakkar.
This might seem overly complex, and scoring can indeed be arduous, but the result is necessary to make the tremendous luck factor feel acceptable. Because there’s a goal beyond survival, the experience is tuned so that a single failed roll is never a death sentence; rather, it represents a missed opportunity. In this way, the oceans plowed by the Nautilus feel like an enormous, watery sandbox.
We now arrive at the long-deferred later, because Nemo’s War‘s scoring system is inseparable from the ingenious motive mechanism. At the start of the game, the player chooses a motivation for Nemo, be it science, exploration, anti-imperialism or all-out war. This, in turn, determines the value of each scoring category, shifting numbers up or down for things that have an inherent value, like ships and treasure, and setting multipliers for things that don’t, like science, wonders, and liberation. The motive also affects setup so that a pacifist motive will “ramp up” more slowly than an aggressive one, and it determines how far you can proceed on the notoriety track, as described above.
Chris Taylor has done an admirable job of balancing the game’s various actions so that each one remains relevant, regardless of Nemo’s motive, but your reasons for performing them vary in accordance with the captain’s goals. With the war motive, you live to fight; with science, you fight to live. Similarly, you will trawl the ocean’s floor for treasure in the explore motive because treasure and wonders are inherently more valuable under that objective, but in anti-imperialism, which devalues material wealth, you might still gather treasure simply to spend it to augment future rolls. With the science motive, you’ll equip upgrades to the Nautilus and embark on auxiliary adventures because that’s where the points lie, whereas the war motive might see you picking up a strengthened prow or steam torpedos for their martial benefit alone. When playing anti-imperialism, liberation is its own reward, but you’ll still incite rebellions in science and explore just to keep your notoriety in check. In short, you’ll play the same game regardless of motive, but the goal you choose will rearrange the actions along a spectrum from a means to an end to an end of itself. And if things really go south, you can change your motive at the start of Act Three.
Despite its facelift, Nemo’s War remains the quintessential entry in Victory Point Games’ catalog. The publisher has two halves, one producing historically edifying, introductory-level wargames, particularly serving the super-niche audience of solitaire wargamers; the other focusing on more mainstream, Euro-inspired titles in fantastical settings like Darkest Night, Reiner Knizia’s Planet Rush, and their newest project, the cyberpunk Renegade. Nemo’s War is the glue that binds these two halves together. It appears complex but plays intuitively, a feature I’ve come to associate with VPG’s catalog, and it combines the best of both worlds for an unforgettable journey, “the faithful record of [an] inconceivable expedition into an element now beyond human reach, but where progress will someday make great inroads.”
Watch my video playthrough series for a full taste of what it’s like to play Nemo’s War.