Nemesis is a game about stories. Not the kind where you read three paragraphs of text that’s disjointed from the rest of the game. It’s the kind where you clearly remember individual game sessions because of the series of events that took place in them. You’re going to remember when Bill earned your trust only to airlock you, or when Kelly got really lucky and landed a killing blow on the alien queen with only her fists.
You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube Channel.
You remember the victories, the close calls, the betrayals, and the utter failures. The stories that Nemesis generates belong to you and your group, and I firmly believe those are the best kind that a board game can offer.
Nemesis is a semi-cooperative survival game for 1 to 5 players. You take the role of crew members aboard the Nemesis starship, freshly awoken from cryosleep. There’s just one problem. Someone else woke up first, and they lie dead at your feet with a gaping hole in their chest. Almost like something else burst out.
Nemesis is unique in that each member of the crew is extremely vulnerable. The aliens are dangerous, and death can come quickly. Working together ensures the best possible chance of survival but every single crew member has their own secret objective. Some of them may require the death of another crew member, the ship to reach Mars or another goal that could conflict with the rest of the crew.
But even a traitor needs to help the team, as a lone wolf will swiftly be devoured long before they have any chance of completing their goal. The crew must balance the scales of trust and distrust, which leads to a game that plays differently every single time.
|Gideon’s Bias||Nemesis Information|
|Review Copy Used: No||Publisher: Awaken Realms|
|Number of plays: 30+||Designer: Adam Kwapiński|
|Player Counts Played: All||Player Count: 1-5|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Hand Management, Adventure, Survival|
|Fan of Weight: Yes||Weight: Heavy|
|Gaming Groups’ Thoughts: Loved It||Price: $150|
Nemesis is an expensive game, a large portion of which is sunk on the very detailed miniatures. Both the crew and alien intruder minis are very well made and look fantastic. However, I do feel that the game suffers in order to include them. As do most games that put their deluxe nature upfront as a selling point. But I’ll get to that later. Regardless, it’s hard not to admire just how cool the minis are, especially the massive queen.
Nemesis has a fantastic overall table presence with its epic double-sided board to represent the ship. The massive intruder minis, and the various unique tokens it uses to represent malfunctions, noise, and fire.
The card art leaves much to be desired, however. Much of it is just too dark and difficult to understand what is being portrayed. I understand that Nemesis heavily imitates the horror genre. But scenes too dark to see what’s going on is one trope it could have left behind.
Each of the six characters has a sturdy character board and its own set of cards. The inventory shelves are nifty and not just for looks. They help you conceal your item cards from the other players. I do enjoy the brightly colored backs of the item cards too. They are a neat contrast to the dark palette of the rest of the game. They really stand out as an attractive objects for players, which is accurate, items are super important in Nemesis.
The various tokens, tiles, and custom dice look nice, but one other piece that stands out is the infection scanner which also serves a very cool gameplay purpose where you scan contamination cards to see if you’ve been infected.
Nemesis definitely looks every bit as grand as the price point suggests.
Every character is given two secret objectives, and the first time an alien appears they must choose one to keep and one to discard. The objectives range from finishing the game with a certain number of items, to Player 2 specifically not being allowed to survive. The social dynamic of trust and distrust can come into play even if everyone’s objective is fairly innocent. For example, what if one player needs the ship to reach Earth, while another needs it to reach Mars?
Managing that trust is the true challenge of the game because it’s not just each other you need to worry about. The ship can explode if it becomes too broken or if fires spread too far, and the intruders are exceptionally dangerous. You can evade or even take down intruders, but even a single attack could leave you infected. In addition, The players have implants that prevent them from directly attacking one another. So any betrayal must be planned out in other ways.
The rooms of the ship are randomized and different rooms can be vitally important to the crew’s survival. The Armory allows you to recharge your energy weapons for example, while the engine control room can let a player check the status of the engines remotely, which can be handy regardless of one’s objective. As they must also survive for it to count as a win.
The ship’s hyperdrive is on track to activate, and any crew member that hasn’t escaped via an escape pod or reentered hibernation gets vaporized. The catch is, that the hibernation chamber doesn’t unlock for several rounds. To make matters worse. The escape pods remain locked unless someone can find a key, you’re lucky enough to have a Hatch somewhere on the ship, the self-destruction sequence has been activated for a few rounds. Or, well, someone dies.
The self-destruct sequence can only be activated by someone intentionally doing so in the generator room, or by a random event. If the ship self-destructs, anyone attempting to hibernate dies. At the same time, any player who wishes to hibernate needs to ensure at least two of the engines are functioning and that the ship’s coordinates are set to earth. The narrow means of survival and how they are obtained automatically sets a degree of friction among the crew and leaves you with plenty to think about.
What I Like About Nemesis
The horror tag on board games has always felt strange to me. I don’t watch horror movies or play horror video games because it dials my anxiety to 11. However, I can’t imagine even feeling remotely fearful of a board game. Grossed out maybe, if it’s gratuitous but never fearful.
Nemesis is not a scary board game, but it captures the closest thing that I think the medium is capable of doing, and that’s tension. The game is full of nail-biting moments, both due to the aliens and the other players.
Your breath can catch in your throat when you realize that the teammate you have been helping is now in the perfect position to airlock you. Every single noise roll is intense, and every event card pulled can make you sweat.
Whenever a player moves into a room that doesn’t have an alien or another player. They make a noise roll and place noise in the matching corridor. If noise would ever be placed in the same corridor, an encounter happens, and the player draws from the intruder bag.
They could pull a blank which would spread noise, but no alien or they could pull a larva, adult, or even the queen which immediately shows up in the same room as them.
Managing noise is a big part of the game and also leans further into the fact that you have to work together by necessity, moving into a room with another player, doesn’t generate noise.
The event cards dictate how intruders move around the ship, as well as what unexpected thing occurs. Maybe fire spreads, or that escape pod you were about to enter suddenly ejects.
Then there’s the trepidation you feel upon successfully escaping or hibernating when you still have contamination cards in your deck. That moment of disdain or relief you feel upon scanning them, one by one to see if you’re infected is unlike anything else I’ve seen in a board game.
The tense atmosphere permeates the whole game and really puts you in the shoes of someone trying to survive in an alien movie.
The Card Management
Every player starts with 10 cards, and they draw 5 per turn. Each character has cards unique to them and cards that all characters possess, such as search and interrupt. Cards dictate everything you do in Nemesis. You have to discard 1 to move. Items and room actions have a card cost, and so do the actual cards in your hand. Each player takes two actions per turn.
Simply dumping your hand isn’t always the best idea, intruders land surprise attacks based on how many cards you have left. A Larva only gets a surprise attack if your hand is empty, but it’s an automatic infection. Ending the round with an empty hand is always risky for that reason.
There is a wide degree of strategy in how you manage your hand because you always have a variety of things you can do. You have to decide between moving, searching for items, patching wounds, and taking room actions while also considering that there may be cards you need for next turn, or to protect yourself from a surprise larva attack.
Every character has interrupt cards that can prevent another player from doing something in the same room as you, and that can be handy at the right times. Like to stop someone from jumping in an escape pod before you, for example. You also have to be careful as any contamination cards that find their way into your deck cant be used for anything.
You always have the weigh your own survival with how you’re presenting yourself to the team, the ship’s condition, and your objective. It makes every turn important, and every decision meaningful. There is no autopiloting in Nemesis, and that makes the game very replayable.
The Elaborate Relationship Between Players
The interesting thing about the traitor mechanic in Nemesis is that the traitor is rarely a traitor to the whole crew. If a player has to ensure that player 3 doesn’t survive, it doesn’t mean they are against anyone else. In fact, it benefits them not to be. This means that while Nemesis is certainly an adversarial game, it’s not overly hostile where one player has to betray the entire table.
At the same time, it’s rare for an objective to require anyone else to survive either. There’s nothing stopping anyone from bailing on you because your survival doesn’t affect their objective. However, they very much need you until that point. Every character class is different with its own strengths and weaknesses and they synergize when working together.
Being on the Soldier’s good side can pay off in spades when the aliens start showing up. The Scientist’s ability to use computers from anywhere on the ship can be a massive boon to the crew’s survival, and if the ship falls apart, having a Mechanic around could be a lifesaver.
You need each other one way or another, and trying to decipher where any of the players stand makes games diplomacy deep, without specifically having mechanics dictating it. It’s organic, you’re not only trying to gain insight into their actual objective but how they are going to play out their role. Will they escape with you together, or leave you to die?
Will they sacrifice an action to close a door in the alien’s face, or not bother because it’s not going to affect them? Do you think they will come to save you when you are attacked or not?
The question will always be, to what degree will each player be selfish, or selfless? And if you’re playing the game right, that answer will change each game. When it does, It’s brilliant.
The Emergent Narrative
I don’t remember any predetermined narrative in board games. In fact, a game that claims to be narrative-driven will turn me off from it. What I do remember is that time my friend helped me get to the Surgery room and then stole the last drop pod from me while I was recovering.
I remember when the doors suddenly slam behind someone at the worst times. When someone pulls the queen on the very first turn or when the fire gets out of control and we all blow up.
I remember one player who died early on, after changing the ship’s coordinates, and none of us second-guessed what she did. We played to the end, managed to hibernate, and then learned that the little sneak set the coordinates to Mars, so we died anyway.
Every time we sit down to play Nemesis, we talk about the memories of our past games. They are our stories, and the emergent nature of the game means we generate new ones every time we play. Not many board games do that.
We love Terraforming Mars, Dune Imperium, Spirit Island, and more, but it’s rare that any of us can recall specific moments in those games to bring up and laugh about. With Nemesis, there seems to be a never-ending supply.
One of the ongoing tropes in our group is the fact that I rarely survive. I’ve become the red shirt of our games, and it’s a running joke. Nemesis doesn’t generate narrative in the traditional sense, but it does generate stories to tell through emergent sequences of events. Like the time a single alien chased me all the way across the ship because the dice were simply not on my side.
The fact that it’s all generated purely through game mechanics is truly remarkable.
What I Don’t Like About Nemesis
The Relative Lack of Content
There is a relative lack of content in Nemesis, and I’m using the term relative because I don’t want to give the impression that the game isn’t content-heavy. It absolutely is, there are hours and hours of fun in the game. However, this is where my gripe about the miniatures comes in.
The miniatures are gorgeous, but they add nothing to the gameplay. Replace them with standees, and the game would play exactly the same. The issue is, I feel that there are gaps that need to be filled in Nemesis, and maybe they would have been if so much of the cost wasn’t sunk into the miniatures.
The biggest example I can point to is the objective cards. There are only 18 Objectives. 9 Personal and 9 Corporate. There comes a point fairly quickly where you can accurately guess the objective many of the players have based on one or two things they might do early on.
Once you’re able to guess the objective, it kills the game’s tension and a good chunk of the dynamic diplomacy. The moment you know you can trust someone within reason, part of the experience dies. It would be no different than a player just showing you their objective card.
Objectives are the biggest example, but it feels like a bit of everything could use a bit more variety, from items to rooms. Being the avid homebrewer that I am. I solved this problem for myself and my group. I’ve made more custom content for Nemesis than most other games on my shelf, and maybe I’ll share it sometime.
The thing is, when a game costs $150 dollars, I shouldn’t feel the need to make anything. Without the addition of new objectives that I created, we may have already grown tired of the game.
The gameplay should always come before the dressing. In the case of Nemesis, I don’t think it did. I like the miniatures, but would I trade them for standees and expanded gameplay content? Absolutely
The Fear of Missing Out
Nemesis is a game that fuels serious FOMO, which is unhealthy for the board gaming community as a whole. Popular games usually go to retail, and new print runs are made on an as-needed basis. Nemesis and its expansions don’t work that way.
Its reprints are funded through Kickstarter. In the most recent case, alongside Lockdown. Why am I talking about this in my review? Well, because I didn’t know that acquiring any of the expansions for the game would be extremely difficult unless I pay a premium to get them second hand.
Board Games go in and out of print, but when a game is handled like Nemesis, it becomes scarce quicker and remains that way for longer despite its popularity.
I have no idea if any other method would be viable for Awaken Realms. That’s not my lane. But I don’t like the continual push for overproduced limited edition games that you have to drop loads of money on immediately, or risk never seeing again. It’s not healthy, or sustainable.
The Alternate Modes
Nemesis comes with a couple of variants you can use. One is a solo or co-op mode where you ditch the standard objectives for purely cooperative ones. It can be a nice diversion, but largely removes the soul of what makes Nemesis great.
The intruder deck, however, is messy. One of the issues that Nemesis can run into is that a player can die and be eliminated from the game hours before it’s over. In an attempt to mitigate this, there is an optional deck of cards that a player can use to control the intruders if they are the first to die.
It’s meant to be a band-aid, but it’s largely like trying to heal a blister by setting it on fire. It’s incredibly unbalanced and will result in the remaining human players rapidly dying and having no fun while they do it. You can just opt not to use it, but it can be hard to deny it to someone who dies in the first couple of turns. Yet, you have to if you want anyone at the table to actually enjoy the game.
A more elegant solution to the problem was needed. Luckily in our 30+ games, someone has only died that early a couple of times. Nemesis is actually a fairly entertaining game to watch, so it hasn’t bothered me or my group, but your mileage may vary.
A Few Janky Rules
Nemesis is a very thematic game that captures the feel of the Alien movies quite well, without actually being about the Alien movies. To that end. Most of the game’s mechanisms make sense in the context of the game world. But that also makes the ones that don’t, stick out like a sore thumb.
When you drop an item, for example, it’s gone forever. And you can’t throw someone an energy pack to reload their gun during combat. It’s weird.
You don’t roll noise if you move into the same room as another player, but if noise has to be rolled at the end of the round. Both players still roll it. By that same token, if you want to get into the same escape pod as another player, you have to make a separate noise roll. That one is particularly bad, because there’s already no benefit for a player to wait on you outside of the goodness of their heart. With that rule, it’s straight-up foolish to even bother.
Some other rules just feel wrong. For example, if you escape from an intruder, you still make a noise roll into the next room. This means you can get locked into a domino effect of getting attacked, escaping, getting attacked again, etc.
A few things I’ve house-ruled, and a few we just endure as it could harm the balance to screw with it too much. But I just get a really janky and disjointed feeling from some of it. I often disagree with some design decisions in games, but it’s rare for a rule to just feel wrong in the way that some of them in Nemesis feel.
What I’m Mixed on with Nemesis
Every group develops a kind of meta when it comes to board gaming, and it’s always beneficial to intentionally break that meta. In Nemesis, it’s not just recommended but required in order to continue enjoying it with the same group of people. This issue is largely a player problem, not a Nemesis problem, but it’s important to address for review purposes.
The first example is, that the game has no codified rules for a silver trophy. What I mean is, if you fail your objective, but are still alive. There’s no distinction between that dying, you still lose. This means a certain type of player can throw the game. They can take on a mindset of “If I can’t win, no one does” and sabotage the crew anyway regardless of what objective they had.
Going scorched earth like that can ruin the game. Since we play role-playing games such as Pathfinder, we kind of fell into the role of our characters. If we can’t win, surviving is the next best thing. I feel like the game works best with that mindset.
Secondly, because of the importance of the social aspect, you have to intentionally realign your playstyle over time. For example, someone I play with got into the habit of almost never taking a hostile objective, but screwing me at the end anyway in different ways. Yes, it was funny, but only for the first three times…
Because he continued to do it, I had the meta knowledge of exactly what he was going to do. This meant I stopped working with him regardless of what characters we were playing or what our objectives were.
Why would I? He was going to betray me anyway. I had to point this out to him because there’s no way for me to reasonably choose to ignore that meta-knowledge. And it would lead to the game growing less enjoyable for us both. Humans are creatures of habit, Nemesis is not going to work with every group, as it takes deliberate effort to keep your social playstyle fresh. But it’s worth doing so.
Nemesis has a fair share of problems that I would rather it didn’t have considering the steep price tag. However, in spite of those issues, the fun I’ve had and the memories I’ve made make it worth it. Sure, I create content to fill those holes but to some degree that speaks to the merit of the game. I like it enough that I want to continue playing it, even if it means I’m spending precious time adding on to it.
It’s a unique game and provides a novel experience. Its traitor mechanic is fluid in that it presents an incredible amount of social-focused depth without constraining its diplomacy inside a box of rigid rules. Nemesis is a game that’s just as fun to lose as it is to win because you’re almost always going to have an entertaining story to tell afterward.
The way it manages to strike home so many aspects of the board game medium is incredible. It’s thematic, mechanically interesting, and plays off the social aspect very well. It’s not a game you dump on strangers, but one you play with people you know. That makes the memories it generates that much more meaningful, even in spite of its flaws.
If you happen to be interested in some of my custom content, well, stay tuned!
More reviews you might enjoy
- Dynamic and fluid diplomacy is that’s completely emergent
- It captures its atmospheric tension quite well
- Each crew member has strengths and weakness
- Great looking components and table presence
- High replay value
- The infection scanner mechanism is really cool
- The emergent stories that it generates solely by playing make for great memories
- The hand management is excellent
- It could use more variety in some aspects, notably the objective cards
- Co-op is soulless and the intruder deck variant is horribly imbalanced
- Its marketing rides the FOMO train, it may be hard to find a copy for a reasonable price
- Some of the rules feel janky and wrong
- Enjoyment is going to be group reliant requiring level headed and open minds
- A player can be eliminated hours before the game is over