Review: Nexus Ops
Designer: Charlie Catino
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Category: Area Control, Unit-to-Unit Combat
Price: $69.99 Amazon.com
Nexus Ops contains no major objectionable content. The only potential issue is the titles of a few secret mission cards like “Roast ‘Em Alive,” “Death from Above,” and “Human Slayer.” These are concerning in name only.
When I was growing up, I played a lot of Starcraft. It was one of my favorite computer games, and I had a blast getting lost in its sci-fi world. Nexus Ops took everything I loved about Starcraft and put it into a board game.
Nexus Ops (Charlie Catino, 2005) is a two to four player game which plays in an hour to an hour and a half. Players are vying for control of a mineral-rich alien moon, embattled in a tooth-and-nail fight for survival. Controlling giant alien creatures, they must strategize to complete secret missions, control territory, and outwit their opponents in a race to twelve points.
The game is played out on a hex grid. Each hex tile is a certain land type—Rock Plains, Crystal Spires, Liquifungus Forests, etc. At the start of the game, each space receives a face-down exploration token with some special reward for the person who discovers it. Players have three “home” hexes from which they begin the game. The first player receives eight Rubium (money), with each successive player receiving three more than the previous player. There is an advantage to going earlier in the turn order, and this acts to balance that out.
Nexus Ops is pretty straightforward. On a player’s turn, he may buy new units, move units, battle opponents, and collect Rubium. All players have six different units they can choose from. From weakest to strongest, the units are:
- Rock Striders
- Lava Leapers
- Rubium Dragons
Let me pause here to say that the pieces in both editions are fantastic. Like, really fantastic. The awesome sculpts of these units give Nexus Ops an awesome toy factor.
As the units get better, they cost more to make. Humans cost a measly two Rubium, while Rubium Dragons cost twelve. To explain why some units are stronger than others, I should first discuss how combat works.
When opposing units encounter each other, a battle happens. The battle system has a sort of “initiative order,” where the units attack from strongest to weakest. Let me illustrate.
On Player A’s turn, he moves a Lava Leaper and two Humans into Player B’s space. Player B has two Crystallines and a Human already stationed there. Since opposing units are in the same space, a battle happens. Looking at the units involved, Player A’s Lava Leaper is the strongest unit (see unit list above). He attacks first by rolling one die, because there only one of him. Once his attack is complete, the next strongest units are Player B’s Crystallines. Since there are two of them, Player B rolls two dice. Once this attack is resolved, the next strongest units are the Humans. Since both players have them, they each roll for them simultaneously. However, Player A rolls two dice since he has two Humans, and Player B only rolls one.
The die result determines whether or not a unit’s attack succeeds. In addition to attacking earlier in battle, stronger units have a better chance of hitting their opponent. Rubium Dragons, for example, hit on a roll of two or more, which is way better than the Humans, who only hit on a six. Considering that they attack earlier and have better odds of hitting, you can see why the stronger, more expensive units are desirable.
If a player rolls a hit, their opponent selects one of their units in battle to be removed. This creates a very interesting decision. In my above example, let’s say that one of Player B’s Crystallines rolled a hit (five or six). Player A now has to remove a unit from battle. He could choose to remove his Rubium Dragon, since it has already done its attack by this point, but this would mean losing a very powerful, expensive unit. Instead, he could lose a Human (probably the better option), but this means that he’ll only have one Human left when it comes time for them to attack, instead of two.
Combat only lasts one round. If the attacking player manages to knock off all enemy units, he receives a “Battle Victory” card, worth one victory point (again, the ultimate goal of the game is to get twelve points). If he does not eliminate all enemy units, then all units involved remain there, and the space is “contested.” This means no one gets the benefits of having that space. If appropriate, the attacker may play secret mission cards he has completed for extra points. For example, he might fulfill the secret mission “Win a battle with at least one Human surviving on your side,” if applicable.
At the end of a player’s turn, he receives Rubium from “mine” spaces they control, and he gets a secret mission card.
That’s pretty much it, although there are a few other facets of the game I’d like to touch on.
Firstly, most creatures have some sort of special power or ability. The Rock Striders, for example, get extra movement when moving to or through a rock plains space, and the Rubium Dragons have a “Plasma Breath” ability that can attack an adjacent enemy unit before the Battle phase begins. These abilities make the game more tactical, add to the thematic integration, and they prevent it from feeling “same-y.” Instead of each unit just being a generic monster, they each have a bit of personality.
Secondly, the center space of the board is known as the Monolith. This is a special space that rewards the player who controls it. A player who owns the Monolith gets to draw special cards at the end of his turn that will help him down the road. It creates a sort of “King of the Hill” challenge, as all players wrestle for control of it. While I don’t believe it was absolutely necessary to the design of the game, it certainly enhances the experience, and the game would be the lesser without it.
I’m astounded that Nexus Ops‘ battle system hasn’t been used in more games. It’s one of the cleanest combat systems I’ve ever seen. Simple, streamlined, and intuitive. At twelve years old, I fear Nexus Ops is getting overshadowed amidst the current industry boom. The gaming hobby became huge in the last decade or so, meaning many folks missed Nexus Ops altogether. Fantasy Flight Games re-released it a few years ago, but it seemed unceremonious. I don’t believe it sold well, and I have seen no indication of a second print run. It’s too bad, really, although if you decide to track down a copy (which you totally should), you can get it fairly inexpensively.
On that note, there are two editions of the game: the original, from Avalon Hill (Hasbro), and the Fantasy Flight Games second edition. Both are good, but I prefer the AH version, personally. I like the retro, 1950’s-style art, the 3D Monolith, and the amazing, translucent pieces that glow under a black light. The FFG version is easier to find today, though. It also contains great art, nice pieces, and, most notably, two different sets of creature abilities to choose from. The figure sculpts in this version are much more dynamic, though they don’t glow anymore. Honestly, either one is fine to own.
Although this game encourages combat and interaction, players can do just as well being pacifists. Lots of secret missions can be accomplished with little to no combat. For example, players can receive points from cards like “Dominate the Plains,” where they must simply control more rock spaces than anyone else. Sure, you can be aggressive and attack opponents at every turn, but you don’t necessarily need to.
It’s interesting, too, to see the different ways players will strategize. Some players will go straight for the strongest creatures, in hopes of controlling the Monolith early and reaping its rewards. Some will go the “Zerg-rush” route, building as many little guys as they can in hopes of overwhelming their opponents with numbers. However you play, you must be able to adapt your strategy to what other players are doing. Nexus Ops leaves all kinds of room for alliances, so there is a nice bit of metagame involved, too.
Nexus Ops is an amazing gaming experience. For a game with so much dice rolling, there are a surprising amount of decisions to be made. It is one of the most tactical, mano-a-mano games I’ve played. If you’re a fan of Risk-style area control games, I highly suggest checking this out. I give it my utmost recommendation.
At the beginning of this review, I compared Nexus Ops to Starcraft. I’d like to briefly revisit this point. I used to own both Nexus Ops and Starcraft: The Board Game (yes, that’s a thing), and I’ll briefly share my thoughts comparing the two. Starcraft does a surprisingly good job recreating the video game on a tabletop, but, in a weird way, it almost seemed like TOO good a translation, to the detriment of the overall fun. It tries to recreate every single aspect of the video game, and, in doing so, it becomes overly complicated. I’ll admit, it is an incredible approximation of the source material, but playing it just made me want to play the Starcraft video game instead. I feel that Nexus Ops captures all the flavor of Starcraft, but keeps it fast-moving and streamlined. Where Starcraft gets bogged down with too many mechanics systems at play, Nexus Ops is smooth and clean. I much prefer it to Starcraft: The Board Game.
The Bottom Line
Nexus Ops is a top-ten game for me. It is exceptionally fun, fast-moving, and it looks amazing on the table. Highly recommended.