I’ve got to be honest – I didn’t think I’d enjoy Nessos at all. Though it bills itself as Greek Deduction & Bluff right there on the box, the theme is next to irrelevant to the gameplay and in truth, given how it feels quite pasted on, could just as easily be Norse, Samurai or Cyberpunk themed without it making any difference. My taste in games leans heavily towards designs which are heavily intertwined with their themes – which is one of the reasons I’ve been so enamoured with games such as Horrified, Star Wars: Outer Rim and Back to the Future: Dice Through Time in recent months.
Yet there’s a brilliant simplicity at the heart of Nessos that – coupled with the psychological thrill of pulling off your own bluff or beating that of another player – is highly addictive. Yes, the theme may well be simply pasted on as almost an afterthought, but the gameplay here shines very brightly indeed.
The game sees players competing to collect creatures while trying to avoid being sent to the Underworld; each player has a hand of five cards and on each turn, the player with the first player marker takes one of their cards and offers it face down to another player. In doing so, they need to be honest about the number on the card if it’s a creature (which are numbered from 1-10), but must lie about the number if it’s an unnumbered Charon card.
The player being offered the card can accept (without looking at the card being offered), refuse it (so it goes back to the offering player) or add another card to the offering and try to pass those two to another player. The third player has the same options: take, refuse or add a third card. If there are three cards being offered, no more can be added – so the fourth player can either take or refuse the pile.
Once either one, two or three cards have been accepted or refused (going back to whoever offered them), they’re revealed and kept face up in front of the player they went to. Numbered creatures are added to the owning player’s score (with a set total needed to win, depending on the number of players – and in a further twist, a set of 1-2-3 scores 10 points). Charon cards are also kept; collect three of those and you’re eliminated – it’s straight to the underworld without any supper for you. The game end is triggered under the following conditions: a player meets the score target, there’s only one player left following the others being eliminated or there are a certain number of face up Charon cards in play (at which point the remaining player with the highest score wins).
Barring one or two other minor rules wrinkles, that’s the entire game in a nutshell. It’s difficult to get across just how compelling that simple mechanic of bluffing, counter-bluffing and deception really feels in practice; it’s hugely entertaining, simple to teach and very easy for just about anyone – of any age – to play and even excel at. Though player elimination is a bugbear of mine – it can be a real drag to be locked out of taking part – it happens rarely once players know the game; it’s also worth bearing in mind that Nessos moves quickly enough that it’ll never be for much more than a few minutes before the next game anyway.
That’s another thing: I’ve rarely played Nessos just once in a session. There’s something very addictive about the game that – in my experience – has meant being asked to play just one more time, nearly every time.
Included in the compact box are a deck of cards and a small, wooden first player marker in the shape of an Ancient Greek vase (known as an amphora). The rules do a reasonable job of teaching the game, though there’s a few issues with the wording that made a few concepts slightly unclear, as well as some typos that unfortunately missed the attention of the proofreader.
The box itself is beautifully, colourfully illustrated – and the cards have a wonderfully minimal Ancient Greek aesthetic that’s very appealing. They’ll be handled a lot though – and the black design means that any marks will be noticeable and potentially game-breaking, so I’d highly recommend sleeving your deck as soon as you can if you do happen to purchase Nessos.
And honestly, why wouldn’t you? It’s a cheap, nicely portable game that you’ll be able to teach and play in about 20 minutes; easy to pick up for players of any age, skill level and regardless of their experience (or lack of) with modern board games. You will need to have at least four players involved for the game to properly work, which is the only potential stumbling block here.
Though the theme isn’t strongly matched to the gameplay, it doesn’t get in the way of the brilliantly minimal design either. I didn’t think I’d be saying this about Nessos, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Many thanks to iello for providing me with a copy of Nessos for review purposes.
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