To this day, Nexus Ops remains one of my favourite board games ever. Though reliant on the luck of dice rolls and, to a lesser extent, card draws, it’s a perfect example of clever balancing of luck vs strategy, along with incredibly appealing component design that truly adds a pleasingly tactile and visually unique feel to the experience.

When I recovered and republished my interview with the designer of Nexus Ops – Charlie Catino – which you can read here, it made me wonder what else was lurking on the now sadly defunct IGUK site that I could salvage.

If nothing else, this review is a great look at how my writing style and approach has improved and evolved; note also that the inclusion of ratings and categories in the final verdict was editorially mandated and isn’t something I’d choose to do myself.

With both the classic and revised editions of Nexus Ops currently out of print, I wanted to once again bring it to the fore – whoever currently holds the rights, know that this game deserves one more shot and there is definitely an audience ready and waiting for it!

So here we are, without further ado – my review of Nexus Ops from September 8th 2005!

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 08, 2005

Nexus Ops Review

Nexus Ops is a fast paced game of exploration, mining and combat on an alien moon. Players are employees of unscrupulous Earth based corporations, enlisting strange extra-terrestrial creatures to help them battle each other over the moon’s resources. The object of the game is to be the first player to reach 12 Victory Points, a goal that can be achieved through many different means.

The first thing you notice about Nexus Ops is how glowing and bright the plastic miniatures are. They’re colourful, appealing, translucent plastic units that look unlike anything in recent memory – which helps to give it a refreshingly striking look. The board itself is randomly dealt out using cardboard hexes, much like The Settlers of Catan. A 3D cardboard piece called the Monolith is placed in the centre with the hexes surrounding it, and the players starting at equal distances from each other at opposite sides of the board (setup is slightly different depending on the number of players involved). Exploration tiles are placed face down on each hex, and each player is given their starting rubium (the game’s currency). In a nice piece of game balancing, the starting player begins the game with the least rubium – 8 total – with the next player getting three more (11), then player three getting another three (14 – still with me?) and finally the fourth player has 14 rubium to start.

Each turn goes as follows: The active player first purchases any units they require and can afford using their rubium, then plays any start of turn cards they may have. All of the active player’s units are then moved if necessary (one space per turn unless specified otherwise in the unit description), then exploration tiles in occupied hexes are turned over and resolved (these usually give either mines, a unit, or both). Any battles as a result of sharing hexes are then resolved. Income from currently occupied and uncontested hexes containing rubium mines is then collected. Finally, the active player draws a secret mission card, and two energize cards if he/she controls the Monolith. The exploration, which happens mostly at the beginning of the game, keeps players moving to new areas, and eventually forcing them into confrontations over mines for the last few pieces of income.

Battles provide victory points for the winner – either a standard ‘won a battle’ 1 victory point card or the winner can play a secret mission card for more victory points instead, if the conditions on the victory point card have been fulfilled – and an energize card for the loser. Energize cards contain special powers for the player using them, such as removing certain units from play, adding to die rolls or moving units across the map. Battles are resolved in a specific order – the most powerful units, Rubium Dragons, roll first. Then Lava Leapers, then Rock Striders and so on down to the weakest unit, Humans. Rubium Dragons hit on a roll of 2+, Lava Leapers on 3+ and so on. When a hit is made, the defender chooses the unit to be killed and removes it from play. This continues until either all units have attacked once or all of one player’s units have been removed from the contested hex. As even the loser of a battle is able to gain a benefit from the battle, combat is encouraged to the point that there are very few points in the game where it is advisable to sit still and do nothing. This mechanic serves to keep the game fast paced and exciting, and is a fantastic idea that’s very well implemented. The randomness of dice-based combat (a pet hate for some serious gamers) is pretty exciting and the luck this brings to the game is offset by playing the game intelligently to the strengths of the units you use and the terrain you occupy.

Nexus Ops has the usual high production values that are to be expected from the Avalon Hill range – the presentation of the game is superb, from well designed cards, board pieces and miniatures to clearly laid out rules that have many illustrated examples of play. Each player also has a player aid which details the special movement and combat rules of each unit, as well as a turn summary. Nexus Ops is therefore an incredibly easy game to get into – with so much clear reference material to hand, it is very simple to learn, yet offers enough depth to hold interest over repeat plays. The glowing plastic creatures look superb, and give Nexus Ops a very noticeably bright look, which is a refreshing change from the usual dull coloured miniatures in other games.

The random board setup helps to keep the game feeling fresh even after playing multiple times. Despite the fact that upon first appearance this game looks highly derivative of The Settlers of Catan, in practice the game plays very differently. Whereas Catan is based purely on exploration and the production of different commodities, Nexus Ops focuses on providing just one commodity with which to buy combat-based units. There are several aspects of the game which keep it moving along nicely, with players who sit still and gather their forces finding that they are often left out of the running with regards to victory points and income – the exploration tiles and combat, for example. Games of combat, exploration and conquest usually encourage players to hold back and strengthen before moving in for the kill – Nexus Ops brazenly forces players into taking risks and continually moving around to new frontiers, and is all the more exciting, interesting and fast-paced for it.

Nexus Ops is a great game – it’s a fast, very enjoyable game of galactic conquest on a small scale – a typical game lasts around an hour to 90 minutes. It plays much like a turn-based, board game translation of a computer RTS (real time strategy) game – which is high praise indeed, given how much trouble board game companies have seemed to have when trying to translate the RTS experience into a more tangible, non-real time form. In short, Nexus Ops has all of the galactic conquest with none of the issues with game length, complexity or huge amount of components (and therefore lack of space to play the game!) that usually plague games of this ilk – simple enough for inexperienced players yet strategically interesting enough for those well versed in using military might to conquer alien moons.

Summary

Presentation: Brilliantly colourful miniatures and excellent production design throughout. Tough to fault, although the Monolith is a bit flimsy. 8.5/10

Clarity of Rules: Superbly illustrated, very clear rules. Lots of illustrated examples, very simple to learn. 9.6/10

Game Length: Plays incredibly fast with hardly any downtime at all. Most games take little over an hour to play, which is unprecedented for a game of this type and depth. 9.0/10

Value: Random board setup and secret missions keep the game fresh and replayable. 9.4/10

Overall: An excellent resource management/combat game, possibly the closest thing to a computer RTS game that it is currently possible to get in board game form. Great fun. 9.3/10 (not an average)

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