There are times when greatness does not draw attention to itself. It may be a movie that you only love after seeing it several times. That album that stayed on in the background until you realized you knew every word by heart. Perhaps even the best friend who seemed like kind of a jerk at first. We like to say that first impressions mean a lot, but that is not always the case. In our fast-paced world, we rarely get time to get to know something or someone, and that means we often miss out on wonderful pleasures. I say all of this, because I think that’s what happened with Nexus Ops.
Released in 2005 by that juggernaut of games, Hasbro, Nexus Ops is not obviously excellent. Certainly, it wasn’t given its due when it was originally published. It languished on shelves, and Hasbro abandoned it. By the time I got into the hobby in 2007, it could be found all over the place for a fraction of its original price. There were always those who sang its praises, but by the time I started listening the game was becoming rare. I got lucky with a trade, but many people were kicking themselves that they didn’t buy it for $15 when they could.
Nexus Ops is a distillation of what has often been called a “dudes-on-a-map” game. You play the part of a futuristic mining company searching for something called “rubium.” Players employ different alien monsters to conquer territory and fulfill secret missions handed down from HQ. It follows the very old-school structure of buying units, moving them, fighting the other players, and getting resources. Along the way, you collect new missions to fulfill. Each mission grants a certain number of points, and the first person to get to 12 points wins the game. It’s so simple and familiar that it’s understandable why the game was greeted with indifference in 2005.
But after a few games, certain touches begin to appear. First of all, the missions all involve attacking someone. You mine territory to gain rubium (which pays for units), but that’s not how you win. It forces you to play aggressively. This is aided by the hexagonal board, which recalls The Settlers of Catan. There aren’t any nooks in which to hide, and the other players are right on you within a couple of turns. You know how some games reward people for not attacking, even though that’s easily the most interesting aspect of the game? Turtling isn’t an option here. Not only that, but you get points for winning any and all battles as the attacker. If you’re only a point or two from winning you can just rock someone in one spot and get that last point for the victory.
Another great touch is the way you gather resources at the end of your turn. One of my most hated parts of Risk was having to hold territory until your next turn to get those extra armies. I was never very good at that, and by the time my turn came around again I’d have to settle for less stuff. In Nexus Ops, you get those resources on the very turn you conquered them. That money will be waiting there for you at the beginning of your next turn, and you can buy those big units much quicker than you would otherwise. Indeed, everything in this game seems designed to get in and get out quickly. Buy those big units quicker, fight each other constantly, gather more stuff, build more guys.
The result is pretty amazing. I have never been a big fan of Risk and Axis & Allies. They always took so long, and despite being about combat, they tried every encouragement to not get you to fight, either by punishing the loss of territory or draining your resources when an attack fails. Here, everything that has ever annoyed me about this style of game is gone. No waiting around for the good stuff to start. No pointless battles over the same spot over and over. And of course, just enough randomness to the combat to allow the human to occasionally shoot down a rubium dragon. The real magic of Nexus Ops is how it takes familiar aspects of games, and grinds away anything that drags down. The combat is a simplified version of the combat from Axis & Allies, but here it’s so much more direct and enjoyable. Some parts will make you wonder who it wasn’t done earlier.
Because of that lean-and-mean philosophy, some purists may not dig it. It’s much less a game about long-term planning, and much more about opportunity. If you like dealing with formations and grand plans, this one will disappoint. There is a little room for metagaming and ganging up, but the special missions really dictate how people behave, and that takes precedent over any deal-making. Avowed Eurogamers might dislike the heavy role of luck. There is a lot of dice-rolling, and your missions will dictate what will and won’t work. But if you’re complaining about the luck here, you’re obviously playing the wrong kind of game. The luck works very well in context, and it’s never struck me as overwhelming.
Of course, the biggest issue is that it’s not currently available. I don’t like to review out-of-print games, because people can’t buy them easily. But this part of the story has a happy ending as well: Fantasy Flight Games is reprinting this great title, and it should be available very soon. The new production looks very good, although it has done away with some of the charm of the original illustrations. After all, those day-glo pieces were part of the experience. But no matter, the core gameplay seems like it will remain largely unchanged, and that’s good news for everyone who has ever liked rolling dice to kill armies.
While titles like The Settlers of Catan show what can be done with German games, Nexus Ops shows how good the old aggressive American-style game can be. It’s straight-forward and accessible, and both versions look great. If your first play-through doesn’t impress you much, give it a few more tries. You might be surprised how good it becomes, and you might see what you’ve been missing for the past several years.