Board Gaming, Kickstarter Previews

Something New: A look at Beneath Nexus – Part 1 of an Unintended Double Feature

“Let the past be content with itself, for man needs forgetfulness as well as memory.” – James Stephens

As my 4.7 regular readers know (one of them had some unfortunate incidences with fireworks over the Independence Day weekend), I am occasionally approached by game designers of all stripes, on their knees, pleading that I wield my powerful influence over the masses in order to help make their game dream come true. I can see the hope and fear in their eyes. I hear their hearts pound through their short, quick breaths. I see the nervous sweat beads form on their brows as they place their sacrificial offering on my altar. They’ve heard the stories; I am as well known for my benevolence as I am for my capriciousness. They know that without my guidance and blessing, their dreams will die right here, right now. At least until they roll their eyes and hit up the next reviewer who in all likelihood has less of a god complex.

Last week I came home to two packages waiting on the front porch. I had recently agreed to write something up on a game and the designers were sending me a prototype, so I knew one of them was those. Which meant the other one had to be one of the Kickstarter games I’ve backed. While I have managed to all but kill my Kickstarter habit, its legacy still lives on. I still get presents on occasion from past me. Sweet. I take them in and open one. Sure enough, it’s the prototype I expected. I quickly look through it then go to open the other one. Not all of the Kickstarter games come with email shipping notices, so I get some nice surprises. I open up the other package, and do not recognize the game in it. It is also a prototype, but I don’t remember arranging for this one. But how else would they have gotten my address? I put the name of the company in the search bar of my gmail account, and sure enough, this was another that I approved. Looking over the correspondence, I see that we discussed that this needed to be up before Gen Con. I look over the correspondence on the other one to find that it also needed to be up before Gen Con. Gen Con is about 1.5 weeks away as of this writing.

Shit. I are so smarterer than this.

There are valid reasons why this doesn’t get as many updates as I would like. I keep a pretty full schedule. Work, parenting, burning calories to avoid losing games, seducing the ladies, rehabbing my skull-shaped volcano lair, hatching senselessly complicated schemes with laughably small payouts, working on some designs I have cooking, and of course, trying to capture imaginary monsters by walking around with my phone. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for extra-curriculars, but I did volunteer my time to help out. I just forgot that I did it twice. So yeah, let’s talk about some games. First up, we have Beneath Nexus, by Silverclutch Games.

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What It Is and What It Do

Beneath Nexus is a dungeon-crawling card game for 4-6 players. One of the players will play as the Blight Lord (read: boss monster), and the others will all play as heroes of differing flavors and traditional fantasy party roles. Combats are resolved primarily through an action-point allowance system accompanied by special Reactions and Passive abilities that do not take actions to play.

The game plays out over three encounters. To start an encounter, 3 encounter cards are drawn. These are locations where the encounter takes place and each has its own special setup conditions and rules. Kind of like the Crisis Cards in Battlestar Galactica that have Cylon attacks. The players agree which one to take on, and the encounter begins. The Blight Lord acts first in a round and gets 1 action per opposing hero.  They can play Spell cards from their special deck, activate Monsters, or use an ability on the Blight Lord card. Once the Blight Lord has used all of his/her actions, it is time for the players to fight back. Each Hero has its own initiative rating from Fastest to Slowest. The Heroes always know the order that they will be acting in which will allow them to make better tactical decisions. Each Hero has a passive ability (marked by a greyish whitish gem) and an ability (marked by a green gem). Simple system, you may take one action per turn. Whether this is the ability on your hero card or an action from the Hero’s unique deck is up to you. Reactions (marked with yellow gems) can only be played when it is NOT your turn and will list what the card can react to. Monsters and Heroes both have Hit Points, and most actions center around attacking, healing, buffing and debuffing. After a Hero has taken an action, they draw a card and the next Hero in the initiative order goes. After all Heroes have taken their action, the round ends and another begins with the Blight Lord.

This will keep happening until either the Heroes have defeated all of the Monsters in the encounter or all of the Heroes have been reduced to 0 Hit Points. In the case of the former, the Heroes draw cards from the Treasure deck equal to the number of surviving Heroes plus one. Each Hero takes a Treasure and the last is discarded. However, there are a few Cursed Treasures that the Heroes must take if drawn. Treasure cards provide small boons and added abilities. After Treasures are doled out, a new encounter begins. If the Heroes did not defeat the Monsters, the game is over and the Blight Lord wins. The third encounter is the final one, and the Blight Lord card flips to reveal its second more powerful form. This is the one-winged angel, ya’ll. If the Heroes survive this encounter, they win the game and release the city of Nexus from the cruel bondage of the Blight Lord. If they fail, I’m sure that some really horrible things happen, but what do the players care? They’re dead!

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Things What I Like About Beneath Nexus:

K.I.S.S. Reading the above, the comparisons are inevitable to another game out there you may have heard of called Sentinels of the Multiverse. Which is not to say that this is what the designers intended to do when they set out. As any designer knows, avoiding comparisons to other games we already know is near impossible, and honestly, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. There is a lot to like about SotM. The people have spoken, and as evidenced by the numerous expansions, fan content, successful Kickstarter campaigns, and secondary market for the promos, it was a huge hit. It is not without its faults though, one of the biggest being its being very fiddly. Tons of chits, tons of bookkeeping and things to keep track of. It’s actually very easy to forget to do some things in SotM, which can have deep impacts on the game. Forgetting a certain villain’s trigger and realizing it later can make you feel like your win is illegitimate.  Beneath Nexus has none of that. You have to keep track of Hit Points and maybe 1 or 2 other super minor things. The Hit Point and damage values are lower too, so there’s less time spent on math and fiddling with dice and/or chits. This may sound like a minor thing but it’s not. While I enjoy Sentinels, once I am getting it out and set up, the looming spectre of bookkeeping fatigue is already setting in. Beneath Nexus provides a similar game experience but very streamlined.

Simple but Satisfying: This may sound like an echo of the first point…and to some extent it is…but the simplicity of the game is actually a big selling point. The game said that suggested that a game lasts between 60-90 minutes, but once we understood the game, it flowed very smoothly. Our second game most certainly didn’t take as long as we expected, or if it did, it didn’t *feel* like it, and that’s really just as good. After the first game, my group was immediately inquiring if we had time for a second. After the second, they wanted a third, but it was getting late. That kind of enthusiasm is evidence of a winner.

Cool Stuff What to Do: The Heroes all play their roles pretty well and have cool things to do. They are also all unique and you guys know how I love my asymmetry. I like that in addition to playing a specific party role, each Hero has a thing that makes them cool and unique. They even have back stories if you choose to delve in deeper. One of the Heroes gains little energy tokens whenever he performs certain actions and can use those tokens to power other abilities. Another of the Heroes triggers 1 of 3 minor effects whenever they perform any action, or can take a single action to activate all 3 abilities. Each will provide a different play experience.

It’s Good to Be Bad: Unlike SotM or Arcadia Quest, someone gets to play the boss and try to actively stymie the Heroes, which takes its own set of strategies. It’s not as simple as just being someone to make sure the things get activated in the right phase. There are different Blight Lords to choose from, each with their own flavor and abilities, and they scale really well with the number of players. When you flip over the Blight Lord card for the final encounter, it is broken down into different tiers of abilities and Hit Points based on the number of Heroes in the game. The more Heroes you’re fighting, the more badass the boss monster is. While Beneath Nexus is not the first game where someone actively plays the boss, I think that with the other benefits I’ve mentioned here (like ease of entry) it’s a solid entry into the one vs. many lists.

Room for Growth: The system works. It’s straightforward, not fiddly, and fun. Fantasy has a bottomless well of things to draw from, so I can see there being expansions with new Heroes, Treasures, Blight Lords, Monsters, Encounters, etc.  I hope that some of these ideas maybe show up as stretch goals.

Easy Like Sunday Morning: I’ve mentioned that it is a streamlined game and easy to teach, but the assumption is that we’re talking about gamers. One of my group doesn’t have a gaming background and while they enjoy learning and playing with us, it is evident that there’s a little bit of a learning barrier with them as it pertains to games. That player took to this instantly. When you can teach a non-gamer as easily as a gamer, that’s a big win.

Things What I Don’t Like As Much:

Uh..guys? I hope this isn’t it. The rules left a bit to be desired. There were several questions that were not answered in the rulebook online, and they were pretty important questions. To be fair, writing a rulebook is technical writing, and technical writing is absolutely a trained skill that doesn’t come naturally to people. That said, this is a prototype and I trust that the designers will have a much more thorough rulebook with the finished product. If you’re reading this guys (and I suspect you are), I’ll be happy to help if I can, I have a bit of experience in that.

It could stand to be a little bit deeper: After the second play, it seemed to me that most of the game was choosing the optimal action. Doi. I didn’t see a lot of combo plays between the players, and as the Blight Lord, I was pretty much focused on maximum damage output with my actions. Also Doi. I am willing to concede that this opinion came after two plays though and there is enough replay value in the game that I could well be proven wrong. Of the two games we played though, I won one and lost the other, so I didn’t feel like it was too heavily skewed in favor of the good guys.

It could stand to be prettier: Each of the Heroes has their own sigil thing, and all of the ability cards for the Heroes are marked with their corresponding sigil thing…in the place where art would normally go. While this is completely functional and made sorting the cards very easy, you could keep that same ease by having the sigil on the back and art on the front. Fantasy is a genre where art is of higher importance than some others I can think of, and it could go a long way here. That said, I know that art can get expensive really quickly, and honestly, the sigils are cool too. Just not as cool as art. Having them to look at is better than nothing. And while that is yet another “Doi” statement, it’s a bigger one than you might think. There was a Kickstarter I backed a long time ago where the cards literally had no art. Just text, and the only thing separating them was color of text. This particular game was $50 (!!!) and I honestly felt ripped off by it. If you price a card game at $50, it better have some goddamn art. My fault, I didn’t investigate closely enough, but that was so jarring and disappointing that I couldn’t even get through a single play of the game. That is not the case with Beneath Nexus, just that there is room for improvement. Each of the Heroes has unique art on their character card, and it would be cool to have action shots of them doing things on their ability cards.  It’s important to bear in mind as well that this is a prototype and for all I know, it is fully their intent that the finished product have art.

Thoughts as a Designer:

I enjoy co-ops, I enjoy fantasy, I enjoy one vs many (sometimes); so this touched on some of my gamer brain’s pleasure spots. I would say that Beneath Nexus is to Sentinels of the Multiverse, as The Resistance is to Battlestar Galactica. Both provide different experiences with some strong parallels, but one cuts to the quick and dirty while the other adds a bunch of other details and rules in the idea of creating a more immersive experience. Seeing as I have played Resistance easily 100 times or more and Battlestar Galactica probably under 15, this illustrates that bigger does not always mean better. Which is not a slam on either BSG of SotM. Both of them are outstanding games in their own right, but being able to access the heart and fun of the game quickly is something every designer has to work towards. Silverclutch understood this and gets right to it.

In Conclusion: 

Fans of the dungeon crawler subgenre should enjoy this lightweight game. Fast, easily accessible, fun. A solid amount of replay value and lots of room for expansion, but the first trick is getting there. There are…a lot…of games on Kickstarter that do not pass these basic tests. One of the reasons I do Kickstarter previews in the first place is that as a consumer, if the game doesn’t have reviews, my enthusiasm for it immediately drops. If you’re not telling your prospective customers “Don’t take my word for it, these people enjoyed it too” then it speaks to a lack of confidence in your game, and I have been burned too many times by mediocre games with a good elevator pitch.  Having played Beneath Nexus, I am happy to say that this isn’t one of them. The Kickstarter campaign for Beneath Nexus launches on Aug. 1 (I’ll update with a link when it’s live)

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