Tabletop Review: Nemesis
If you’ve read my review for Alien: Fate of the Nostromo, this review might sound a little familiar, though much more in-depth. Nemesis by Awaken Realms was released in 2018 and has received myriad glowing reviews. It was on my list of must-haves for some time, though it was tough to find in any stores for a while, and I was unable to find it at an affordable price online as well. So when I ran into it at a generic vendor at Gen Con 2021, I didn’t think twice about picking it up - and I am so glad I did.
Nemesis is an in-depth tabletop survival horror experience for 1-5 players. The setting and plot points of Nemesis are extremely derivative as it truly is a re-skin of Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien at its core. Even the aliens, or “intruders” as the game calls them, look extremely similar to the ever-infamous Xenomorph. However, this is absolutely not a problem. Instead of stealing from the familiar, I believe the game pays homage to its inspiration and aims to do it justice. Though it’s designed for 1-5 players, there are 6 player characters to choose from, each with their own profession and set of unique action and item cards. Unbeknownst to those characters, they’ll encounter a variety of intruders - each with their own delightfully detailed miniature to represent them, which I absolutely had to paint!
Here’s the setup: players awaken in hibernation chambers of a damaged spaceship (named The Nemesis, of course) to find a corpse in the room. Immediately, they know something is amiss, though narratively, they aren’t sure what or why. It’s a familiar plot hook, but it’s in the players’ objectives that things get interesting. Each player starts with two objectives - one personal and one corporate. The game has a few points in play that trigger specific events, and in this case, as soon as the first intruder is spotted, all players must choose if they want to follow their personal objective or aim to help out the greedy corporations. Survival also doesn’t necessarily mean victory. Most objectives require survival, but there are a handful of conditions that need be met regardless. Unless otherwise specified by your objective, at the end of the game, the ship must have at least two out of three working engines, and the coordinates accessed in the cockpit must be set to Earth; but again, your own secret objective may have you set the coordinates to Mars, or require you to be infected before entering an escape pod or hibernation.
The game is played in a series of rounds with a maximum of fifteen rounds. Players go around the table using action cards to take 2 actions each as many times as they can, exploring room to room to search for vitally helpful items and completing objectives. Once they’ve exhausted their efforts, the round passes to the enemy phase, which consists of enemy movement and attacks, overall events of the scenario, and “bag development.” This last step has multiple outcomes, ranging from adding intruder tokens to the bag or potentially resulting in additional life-threatening encounters. That completes one full round. The game can certainly end quickly if the wrong decisions are made, but in a typical playthrough, the tension builds every bit as masterfully as a carefully crafted cinematic experience. Every move around the ship requires one or more noise tokens to be placed in adjacent hallways (unless you’re very lucky), and that noise can easily turn into encounters with an intruder if not careful; though eventually, they most certainly will. These intruders come in a range of varieties: larva, creepers, adults, breeders, and the queen.
While adults, breeders, and the queen are the heavy hitters, it would be a terrible mistake to underestimate the damage the lower-tiered intruders can inflict. For every three light wounds your character suffers, they contract a serious wound, which greatly hinders gameplay. Unless otherwise stated (which it often is), four serious wounds mean death for your character. You might be doing the math there and thinking, “gee, that’s twelve whole hits I can take before I die - that’s easy!” You would be sorely mistaken. There are enemy attacks which can delete your character after only two serious wounds. On a related note, if you’re infected by a larva, it is in your best interest to hit the ER as soon as possible, as infection can get you canceled before you can even admire its purity. Those two drastic ends of the pendulum seem to balance each other out, though, and through gameplay, you can also discover intruder weaknesses to aid you in dealing with the threat. As you move through the game, however, the bag development I mentioned before often has you add enemy chips to a bag where they are drawn randomly upon encounters. The manner in which this is done methodically increases the amount of dangerous enemies added to the mix, upping that tension as the game progresses. Additionally, players are not allowed to reenter hibernation until a certain round is reached and aren’t able to enter escape pods unless certain conditions are met - regardless of the status of their objectives’ completion. One final track that exists in the game is the self-destruct track. This typically coincides with player objectives and isn’t always utilized in a playthrough, but definitely adds an element of urgency if present.
So that’s essentially the operations of the game in a nutshell. So far, the only downside I’ve experienced is when you spend a couple hours working towards your objectives only to, quite unceremoniously, lose due to too many fire or malfunction tokens needing placed on the ship. It’s a bit anti-climactic when things are coming down to the wire, and you draw that one card that requires you to place more tokens than you have remaining in your pool, resulting in an immediate and total loss. However, the game does not blindside you with this; the rulebook clearly states the danger of these features and instructs you to take them seriously lest you end up in that unfortunate situation. Death is almost expected in Nemesis, though they still don’t completely leave you out to dry as a player. The first player to lose their character is now allowed to play as the intruders, making moves and attacks for them using a separate deck of cards specifically crafted for that inevitability. Lastly, if the game already wasn’t difficult enough for you, simply flip the board over for a more challenging layout to your ship!
In my handful of playthroughs, both solo and with multiple players, it seems the developers took the time to plan for every outcome and eventuality. Nothing, even fires or malfunctions, seem to operate from an oversight. From movement to crafting items to inevitable encounters, they certainly took their time to carefully craft each feature. None of the game feels lazy or glossed over. Even in loss, I’ve reached the end of multiple playthroughs thinking, “I’ve seen movies that were much less engaging and didn’t end this dramatically.” It’s games like these that really put into perspective the undoubted amount of hours that must have been spent in development and playtesting. Not every game needs to be so intricate and involved, but this level of attention to detail creates masterpieces - and I certainly believe that Nemesis is a true masterpiece of a tabletop game. Of course, there are always little tweaks or improvements that could be made to a game, and there are other expansions I have yet to try; but for the base game, I can’t in good conscience give it anything other than a 10/10.
Side note: if you like the idea of this game but need something less involved that doesn’t demand as much time, please check out my review of Alien: Fate of the Nostromo. It truly is “Nemesis-Lite,” and will narratively provide much of the same experience, though with much more simplified gameplay.