Sunday, 21 August 2016

Via Nebula

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

In terms of graphics and components design, Via Nebula is the cutest Martin Wallace game that I have ever seen. If I hadn't known beforehand that this was his design, I would never have guessed it based on the art style. I played the game not because of the art though. It was because of the pedigree. What's important is still the gameplay.

Players are builders rebuilding the Nebula Valley, which used to be a thriving civilisation. Many ruins were left behind during its decline, and it is over these ruins that players will construct new buildings. The old kingdom has also left behind resources. By sending out explorers, you locate these resources and make them available to everyone. Most of the valley is covered by mist, making the land untraversable. You need to spend effort mapping these mist covered spaces to make them accessible. When a construction site is connected to a resource location via an uninterrupted chain of glassland, the resources can be transported to the site to be used as building material. A building must be constructed according to specs, which means it must use the exact combination of materials as specified by a contract. Players start with some contract cards in hand, and there are always four open-to-all contracts on the board. When you complete a public contract by constructing the building required, you claim the contract card for points, and also get to enjoy a one-time benefit as specified on the contract. If another player happens to be collecting resources hoping to complete that same contract, this is bad news for him. The materials he has collected may not be useful anymore. He can't return them. He can try to use them for another building, but if there is any surplus, he will be penalised. There are plenty of ways to get penalised, and they are all related to wastage. If you explore a resource location and make resources available, and if not all of them are used up by game end, you will be penalised for wasting natural resources. If you stockpile resources at your building site and fail to complete the building in time, you will be penalised for wasting too. There's an environmental conservation message here.

The game ends after a player completes his fifth building. Everyone else gets one more turn. You score points for the building contracts, for resource locations you have explored, and for mist covered areas you have mapped.

Players' buildings are not only different in colour, they are also of completely different shapes, which is nice. Unnecessary, but very nice. Space Cowboys, the publisher, knows what they are doing.

You can see that some spaces are covered with plain green grassland tiles. These are previously mist covered spaces which have now been mapped. The grassland tiles represent a transport network.

This is a player board. Again, very nicely done. The central area with a white background lists all action types you can perform. You have 2 action points per turn. Most actions require 1 action point. Only mapping misty forests requires 2 action points.

This is how your player board should be set up at the start of a game. This is for a 4-player game. You have 4 stacks of 3 grassland tiles each. Every time you map a misty space, you place one of your grassland tiles onto the board. You earn 2VP for every stack you deplete. You only have two explorers whom you can send out to explore resource locations. When you send one out, he stays on the board until all resources at that location are collected. Those half-hex tiles are your construction sites. You use such a tile to claim half a ruin space for construction. Those five on the right are your buildings, waiting to be constructed.

When setting up the board, the round resource tokens are randomly placed. They determine what resources are available where. These round tokens need to be explored by an explorer before the actual resources are placed on the board and made available. The game does start with some resources already available. Their locations are randomly determined too. The black pools and the spaces with monsters are permanently inaccessible. They serve no other purpose than getting in the way. Well, that plus making you happy because the monsters are lovely. The spaces showing scattered wooden planks are the ruins. These are where you build.

On the right the brown player has sent an explorer to explore a resource token, and as a result these stones were placed here, available to all players. To claim a stone, you simply move it from this resource location, through empty grassland spaces, to your own construction site. The delivery path is blocked by other resource locations not yet exhausted, construction sites, buildings, still mist-covered spaces, and monster spaces.

In a 4-player game, one space allows up to two buildings. The black and brown players are currently sharing a space, each having a construction site on one half of that space.

Construction sites need to be connected to resource locations by empty grassland, so that you can deliver resources to your sites for building. Grassland is your delivery network. In this photo, some buildings are already completed, while some construction sites are still stockpiling resources. At this stage the networks of grassland are still fragmented.

The Play

We did a four-player game - Ivan, Boon Han, Kareem and I. This was the highest player count. Prior to playing I read some comments saying that this was a light Martin Wallace game. Now that I have played it, I disagree. I think people feel it is light because of the artwork. This is by no means a simple game. It is not heavy in rules, but that doesn't mean it is light in strategy. I find there is a delicate balance between cooperation and competition. To be more precise, you are not cooperating; you are using one another. You need to fight for good ruin locations, but if you greedily plonk down many construction sites in an area, denying others, you will find that you are discouraging them from doing any exploration in the area, be it to unlock resources or to clear mist away. You'll end up having to do all the work by yourself. The key in this game is to create win-win situations. You want to create mutually beneficial relationships - offers others can't refuse. When you explore a resource location, sometimes it's because you need that resource type yourself. Sometimes it's because you predict others will need it and will exhaust it quickly. In Via Nebula the players collectively create and evolve the supply-and-demand ecology. When demand is higher than supply, you are fighting to grab resources before they run out and someone needs to unlock more. When supply is higher than demand, the players sitting on unwanted resources need to find ways to increase demand. Else their explorers will be stuck for a long time, maybe even till game end.

This is a very spatial game, since it is very much about building a transport network. As we played, we joked that this game was a cute version of Age of Steam. Most of the time you get to perform two actions on your turn. This is a mechanism often seen in Martin Wallace's games, and here it is again used most cleverly. Quite often players get into a blink-and-you-lose situation. E.g. two players need a mist space explored, so that they can gain access to a resource location, in order to collect a resource and then complete a building. However neither is willing to spend that one action to explore the mist space. If A does it, he will have only one more action, which he can only use to collect a resource. When B's turn comes, he can first collect a resource and then complete the building, ahead of A. You need to watch your opponents!

In the early game, when the transportation network is fragmented, construction sites can only rely on nearby resource locations. As the game progresses, more and more mist spaces will be cleared, and the initially fragmented networks will join to become larger and larger networks. Construction sites will have more and more options. There is a feeling of escalation and acceleration. I can easily imagine this game having a much more serious setting. This is a game of economy and logistics.

Our scores were close. Most points were from completing buildings. Some were from exploring resource locations, some from exploring mist spaces. As long as no one makes any major blunder, the scores will be close. Building VP's don't vary greatly. Players don't have very different overarching strategies. Some may emphasise certains areas slightly more than others, but generally you just try to make good tactical moves and build efficiently. Sometimes you need to score small tactical victories when you find opportunities to screw an opponent. This was what Kareem did to me. He fulfilled a contract which I was working on. At the time I thought he was working towards another contract, and had no urgency in completing the building I was working on. I was forced to switch to another contract, and I had to waste a resource which the new contract didn't need. At game end, I lost to him because of this. Aaarrggh! Don't trust the cute graphics. This game can be nasty!

I had initially expected the game would end with many penalties being dished out, due to resources still left standing at resource locations, and resources still left at unfinished buildings. However it turned out that most of us managed to complete all our buildings, and all the resource locations were exhausted. I guess we were all pretty decent planners. After a player completes his last building, everyone else still has one more turn, which consists of two actions. As long as you are not too far behind, you will be able to finish all your buildings, or at least plan to not have any unused materials at a construction site.

The white and green construction sites in the foreground each have one resource, wood and pig respectively. At this moment these sites are only connected to one resource location, the wood resource location just behind them, owned by the white player. Normally, the green player should not have been able to deliver a pig to his construction site. In this case, it is because the green player has delivered a wood to his site, and then used the power from another building to transform that wood to a pig.

There are two empty spaces on the right with no grassland tile. They used to be resource locations, but the resources have been depleted. So they are now considered empty grassland too, and they form part of the transport network. There is no need to place grassland tiles.

This is near game end. If you look carefully, you will see that the construction sites at the bottom right are connected all the way to the pig resource location at the top left. The transport network covers almost the whole board now.

The Thoughts

Via Nebula is a mid-weight strategy game. It's an economic game. It's a train game with no trains. Seeing a Martin Wallace game presented this way is refreshing. If this helps introduce new players to his designs and his style of games, it can only be a good thing. If I compare Via Nebula with his other games, it isn't really of the same category as strategy games like Brass, A Few Acres of Snow or Automobile. Via Nebula is less complex, but it still has decent strategy. It fills a different need compared to these heavyweights. It still gives you mental sparring with your opponents. It requires careful calculation and clever tactical manoeuvres. You have to be cunning and ruthless. You need to create incentives to lure opponents into doing what you want them to do. Often they will do the same, and you will take the offer because you know ultimately it's good for you too. The cute artwork is an anesthetic. It makes you think the game is light when it is not. Even after playing it, you still feel it is light. But it's not. That's the power of good artwork.

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