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Nemo's War Ship's Log: II

Weighed in the Balance and Found Wanting

My perspective by Alan Emrich

California farmers portent nonsensical decisions

Your intrepid developer and publisher of First Edition Nemo’s War took this game’s show on the road. On the drive north through California’s San Joaquin Valley, there were signs along the highway where farmers let it be known that their dust bowl farmlands were a man-made disaster. The State government created an employment and crop failure tragedy by diverting massive amounts of irrigation water into the delta and out to sea, appeasing the environmentalists trying to save the Delta Smelt. It was all for naught, as farmers went bust and the Delta Smelt went extinct. This was an omen of things to come.

Gentleman Gene Billingsley of GMT Games

Arriving at GMT and meeting with gentleman Gene Billingsley, I possessed the great conviction of a True Believer. I had brought the game they needed to publish to launch them firmly into the non-wargaming market, Nemo’s War. I enthusiastically demonstrated the gameplay and remarked how the “GMT treatment” to further polish and publish the game would raise GMT to a new height. I believed that it was a perfect match.

However, it was not to be. Gene rejected Nemo’s War and the potential new customers VPG hoped to satisfy with GMT’s higher production quality and distribution. Instead, they picked up VPG’s wargame staples, three Napoleonic 20 Series games, and No Retreat!.

Gene would go on to build a vast bridge to non-wargamers. Thanks to their brilliant Twilight Struggle game release, GMT achieved those new heights I believed they were destined for. It is always heart-warming when good things happen to good people, and I couldn’t be happier about GMT’s success.

Still, Nemo’s War needed a better home, and if VPG could not find one, it must build one.

A New Home Port

The Locomotive printer (L) and card cutter (R)

The Little Game Company That Could (i.e., Victory Point Games) moved from my attic to a business park in Costa Mesa, California. This location was just nine miles down Harbor Boulevard from Disneyland and within walking distance of the college where I was teaching Game Design et al. (and would for about thirteen years). At first, VPG moved into a small unit and about a year later into a larger one better fitting our plans to offer our customers improved physical products. The locomotive-length Canon uber printer, two laser-cutting machines, and pallets of red “pizza boxes” came to join our card cutting and rounding machines. Taking everything up a notch and automating the process was a bold move. In effect, we opened our own print shop, reminiscent of the Monarch Printing/Avalon Hill symbiosis. Still, this allowed us to reach a broader customer base and, at last, to upgrade our top-tier games, including Nemo’s War, with spanking new editions.

We tested the new edition waters with Dawn of the Zed Second Edition, which was a quantum leap to its success. Oh, yes, Nemo’s War was destined for a similar treatment to extend its glory! And then… The Little Game Company took a chance and tried our first Kickstarter campaign (for the I Say, Holmes! card game).

VPG's display shot of Dawn of the Zeds 2nd Edition (with Vince DeNardo as the "cover zombie")
VPG's Zeds campaign proved a very nice success

Overall, VPG’s early KS campaigns successfully funded several small projects. We deliberately withheld our flagship game titles to learn the ins and outs of conducting effective marketing via Kickstarter without jeopardizing any key products. With that education secured in our staff’s institutional knowledge, we were confident when Dawn of the Zeds led our first big KS campaign in a Third Edition that remains the talk of “Zed Heads” worldwide.

Nemo’s War: The First Second Edition

It was delightful to share the news with designer Chris Taylor on his visit to VPG one Saturday. We told Chris that, in fact, Nemo’s War was slated for an amazing, in-house produced, upgraded Second Edition. While glad for the news, Chris was more subdued in his reaction, knowing that his schedule would not allow him to create a Second Edition of the game. His limited board game design time was dedicated to creating new games, not updating old ones. In a very moving (and in fact, for me, life-changing) exchange, Chris said he trusted me to design and develop the Second Edition of Nemo’s War. We quickly highlighted what we would like to see accomplished, and I had my sailing orders.

  • Chris wanted more variety of Nautilus upgrades and imagined them all as features of the ship. The First Edition Upgrades Table would become Upgrade cards to extend their variety.

  • Neither of us was completely satisfied with the Uprising system. Still, we had no idea what to do with it during our discussion. I added that to my Think About list.

  • Chris thought there should be more variety of ships, including an Airship and a Sea Monster, and I dutifully saluted.

Picking a Date Certain

As a History Guy, I demanded historical accuracy to give the player’s adventure authenticity (which is why I’m a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s works). While in its redesign, the features that players enjoyed most were pulling narrative events and drawing treasures, which were sure to receive more breadth in type and variety. However, this required me to drop anchor and fix an actual date for this game’s adventure. Remember that VPG was primarily a wargame company. Nemo’s War was directly rooted in wargaming; our games' faithfulness to history was simply de rigueur.

"What's the shape of the world in 1870?" "Round."

After much pondering, although the book mentions the year 1866 in its first sentence, I pegged Nemo’s War to the year 1870. That year (give or take a bit of literary license) was a far more interesting time in which to explore the world. In those few years, science, technology, philosophy, and world events moved very far and fast, so Nemo’s War should have them! Much to the delight (I supposed) of my college professors, who helped me earn a degree in History, I dove into researching the world of 1870 in the same way the Nautilus would dive to explore the ocean’s floor. We were in our elements.

The people, places, headlines, science, technologies, and philosophies of the time were communicated to players via the story’s characters, locations, and events. Much was researched and faithfully told (and very little invented) in fashioning the game’s world of 1870.

The fruits of that research are portrayed throughout the game. The variety of Ship Tokens, Wonders, Adventures, and more were all held up to the tuning fork of history and found humming. Of course, much of the new material in the game is not found in the canon of Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. This new material required some considerable original writing in the carefully mimicked style of the great author himself. While the titles for all of the First Edition’s Adventure Cards were the chapter titles from the book with quotes from its text, where would these new adventures take us?

You never know where you're going 'till you get there

Later, it was illuminating that players perceived these new Adventures as written from the canon source. In fact, they were carefully composed Apocrypha plausibly extending the characters’ adventures to new horizons and broader vistas. In retrospect, this aspect was very rewarding to research and create. Thank goodness these additions incorporated into the original game quite seamlessly.

System Updates

Many other systems remained to reconsider in this new “first Second Edition.” As with fixing the year of this adventure, the First Edition’s calendar (limiting the number of Turns/Actions that are completed to end the game) could be improved. Deducting “weeks” to perform Actions (from the First Edition) presented the correct amount of gameplay. Still, it could be better woven with the Adventure cards allowing more narrative to be introduced to help players build the story of their journey.

Mechanically, fixing the Draw Pile to establish a “turn track” before commencing play worked well (as it did in Dawn of the Zeds). It also allowed the clear breaks for Acts I, II, and III, which presented rising action elements in the narrative as additional Ship Tokens and placement dice were added. The quick calculation is that it should average about 26 Adventure cards, depending on when the Finale card is resolved. Each turn, therefore, represents approximately two weeks of voyage time necessary to complete a game.

The Differential Dice improved the game allowing us to include Acts and rising action

In the First Edition, players generally “spent” (from a track) two weeks per turn performing Actions. To better represent life aboard a submarine (i.e., long stretches of boredom punctuated by bursts of intense activity), the Differential dice system was used to generate Action Points each turn. Differential Dice generate the correct average amount of activity over a 26-turn game. Some turns have very little (or no) activity (often, the Lull turns or 1 Action, which is supposed to seem agonizing when occurring in succession). Other turns afforded a veritable checklist of potential accomplishments. The game averages about two actions per turn through the first two Acts. With the addition of a third die and the “Pick 2” mechanic, the third Act’s Differential Dice typically yield more Actions exactly when the Imperialist pressure is really on, and survival becomes a deciding issue.

This perfectly achieved story arc play balance. Unlike in Dawn of the Zeds, where Action Points are assigned to each event card, simulating life on a submarine was different. Generating Actions should be detached from Adventure card draws (as they are thematically unrelated), and Actions needed to increase organically in the third Act. Thus, while Zeds cards are sorted by Act, Nemo's event cards are shuffled together en masse and each could occur at any point in the adventure.

The Differential Dice system MADE the game

This Action Point system cascaded onto the map by necessitating the creation of Transitional Oceans. In the First Edition, there were only six Oceans, and some moves between them required two weeks to achieve. With Transitional Oceans, all movement on the map was universally one Action Point. This also gave players more room to place ships and “paint the board” with Ship Tokens as it filled up. The Transitional Oceans did not add another dimension to the gameboard per se. Still, the addition of Transitional Oceans greatly expanded the potential to develop player strategies.

This Second Edition map enhancement then led to the notion of Uprising Cubes and their fixed locations on the board. This was a chance to present a truly historical look at the hot spots and international events around the globe in 1870 (thus broadening the narrative further and creating more verisimilitude). This led to the game’s Second Edition Incite mechanic. Placing cubes thus gives the player strategic agency; they now had a chance to reduce their voyage’s Notoriety through distraction caused by inflaming the world to bedevil the Imperialists and champion the oppressed (which are often the same thing). However, a Lull Turn gives the Imperialists a chance to catch their breath and put out these fires around the globe.

These elements for Nemo’s War Second Edition (the Differential Dice with rising averages in the third Act, the Transitional Oceans, and the Uprising Cubes) were neatly and tightly braided together for a more enjoyable narrative gameplay experience.

Not bad for a wargame! Remember that, in its origin and evolution, Nemo’s War is a fresh approach to a narrative wargame based on a popular novel in the public domain. In playtesting, this was shown to us as all our regular testers were very excited to give Nemo’s War Second Edition a whirl.

Nemo's War and The Luck of the Irish

With the historical research done, and thanks to the Action Point system with its myriad benefits evolving through gameplay, we were ready to launch our beloved red-boxed Second Edition of Nemo’s War with thick, laser-cut counters. However, a new crew member enlisted just then. Our voyage turned in a different direction when he was finally piped aboard.

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