It’s tough being on top. After the astonishing success of Dominion and to a lesser extent, Kingdom Builder, Donald X. Vaccarino had set the bar so high that his subsequent releases, which weren’t as grand in scope, couldn’t possibly meet expectations. Thus, Nefarious from Ascora games went quietly out of print and gamers moved on. However, the game is back with an awesome new look and a strange new publisher, USAopoly, who is mostly known for party games and licensed versions of Monopoly, Risk, and so on. Will all these changes result in Nefarious getting a big enough following for that expansion fans are desperate for? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: This version of Nefarious has two huge things going for it. The first is that I love the new artwork and graphic design – it’s clear with great iconography, somewhat minimalist, and hilarious. The second is the super competitive price point – $30 MSRP is completely fair, even surprisingly low for this game – a lot of other companies would have charged $40. The actual components are hit-and-miss. I like the smaller, King of Tokyo box size, as I think it says a lot about expectations for the game (this is a filler with a bit more meat on it, much like KoT). The cardboard tokens are fine, and the meeples are pretty great, but the cards are very thin and wobbly, to the point where I got a bit scared when playing at lunch with ungentle types. I put them in solid-backed (i.e. a bit stiffer) Ultra Pro sleeves and now I can finally sleep at night. The Twist cards are also thin and unfortunately hard to find sleeves for (Dixit size), but at least no one touches those during the game. The insert looked nice but didn’t quite fit the pieces if you’re going to bag them, but I tossed it anyway when I sleeved the cards. Overall, I think the killer price and artwork outweigh the weak points.
Accessibility: Learning the rules of this game is quite easy, and it’s easy to teach. Anything someone doesn’t get will click in the first turn or two. At first when I looked through the cards, I was disappointed by the limited variability of the Invention cards, because they’re all just permutations of the same few icons (no text other than card titles). However, makes the game waaaay easier to teach than, say, Dominion. While playing the game, there’s a lot of crazy things going on simultaneously, so that takes some getting used to, but it’s certainly not that hard. The rulebook recommends you play without Twists for your first game, and I say nuts to that, because they are definitely what make the game what it is. Instead, I think there should have been a recommended beginner game set of Twists. As an example, you might just use the one that makes Work give $6 instead of $4, and the one that keeps you from doing the same action two turns in a row. I think this could even be a gateway game for some.
Depth: First off, keep in mind that this is a quick little game with lots of simultaneous play – we’ve consistently gotten two games in during a lunch hour with six players. The second thing to know is that it’s very chaotic. Cards are flying everywhere, as players “Invent” (play down cards for VPs with special effects) simultaneously, and you resolve them clockwise from yourself. Many cards make you draw or discard, place or lose Spies (formerly Minions), gain or lose money, and so on. Plans can often go awry because of losing cards or money, or other players not doing what you planned. And of course, this is all exacerbated by the Twist cards, which are the heart of the game. These are two special global effects for that entire game, and you randomly pick two of the thirty possible options for each game. This is truly what makes this game replayable, as it can feel very different from one to play to the next (and it usually does).
The other way to interact other than card effects (which hit everyone equally), is predicting with your Spies what your neighbors will do for their Actions, and you can even gamble on getting that income at the start of the turn. In that way, it’s reminiscent of Race for the Galaxy (you’re also drawing and discarding, quickly and often, from a common draw pile), and I honestly think this game just feels like DXV saying to himself, “What if Bruno Faidutti had designed Race for the Galaxy?” Now, I still think there’s a lot of strategy here, or about as much as can be had in 15-20 minutes, but this game is still a crazy ride (in a good way). If I had a complaint, it’s that there are just too many make-people-discard effects, which is more annoying than losing Spies or money because it ruins what little planning component there is. I’m hoping the already-designed expansion just has none of those but a bunch of new Invention cards, to dilute that effect somewhat.
Theme: I realize this is not necessarily saying much, but this is the most thematic game Donald X. Vaccarino has designed to date. The card names and corresponding art are hilarious and have just the right touch of humor in the art, and the effects actually make sense with the icons. When you invent the cloning machine, everyone gets an extra Spy / Minion. When you invent the aphrodisiac, you get a bunch of money. Almost all of the cards tie their ability close to their concept, much moreso than Dominion or Kingdom Builder did. The Twist cards are equally humorous and thematic, and even the mechanisms of just having fast, furious play and crazy cards going everywhere appropriately puts the “mad” in “mad scientist”. Great job here.
Fun: I was really taken aback by this game and how much I liked it. The comparatively low scores on BGG had me worried, as Dominion and Kingdom Builder are two of my top ten games, and I was a little disappointed with Temporum. However, we had a wonderful time with this game, and it’s great to have something more crazy and less thinky than 7 Wonders that’ll play a crowd even more quickly. I wouldn’t pull this out as a main course, and I think it’s main advantage is its speed with a large group (I wouldn’t bother with two or three players), but I had a heck of a time playing this one. I love crazy card combos, and this game has that in spades, with a great combo of theme and art. Card combo geeks like me should definitely check this one out.
Nefarious‘ new edition has a killer price point, great art and theme, and the gameplay is quick and fun. If you don’t mind sleeving your cards and a big ol’ splash of chaos, then go check this one out.
4 out of 5