Monday, August 1, 2016

Quick Review - Beneath Nexus - Kickstarter Preview

Beneath Nexus
Designers: Chris Visco
& Tom Panico
Publisher: Silverclutch Games
Quick Review - Beneath Nexus - Kickstarter Preview

Deep beneath the mysterious city of Nexus are dark dungeons filled with monsters and treasures.  You and a band of two to four other adventurers have set out to explore the depths and battle the evil Blight Lord and its minions.

Beneath Nexus is a card based, semi-cooperative dungeon crawler for four to six players.  One player controls the Blight Lord and other monsters while the other players work cooperatively to defeat the Blight Lord.  Beneath Nexus plays in about 90 minutes, give or take, depending on the number of players and how much planning goes on.  Beneath Nexus is available on Kickstarter as of August 1, 2016 for $35.

In Beneath Nexus one player controls the Blight Lord and other monsters while the other players take on the roles of heroes that have come to explore the dungeons in search of mystical relics and treasures. The heroes play cooperatively against the much stronger Blight Lord. This is similar to other dungeon crawlers like Descent, but where Descent is a long, campaign driven dungeon crawler with complex scenarios, leveling up mechanics, a bit of an economics engine, and lots of dice driven combat and skill checks, Beneath Nexus is a streamlined, card based adventure with deterministic combat, simple rewards, and self contained scenarios.

Each game consists of three encounters (unless the Blight Lord happens to win sooner). The first two encounters take place in rooms of the dungeon that each present several monsters and a different challenge. The last encounter is a battle with the Blight Lord itself.
Starting out on the first encounter.
There are seven types of cards in Beneath Nexus. Dungeon Rooms, Heroes, and Blight Lords are all oversized cards while Hero Abilities, Treasures, Monsters, and Blight Lord Spells are all standard sized cards. At the start of a game players determine what roles they will play. There are six different heroes and four different Blight Lords, each with their own abilities and set of spell cards. Once players have chosen their roles and taken the ability and spell cards that belong to their characters the game is ready to begin.

Each hero starts with 12 hit points, which can be tracked with a die (not included in the prototype, but a dial of some sort will be included in the final game) and a hand of three abilities from their personal, unique ability deck - they'll draw an additional ability card after each of their turns. Each hero also has a designation of Fastest, Fast, Slow, or Slowest that will determine turn order for each round.
Korema is ready to set out on an adventure!
Blight Lords don't have any HP until the last encounter. But they do have spell cards that are used throughout the game. 20 spell cards are common to all the Blight Lords, and ten more are unique for each Blight Lord, allowing for a variety of different play styles. The Blight Lord will start with a hand of spell cards equal to the number of heroes, plus two.

To start the game the heroes will draw a dungeon room. Here the rules are a bit confusing. In one place they say the heroes draw one dungeon room at random. In another place they state that the dungeon rooms should be divided into two piles, then three cards drawn from the piles and one of those cards selected at random. It seems like the designers were working with several different ways of selecting or assigning dungeon rooms and the rules currently contain a mash up of versions. Hopefully that'll all get cleared up before final printing, and it's not the only awkward spot in the rules. However, whatever method of choosing a dungeon room the designers settle on, it won't affect the gameplay all that much. All the dungeons are pretty similar - the Blight Lord draws monsters equal to the number of heroes, and then there's a little twist. One room let's the Blight Lord add an additional Strength 1 monster to the dungeon each round. Another room makes each monster a Strength 7 monster (which is fairly strong), but they don't have any special abilities. And so forth.

Once the dungeon room is selected, the Blight Lord adds the appropriate monsters, drawn from the monster deck, and assigns each with an amount of hit points as stated on their cards. Again this had to be tracked with dice that I had to provide, but hopefully the final game will come with a better solution.
Some of the monsters are pretty vicious.  Hidden means the monster can't be attacked until all monsters without Hidden
are destroyed.  Guard means that monster has to be destroyed before others can be attacked.
Now it is time for the first encounter to begin. The Blight Lord always gets the first turn of each round. On the Blight Lord card, on each of the monster, and on many of the spell cards are a number of possible actions for the Blight Lord to take. The Blight Lord gets a number of actions equal to the number of players and can only take each action once. But generally there are a number of actions to choose from. Actions do all sorts of thing, like damaging heroes, allowing the Blight Lord to draw more cards, causing heroes to discard cards, and various combinations of these and more.
The front of the Blight Lord cards have actions that are used to control
and attack with the monsters of the dungeon.
Once the Blight Lord has taken all allotted actions it is time for the heroes to take their turns. Starting with the fastest and proceeding to the slowest (the heroes determine turn order in the event of ties), each hero may take one action from either their hero card, spell cards in their hand, or other actions available to them. This results in a lot of table talk as the heroes cooperate strategically. Since each player usually only has one action (there are occasions where heroes or the Blight Lord may have extra actions), it's difficult to string together a chain of events on your own. But coordinating with other heroes can lead to some pretty complex attacks on the monsters. This truly is a cooperative game and because each Player has their own hand of cards and unique abilities I never felt like the game suffered from an alpha gamer effect.

There are also passive abilities that can trigger (for the Blight Lord, some monsters, and heroes, too) when specific sequences of actions occur. There are even persistent effects that remain active for the rest of the round once used, and reaction spells that can be used out of turn to counter an opponent's spell.

An encounter lasts until the Blight Lord eliminates all the heroes (unlikely), or the heroes destroy all the monsters (likely, but the Blight Lord should have done some damage by the end of the round). At the end of the encounter all surviving heroes draw a treasure card, plus one extra, and decide how to distribute them - one each, discarding the extra one. Then any defeated heroes rejoin the team with 6 HP, but no ability cards and no treasure. The Blight Lord can discard any spells and then draw that many new ones, and then the second encounter is ready to start. Another dungeon is selected and set up and the new encounter begins with the Blight Lord's turn.
Treasures are generally helpful, but occasionally the heroes will stumble upon a cursed treasure, which they must take.
The purple cursed treasures are generally bad, but if played right they can actually help you out.  Give Toa the Monkey's Paw
and he can use the ether he receives from getting damaged to heal himself, essentially allowing him
to have an extra action on many of his turns.
After two dungeons are encountered, if at least one hero survived, all the heroes will battle the Blight Lord.  Instead of selecting a third dungeon, the Blight Lord will flip the Blight Lord card over.  There will be a new set of abilities and actions on the back of the card and a series of five hit point icons.  Again, dice are used to track the Blight Lord's HP, and each die is treated separately.  The Blight Lord will use a number of the dice equal to the number of heroes.  The Heroes must battle the Blight Lord and knock all of it's HP dice down to zero.  If they can accomplish this before the Blight Lord destroys them all the heroes win.  If the Blight Lord manages to destroy all the heroes then the Blight Lord wins.
The Blight Lord card backs.  Each red gem icon represents a HP dial and starting from the top,
only a number equal to the number of heroes is used in the game.
So in a three player game Apep would have 7-7-8 HP dials.
Final Thoughts:
I really liked the cooperative nature of Beneath Nexus.  There was a lot of table talk going on, planning, and strategizing, between the heroes as they worked out the most effective ways to destroy the Blight Lord's monsters.  There never really seemed to be an alpha player because each player had their own hand of unique abilities.  So that really fostered a collaborative effort and encouraged communication and dialog rather than dictation and commanding.  Everyone I played with also enjoyed the game, especially the cooperative aspect, and that included both hard core and casual gamers.
Every round was filled with talk, strategizing, and discussion.
However, I did feel that there was almost too much collaboration for the heroes.  On the Blight Lord's turn, when a monster attacks, the heroes decide how to distribute that damage.  So if I'm playing the Blight Lord I can only say that I'm attacking for two damage.  Then the heroes get to decide who takes that damage.  Several of the heroes have abilities that let them heal, or do damage back to the monsters any time they are damaged.  So of course those are the heroes that always take the damage.  In that respect the game felt somewhat unbalanced in favor of the heroes at times.  When I played the Blight Lord I often felt like I really couldn't inflict more than a point or two of damage at a time each round because the heroes always had a way to counter that damage or redirect damage back at me.  What I'd like to see is the Blight Lord able to choose who to damage and if other heroes have an ability they can use to react to the damage they can offer to step in and help at the cost of exhausting that ability.  That would still keep the game cooperative (and maybe even more so), without making the Blight Lord player feel like he doesn't have any control.  This may or may not be an easy fix though.  Care would need to be taken to ensure that the Blight Lord doesn't just bully on the weakest hero.  There has to be some incentive to attack the strong heroes at times, too.  I haven't tested this though, so there's a possibility that targeting the weak isn't an issue; after all if the Blight Lord is picking on only one hero the other heroes can gang up on the Blight Lord.

With all that collaboration going on though, there were times that the game seemed to drag.  Even though we had fun playing the game, it did overstay it's welcome by a bit.  There are definitely a few areas that can be tweaked a bit to speed up the game significantly.  First is the issue with letting the heroes decide how to distribute damage inflicted by the Blight Lord.  This meant that every time the Blight Lord tried to attack, the heroes had to have another discussion to decide who was the ideal hero to take the damage.  Letting the Blight Lord decide who to damage and then only allowing a hero to interrupt if they have a reaction that can help would speed this up significantly.  Another area where time can be saved is with the treasures at the end of the encounter.  Instead of letting the heroes pick and choose who gets what, just have them draw one treasure each at random.  They get what they get.  And in cases where the dungeon room results in fewer treasures being awarded than heroes, let the heroes draw in order of speed until there aren't any more treasures to go around.  That'll cut out a significant amount of time between encounters.  Maybe allow trades as an action.  Around 60-75 minutes is probably about right for this game, but our game with five heroes took almost two hours.  Some of these adjustments could really help with that.
Selecting Treasures really slowed the game down between encounters.
On a related note is balancing of some of the Blight Lord abilities and actions.  A few of them seem really powerful, and some (particularly The Four Fiends's abilities actions) seem very weak.  For example, when using The Four Fiends, every Blight Lord action requires The Four Fiends to damage themselves.  And the passive abilities of The Four Fiends allow The Four Fiends to activate an action any time they are damaged.  But this means that in order for The Four Fiends to use that ability they have to damage themselves again.  When I played The Four Fiends I got into a position where I couldn't do anything because every time I took an Action I damaged myself and I didn't have any options that didn't damage myself.  So that battle with the Heroes was over pretty quickly.  Maybe it's something that just needs better explanations on the card, but it was a hopeless situation and I had no hope of winning, so I just waited for my eventual defeat.  The other Blight Lords don't have quite as extreme of a balance issue, but there are some pretty powerful effects.  I haven't played enough to know if they are too unbalanced, though.

I do have a problem with some of the rules, too.  As I mentioned with the dungeon room selection, a number of the rules were unclear and seemed like they were in a state of flux.  The handling of the dungeons was the most obvious, but there were other issues with missing bits, contradictory information, and confusing explanations.  I think we got everything right, at least in a way that seemed to make sense, but there were a few key bits that were never mentioned.  For example, we assumed that each action could only be taken once, however that's only stated when specifically talking about the actions on the Blight Lord's card.  It's also never mentioned if it's allowed to reshuffle ability and spell decks when they are depleted - we assumed they could be.  There are a few other areas of ambiguity in some of the card text as well, but I'm hopeful that will all be cleared up before the game gets published.

Overall though, once you understand the flow of the game everything else is pretty simple and intuitive.  The overall mechanics are simple enough that the game can be taught in a matter of minutes, but there is a lot of depth to the interactions between the Blight Lord and the monsters, between all the heroes, and between the heroes and Blight Lord.  With six heroes and four Blight Lords, each with unique spells and abilities, and ten different dungeon rooms to encounter, there is a wealth of variety.  Each game will feel significantly different.

Another thing to mention is the artwork and graphic design.  Both are really stellar.  The art on all the oversized cards (heroes, Blight Lords, and dungeons) and some of the standard cards (monsters and treasures) is really engaging and thematic.  I really hope there will be more artwork coming for the hero abilities and Blight Lord spells, but even without those the graphic design of the cards is really great.  I love all the patterns on the borders and backs of the cards.  And the symbology representing the individual heroes and Blight Lords looks great.  I do have a few small suggestions though.  The green/amber/gray gems that designate actions/reactions/abilities are great, but some of the cards don't have the gray gems next to their passive abilities. Adding these would be great.  Also adding a little more saturation to the green will help it stand out from the gray a bit (in low light it's very difficult to tell the difference).  And while I really like the different icons for the different heroes, giving their ability cards unique colors would really help with sorting and setup.  Cards generally stay with their owners, but there are times when cards are passed around for one reason or another and being able to tell who a card belongs to by the color as well as the symbol would be great.

Dungeon artwork.

Blight Lord artwork.

Monster artwork.
Treasure artwork.

Hero artwork - note that these are the only cards where
passive abilities don't have the gray gem icon.
Blight Lord spells - the middle set are common for all
Blight Lords.

Hero abilities.  Will they have artwork like the other cards,
or just the symbols?
The backs of the Hero abilities are very similar, except for the
 icons in the corners.  Color differentiation would be nice.
I also mentioned earlier that I needed to use my own dice to track HP for monsters, heroes, and the Blight Lord.  In addition to dice I also found it useful to have a number of tokens (glass gems) to keep track of actions for the Blight Lord as well as several other things (like Ether for Toa and 1 HP summoned Monsters).  These are things that really need to be included with the game when it's published.  They're essential to playing the game effectively and really should be included.  My understanding is that there will be five each of Monster and Hero HP dials, but some extra bits for tracking actions, ether, summoned monster HP, etc. would be really nice.  Maybe as stretch goals.
Tracking HP with dice works fine, but it's essential to the game, so it's a good thing Silverclutch is including HP dials.
Anyway, everything I've mentioned so far are things that should be relatively easy for Silverclutch Games to remedy before the game gets published.  None of the issues above are deal breakers, just things to be aware of.  Remember, what I received and reviewed is a prototype, so there are bound to be some changes between now and production, particularly in the rulebook and phrasing of some cards.

Now, on to a few criticisms I have with the game overall.  I think my biggest issue with the game is that it wants to be a dungeon crawler, but it's not really.  While the game was fun and the mechanics are solid, it never really felt like a dungeon crawler.  Dungeon crawlers generally have a sense of exploration and trepidation as you wonder what you're going to encounter in the next room.  Will it be a treasure or a monster?  If it's a monster what kind of treasure will it be protecting?  Or is it just in the way on my journey to a bigger prize?  Dungeon crawlers have a story, an adventure, they are trying to tell.  I never got that sense of adventure from Beneath Nexus, even though the first page of the rulebook starts to set up a very interesting world that I want to explore:

"Nexus is an ancient and storied metropolis located at the crossroads of the world. Travellers and adventurers come from every corner of the globe seeking riches, excitement, and ancient mysteries. At the center of Nexus is the Dungeon. Whether the city was built around the Dungeon, or the Dungeon was part of the city that fell into ruin and was lost in darkness, no one knows. What is known is that wealth and magic lie deep beneath Nexus, and brave heroes from all across the land come to Nexus as if led by fate’s subtle hand."

But in the game there's no reason for any of what's going on in the game to be happening.  It's a series of encounters, not an adventure.  Why are these heroes in the dungeons?  Yes there's treasure, but honestly the treasure cards aren't all that impressive.  Why would these heroes risk their lives battling the Blight Lord and it's minions?  There's no ultimate reward other than to say you defeated the Blight Lord.  It's enough for a mechanically sound game, but it's just not inspiring or engaging.

When I play a dungeon crawler I want to come out with a story all about the monsters I battled, the rooms I explored, and the big bad boss I defeated in order to gain the ultimate treasure (or rescue the princess, or something).  I should be able to tell the story of my epic quest to sages so it won't be forgotten, bards so they'll sing about my conquests, kings so they'll know what kind of hero I am.  But Beneath Nexus is rather forgettable.  There's no emotion behind the game.  And that's a shame because the world that is created in the initial blurb of text, in the incredible art and graphics, in the well thought out characters, hints at a story that wants to be told.  There is even a lot of backstory included on the Beneath Nexus Facebook Page.  But the story never came out in the gameplay.

This is a world I want to be invested in, not just draw two random cards and figure out with my friends the best mathematical way to reduce a few dice to zero before my die gets reduced to zero, and then encounter another card with several dice that need to be reduced to zero.
Most of the discussion is in determining the optimal move to do the most damage.
It's fun, but doesn't draw you into the story or theme.

What would I do different?  I don't think it would take much.  Like I said, the world created outside of the game is fantastic, it's just that the story doesn't flow through to the gameplay.  I think what the game needs are two elements to really make it shine:
  1. An ultimate goal beyond just defeating the Blight Lord.  Give the heroes a reason that the Blight Lord needs to be defeated.  This could be something as simple as a corruption track and every time something in the game happens (maybe at the start of every Blight Lord turn) Nexus falls a little more to the corrupt powers of the Blight Lord.  Give the Heroes something they can do to help redeem Nexus, but if they can't defeat the Blight Lord before Nexus falls they lose.  It's a simple concept, but would require a bit of rebalancing, however I think the story and emotional incentive would be a huge benefit to the gameplay.
  2. Add some adventure to the game.  Knowing the game will be two random encounters and a final battle gets boring quickly.  Even though the heroes never know what room they'll have to face, there's no sense of control, no important decisions.  Even though each dungeon room is different, they are still pretty balanced, so it ultimately doesn't matter a whole lot what rooms get picked.  I'd love to see a variety of rooms that have a variety of difficulties.  There could be challenging rooms that will offer greater rewards and easier rooms that will provide for quicker movement through the dungeon, but provide fewer benefits.  The base Blight Lord should be a bit stronger than the Heroes, however the treasures gathered throughout the dungeon can strengthen the Heroes.  Then give the Heroes options that matter in each Encounter.  They can take the easy room and get to the Blight Lord quicker and with more HP, but fewer treasures that can help them on their way, or a challenging room that will force them to face more monsters and obstacles, but the potential rewards will be much greater, and then a medium difficulty room that is somewhere in the middle.  The Heroes could have these three decisions during each of the two encounters, or, better yet, identify the level of each room with a different back, then create a random dungeon that guides the heroes to the Blight Lord at the end.  The random dungeon would be created from seven random rooms: three easy, two medium, and two hard rooms, laid out in a 2-3-2 pattern.  They Heroes would at one side of two rooms and the Blight Lord would be on the other side.  Heroes can choose their own path through the dungeon without knowing what the specific rooms are, but have an idea of the difficulty.  This will take creating several new dungeon rooms and balancing multiple difficulties for multiple heroes, but again, the story element and decisions presented I think would really give the game the epic feel it deserves.  Plus the variability of having different rooms come out in different combinations and different orders would really add to the variety and replayability.
A setup like this would be very interesting.  Have four encounters in the game instead of three, and the heroes
choose their path through a randomly created dungeon with easy, medium, and hard rooms before they get to the Blight Lord.  

Reviews like this one are really hard for me to write because on one hand I really like the game and see potential in it.  It's not a bad game.  The mechanics are solid, the artwork is great, and I really had fun playing it.  But on the other hand it's a far cry from what it could be.  Is it a good game?  Yes.  Is it a great game?  No.  But it could be!  It's like watching a batter in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game with the bases loaded and a full count smash a ball way out to right field... just to have it fall a few inches short of the fence and right into the fielder's glove.  Now I'm not a big sports or baseball fan, but I know that feeling, and I'm sure you do to.  There's everything here.  It has the makings of being something really big.  But it falls short, but just barely.

So should you get Beneath Nexus?  If you like the idea of heroes cooperatively battling monsters then yes, you won't be disappointed.  If you want a mechanically sound card game that plays with four to six players, you won't be disappointed.  If you want something with great artwork and great looking graphic design, you won't be disappointed.  If you want a game with well thought out asymmetrical characters and cool monsters, you won't be disappointed.  If you want an engaging dungeon crawler adventure that tells a great story then you'll find this lacking.  If you're just looking for a mechanically sound game then you can figure a 7.5 or 8 rating for the game - there's a lot that Beneath Nexus does right, but with the adventure lacking, my rating is a 6.5 - which is still a decent rating, just not what it could be if the game had a bit more heart.

If Beneath Nexus sounds like a game you'd be interested in be sure to check out their Kickstarter campaign.  Beneath Nexus launched on Kickstarter on August 1, 2016 for $35 (an early bird is available for $25) and runs through the end of the month.

Preliminary Rating: 6.5/10
This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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