Tech

Nemesis brings alien impregnation horror to your tabletop—and it works

Enlarge / The intruders are… unpleasant.Awaken Realms

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Youre roused early from cold sleep. The ships hibernatorium—and likely the remainder of the ship—is running on half power. Theres a body nearby. More accurately, theres a body all over. For a moment, your sleep-fogged brain assumes somebody has splashed BBQ pork all over the floor and walls. Nope; thats the crew member who was supposed to be on watch while everyone else slumbered.

Welcome to Nemesis, a board game with strong (but decidedly unofficial!) echoes of Ridley Scotts Alien. It raised millions on Kickstarter—but is it any good?

At the table, everybody can hear you scream

Generally, board games dont do horror very well.

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Oh, theyre plenty good at tension. Setting up a climactic play over multiple turns, waiting to see if somebody undoes all your hard work by taking that card youve been eyeing, wondering whether your spouse is secretly Hitler… these are the moments board games create almost effortlessly. One time, I realized Id been holding my breath during Exploding Kittens. Here was a game I wouldnt ordinarily confess to playing, and yet my entire body was rigid was apprehension. (Granted, this was because I hoped the game would end as soon as possible, but still.)

Nemesis takes that tension and weaponizes it. From its very first moments, this is a game about the terror of the known, the half-known, and the unknown. Such is its dedication to that prickle you get when somebody threatens to jab you in the kidney that the game even features player elimination. Note that Im saying Nemesis “features” player elimination, not that it suffers from it. Getting knocked out of a three-hour game within the first 40 minutes is a design decision, not an oversight. Sure, its a bummer. But dont you think Executive Officer Kane was bummed when that chestburster did precisely what its name implies? Ill bet he was totally bummed. Ill bet he wishes he could have stuck around until the ending and helped Warrant Officer Ripley jettison that bastard alien out the airlock. Ill bet he thinks its unfair that a single lapse of judgement resulted in having his sternum ruptured by an unknown lifeform. Too bad.

Game details

Designer: Adam Kwapiński
Publisher: Awaken Realms/Rebel
Players: 1-5
Age: 12+
Playing time: 35 minutes/player
Price: $149 (currently hard to find)

The same thing can happen in Nemesis, leaving a puddle of raspberry jelly and a freshly hatched creeper where once stood a human being. So it goes when you dont head to the surgery room as soon as a space monster roots around your esophagus with its multi-jawed proboscis.

Of course, even this doesnt come across as truly horrific. When your character makes too much noise and summons a queen from the depths of the ships utility level, you wont kick your chair to the floor and leap from the table. Maybe youll swear. But scream? Thats a tall order.

Still, when it comes to tension, theres plenty to go around here. And while youre creeping through corridors to avoid drawing the attention of the games aliens, Nemesis is leveraging an even more potent agent—its players.

Fires, broken computers, and the cold hard vacuum of space

At first, the business of surviving feels pretty much as youd expect. When you start, you dont actually know the specific layout of the ship. The helm is located up front and the engines are back at the stubby end, but beyond that you cant seem to recall whether the hibernatorium is adjacent to the cafeteria or the escape pods. Is this amnesia? Awakening sickness?

OK, its a little silly—even on a regular airline flight they take pains to point out the exits, and there youre just sitting in a plain aluminum cylinder rather than a sprawling space vessel—but the gameplay in Nemesis actually benefits from this sense of dislocation. For the most part, your job is to uncover the ship, scrounge together the stuff you need to survive, and ensure you get home with all your bits attached. This usually entails checking the engines, fixing some stuff, maybe reentering the ships coordinates, and climbing back into hibernation. But because the ships layout is unknown, youre feeling your way through the dark. Nothing is certain.

The obvious problem here is the aforementioned aliens, called “intruders,” and Nemesis smartly pitches them as unknowns. Successive plays see you growing more accustomed to the differences between creepers and adults, breeders and the dreaded queen, but the aliens aura of threat and mystery is never fully dispelled. For one thing, they lack firm details. You wont find any stat cards or damage pips. Instead, their behaviors are dictated by card draw. Does an encounter with an adult intruder pose bodily harm, threat of contamination, or the possibility of a new hitchhiker in your stomach? In each case, the answer is “maybe.” Will a shotgun take apart an adult in one hit? Possibly, but also possibly not.

Even worse, the buggers appear at random from a draw bag as your exploration of the ship makes more of a ruckus. This gives every decision some bite, especially when you need to reach a room thats hemmed in with noise tokens, youre already hurt, and you suddenly remember just how many monstrosities have been added to the draw bag over the past hour. When your life is on the line—that is, your elimination from the game—do you really need to accomplish your objective?

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