138 Games: From Nexus Ops to Vegas Showdown

After taking the month of July off, we’re back with a brand new entry in the 138 Games series.  As you can tell from the title, this entry is sandwiched with a pair of 2005 Avalon Hill games that have been much beloved by gamers since they were unceremoniously dropped by AH in a 2006 fire sale.  Thankfully one is back in print now with a new publisher and hopefully the other will be too at some point.  We’re rounding out this 2005 entry with a couple of heavy hitters and are counterbalancing that with a nice, light dice game.  With only 20 games to go (and a few games we skipped chronologically along the way and will revisit at the end), we should be able to wrap up the series in no time.

– Nexus Ops –

Rick Thornquist:  My introduction to Nexus Ops was a little odd.  I was at my friendly local game store when I spotted the game.  I checked it out and thought, what the heck, this looks pretty good, let’s buy the sucker.  I brought it home and when I read the rules my heart sank.  It was obviously just another mindless dice-rolling fight-fest.  I figured I had just flushed my forty bucks down the toilet.  That is, until I played it.

Nexus Ops is a battle game done right.  Yes, it’s a dice fest, and yes, you are constantly fighting, but your goals (and strategies) change depending on what victory point cards you get.  Turtling, a common problem with these types of games, is avoided by giving you victory point cards that require expansion (and attacking).  After I played it, I was delighted with how well the game worked and how much fun it was.  I still bring it out when I want a good dice-rolling battle game.  That was forty bucks well spent.

Matt Carlson:  Axis and Allies may have been first (at least for me), but Nexus Ops stands as one of the best example of its genre.  Yes, it is a dice-rolling battle game, but it is a dice-rolling battle game WITH DISTINCT UNIT PURCHASES.  That makes all the difference.  As Rick mentions, one varies one’s strategy to try to redeem particular drawn victory point cards, but that also means you are going to be buying a different set of army pieces.  It is the variable army mix, combined with a streamlined and fast-playing game that marks this as one of the greats of its style.  I enjoyed it so much, I wrote a series of strategy articles for the game for the Wizards of the Coast website!  For those who feel the game can feel a bit one-sided depending on the tiles revealed, I’ve heard very good things about the game when played in a 2 vs. 2 team setting.

Tom Rosen:  I picked this game for this list because it is the perfect game to show anyone who has fond memories of playing Risk when they were younger, or even those with not so fond memories of the game taking too long or being too random.  Nexus Ops takes the idea of Risk and turns it into an incredible game.  First and foremost, Nexus Ops takes 1 hour to play because you play to a victory point target rather than until all but one player are eliminated.  Second, the way in which points are awarded demands that players advance and attack rather than holing up in a corner of the board, so it doesn’t have the common problem of one player benefiting from the other two fighting while you sit back and watch.  Third, the team variant is fantastic.  You get to work together with a partner to conquer the monolith and vanquish your foes, plus it helps balance the vagaries of the mine placement that determines the resources that players have for buying new units each turn.  I can’t believe it took me until fourth to get to this point, but the variability of the units and their abilities is fantastic.  It’s reasonably simple, but yet manages to create a great array of differences among the forces available and how they interact with the different terrain.  I know I’m gushing but Nexus Ops is truly the quintessential example of a die-rolling combat game done right.

– Twilight Imperium 3 –

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  Few games like Twilight Imperium can show the history and the growth of the board game market.  From the first to the third edition, TI evolved, improving from year to year and collecting suggestions and new mechanisms from the hobby.  The third edition, actually the best, is a truly modern game with everything an “American game” needs, but with core mechanics from “Euro games” (such as the roles inspired from Puerto Rico).  A game that a gamer needs to play at least once in his time because it is a real and deep immersion in all the 4X genre can offer.  Many (all?) of the 4X games in the succeeding years are striving to emulate TI3 by trying to offer the same experience in less time or with easier rules, or…

You have different races, a great theme, nice materials, a huge box full of everything, different plastic starships, diplomacy, technologies, interaction, alliance, wars… and, amazingly, the two expansions improve the player experience.  However, the basic game could still be enough for years of play for a passionate group.

– Twilight Struggle –

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  If Twilight Struggle has the 1st rank in BGG it means it is a great game.  Actually it is one of the best two-player games ever, if you have 2-3 hours of time.  The theme is challanging and rules not too difficult, but they are not trivial.  TS is able to gather the interest of historical board game addicts but also a big portion of the “Euro” lovers.

Easy rules, balanced mechanics, and fully thematic.  Another great thing about TS is its replayability and how you can improve from game to game.  Of course it’s a game that you need to know well to win, but it is simple enough to offer some fun to novices.

It is a card driven board game where cards are really the main part of the game and it is great how they interact with the map.

We are in the Cold War years and during the game, by playing cards and taking actions, you can alter the control of states and regions.  Sometimes during the game there are scoring phases (activated by cards) that give points according to which player is controlling these regions.  There are also event cards (based on historical events) that characterized these years.

Behind the “war” for the control of the world there is the space race and the risk of nuclear war: all mixed in a thematic and fluid way.  Twilight Struggle is a game you need to play even if you are not a lover of strategic and heavy historical boardgames.

– Pickomino –

Jeff Allers:  Knizia has said that with Pickomino, he wanted to make a modern Yahtzee, the perfect dice-rolling filler game.  It has succeeded in becoming just that in both my circles of gamers and casual game players alike.  Pickomino has a cute, appealing theme (players are chickens fighting over the “Bratworms” that are frying on the “grill” in the middle) but the mechanisms are seamless and original.  Unlike so many dice games before and since, there is no “roll any number of dice up to 3 times” rule.  Instead, there is much more of a “push your luck” element, as players can keep rolling until they either choose to stop or they scratch.  The decision of which numbers to lock after each roll are not overwhelming, but they do provide tension, and there is even some great player interaction in being able to steal the top tile from an opponent’s stack of bratworms. The game also supports up to 7 players, although I prefer playing it with 3-5, as there is otherwise too much downtime for my tastes.

Larry:  Most gamers know that Knizia essentially launched the era of substantive cooperative games with his Lord of the Rings.  What’s less recognized is that Pickomino pretty much did the same thing for dice games.  It was a major hit and after Tom Lehmann also scored with To Court the King the following year, suddenly dice games were popular for the first time in decades.  There have been a bunch of good ones released since then, but it all began with Pickomino.

But that’s not why this is a bucket game.  Instead, it’s because this can be played strictly for laughs or quite skillfully.  For students of probability management, there’s quite a few interesting decisions to be made each game.  Properly deciding which numbers to lock down can definitely help your winning percentage.  This is particularly true when you have a specific value that you’re trying to steal.  Most of the gaming world plays Pickomino like a party game, and that’s fine, since it’s a lot of fun like that.  But the fact that you can apply real strategy to the game definitely raises its value in my eyes.

Matt Carlson:  A great, quick, fun game that still has some strategy available.  I love the game as I can teach it to new gamers as we play.  Almost no setup or explanation time!

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  Still one of best and most played dice games, perfect for holiday season on the beach. It is a nice game both for kids (you have a lot of simple math in the game) and for adults. As Larry says, it’s one of the games (or the game) that launched the revived popularity of dice games.

Of course it is as luck driven as many of the other dice games of the last few years, but as it’s a light family/kids game, this is OK.

– Vegas Showdown –

Nathan Beeler:  Anyone paying close attention to my writings over the years (I’m looking at you, dad) will know that I am a sucker for auction games.  I love the amount of control they give you to decide your fate, while simultaneously injecting a design with copious amounts of non-aggressive interaction (some would argue that bidding up a player is aggressive and mean, but that particular sword can slit its wielder’s throat just as easily, and doesn’t feel nearly as nasty to me as someone choosing to sack my village or flatten my race car’s tire).  So it is with open arms that I embraced Vegas Showdown, a wonderful game that uses the auction mechanism from Amun-Re (a game I don’t like for other reasons) to allow players to set bids on multiple items at once.  The items in question are rooms to be built in a player’s casino, and the purpose of building them is to endow that casino’s owner a certain amount of fame or revenue or foot traffic.  The minimum prices for these rooms start prohibitively high and drop a little each round.  The prices can drop to basement levels at times, but that’s only where an auction begins.  To actually bring that kind of a bargain home a player needs to not be outbid too much as well.  It is therefore better to be rich when others are poor at the moment the room you want enters dirt cheap territory.  Of course, you can’t just sit around waiting, or you will lose as others race past you.  Vegas Showdown is thus primarily a game of skill, of managing your money and timing your play.  While there is luck, the game also require a fair bit of forethought and finesse.  Sadly, the cover of the box hints at no such depths (the new cover is only a smidge better), and I think has done the disservice of keeping people away from this title in droves.  The cover would make someone believe they’re in for some kind of casino game variant.  That is a pity, as this game absolutely needs to be played by all gamers.

Matt Carlson:  Nexus Ops and Vegas Showdown were the crown jewels of Wizards of the Coast’s relaunch of the Avalon Hill brand.  As Nexus Ops was a great dicefest wargame, so is Vegas Showdown an excellent gamer-friendly auction game.  It is unfortunate that the game was not recognized for its very Euro-friendly style when it was launched.  Now that it is out of print, the game has become somewhat expensive to obtain.  (Ironic, since it started out as one of the most easily available euro-style games around due to the Hasbro influence…)

To be continued…

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