Tom vs Bruce: Nemo’s War

Part I: Finding Nemo

Bruce: I never really had an opinion on Jules Verne. Sure, Journey to the Center of the Earth was a cool documentary, but you can only read so much non-fiction before you start feeling like youre back in school. But thanks to the iPad and digital books and the Internet, I downloaded a free copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from Project Gutenberg, and in the introduction came upon this extraordinary information.

Initially, Verne’s narrative was influenced by the 1863 uprising of Poland against Tsarist Russia. The Poles were quashed with a violence that appalled not only Verne but all Europe. As originally conceived, Verne’s Captain Nemo was a Polish nobleman whose entire family had been slaughtered by Russian troops. Nemo builds a fabulous futuristic submarine, the Nautilus, then conducts an underwater campaign of vengeance against his imperialist oppressor.

But in the 1860s France had to treat the Tsar as an ally, and Verne’s publisher Pierre Hetzel pronounced the book unprintable. Verne reworked its political content, devising new nationalities for Nemo and his great enemyinformation revealed only in a later novel, The Mysterious Island (1875); in the present work Nemo’s background remains a dark secret.

This automatically makes Jules Verne my second-favorite author after Stanislaw Lem. And gives me a great new angle for role-playing my way through one of my favorite solitaire games, Nemos War, designed by Chris Taylor (different Chris Taylor) and published by Victory Point Games in 2009 (available here). It builds on the basic idea that games tell the best stories when they dont overtly try to tell any story at all, and cushions it with the background of a great story you can conjure up in your mind any time you want, which is Vernes book about a mysterious captain who travels the seas in a futuristic submarine and has adventures while pretty much being a badass.

Tom: Keep in mind that you might not understand Bruce’s description of Nemo as a badass if you haven’t read Verne’s book. Actually, even if you have read Verne’s book, you might still have a tough time of it. In actual history, France never researched Good Writing, unlike England and America. So you have to peer beyond the main character, a dopey French scientist type whose name no one outside of France can pronounce correctly. Professor Aaron Axe, as near as I can tell, but at some point, you probably have to make a sound like you’re hocking a loogey. You find out plenty about Professor Aaron Axe and his love of fish in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Meanwhile, Nemo spends a lot of time on the other side of a closed door, ignoring the main characters, who include Professor Axe, his butler, and a Canadian harpoonist tagalong. And when Nemo finally comes out from behind the door, he doesn’t really say a whole lot about himself. He’s not the kind of guy who would use Twitter or even have a Facebook page.

What’s worse, if you saw the 1950s Disney movie, you might think of Nemo as a proper Englishman doing a James Mason impression. Or if you saw League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on Alec Gaiman’s comic books, you might think of Nemo as a dude in a turban who doesn’t have many lines.

Bruce: There are actually at least two other versions. One is a made-for-TV movie starring Michael Caine, which I remember seeing as a kid. The other, which I initially mistook for the Michael Caine version when surfing through Amazon Primes on-demand video service, is a 1916 version (not a typo) starring Allen Holubar as Captain Nemo. You may know him from 1915s The Bombay Buddha, as well as Heart Punch from the same year, in which he appears as Al Halubar. I was looking for some video inspiration, and briefly considered checking that out. But I settled for the 1954 Disney version with Kirk Douglas as Ned Land. There was slightly less singing than in a hypothetical Bollywood rendition.

Tom: Is it anti-American to point out that this movie will forever make me think of Kirk Douglas as a total goofball on par with Robin Williams, but less funny and more muggy?

Bruce: Dude, the guy played Spartacus. How badass is that? Maybe they should have cast him as Nemo.

Tom: This guy played Spartacus?

Well, that’s another old-timey grandpa movie I don’t need to see.

Bruce: If you want to just get the basic facts of what happens on the Nautilus, without the turgid writing, invest in a childrens edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Thats how I first read it, and when I went to read the real thing on Project Gutenberg, I was shocked to find how much extraneous text there was that didnt add anything except time and confusion. The process of editing stuff for kids must make it a lot better. Although it doesnt do much to shed light on the character of Captain Nemo.

Tom: The intriguing thing about Nemo is how little you know about him and why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s one of those literary figures driven to his doom at sea. Ahab, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, Hemingway’s old man, Quint. Nemo’s War captures this by having you play the game for a while before having to make a choice about why Nemo is doing what he’s doing, and therefore how you’re going to win or lose the game. At a certain point, you have to make a choice on Nemo’s commitment track, which will determine how your victory points are scored. This means sometimes Nemo’s War is about exploration, sometimes it’s about science, sometimes it’s about war, and sometimes it’s about Verne’s original story of revenge against imperialism. But it’s always going to be about deciding which of those things is Nemo’s primary motivation.

Bruce: Thats something you get to decide, by the way, since this is a solitaire game and most of the decisions are up to you. All good solitaire games have something that drives you forward. In Nemos War its the calendar: you have a fixed number of turns (52 weeks) to scourge the seas and liberate the oppressed, find treasure, discover scientific phenomena, and keep the Nautilus from sinking.

But having a driving force is only one of the key elements of a good solitaire game, and in this case it can drive you to multiple endgames. This is the best part of Nemos War, because there are multiple ways to win, and (even better) multiple ways to lose. Im sorry, did I say that this is the best part of Nemos War? I should correct myself. The best thing about Nemos War is how the theme is so tightly integrated with the game that any the red cube represents Catholicism abstraction goes right out the window. You move around the worlds oceans, revealing ships (which you sink or capture), drawing treasures from a random pool, reading thematic event cards. It all ends up coming down to die rolls, but how you manage those die rolls is so perfectly tied up in the games theme that Im ready to go buy a bunch of Chris Taylors other designs (Astra Titanus, Legions of Darkness) based on the evidence that he is some sort of design savant.

Tom: I have no idea what Bruce is talking about. Everyone knows white cubes should represent Catholicism. Blue cubes should represent Protestants, red cubes should represent heresy, and green cubes should represent Islam. Black cubes are witchcraft. Duh.

Bruce: You start out with a full set of resources: crew, Nautilus hull, and the will of Captain Nemo. Each one of these gives you a bonus to your roll. The catch is that you have to risk your resources to take advantage of the bonus, and if you fail your roll anyway, your resources degrade. Eventually your crew, which gave you a hefty +3 bonus when the game started, is down to only +1. Same with the hull of the Nautilus, which can only take so much of a beating. The brilliant exception is Captain Nemo, who starts out giving you a +2 bonus but actually gets better as his psyche degrades to Erratic and then Broken. But kill your crew completely, or sink the Nautilus, or drive Nemo insane, and the game ends. Furthermore, you get victory points for keeping these resources near the top of the track. If you can keep them all near maximum, its worth 40 VP at the end of the game.

The game is obviously balanced in such a way as to force you to exert your resources — youd fail most of the die rolls if you didnt. And like all solitaire games which dont depend on figuring out a system (like, say, Reiner Knizias Lord of the Rings), you do have to count on a bit of luck if you want to do well. Im completely fine with that. The game is a ride, and if youre not willing to give up some control in the name of open-ended storytelling, just grab the Caylus box and go over to that corner.

So heres the deal: well each play through a game of Nemos War, and score ourselves at the end. Whoever achieves the highest score, wins.

If I had known about it sooner, I would have made a custom map using Tracy Bakers awesome redesign, available for free at Boardgamegeek.

But I didnt, so youll have to try it out yourself to see what its like.

Tom: Aw, man, I almost wished I hadn’t seen that. If I didn’t think Nemo’s War was an ugly game before…

…I sure do now.

Up next: The Adventure Begins