Jerod and I have been playing a lot of Nicodemus, a new two player game by Bruno Cathala and Florian Sirieix, and the tagline for the game is “352 years of good and loyal service at the dream factory.”
Heh. Dream Factory. This review is practically gonna write itself.
Sure, the tagline instantly called to my mind Crowded House’s well known Don’t Dream It’s Over (what some might call the Beyond The Sun of New Zealand pop hits). But Finn’s dreamy lyrics are all over the place, a little about love, a little about heartache, and a lot about walking through life without noticing what’s important. In each verse, Finn crafts a pitch perfect elevator description of a two player co-operative game, where each player desperately needs to wake up and see what’s happening all around them before the dream is over, a clever metaphor for gratia plena.
So what’s the problem? Well, for starters, Nicodemus is the exact opposite of a co-op game. Surprisingly enough (or maybe not so surprising considering la philosophie française du jeu), we found Nicodemus to be one of the more interactive two player games Beverly disguised as an engine building abstract.
But before we get to the gameplay, we must address the elephant in the room first.
I get the concept. You remember Imaginarium? Yes, the same team is back: Cathala, Sirieix, artist Felideus Bubastis, publisher Bombyx / Luma, all teaming up to bring you a game built in the same universe. If you’re not familiar, then imagine a steam punk world where players are competing to build fanciful machines, with some light engine building. Now imagine the same team diving back into that world to bring the play count down from four or five players to a tight, quick playing two player game.
Nicodemus shows you right on the box cover that you are returning to this world. Just like the original, the artwork is busy and fills every available space with arcs and swirls and cloudy mist. Staring at you intently are the determined faces of the two “assistants” that you and your partner will play. I would never order up this artwork to brighten up my dining room …. and yet …. I could not stop starting at each individual card’s artwork. It’s mesmerizing, disturbing, and intriguing all at the same time. From that sense, it works.
So what about the gameplay? This is a game where we need to talk a little about the theme, because even though this is essentially an abstract game, there are parts of the story that help make the mechanics make sense. Apparently, our boss, Nicodemus, is tired. He’s been building out these Imaginarium style machines for almost half a century, and it’s time for his two right hand anamorphic assistants to step up and take his place.
But who will get the keys to Nicodemus’ steampunk kingdom? Why, whoever scores the most points once the end game trigger of 20 points happens, of course.
Each turn, players will stare at a hand of cards, trying to ignore the implications of a food truck made out of a rhino or a pig-faced train, and choose one of the machines in hand to play to the bric-a-brac, otherwise known as the assembly line. This is a concept that takes a few turns to understand how to get over the hurdles to scoring points. But if you think about the game thematically, it might make more sense.
It works in steps, just like a factory:
- First, you put a machine onto the assembly line, getting some resources and/or a quick power boost like forcing your opponent to shed cards or resources or grabbing scoring objective cards;
- Then, once you have the matching resources of ANY card on the assembly line, pay the resources and put the machine in your tableau;
- Finally, grab one of the scoring goals by matching the machines you have in your tableau to the objective cards shared between the two assistants or the private ones you can gain from the machines
When I visualized the bric-a-brac working like that, it made it a little easier to understand the delayed gratification that comes with just playing a card out of your hand. The disconnect is actually easy to understand. In almost every other card game you play, putting a card down in your tableau gets you something and that’s it. You might ‘tap’ it later on for more benefits, or it might give you a permanent benefit or end game scoring goal (like in Khora: Rise of an Empire), but the card is essentially ready for use.
Why make it more difficult, you ask? Great question. The reason is pretty simple – those cards you lay down temporarily give you a little boon, a la Century: Spice Roads or Splendor. While they are in your tableau — in other words, before you score the objective cards and wipe them out — they give you a one cube boost to grab even more machines off of the bric-a-brac.
That sounds just like Splendor, right? But Nicodemus has deeper questions to answer. What if your tableau was limited to four cards at a time? What if you hit the mark and all of your machines disappear? What if every time you score those sweet objectives, the machines disappear there, too?
And now we see the rub of the game. Yes, it is a race to be the first to twenty points, which triggers the end game. Yes, it’s a relatively simple game about scoring the most points. But, what has made me and Jerod come back to this game time and again is that juicy decision of when to build your tiny little engine of machines that give you tiny little bonuses, and turn them in to score three or four or even five point objectives. In a game where the end goal is to get to twenty points faster than your rival, those bonus points can really rev up your engine.
There were some complaints in some quarters that Imaganarium was too dry, and didn’t have enough player interaction. We have not felt that so far in Nicodemus. The game is mechanical, of course, and that kind of fits the theme. But it is also surprisingly interactive. The red cards are the most attack-y of the machines. They steal stuff. They make cards disappear out of player’s hands. They are annoying as heck, but luckily, there are not that many of them, and never seem to be a driver of anyone’s strategy, just a way to trip up the other player as in some kind of Wacky Steampunks Olympics.
But there is a lot more interaction than at first blush. After the first game, we began to see that some of the cards are effective at culling out the machines in the bric-a-brac that are helpful to your opponent and useless to you. We also enjoyed how playing certain machines back-to-back, using your hand management skills, gives you a chaining effect on resources that can speed you up just in time to snatch an objective right out from under the other player’s nose. Sure, some of these interactions are subtle, but there’s that reward of playing the game multiple times that opens up these possibilities. Rewarding multiple plays is a good thing.
I’m thinking back on my plays of Nicodemus the past few weeks, and my enjoyment has been a slow fuse. The artwork and stair-step play was admittedly confusing to me at first. But as we have dived more into the game, and the mechanics have slowly melted away to quicker decisions about the machines to build, I’ve come to appreciate something about Nicodemus that I missed at first.
Here’s a game that is willing to take a chance on adding more layers to your typical “trade cubes for points” engine building games. I like when designers take risks. I want to reward designers that stretch their wings. Cathala and Sirieux had to know that their game was going to be a tough sell to most gamers just on first glance, but it is my contention that gamers willing to invest a little time into exploring the mechanics are going to be well rewarded.
Plus, Nicodemus can be taught in minutes, and each outing lasts less than an hour from set-up-to-close-up, so for those after-dinner gamers, it’s a great fit as a “one hour wonder.” Once you get the bric-a-brac down conceptually, you’ll be combo-tasticating your way to victory, or in my case, a good solid second place.
Hmm. Let me rethink my opening. Maybe Neil Finn was an influence to the designers after all. Count the steps to the door of your heart, said Finn. There’s a battle ahead…but you’ll never see the end of the road while you’re travelling with me.
Don’t dream it’s over.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher.