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NEHEMIAH   Lukasz Wozniak     for     LEONARDO GAMES

Number of Players: 2-4   Aged from 10 upwards     60 minutes per game

Nehemiah was the main force behind the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, using timber from the King’s Forest and, I believe one must assume, also the fallen stones of the previous walls. He also built several Gates and Towers. This all occurred in the mid 400’s BC. Now that you have been given this brief lesson in history it is time to forget it all and get to playing the game. 

NEHEMIAH the boardgame is about building walls and gates, but only in principle for you actually never build anything. Nehemiah is more of a card game than a boardgame which is perpetuated by the fact that the game is played around a 5 (column) by 4 (row) grid of cards.

         There are 72 work cards split into three decks marked, rather audaciously, as I, II and III. The cards from Deck I are shuffled and then laid out randomly to form the first grid. This leaves 16 cards in Deck I and 16 cards in each of Deck II and Deck III. As the cards from the grid are removed (I’ll say how in a moment) so the grid is refilled. Once Deck I is exhausted there is a scoring break and then cards from Deck II are used to carry on the game by completing the grid. When Deck II is exhausted there is another scoring and of course the game ends with the final scoring when Deck III runs out of cards.

So how does a Deck become exhausted and how/when do you refill the grid ?  A player’s Turn consists of making the choice between claiming a card by standing a worker (meeple) on it or by activating a card on which you have a standing worker. Please note the word “standing” as you can only activate a card if it has a standing worker on it. Players claim cards from the top of each column downwards, never (unless otherwise allowed by a card action) leaving a gap between worker loaded cards, e.g. if a worker is on the top card in the column the next card played in that column must be placed on the second card down. So to recap; when playing a worker on a card you must place it on the first available unoccupied space in any column.

To activate a card it must have a standing worker, which you do instead of placing a worker this Turn, however you can activate the worker without having to do the action on the card, you can simply just lay the worker down and ignore the card text. Unless it has an action you cannot afford – some card actions have a cost – there are not many times when you wouldn’t activate it. It is entirely possible that cards may be activated more than once in the right circumstances; working towards these circumstances is part of good planning and a perceived strategy.

Being able to activate several cards is the way to better your position in the game. To be able to do this you need to have collected coins, which of course you obtain by activating cards. As long as you have a worker standing on a card you are able to activate that card and ANY other card above it in the column that has an exhausted (lying down) worker on it, no matter whose worker is on the card. To activate the card your standing worker is on is free, use the effect of the card and lay the worker down, simple. Now you can pay 1 coin for each card above this one that has an exhausted worker on it and is above the first card you activated to reactivate it. You pay the coin to the Bank if the worker is yours and to the owning player otherwise, but you do not stand the worker back up.

If you activate the 4th card in a column then once you have used its effect the worker is exhausted as usual but you do not get the chance to activate any of the cards above it as the entire column is now removed, workers sent back home, and new cards from the current stack (I, II or III) replace the column. If there are no cards left in the current stack to refill the column then a scoring occurs; thus there are three scorings rounds in a game.

    Sitting above the grid are three large tiles that represent Walls, Temple and Guards. There is also a small deck of cards that depict the city Gates. Each of these Gate cards has a numerical value on its face down side which are worth Victory Points (VPs) at the end of the game. The stack is not random but set specifically so that the lowest value cards, the 2s are at the top then the 3s and finally the 4s. There are only 8 Gate cards so it is possible for some players to collect more than one and others to collect none. They are collected by selecting and activating the correct worker (grid) card.  

The top three tiles have fixed VP rates and are scored in a scoring round with the player who has the most influence in each gaining the higher value VP score on a sliding scale. Again the players gain access to these tiles by activating the necessary worker cards on the grid and placing their influence cubes accordingly. Once a scoring has taken place the player or players that had the most influence for each tile separately have to remove one of their influence cubes; this is a neat way to prevent one player running away with the VPs per tile at each scoring, at least it is as long as the other players don’t let them.

It is likely that hard core boardgames players may think there isn’t enough of a challenge here as the game usually begins quite tamely as players jostle for position on the grid, and at first it is unlikely that anyone will get all of their workers in play before activating a card. The rule is that if you have all your workers out you have to activate a card or pass. It is almost impossible to get all your workers in play on cards and exhausted but if you somehow manage it then you will have to pass your turn until someone crashes a column with at least one of your workers in it. As the game gets nearer its central play-time – roughly halfway through the second deck of worker cards – then it is quite likely that at least one player will have all their workers in play.

This is the type of game that draws bad press to it for the first impression given by the box art and the game’s name. Nehemiah not only is Religious, but it looks religious and sounds religious and that can be as much of a turn off – before the rules are even read or a game tried – as having a football game that features Arsenal (for USA read the Jets) and hoping to sell it to players who support Spurs (USA read Dolphins). Any indication that a game is either “religious” or “educational” often prejudices prospective players, illogical or not, that’s human nature. I would like to say to all board games players to put any of those prejudices aside and give Nehemiah a chance because it really is an excellent, well produced, well thought out and well designed game.

There are 12 pages of rules, three-quarter sized pages, with illustrations and wide open text on each. Everything is laid out so you can read through once and then play easily, and once one player knows the rules they are even easier to explain in just a few minutes to players who have never seen the game before.

As is our wont here at Games Gazette, even if a game plays really well, we like to sometimes tweak the rules for a little more strategy. In the case of Nehemiah we have played several games where you can only reactivate your own exhausted workers, paying the coin to the Bank of course. It doesn’t change the rules that much but it does change the dynamics and makes it a lot more important which cards you place workers on when you cannot use other player’s workers/card effects

    There are some variations and variants on play: For example in the two-player game each player begins with one set of influence cubes but two sets of workers (6 of each colour) and in a 3-player game each player uses 7 workers. In our opinion it is best played with a full complement of players, though it works just as well with 3 players; we are not true fans of it as a 2-player entertainment.

The main variant for the game is the introduction of the Construction Leader cards and the two associated tiles. This basically brings some new but not particularly different effects into play through the use of one-shot (single-use) cards. As these cards are bought in auctions what it effectively does is remove some of the player’s assets. It is totally a case of “player’s choice” whether to use this variant or not. In our opinion the basic game works well enough as does the variant.

NEHEMIAH is published by the same company that published MARE BALTICUM which is another good, well designed game.   


© Chris Baylis 2011-2015