NEFARIOUS: The Mad Scientist Game
A Mad Boardgame for 2-6 Insane Scientists aged 13+
NEFARIOUS is designed by Donald V Vaccarino for Magellan & USAopoly
When you look at the box and then examine the components the first word that comes to mind, before reading any of the rules or anything about the game, is "insipid". Thus it is quite a shock to the system when you realise that NEFARIOUS is designed by the creator of the excellent, highly colourful, deck building game, DOMINION.
The artwork is very good, being cartoon style, and the idea of the game - each player being a Mad Scientist out to Rule the World through the crazy inventions - is good fun; it's just that everything looks so sterile it is more reminiscent of a hospital than the laboratory of an insane scheming MENSA minded lunatic (not that I have seen too many mad scientist's laboratories, except on television and movies of course). Yes it could be argued that a laboratory would be whited out and sterile and then this would probably fit the bill, but (as I have said about TV and Movies) mad scientist's labs should be filled with crazy fun oddments and lots of interesting whoosits that have no real purpose other than to look intellectually interesting - at least that's how I think they should look.
So first impressions are, to repeat, Insipid and Sterile, and the game hasn't even started yet. So, knowing that you can't judge books (or games) by their covers, we dived in head first and read the rules ....
There is a short 8-page rules booklet (short in size and in volume) which has 7 pages of rules, examples and illustrations, that needs pages 3,4,5 and 6 to be read and understood before you begin. Because the rules are so brief they cannot be skimmed over, you really need to read every word otherwise it is easy to make errors by presumption.
The idea of the game, at least the unaltered game, is to be the first to score 20VPs by inventing unusual and weird creations. I say "unaltered" because there are TWIST cards that alter the rules, a little like in FLUXX except that once two TWISTS are in place at the start of the game they remain there throughout and are never changed or removed and the rules differences they make remain in place.
There are 36 Twist cards and only 2 are used per game so whatever the number is of possible variations 36 to the power of 2 or something like that, never was a mathematician mad or otherwise; just take it from me that there are a lot of variations of 2 different cards for every game, and thus, as the saying goes, each game is different! Actually, although it may sound like a good idea to have so many possibilities it also seems to be a shame that only 2 of the 36 cards are used each game and many people we have played with have suggested that we should think of a way to change the rules to allow for some fluctuation in the use of the Twist cards.
Every player has 4 Action cards, one each of Espionage, Invent, Research and Work, which are also incidentally the names of the four main areas on the playing board and each turn the players secretly select one of these for their Action. Players also have a set amount of money, $10 unless changed by the Twist cards, and 3 Invention cards which they can look at but should keep secret from the other players, though to be straight it really doesn't matter too much whether the other players know what inventions you are considering making as there isn't a lot they can do about it. Lastly the players have 5 Spies each (meeples) which can be placed onto the board via the Espionage Action. After the initial set up there is no hand limit for the Invent cards you can have; all 4 of the Action cards are always available, again unless the Twist card says otherwise; by now you should be beginning to realise just how much influence the Twist cards have on the game.
The game states that "Players in Nefarious act simultaneously" but that isn't the actual case. Each player does select their Action card at the same time and does collect any money due to them at the same time but then the Action cards are activated in a specific order: Espionage, Invent, Research and finally Work. Each of these has its own specific ability. Playing Espionage allows you to place Spies on the board, either with a cost or without depending where you wish to place them - the cost is shown on the board and on the card. Playing Invent means that the player has enough cash to pay for one of the Inventions (cards) they hold. Inventions cost cash and apart from giving VPs may also have special abilities that will affect all or some of the players. Choosing Research puts $2 in your bank and gives you another Invention card and finally going to Work brings in $4 - you need to visit the Bank fairly often to get enough cash for your Inventions.
Not having much to do on your turn means the game moves quite fast, 30-40 minutes for a 4 player game, but it also means that there is less substance than you would expect from a Donald X Vaccarino game. Most of the time for playing is taken up by deciding which Invention cards to play as many of them have special effects that affect just the player, just the other players or all players. For example, a Gold circle with a number in it and either a Negative or Positive sign takes or gives that many coins to, depending on whether there is a series of 3 red arrows or a single green arrow, the other players and not the player (red arrows) or the player and not the other players (green arrow) or sometimes both symbols appear and thus all players are affected. I chose the Gold coin as an example because it says about the plus and minus signs and yet there are no plus signs on any of the cards, just a number or a number with a minus sign; the intention is obvious but omitted.
Quite often there are multiple effect symbols and these are often left to the player's understanding of what makes sense than actually being committed to rule. For example a green arrow followed by a plus sign, an Invention card and a coin valued at 2. Our understanding is that the player of the card gains an Invention card AND $2, but the Invention card is angled and has a distinct shadow that could be mistaken for a diagonal slash which would mean that the player of the card gains either an Invention card or $2 because putting a slash between symbols gives the this or that option. The confusion, if there is any, for as I say commonsense, and finding another card with a slash to make a comparison, should be obvious, is further added to by the last page of the Rules booklet featuring 6 "Special" cards which to be honest seem not to be any more "special" than many of the other Invention cards.Why choose these 6? Why choose any 6? Why not explain every card (there are too many is the answer to that one) but then why give extra explanation of some cards and not of others ?
There is a perfectly good illustration that shows how the Invention cards are played and what each relevant part of the card is, so a partial explanation of some of the possible cards is unnecessary and a little confusing as you are now checking every card to see if it is a "Special" one instead of just playing it when you can afford to.
When you play Espionage you can place Spies on the 4 squares of the board. As you have 5 spies it is presumed that you can have more than one spy on each square and thus gain the advantage of that square twice, though this isn't covered. When you have a spy on a square during the Action phase if any of your adjacent players (ie those sitting directly to your left and right - counting across the table as directly next to) play the Action on which your spy sits then you gain 1 coin for each (not from each) of them that plays the same card from the Bank. Example Brian, Mike, Fran & Chris sit round the table in that order. If Mike has a spy on Work and Chris and Brian both take the Work Action then Mike gets 2 coins. If Fran also chose the Work Action it wouldn't affect Mike, though because she is sitting opposite Mike and thus also between Brian and Chris, Fran would also get 2 coins. We therefore assume that if Fran had 2 spies in the Work space she would get 4 coins, 1+1 for each spy. Having spies on the board is a way to make extra money, but we have played several games where the game has been won by players concentrating on getting money from the Bank via the Work space (especially when the Work pays 6 instead of 4 Twist card is the rule) and building Inventions and never sending a spy to the board.
One sentence in the game makes perfect sense but is not an actual game rule, which is quite hard to understand. It states "There can be no inventing without preliminary research!" It would make a lot more sense if you couldn't choose Invent unless you had a spy on the Research space, and once you had built an Invention that spy went home, job done! But that's not the case. You do not need to have Researched anything all you need is money to make an Invention and thus so many games are won by the player who has been lucky on the draw of Inventions and who has managed their money better, the remainder of the game is just fancy chrome that occasionally throws a spanner in the works
NEFARIOUS is a game in Limbo; it is between being a gamer's game and a family game, not quite satisfying either camp.It can be a bit more fun if all the players act up and put on silly mad scientist accents but the overall impression is that the graphic designer (the person who decided on the wishy-washy colour scheme) couldn't be bothered to put in a good day at the office then the players won't either. The game mechanic is okay, not great but playable. The artwork is fine, but pastel shades aren't interest grabbing (the game is about Money not Monet), the rules are brief and intelligible (with a little commonsense) and the idea is solid. The visual appearance of the game just doesn't draw players to it.
Most of my negativity comes from seeing and playing so many games each year which means I am always looking at games critically. For me, with so many lightly negative points, I suggest that you play with friends who play board games occasionally rather than being avid boardgamers. If you do this then these minor idiosynchrasies will not even become questions.