Taking over the world. You thought it was going to be easy. You had the smarts and the know-how. You had the drive and determination. Perhaps you didn’t appreciate how expensive it would be to create a death ray, but what you really didn’t anticipate? The competition. World domination just got competitive. Taking your sweet time to get things just right isn’t an option any more. So it is now your mission to prove that amongst all evil scientists you are the most Nefarious.
How it Plays
The goal is simple: take over the world. In game terms this means getting 20 points. You will have 4 actions available to you in order to accomplish that goal. Every round begins with all players secretly choosing an action card that corresponds to the action they’d like to take. Once everyone has selected their card, they are all revealed simultaneously. Before any of the actions are resolved, players receive income if they have spies on the actions chosen by their neighbors. If you have a spy on the espionage action, for example, and your neighbor revealed an espionage action card, you will receive $1. After all players receive their income the actions are carried out in the following order: Espionage, Invent, Research, and Work.
All players who chose espionage will be allowed to place one of their 5 spies on one of the 4 spaces that correlate to the actions in order to facilitate the gathering of income as described earlier. This action does not allow you to move previously placed spies and you are limited to the 5 spies you start the game with so be careful where you place your spies.
After espionage comes invent. Players who chose this action will select an invention card from their hand and all players will simultaneously reveal their cards. You must pay the indicated price in money and then place the invention in front of you. When revealed and paid for, each invention has an associated effect that will do things such as give you money or cause other players to discard cards. Additionally, each invention has a score value which adds to your total score and brings you close to victory.
You begin with a few invention cards in your hand, but if you ever run low or are unable to play the cards you have you can take the next action, research. With this action, you draw 1 invention card to your hand from the common invention deck. You also receive $2.
The final action is work. Mad scientists have bills to pay just like everyone else. With this action, you will receive $4.
Once all the actions are taken, the score is checked to see if anyone has won. If not, a new round begins and play continues until a victor is declared.
Look on the Bright Side
Before diving into my qualms with the Nefarious I feel like I should give it some praise for its artwork, if only to make me seem like less of a curmudgeon in the rest of the review. The artwork and graphic design, simply put, are superb. The illustrations are bright and whimsical, adding an air of levity to the affair. Whether it was the ludicrous inventions or the cartoon depictions of evil, Nefarious was able to bring a smirk to my face. The graphic design is worthy of praise as well. It’s clear and the symbols used to describe what the invention cards do are intuitive. Once you’ve learned what the different symbols mean, it makes a lot of sense and fluency in the symbol language can be achieved in a matter of minutes.
I wish I had more good things to say about Nefarious, I really do. I never want to play a bad game. I am rooting for them all to be great. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible.
What is a game? You could argue over the definition until you’re blue in the face. And honestly, I really don’t care how you define it. It’s a semantic argument that has little bearing on my enjoyment of said games. The question I’d rather ask is what do I personally want from a game? I asked myself this question a lot when I was playing Nefarious. I’ll state it bluntly: I had no fun with Nefarious. I would have preferred to sit around the table doing nothing rather than playing Nefarious. It’s a harsh judgment, but it isn’t helpful unless I can explain why I had no fun. Rather than tear down Nefarious, I’ll describe what I look for in a game and how Nefarious fails to provide.
Ideally, a game will provide me with meaningful and difficult decisions. It isn’t enough for my actions to matter, I want to be challenged along the way. I enjoy a bit of grit in my games. The friction allows for something for me to grip onto. You can take a piece of entertainment, sand away the edges until it doesn’t rub anyone the wrong way and create something palatable to the masses. It’s the difference between watching San Andreas or Seven Samurai, reading The Hunger Games or Cloud Atlas, watching The Big Bang Theory or Better Call Saul. And I get it. Publishers don’t want to cut off potential sales. The result is the board game equivalent of iceberg lettuce, unoffensive and completely devoid of nutritional value.
The decisions in Nefarious are one step removed from a game of Go Fish. Everything you can do is solely dependent on the invention cards you draw. If you can’t afford an invention on this turn you either wait to gather more money or draw more cards trying to find one you can afford. And the invention cards vary wildly in price. Some are completely free to build and others can cost as much as $12 so you can’t even make reasonable plans for the future. The only real decision you have is to play a card you can afford or wait until you can afford to play a better one. Waiting is rarely the right choice as your opponents play inventions that force you to discard cards and money. So your choice realistically becomes to play a card you can afford now or wait for the possibility to play a card that you might be able to afford later. Not really much of a choice.
Perhaps it was the creator’s intent to have players adapt to each game of Nefarious through the twist cards. Every game, two twist cards are revealed that change or add restrictions to the game. For example, a twist may provide extra coins when you take the work action or force other players to discard coins every time you play an invention card. They do change things up a bit, but the underlying game is so reliant on the random cards you are dealt that they can’t manage to salvage the experience. It’s a manicured lawn on a condemned home. It doesn’t address the underlying issue of lackluster decision points.
The simultaneous action selection element of the game has shades of potential on the surface but is just as brain dead as the card play. Playing spies early is the only real option lest you lose out on long term income. So every game begins with multiple rounds of players doing nothing but placing spies on the board. Where should you place them? Since you have no idea what inventions everyone has, you have no idea what their priorities are. Are they in desperate need of cash or do they need to draw more cards? Invention cards vary so much you can’t even make an educated guess. So where should you place them? Who cares?
I play games to be with people and sure, in a literal sense, Nefarious is played by multiple people. We are technically playing together. But replace those people with robots that randomly plays cards and it would be mostly the same. It might actually be more interesting, but I digress. Nefarious doesn’t allow for a player’s personality to shine through their actions. You can’t play aggressively if the cards you draw don’t allow it. It’s the difference between Uno and Poker. There are no styles of Uno players as opposed to various types of Poker players. I look for games that take players’ personalities, mixes them up in a whirlwind of systems and rules in order to spit them back out at the players in exciting ways. Nefarious could care less who you are or what you do. It is Nefarious and it will always be Nefarious no matter who is behind the hand of cards.
Did I play that card that makes you discard coins because I’m mean and vindictive? No, it was just the only card I have. Did I play that card that removes your spies from the board to get back at you? No, it was the only card I could afford. Does it matter what I want to do in the game? No, it’s all in the cards you were dealt.
I don’t like Nefarious, but it isn’t an abomination. It’s clearly not aimed at me, but I can only speak to my own experiences and preferences. Nefarious is emblematic of the games that I’ve left behind in my childhood, activities to pass the time on rainy days. I was happy to play Uno and Don’t Wake Daddy back then. I was also happy throwing a tennis ball against the wall for an hour. I’ve grown up. I want something meaningful from my games and Nefarious fails to deliver. On top of that, Nefarious has some of the worst components I’ve seen in a game in quite some time. The cards are incredibly thin and the coins have a sort of plastic film over them that tear and peel if you look at them the wrong way. Maybe you’ll like Nefarious, but if you’re the type of person that reads board game reviews you probably won’t.