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Review: Via Nebula

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box-cover

The Nebula Valley is emerging from a Dark Age.  Ravished by terrible monsters that left the land desolate and forgotten, the people seek brave adventurer-builders to return their state to its former glory.  But your tools will be shovel and cart, not sword and shield!  The problem is everything lay in a thick fog with many pitfalls.  Navigating the tainted landscape and competing for its limited resources will prove challenging.  It’s up to you to make a Way through the Clouds.

How To Play

Okay, so it’s really not as ominous and adventurous as all that.  In Via Nebula players help to rebuild the once prosperous valley by harvesting resources, transporting them to building sites and converting them into buildings to fulfill contracts.  Through an action selection mechanism standard to many Wallace designs, and a competitive pick-up and deliver element, players earn points for exploring, exploiting and building.  After the first to complete five contracts, the builder with the most points is heralded as the Hero of Nebula.  Architects as heros?  Yeah, these people must be desperate…

The board depicts Nebula Valley – a hex grid of meadows, ruins, forbidden spots and mostly fog.  The meadows are seeded with tokens or tiles comprising the valley’s five resources: wood, food, stone, clay and wheat.  Four public contracts are laid face up.

Open to the highest bribe, er, most efficient builder...
Open to the highest bribe, er, most efficient builder…

Players each receive a guild board, though that’s the only mention of trade organizations in the game.  This placemat holds the individual’s tools of trade: four stacks of hexagonal meadow tiles, three building tiles (hexagonal or half-hex), five chunky wooden buildings and two or three craftsman meeples depending on number of players.  Each builder also receives two private contracts.

On a turn, you may take two actions.  There are six to select from and you can repeat an action, if desired, except for the one option that requires two action points to resolve.

You can use a craftsman, if you have one available, to exploit a resource tile on the board.  In a 2-player game you have three meeples at your disposal, while only two will work in 3- or 4-player sessions.  Replace any unclaimed resource tile with your meeple, dump a number of that resource type as indicated on the tile in the same hex and retain that tile.  It is worth points at the end of the game.

Let me take stock of my stuff.
Let me take stock of my stuff.

You can explore the valley by taking a meadow tile from your leftmost stack and placing it on a fog hex.  If exploring a petrified forest this action costs both of your allowance points.  For each stack of meadow tiles you deplete on your guild board, you will earn points at the end of the game.

You may place an available building site on any available ruins hex.  This is where you erect infrastructure.  In a 2-player game only one building is allowed per ruin.  In 3- and 4-player bouts, two players can claim a ruins hex.  In that case, the site tiles are half-hexagons, though one player may not build on both sides of the same ruins.

You can also transport a resource to one of your building sites.  There must be a continuously adjacent line of empty/explored meadows between the resource and your construction site.  You may take resources from neutral hexes or any exploited hex, whether opened by yourself or a competitor.  That resource remains at your work site until used to construct a building and may no longer be procured by anyone else.  If you deplete a site by removing the last token, the craftsman there returns to his owner and can be used in subsequent turns to exploit new resources.

Some resources begin the game just laying around. The others you have to exploit!
Some resources begin the game just laying around. The others you have to exploit!

Finally, you may convert acquired resources to construct a building.  Each contract specifies a combination of material required to complete it.  If you have those collected at any one building site, you can turn them in to claim the contract.  Remove your building site tile and place one of your building tokens in its place.  Any surplus resources are placed in your storage area on your guild board.  However, excess isn’t good as you are penalized for it at the end of the game.  Buildings, on the other hand, are worth 2-4 points depending on the number of resources required for construction.  Each one also gives you a one-time bonus ability that you may enact immediately when completed.

The game ends when one builder constructs a fifth building.  Each other player receives one more turn.  Then everyone takes any leftover resources on the board with their craftsmen and anything unspent on building site tiles and places these in their storage areas.  Count up points from buildings, resource tiles and emptied meadow stacks and subtract one point for every excess resource in your storage area.  The one with the most points is the most renowned architect of Nebula.  Remember, they’re like rock stars.

Private contracts to start the game.
Private contracts to start the game.

Clearing Things Up, or Still in the Dark?

Merriam-Webster defines comfort food as “food that is satisfying because it is prepared in a simple or traditional way and reminds you of home, family, or friends.”  Dishes like mac ‘n cheese, chicken soup and grilled cheese are quick and generally evoke nostalgic memories.  Via Nebula is comfortingly familiar.  Stripped of any strange and exotic ingredients, this sentimentally basic design fashions a positive, warm and casual experience – maybe even one that soothes emotional stress, like a rich bowl of ice cream.

It’s two main mechanisms – action point selection and pick-up and deliver – are nothing new.  Indeed Wallace has employed the tools many times and gamers the hobby over enjoy them.  Still, his talents here shape a design that requires smart moves and efficiency without overtaxing the brain.  It’s easy to learn, yet requires thought to succeed.  It moves briskly with few delays – unless you have one of those players – and looks beautiful.  It requires thinking, but you can still appreciate its casualness.  In short, it reminds one of why we play games in the first place.

It's a 3X game - exploit, explore, extransport!
It’s a 3X game – exploit, explore, extransport!

The setting is moot.  The cutesy artwork immediately belies any backstory about monsters and “dark ages.”  But its theme of building and competition are central to the experience.  It fosters a surprising degree of interaction.  Surprising because it’s key, but none of it is direct or aggressive.  Instead, that interaction flows from the design’s nature of cooperative development.  Sure, each player is constructing their own buildings independent of one another.  However, mining the resources required to build (exploiting) and creating the open routes to transport them (exploring) serve the community, even if actions are individually carried out with personal goals in mind.

In other words, whatever you do is generally going to benefit others, and vice versa.  At first it may leave you a little disgruntled.  You opened up that stone quarry and you’d like to keep it, thank you very much!  However, taking advantage of your competitors’ actions is important and rewarding.  When you’re one brick shy of a load, you’ll be thankful your neighbor exploited that resource just a hop, skip and a jump from your construction site and, well, you just need one – for now…

Stocking up!
Stocking up!

Clearing out fog to transport resources around the valley inevitably helps everyone, as well.  Some may glean more out of it earlier on, which could prove vital.  However, ruins and resource sites are haphazardly located and seeded enough to require plenty of exploration so that the majority of the valley clears up.  Your “routes” intermingle with others until the board is pretty open soon enough.

Still, getting to that free flow of goods and buildings takes a gradual build up since players may only perform two actions per turn.  While that generates less downtime per round, it does mean everything unfolds slowly overall.  Interestingly, the slow build up exacerbates the competition because your opponents are generally clued in on what you’re striving to complete.  Just take a quick glance at what someone is collecting on a building site and you can guess at which contract they’re working on.  That allows you to “steal” it out from under a nose, if the opportunity is ripe.  Or maybe steer away from it to avoid getting beat and wasting resources or delaying construction.  If someone does complete a contract before you’re able to, it’s not a terrible situation as buildings don’t vary too drastically in resource requirements.  You may have to sit tight at one site for a bit, but another contract should soon pop up matching what you’ve collected.

Nebula Valley returning to its former glory!
Nebula Valley returning to its former glory!

This “race” to public contracts can provide some tension.  That’s a welcome addition, because there’s little of it in acquiring resources.  At first blush, it would appear that building materials would be difficult to come by.  Alas, game play doesn’t support that perception.  Sure, early on you’ll need to start as near available stockpiles as possible.  And, thanks to the random distribution of resource tiles, there may be instances where someone gets shoehorned into a pocket with an abundance of one resource nearby and dearth of another.  However, as the game evolves there are almost always enough sites exploited and plenty of meadow cleared to route the material you need.  It may not be the land of milk and honey, but there’s enough for everyone.

The building abilities are hit-and-miss.  They add variety and mix things up a little.  However, they can be situational.  Some prove useful at just about any time.  Still others you could care less about.  Essentially, some are not as fun or beneficial as others, or in particular turns.  Primarily you will fulfill contracts based on their resource requirements and what you can optimally collect.  You can work towards a building specifically for its ability, but it’s not always the most efficient play.  There are situations where you might want to take the extra effort to target a specific contract and it proves a boost.  At the same time, many powers aren’t all that game-changing to attract constant targeting.  For the most part they’re more like a nice added bonus, rather than a necessary tool in victory.  

Public contracts provide nifty benefits, situational ones and others that make you go, "Meh."
Public contracts provide nifty benefits, situational ones and others that make you go, “Meh.”

The scoring aspect also keeps you on your toes.  It’s tempting to exploit as many resource sites as possible because picking up those tiles garners points.  However, if you get stuck with extra at the end, the unused material counts against you!  Normally I loathe such penalty mechanics.  They strike me as arbitrary and especially irksome when they’re tied into the design’s primary purpose – in this case, you must gather resources to fulfill contracts.  However, I do admit it forces players to think optimally and rewards them for building off of other players’ efforts.  Since the system isn’t terribly strapped for resources, the rule encourages players to voluntarily keep the supply of goods somewhat in check.  Via Nebula’s strength is about using what develops in the most efficient manner to compete for resources, routes, opportune building sites and contracts.  Penalizing hubris facilitates that.

The design will attract plenty of eyes through its tactile and visual appeal, only enhancing its draw to newer and casual gamers, as well as experienced hobbyists nostalgic for the earlier German titles that lead to the rise of modern board games.  There is a lot of tile laying, meeple dropping, chunky resource tokens and solid wooden buildings – five unique shapes for each of the five player colors.  The board sprawls across the table with cards, tiles, tokens and personal boards flanked all around.  The expressive, cartoony illustrations from seldom-credited Vincent Joubert colorfully bring to life Via Nebula’s totally non-existent setting.  That’s an accomplishment.

Getting through to the points...
Getting through to the points…

The individual guild boards are simply genius and utterly intuitive.  The spaces for meadow tile stacks and building site tiles are clearly delineated.  There are even spots to place your craftsmen and wooden buildings prior to deployment to the board.  A storage box to the left will hold any excess material you blunderingly waste.  Along with your chosen “guild” character, it’s all wonderfully illustrated and colored so that there’s no question of who you are.  More useful still, the game’s six available actions are clearly reviewed in the center with drawings and icons that actually make sense.  The whole thing is brilliant graphic design.

Now allow me to blaze a rabbit trail and talk about this insert.  Thermoformed and vacuum formed box inserts are quite common and some prove more useful than others.  The tray in Via Nebula has detailed formed pockets for each resource token, resource tiles, player buildings and meeples.  There’s also a large, non-descript shaped cavern in the center.  In short, there’s a place for everything and everything is in its place.  Because it’s so lovingly crafted, I really wanted to like this one – until I actually had to use it.  At that point, it only reminded me of why I passionately dislikes inserts.  It takes more effort than it should to actually get the components out of their tight and perfectly molded wells.  Their precision fit makes it extremely difficult to dig them out of the insert short of upending the entire thing in a Tom Vasal style components dump.  Once again, I marvel at how cool these custom inserts can look, while still retaining almost zero functionality beyond keeping the bits out of your hands.  Good think I keep an adequate supply of sealable plastic baggies!

So beautiful, yet so not useful.
So beautiful, yet so not useful.

Via Nebula is a solid title with smooth play, great components, outstanding artwork and a masterfully intuitive graphic design.  Wallace combines his signature touch – sleek action allowance – with a compelling pick-up and deliver element to craft a well-balanced and accessible medium-weight strategy game.  It rewards a keen eye, careful planning and optimization while still keeping competition front and center, yet not deleterious.  It’s not exactly unique or burningly exciting, but it sentimentally harkens back to simpler German-style games.  Both newer and experienced gamers looking to explore smart and casual game play that won’t exploit your mind or time, won’t want to remain in the fog on this valley.

 

iSlaytheDragon thanks AsmodeeNA for providing a review copy of Via Nebula.

  • Rating 7.5
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Summary

Pros

Sentimentally familiar
Competitive pick-up and deliver works well
Can disrupt others without destroying anything
Components and artwork top-notch and eye-catching

Cons

Resource pool not as tensely scarce as first appears
Like good comfort food, may be only situationally satisfying
Not sure what to make of setting

7.5 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion3 Comments

    • Jason Meyers

      It’s my review and I’ll cry if I want to! Seriously, though, have some tweezers or a sculpturing tool handy to dig out the components!

  1. Wallace always seems to design a good game and then add a layer of complication on top of it, whether it’s a specific rule or odd scoring condition. It’s one of the reasons I like his games, but it certainly rubs some players the wrong way. This seems very straight forward as far a Wallace is concerned. Probably not for me, but I’d give it a chance.

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