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Nefarious - Card Game Review

A review of Donald X. Vaccarino's follow-up to the brilliant Dominion

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating




Image courtesy of Ascora Games

Before even opening the box, I looked forward to playing Nefarious for two reasons. First, the game's designer, Donald X. Vaccarino, also designed Dominion, which was my pick as the best card game published in 2008 and the winner of the 2009 Spiel des Jahres, not to mention other awards. Second, the game's subtitle is "The Mad Scientist Game" -- so how could it not be cool?

Cool, Fun, Always Different

And it is. Nefarious is cool, fun, and a different game every time you play.

Some people won't like like it, those who need a two-hour game filled with deep strategy to feel satisfied. But Nefarious will hit the sweet spot for those who enjoy light, quick-playing games with plenty of interesting choices. It is assuredly, and proudly, a "family strategy" game.

Each player is given a lair to start (really, just a player mat to help track the game), along with five minion meeples (hunchbacks, naturally) and a set of four "action" cards. (Each player gets the same four action cards. These are used at the start of each turn when players simultaneously choose which action they will take: speculate, invent, research or work.) Players also begin the game with 10 bags of gold each.

Finally, each player is given three "invention" cards and two "twist" cards are revealed.

The invention cards are the primary purpose of the game. Each invention you successfully create gives you one (for a robotic pet) to eight (for a doomsday machine) victory points, and the first player to earn 20 VPs wins the game.

The twist cards ensure that every game is different. Two of the 36 possible twists are in play for each game, and they change a basic rule in some way. "Cheap Fusion Power," for example, cuts the cost of inventions by half, while "Private Funding" means everyone starts the game with 20 bags of gold, rather than 10.

Four Parts to Each Turn

At the start of every turn, the players all choose one of their action cards (speculate, invent, research or work). These are all revealed simultaneously and resolved in order:

  • Speculating allows you to potentially benefit (financially) from future actions taken by other players, by placing a minion in the appropriate area of your lair.
  • Inventing allows you to spend gold to build one of the invention cards in your hand, earning victory points and possibly causing some special actions to take place. For example, creating poison flowers earns you four money bags and causes each other player to lose two money bags. Inventing cryonics allows every player (including yourself) to add a minion to an investment area for free.
  • Researching allows you to take two money bags and draw a new invention card.
  • Working allows you to take four money bags.

After every player has completed their action, all players check to see if they have earned at least 20 victory points. If anyone has, the game ends and the player with the most VPs is the winner. (If there's a tie, the game continues for an additional round.)

A Fast, Tactical Game

Nefarious will not win any awards for deep strategy. It is a fast, tactical game that will sometimes end just when it feels like things are getting warmed up. (The game box says 30 to 60 minutes per game, but once you understand the rules and have played a few times, some games will take only 15 or 20 minutes. Others will take longer, depending which twist cards are revealed.)

But I always have fun playing Nefarious, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. So if the theme and the gameplay appeal to you, I give it a strong recommendation.

Nefarious was designed by Donald X. Vaccarino and published by Ascora Games in 2011. For 2 to 6 players, ages 8 and up.

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