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Subject: Beyond the clouds - Via Nebula Review by meepleonboard rss

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This review is available, with pictures, at
Many thanks to Games Quest for kindly providing a review copy of Via Nebula.

A new game by Martin Wallace is sure to pique the interest of gamers across the spectrum. As the designer of heavyweight classics such as Steam as well as more accessible fodder such as Discworld: Ankh-Morpork he has a reputation for detailed research into his themes, and simple choices in his games that lead to complex interactions and decisions. Via Nebula is a game in which players compete to gain resources and construct their buildings in an effort to gain those all important Victory Points. With a play time of under an hour and a bright and colourful approach, it seems that Via Nebula is aimed squarely at the gateway market of gamers. This includes people who are looking for something just a little more complex and involving than their first steps into the hobby, but the game also attempts to be something that rewards the more experienced player with a deep and immersive experience. These are difficult targets to hit, so how does Via Nebula get on?

The box declares its gateway credentials from the outset. The artwork is bold, colourful and cartoony, and not a million miles away from the style in the highly rated Imperial Settlers, while opening up Via Nebula reveals just how much attention has been spent on the whole product. There is no generic insert here. Instead we find custom-moulded slots for each player’s pieces, the exploitation tokens, an area for the small deck of cards, another for the green meadow hexes that will be used to discover new areas, and, best of all, five slots across the bottom of the box, one for each type of resource. Each of these slots is in the same shape as the resource it is meant to hold, a really clever little touch, and one that other publishers would do well to learn from. Practically it makes no difference, but it’s the thought that counts! The double-sided board and player cards slide in snugly (almost a touch too snugly) over the top, so all your components will sit happily in their own place in the box. It is not quite perfect, though – removing the larger building tiles can mean that the smaller ones fall down into their space, and they can be frustratingly difficult to remove, and the player buildings can be a pain to extract, but it feels almost churlish to point this out.

The resource tokens are made of solid stuff, as are the player buildings, which are not only different colours but also different shapes ranging from black’s imposing castle to white’s Taj Mahal look-alike. Only the cards are a slight disappointment, as they are very thin and could easily be damaged in very few plays, even if their finish is good. The artwork though, is bright, colourful and engaging with a humorous tone, and the board is similarly beguiling, with various nasties (some of which look like they could have migrated from Dungeon Petz) staring up at you from the inaccessible spaces on the board. As mentioned before, this board is double sided, for standard and expert versions of Via Nebula.

Via Nebula takes a while to set up, as the board needs to be seeded with tokens and exploitation tiles which represent where the various resources are to be found. These are distributed more or less at random though, so you will be playing this game for a very, very long time before you ever come across the same set up twice. Each player also receives a player board where their meadow hexes, buildings, building sites, surplus resources and craftsmen are stored. The various contract cards (two private, four public, the remainder forming a draw pile) represent buildings that a player can build with the right resources, and the End Of Game card is worth two points to the player who earns it.

Once you are set up and good to go, each players gets to use two actions on their turn until one person has built all five of their buildings. Each of the following costs one action, with one exception, and they may be taken in any order:

Place a craftsman – Take a craftsman from your board and place him on a exploitation tile, replacing that tile with resources. The tile will be worth points at the end of the game.

Place a building site – Take a building site from your board and place it on any available building site, bearing in mind that you can never have more building sites on the board than you have buildings left to construct. In the two-player game building sites cover the whole hex, but in other games they cover only half a hex meaning that players can share sites at higher player counts.

Explore a meadow – Replace a fog space with a meadow hex from your leftmost pile, subject to some restrictions. For each pile of meadow hexes you clear from your player board you uncover an explorer, worth two points at the end of the game.

Explore a petrified forest (costs two actions) – Exactly as above, except that this costs two actions, and it is a forest space that is replaced with the meadow hex.

Transport a resource – You may move a single resource from any exploitation space (not necessarily yours) to one of your buildings, but only ever via empty meadow hexes. Clear an exploitation space and your explorer returns home to you.

Construct a building – Trade in the resources on one of your building sites to construct a building shown on one of your private contracts or one of the public contracts. Each card has an ability which may be used as soon as it is built, and if it is the completed contract it’s also worth points at the end of the game.

The first player to construct their fifth building takes the End Of Game card (worth two points, remember), and all the other players get to take one final turn, after which any leftover resources go to the appropriate player’s board. Points are then awarded for exploitation tiles, buildings, uncovered explorers and the End Of Game card, while each unused resource on their board costs the player one point. Tie breaks go to the player with the fewest leftover resources, and if there is still a tie you simply shake hands, befitting a game in which resources are open to all.

As so often happens with Wallace’s games, the basic decisions are clear and straightforward. There are no incremental powers here to deal with and remember, merely the simple options of placing, moving or building, but the difficulty lies in which of those decisions will give you the most benefit. Placing a craftsman will gain you points for the exploitation tile, but the resources put in its place will immediately put you into a points deficit until they are removed from the space. So your craftsman could possibly remain stuck there until the end of the game. In the later phases of Via Nebula it is also easy to find yourself limited to a building site which is some distance away from the resources you require, and the game can play so quickly that each move placing a meadow tile, while helping to uncover an explorer, feels like a wasted opportunity to do something just a little more constructive. Because of this, using both actions to place a meadow tile on a petrified forest feels positively painful..!

A few plays in and you will realise that behind the wonderful art and bold graphic design lies a game whose decisions inhabit a complex space. Many choices available to the player on their turn will have an opposite and often unequal immediate reaction, so you will find yourself investing victory points for later in the game, but simultaneously being aware that the other players could well interfere and leave you hanging. After a while almost every decision feels so finely balanced that you will constantly be working out how best to use your meagre resources without leaving any surplus; aiming for specific cards that give you the ability you want without quite being as efficient as you would like. It is all quite exquisite pain, even if it lacks that aspect of ongoing powers that can make other games more engaging. You build something, activate it…and then are back to square one.

Via Nebula also scales well at different player counts. There are a couple of changes for two player games – more meadow tiles and craftsmen, building sites that take up a whole hex – and fewer resources are uncovered with less than four players, but this is all indicated either on the board or on the double-sided player aids, and the rule changes are minimal and unobtrusive. As you might expect, the beginning of a two player game can be a rather solitary affair, but it, like Via Nebula with more players, will often escalate into a desperate land grab towards the end of the game. This is especially true on the Expert side of the board, which is substantially more difficult to navigate.

There is no doubt in my mind that Via Nebula is a solid and thoroughly enjoyable game, beautifully designed from the ground up, and a real pleasure to play, that is if your idea of pleasure is the possibility of gut-wrenching tension. You can approach it as an exercise in the optimisation of many conflicting elements while attempting to build the most efficient network, or take it merely as a colourful and engrossing entertainment, but there is meat in this game.

However, even with its random initial setup it is hard to ignore that each play of Via Nebula feels more or less the same, and that there is little that changes in the gameplay from start to finish even as the board clears. Without incremental powers and a more flexible set of buildings the decisions you are able to make at the end of a game of Via Nebula are almost exactly the same as those you can make in your first turn. Constructing a certain building might just lead you down a certain route, rewarding you for uncovered explorers for example, but you will never have better craftsmen, more powerful trade routes, or more effective exploration. It means that I would have to describe Via Nebula as a heavy gateway game, suitable for curious gamers looking to move to the next level, or for more experienced gamers looking for a filler, but players outside those two demographics might just not get what Via Nebula is about.

Even so Via Nebula is definitely worth, ahem, exploring. So much here is done very, very well indeed, even if it is a little too heavy to put in front of new players and lacking that depth and growth more experienced players demand, instead falling in the middle ground. It is certainly worth playing, but I wonder whether it has the capacity of the greatest games to reveal various strategies over multiple plays. Bring this out a few times a year, though, maybe as a heavy filler on a games night, and you could certainly enjoy it without worrying too much about it getting stale, and as a meeting point for curious gamers looking to move to the next level and those keen to help them make the leap it is just about spot on.
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