Just when you thought a theme couldn't be more thin, along comes Nuba, yet another Reiner Knizia design. Nuba was released in 1995 and I frankly had never even heard of the game until I spotted it resting on the shelf of a game store in Germany. After the very favorable conversion rate, the game cost about $7, so I couldn't pass it up.
Here's the theme (and I quote): "In the Sudanese highlands live the Nuba, one of the last primitive races on Earth. After the annual harvest, all the villagers celebrate with the 'Sandai'. The highpoint of this festival is a wrestling match followed by a music competition."
"The aim of the game is to be the player to get the best musician possible to your opponent's base. To achieve this, you must move your stronger, less musical team members so that the better musicians have a clear route to their objective."
OK ... I think I've now seen just about every theme possible used for a game. Native wrestling musicians? This sounds like a Bloom County cartoon.
Once you get past this ludicrous theme, the game is actually quite good. It is very much like chess or checkers. The board is a 5 x 6 grid. Each player has ten tokens, numbered 1 - 9 and one 'X'. Players alternate setting their pieces in the two rows nearest them. The lower the number on the token, the better a wrestler that piece is. The higher the number, the better the musician (but that makes that piece a lousy wrestler). The idea is to get your highest possible piece to the opposite side of the board.
When a piece successfully reaches the opposite side of the board, it is placed in the honorable musician space. It remains there unless another piece (of either player) with a higher value reaches the opposite side, in which case it supplants this piece as the best musician. The game ends when no one can oust the reigning musician (which means no one has a piece left on the board of a higher value). If a player's piece marked with the 'X' reaches the opposite side, the game immediately ends and that player is victorious.
Pieces are moved either one square forward or one square forward diagonally. Pieces cannot move sideways or backwards. This is critical in the planning of one's movement. One cannot simply charge ahead as it would then be easy for your opponent to maneuver pieces behind yours and reach the opposite side of the board.
You can eliminate an opponent's piece by moving a piece of equal or power value onto its space. The 'X' piece (known as the champion) can eliminate any piece, but, in turn, can be eliminated by any other piece. It is a valuable, yet at the same time vulnerable, token. Guard it and use it wisely, weed-hopper.
As mentioned, the game evokes much of the same feeling as a watered down Chess or a beefed up Checkers. This is actually quite a challenging and enjoyable game, one which can be played in 10 - 15 minutes. Toss the theme out the window ... just enjoy the game as a pure abstract matching of wits. If one tires of the basic game, there is a variant wherein all pieces which reach the opposite side are saved and their numerical value tallied at game's end. The player with the highest total is victorious.