Via Nebula Review - Give Me Back My Pig!

Martin Wallace isn't the first designer I look for when checking out new games. A lot of his games from history haven't impressed me or enticed me to even try them out. Steam and Brass - just looking at these on a table sucks away the excitement of wanting to dig deeper into them. Discworld and Mythotopia - played both and they're extremely "meh". Study In Emerald, how dare you do that to my beloved Lovecraftian immersive experience?

It's not that his games are super-dry or anything, some of them are, but others have some theme to them, they just don't tend to have much excitement for me or are based on themes that are outside of my comfort zone for interest. Trains, 19th century war times and industrial age trading, already falling asleep, these settings don't grab me, but there's a clear dedicated audience for them and that's why he's a popular and respected designer.

So Via Nebula arrives out of the blue, naturally I wasn't expecting it as I wasn't looking for it to begin with. I see his name along with Space Cowboys, a publisher who despite some rulebook issues is knocking out some quality games lately, which is a first for this team-up. But I'm also greeted with super colourful artwork, a scary looking Hobbit lady in a weird get-up and a cute little adorable piggy (What? I like cute animals), all next to a name "Via Nebula" which tells me nothing about what the game is about. What on earth am I going to find here?



Designer: Martin Wallace
Publisher: Space Cowboys
Age: 8+
Players: 2-4
Time: 45-60 min
RRP: £34.99


The Fog Of Construction


From BoardGameGeek:


Crafters, builders and carriers — your help is needed to dispel the mists of Nebula! The people of the valley will reward you handsomely if you harvest and exploit our many resources, open paths through the mists, and help our settlers build new structures. Cooperate temporarily with other builders in order to create paths and share goods, but do not forget your own objectives. Will you have a statue erected in your honor on the Nebula City plaza?
A game of Via Nebula starts with a board showing a hexagonal grid, some production sites with a few available resources on them (wood, stone, wheat, and pigs), building sites in various areas scattered over the whole board, and a lot of mist.
Turn after turn, players have two actions at their disposal from these options: They may clear the mist of a hex to create new paths of transportation, open new production sites, open a building site in a city, carry resources from any production site to their own building sites, and, of course, achieve a construction. Resources and paths through the mist may be used by all the players. This initially induces a kind of cooperation, but eventually other players will take advantage of your actions!
To achieve a construction, you fulfill a contract on one of your cards. You start the game with two contracts, and four more contracts are available for all players to see and use on a first come, first served basis — and that's where the cooperation abruptly stops. Additionally, most contracts have special powers that are triggered on completion.
The game ends when a player finishes a fifth building. Opponents each take two final actions, then players score based on the number of cleared hexes and opened production sites and the point value of their contracts, with a bonus for the player who ended the game.

Open Up The Box And . . . Ahhh God My Eyes!! 


When I think of Martin Wallace games I expect dark colours or at least very dreary appearances. The box cover alone was enough to surprise me but open up the Via Nebula box and I'm literally blinded with the brightness. So many colours with the only dark element being the insert and one of the player tokens! This is a considerable step up and I guess we have Space Cowboys to thank for that. You've got wooden sculpted resource tokens (yes including pigs!) chunky buildings like in Five Tribes, green hex tiles and beautifully illustrated boards and cards. I'll just pop a tick there next to the visual appeal box.

The board itself looks nicely detailed without being too busy and once you've got everything set up it's a very pretty sight. Although getting set up isn't the quickest thing ever with having to sort out all the meadow tiles on everyone's player board and distribute all the starting exploitation tokens. I find the choice of the word "exploitation" a weird one as that raised a few confused eyebrows during rules explanation, certainly not my first pick of descriptions. Was "resource token" or "resource cache" or "supply token" not sufficient?

Biggest shocker for me though was having a rulebook that had zero ambiguous points in it. Having been subjected to the TIME Stories torment of FAQ's galore, it was so refreshing to have a book that explains everything in crystal clear detail with a ton of pictorial examples, not to mention a graphic design that's intuitive and easy on the eyes. On top of that given the individual resource/building sculpts and differentiation of hexes on the board, it's surprising how accessible Via Nebula is even for the colour blind, you'd think it would be their worst nightmare! Definitely getting your £34.99 RRP's worth that's for sure.

The rules are so simple to learn, it's unreal. You have 6 actions to choose from and you only do two actions a round. The card powers are self explanatory with full descriptions in the rulebook and your player board acts like a handy reference. This is definitely a gateway game, though I'm surprised some other reviewers disagree on that front. It's even got a 2.56 weight rating on BoardGameGeek, seriously? If you made this game any simpler to learn or play I'd probably be bored, we're not talking deep levels of depth here.


Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!


Despite the cutesy art and style, Via Nebula can get pretty mean at times. The rule is that any player can take a resource from an exploitation if they have a valid route, regardless of who found it in the first place. So suddenly resources and contracts are being stolen from under you left and right as everyone tries to grab what they can. Players get paranoid about wanting to explore that last tile to make the connection because as soon as they do, chaos ensues.



You get a nice bit of tension as a result, but know off the bat that this is not a friendly game. You'll be in each others faces and your best laid plans can fall apart without warning. Not to the extent that you can't recover fairly easily, but expect a few curse words to fly from adults as you quickly march in and steal that last pig on the board. It does seem to make exploring an action that you're not keen on doing as often though, because it takes a while to gain any substantial point gain from it and while you're doing all that hard work, other players are setting themselves up ready to use your newly formed route.


An Achievement In Downtime


As mentioned, you have to do two actions per round out of a choice of six. Each action takes no more than 5 seconds in real time to execute and you won't always be able to do each one so turns just absolutely fly by even with four players. Decisions of what you should do on your turn aren't on auto-pilot, but they aren't that complicated either so even thinking time should be at its minimal level. If you're are encountering Analysis Paralysis while playing Via Nebula, you are officially banned from my game the next time I bring Argent: The Consortium to the table.

The whole experience can be wrapped up in 45-60 minutes with ease, but it almost seems a little anti-climatic when it does end. There's usually still quite a lot of areas on the board that are unexplored and lots of resources still available that Via Nebula doesn't give you that feeling that you're building anything special. You place out 5 wooden buildings and that's it, it's not exactly a towering metropolis.


A Euro Where More Is Better?! 


I never thought I'd be saying this, but Via Nebula is one of those occasions where more players is better for a Euro game. Normally I'm always saying that the max number of players in a Euro does nothing but add time, especially when you see that dreaded "5" appear in the range value on the box. Thankfully they've been intelligent here and capped it at 4 players, which is plenty, but I also say that Via Nebula is best played at four players to the point where I actually feel it doesn't scale well on lower counts.

As you've gathered, a lot of the tension is down to the interaction of having players able to take resources from any exploitation within reach regardless of who found it. And the board doesn't scale with players so if you only have two of you, it's basically solitaire mode as you can simply ignore each other. Three players improves on this with some back and forth, but again it's possible to find your own "spot" and be happy. Try doing it with four though and it's a different story. You're going to clash with someone regularly and that's a good thing because otherwise it's pretty dull being in your own spot.

There are several means of scoring points, but you can't really specialise in anything. Throughout the game you are bound to be scoring in all possible areas and as mentioned, exploration is pretty slow at gaining you many points compared to other paths. But scores tend to be pretty tight at the end, which is plus. There's enough variety in the cards to keep you going for many repeat plays, but there's quite a few duplicates and I feel they missed a mark here by not having lots of unique and interesting buildings to choose from, maybe take a leaf out of Artipia's book for inspiration.


Verdict on Via Nebula


Via Nebula on the whole is a very well produced and light gateway game for introducing new players to resource management or "pick-up and deliver" concepts. It's not particularly thematic, but its mechanisms are simple. Once you've taught the six actions and the end-game scoring, you can pretty much get going, as there's very little rules ambiguity and thus it's perfectly nested within the gateway game category. On top of that it's very colourful and tactile with all the wooden pieces and cutesy artwork.

When it comes to downtime, this is one of the best examples of how to get it right out there with turns just flying by. However it doesn't scale well. The most fun in this game is generated from the interaction of dealing with other players muscling in on your resource sources and with only two of you, it just feels like solitaire mode. Three is fine, but it's really all about having a crowded board.

It can get pretty cut-throat with resources and contracts being stolen, but if you're comfortable with that, this game ticks the boxes for a good gateway game. It's not the most varied or exciting game ever and is a little anti-climatic, but it's a neat, clean design and in my opinion, his best work I've tried so far, even if I do have a list of gateway games I'd rather play.



If you are interested in this game you can find a copy at your friendly local gaming store - http://www.findyourgamestore.co.uk/



YOU WILL LIKE VIA NEBULA IF:


You enjoy games where timing is essential. You're waiting for prime opportunities to arise.


You want a gateway level game that can be taught and played in no time.


You love the visual appeal of the game - it's a very pretty sight.



YOU WILL NOT LIKE VIA NEBULA IF:


You aren't comfortable with the high level of stealing/screwing over that can take place here.


You're looking for a large variety in strategies and paths to victory.


You want a little bit more theme and excitement - it's well designed, but only so much immersion.

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