06th Feb2019

‘Nemeton’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

nemeton-box

If you travel back in time to the earlier days of popular, modern board gaming, you will recall that several recurring themes would often appear. Trading in the Mediterranean is perhaps the most obvious of them, but it would also be fair to suggest that various takes on construction, Vikings or embarking upon a great journey wouldn’t be far behind. Recently, I can’t help but feel that more and more games are themed around nature and conservation – Photosynthesis, Herbaceous and a few others all spring to mind, but one game that has really stood out for me is without doubt Nemeton.

In Nemeton, players each take control of a druid that is tasked with healing an ancient forest. To do this, he or she will take turns to manipulate moonlight, gather sacred flowers, brew potions, collect ancient Triskell carvings and befriend animals. Whilst the druids are working towards the combined objective of healing the forest, there is no force working against them, which makes Nemeton a relatively relaxed feeling game that is actually all about scoring the most points. Indeed, even among druids it seems that a bit of healthy competition goes a long way.

When I first saw Nemeton, I have to admit that it looked like a daunting prospect, mainly because there is just an awful lot going on. The focus of the game is almost certainly the central forest, but there is also a separate board that features a number of tiered goals that can be claimed at the end of a players turn. Also on this board, players will see seven animal companions that form a kind of marketplace that can be accessed whenever a druid lands on a Spring tile on the forest board. Down the left hand side and around the top of this board, players will also see which potions can be brewed now (down the left) as well as those that will be come available later (around the top.) Then, each player has an individual player board that’s covered in initially complex iconography.

With all that said, Nemeton is actually very simple and credit where credit is due, it has a superb, matter of fact manual that I found an absolute doddle to learn from. The setup is explained clearly, with logical steps and images that are useful but not intrusive, which keeps the amount of pages to a minimum. The turn order is then articulated phase by phase, with some of the additional complexities of what might happen broken into a separate section that follows the logical flow. I don’t think that publisher Blam! has done anything especially unusual or innovative here, but there is a straightforwardness to the writing here that made perfect sense to me – and I am all for that.

When the game begins, players take turns to complete all of four steps. The first of these is Night and it simply requires players to take the top hex tile from their personal stack (which is ordered during setup) and then place it adjacent to the existing forest board. Each tile will show a different back (river, clearing, rocks etc) as well as an image of the moon. Players then trace straight lines outwards from their hex to other hexes that share the same kind of terrain. Every unoccupied space between the new moon tile and the destination will then bloom, which means that the player places flowers of the relevant colour on each space. The Night phase is then over and during the Dawn phase, the hex tile is flipped, revealing a new piece of terrain, which may also spawn a special tile (revealing a Nemeton, an Ancient Oak or a Spring.)

The next phase is Day, which is when the druid takes actions. Druids can move one or two spaces (in a straight line only) and can take an action on each. Actions include simply picking up the flowers on each space and adding them to their bags, but when on a Nemeton, an Ancient Oak or a Spring space, other actions are available. Nemeton’s allow players to brew potions by paying the cost in flowers that is shown on the potion in question, whilst Oak’s allow a player to claim one of those potion cards without actually having the ingredients (allowing them to complete it at their leisure) or to refresh one of their special actions (which I’ll discuss in a moment.) Finally, if a player is on a Spring, then they may pay the cost in flowers for either pair of animals on the left or right hand side of the central board. Doing so allows them to slide down animals from the row above and draw new ones from a bag.

Whenever there is a Triskell token on their Spring or Nemeton tile, they may also claim it if they take the Brew Potion or Befriend Animal action. Regardless of what they do at a Nemeton or Spring, players should always add their own personal marker to it to indicate that they visited, which can have an impact on some of the goals – for example those that require players to have visited two of each to score. After all actions are taken, the Dusk phase rolls around and cleanup is performed. This, in short, is really just about completing the goals on the central board – only one of which can be claimed each turn (even if a player can achieve several.) When this happens, the reward (a flower) for the goal is taken and replaced with one of the acting druids control tokens.

Once the last hex tiles have been placed and the final Dusk phase has been completed, the game ends and final scoring is conducted. This is relatively simple and is calculated based on the values shown on all completed potions (minus two points for each claimed but incomplete potion) and then each of the completed goals. The player then adds two points per collected Triskell and then adds up the value of their animal companions (which vary depending on the number of each type of animal collected.) In my experience, potions cost a bit more than animals but will likely score more when completed, whilst animals can allow players to collect a lot of points in smaller increments. Other points (like Triskells and goals) are important and can make the difference between winning and losing, but shouldn’t be the main strategic focus.

Now, whilst I’ve talked about the actions in brief, there is more to Nemeton than I’ve described here. Purple flowers (nightshade) can be spent to allow a player to instantly teleport to an Oak tree without costing them a move. In addition, each player begins the game with an owl familiar and two special movement tokens that allow them to change direction between their moves and to move an extra space. These moves can be used only once, unless refreshed by using the section power of the Ancient Oak. The owl can be flipped to change the terrain that the moon shines on during the Night phase, whilst the other animals (Snake, Boar, Stag and Salmon) each come with a unique ability of their own.

And so here’s the interesting thing about Nemeton – it initially looks complicated, but when you set it up and learn it, it isn’t. Then when you really learn it, it begins to get complicated again. Performing the basic turn flow of Nemeton is undoubtedly straightforward, but the more you understand about the special actions and the sequencing of different abilities, the more nuanced the play becomes. Maximising the efficiency of each turn is critical because the number of turns is limited (to ten in multiplayer games and eleven in two player) and if players act in a passive way, the potency of their turns will be very limited. Even the manual demonstrates how to use nightshade to string out a turn, and the game literally incentivises the players to work hard to bend the basic rule structure wherever possible.

With beautiful components that use a fantastic mixture of both light and dark pieces as well as three dimensional elements, Nemeton looks fantastic on the table and will appeal to a wide range of people. It’s easy to learn and teach, but it’s very challenging to master and will likely to take a game or two to come to terms with. Nemeton may not appeal to everyone thanks to the complexity of some of the more intricate abilities since they require a bit of planning, but I think the simplicity of actually learning the game should be applauded. This is definitely a game to pick up, learn quickly and then spend time getting to know. As such, it will remain in my long term play pile for some time to come.

***½  3.5/5

Nemeton is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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