The first step in a Nexus Ops game is setting up the board. The playing surface is built with terrain tiles -- a central Monolith, surrounded by six one-hex tiles, surrounded by six two-hex tiles. Each player (two, three, or four) butts a three-hex home base tile against the outer ring of tiles. Besides the central Monolith, the tiles represent four different types of terrain -- Liquifungus Forest, Crystal Spires, Magma Pools, and Rock Plains. The terrain types never change, but the map layout can be different every game.
Adding to the variability of the map are the exploration tiles. Each of the 18 hexes surrounding the Monolith contains a face-down exploration tile. These aren't revealed until a unit ends its movement on that tile. Exploration tiles can reveal allied units that join the player's army for free or a rubium mine that will generate income for the corporation (which can be used to hire more units next turn!).
Together, the terrain tiles and exploration tiles guarantee that no two games of Nexus Ops will be quite alike.
Turns in Nexus Ops follow this sequence:
- Purchase new units
- Move units
- Explore new tiles
- Conduct battles
- Collect rubium from mines
- Draw new cards
Movement is simple. All units move one tile per turn -- with three exceptions. Under the right circumstances, Rock Striders and Lava Leapers can move two tiles, and Rubium Dragons can move anywhere.
After movement, wherever enemy units occupy the same hex, there's going to be a battle. Peaceful coexistence is not an option.
The game may be about Earth-based interstellar corporations waging war on an alien moon, but it's not about Earthmen. The real stars are the aliens that fight for us. Of course, the distant moon where this war takes place is their home, so they aren't the aliens there -- humans are.
Humans are the game's baseline units. They are the cheapest at 2 rubium but also the weakest and the least flexible. They attack last, they hit only on 6s, and they can't enter Magma Pools or the all-important Monolith.
Aside from humans, five types of nonterrestrial life exist on the embattled moon:
- Fungoids cost a bit more than humans -- 3 rubium -- but that still qualifies them as cheap labor for the mines. In battle, they hit on rolls of 5+ but get a +1 bonus in their home terrain of Liquifungus Forest and a -1 penalty in Crystal Spires. They can't climb the massive monolith but can go anywhere else.
- Crystallines are equal in cost and fighting ability to Fungoids. They perform best in their home terrain of Crystal Spires and are penalized in Liquifungus Forest. Their one advantage over Fungoids is that Crystallines attack before Fungoids in battle.
- Rock Striders cost twice as much as Fungoids or Crystallines -- 6 rubium -- but they hit on rolls of 4+ and they can move twice as far (two tiles) if their movement includes a Rock Plains tile.
- Lava Leapers cost 8 rubium and hit on rolls of 3+ (2+ in Magma Pools). Even better, if their move begins in a Magma Pool, they not only get to move two tiles, they can also leap over enemy units in the first tile.
- Rubium Dragons are kings of the mountain -- or rather, the Monolith. They hit on 2+, they're the only units in the game that can attack units outside their own tiles, and they can move anywhere on the board if they begin on the Monolith. All that power and flexibility comes at a high cost -- 12 rubium, enough to buy six humans.
The other factor to consider when weighing the usefulness of various units is the battle sequence. Attacks are made in this order: Rubium Dragons, Lava Leapers, Rock Striders, Crystallines, Fungoids, Humans. If both sides in a battle have Lava Leapers (for example), those attacks are resolved simultaneously. Each hit destroys an enemy unit, however, and those casualties are removed at the end of each step. So if a Lava Leaper destroys a Rock Strider, the Rock Strider is removed from the battle before it has a chance to attack back.
Removing casualties frequently calls for hard decisions. Casualties removed in one step don't get to fight in a later step. That often leads to situations where players must decide between losing a Lava Leaper that cost 8 rubium but has already attacked in this battle, or removing a Fungoid that cost only 3 rubium but still has a chance to inflict a casualty in this fight.
A battle consists of one pass through the battle sequence, from Rubium Dragons to Humans. If only one side remains, they win and get to collect the spoils of victory in the form of a completed Mission or Secret Mission card. If both sides still have units on the tile, however, then they're locked in battle. There's no retreat step. The only way out is to win or to move out during your own Movement phase. Rubium can be mined only on tiles that are uncontested -- if two players have units on a mine, no one collects income for it.
The Monolith is a special case. The sole occupier of the Monolith gets to draw two Energize cards each turn. Those cards give you special bonuses in combat, movement, or in other ways. Also, Rubium Dragons perched on the Monolith can launch themselves to any spot on the board, an air assault that's hard to stand up against.
Finally, we mentioned the Secret Mission cards. While the corporation wants you to smash its competition and lock up the rubium source for monopoly exploitation, it also has other, ulterior motives for fighting on this remote moon. The Secret Mission cards represent directives from the company that might not always seem guided by the principle of victory at any cost. The company might want you to win a battle while keeping at least one Fungoid alive, for example. Complying with those orders will earn you more victory points for winning the battle -- but might also make it harder to win the battle in the first place. The Boardroom is a long way away from the battlefield.
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