14 November 2019
Worker placement overboard
What can I tell you about Waters of Nereus? It’s set somewhere called Nereus, and there are waters there. Also ships, because you each have a ship with a crew, some of them with non-human faces and odd hair. You’re after treasure, which apparently floats, so you can pay them. And that’s it for background, because this game commits the ordinal sin of promising a “wonderful journey” in “an amazing world” – that’s what the box says – and delivering almost nothing but mechanics.
I spent some time online looking for information about Nereus, because it felt like this game had to tie into something larger, maybe anRPG I’d never heard of. Nope. The rulebook has more information about colourblindness than about the game’s setting. The only background is what you can piece together from the rules and components – and the picture they paint is of a pretty empty watery world where everyone is obsessed with finding treasure, but so genteel that they’d never take someone else’s.
On Nereus you have a ship and seven crew, all with different abilities, and over four days (turns), each split into four shifts (phases), you’ll be deploying them to steer your craft around a six-by-six board covered with random treasures in six colours, plus the other players' ships. Land on a space, collect the treasures there and use them to pay off (level-up) the crew members, or to engage the game’s various intricate and interlocking mechanics, which are too fiddly to go into.
The purpose of it all is a victory point chase. Everything you do either yields VPs or things that convert into them at the end. Playing your scientist gets you science points, which can be spent to activate science cards, which mostly produce VPs. The purser produces gold out of nowhere, which the merchant can turn into VPs. It’s all mechanics, no atmosphere. And mechanically it’s all very clever and varied and well-balanced, but it’s not enormously engaging.
Rearranging the coloured treasures on your cabin becomes the focus, and the map of Nereus that ought to be the heart of the game sits in the middle of the table, unloved. Maybe that’s because only two of your crew can actually move your ship; maybe it’s because there are no threats or danger here, or maybe it’s because in a game about treasure-seeking on the high seas you can’t interact with other players’ ships or crew. No piracy, no broadsides, and absolutely no keelhauling, plank-walking or buckleswashing. Where’s the fun in that?
Oh sure, it’s worker-placement, so there are advantages in being first to put down a crew member, pre-empting everyone else, or nabbing a stack of treasure. But Waters of Nereus is not a game that makes predicting your opponents’ moves easy, so mostly you’ll focus on optimising your own systems, and not paying attention to what the others are doing.
In academic video game studies a debate has raged for years between the ludologists, who think games exist as pure systems, and narratologists, who think games are partly the stories they create. Waters of Nereus gives no concessions to narrative at all, and is the worse for it. Because it doesn’t understand the story it wants to tell or the world where it’s set, the game boils down to an exercise in fiddling with treasures and gems – which are admittedly very nice to hold; this is a well-designed and attractive box of stuff.
If you’re adamant that games don’t need stories, then Nereus has interesting mechanics and some clever strategies. The rest of us may find it a bit of a damp squib.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
Designer: Steve Finn
Artist: Beth Sobel
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products