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Via Nebula: a review. Martin Wallace + fantasy = masterpiece?

Background

Martin Wallace is a very famous British game designer and many of his games centre around trains: building routes, buying shares, collecting and using resources. Three of his most famous games are Age of Steam, Steam and Railways of the World (co-designed with Glenn Drover). They share certain similarities and design elements and range from medium difficulty (Railways of the World) to the more heavyweight end of the spectrum (Age of Steam).

Craftsman and wheat

In 2016, Via Nebula was published by Space Cowboys and if you've not come across this game before I'd imagine you're wondering round about now what trains have got to do with anything? Bear with me.

What is it about?

From the rulebook: "The Nebula Valley has just emerged from a dark era, when for centuries, monstrous creatures inhabited the mists. It is now time for guilds of brave explorers to travel through the foggy pathways, exploit the resources and build new buildings and towns on the ruins of the devastated cities. Nebula will restore its peace and prosperity, and you are to become the heroes of the Valley!"

The rules are exceedingly simple and the rulebook perfectly written- it should come as no surprise to find out that Gaming Rules! were involved. On a player's turn, they may perform whichever actions they desire, in whichever order, totalling 2 action points (my term, not theirs). The actions are as follows:

  • A - Place a craftsman (1 AP)
  • B - Place a building site (1 AP)
  • C - Explore a fog space (1 AP)
  • D - Explore a petrified forest (2 AP)
  • E - Transport a resource to one of your building sites (1 AP)
  • F - Construct a building (1 AP)

Placing a craftsman opens up new resources on the board; placing a building site allows the player to move resources to it; exploring fog spaces and petrified forests helps connect building sites to resource spaces; and finally moving resources allows the player to complete a contract.

Most contracts have special one-time abilities that can be used on completion.

So...trains?

What Via Nebula basically boils down to is a simplified track-laying game without the trains. Comparing this to Railways of the World, they both involve:

  • Exploring the map and creating routes
  • Moving resources
  • Completing contracts/goals
  • Exploiting/using what your opponents are doing to your advantage
  • Earning victory points

They are, clearly, very different games but knowing Martin Wallace's pedigree and back catalogue, it's easy to see the influence of trains and previous designs in Via Nebula. It's just a bit easier, a lot quicker and a heck of a lot more beautiful!

The board

Components

Stunning! I do believe the components are second to none. In all my gaming experience, I have not seen a more perfectly constructed game box. The resources are very nice and each have their own specially-shaped compartments for storage. The exploitation tokens and building sites are thick enough and pretty; the buildings are absolutely gorgeous. The player mats (called Guild Boards) are thin but attractive and do the job required; they're only housing items until needed. Everything fits so tightly into the box, with the board on the top, that you can even store it vertically and find everything where you left it on opening.

Via Nebula inside the box

Interaction

As stated by Martin Wallace on the back of the box, the whole game is based around the idea that your actions will also benefit other players. Placing a Craftsman, for example, will open up resources but once they're on the board, anybody can snap them up. Exploring and connecting up longer routes might help you out but it's likely to aid your opponents too so you need to be careful. These simple mechanisms therefore result in a very interactive experience. There is also the standard Eurogame feeling of racing to complete the contract you want before somebody else gets there first; it's a bit like blocking in a worker placement game.

Getting a copy

If you've made it this far into the review, you may well be considering getting your own copy; I'm afraid that's when the bad news comes. It's hard to find copies of this for anything less than a small mortgage. There are copies available from several German retailers around the £40 mark if you're ok with the hassle and potential shipping costs e.g. bestpricegeek.de. If you want to get this from a source in Britain you may well be looking at Amazon. Your best bet might be to get a copy second hand.

Conclusion

My purchase was an impulse buy; I didn't know all that much about it but the price was decent. I had played several other Martin Wallace games and they tend to be very well designed, strategically challenging and sometimes (to me) a little dry. Brass is a very highly regarded game based on the industrial revolution in Britain. You can tell it's popular; a recent Kickstarter campaign has resulted in a reprint with 2 different versions: Lancashire and Birmingham. I'd have a hard time selling this to certain types of people but have had no such problems introducing friends and family to Via Nebula. A 2 player game of this can be finished in 30-40 minutes (with 3 and 4 players not taking masses longer) but it's no filler- there's just an awful lot of game crammed into that short time span. If you like what you've read in this review, I would recommend this without hesitation. It has become a standout game in my collection in just a few weeks.