Martin Wallace is one of the inner-circle Hall of Famers in Eurogame design, responsible for Brass, the Age of Steam series (later rebranded as just Steam), and the deckbuilding wargame A Few Acres of Snow. His latest title, Via Nebula, dials down the complexity for a family-friendly game with simple rules and fast turns while still subtly incorporating his signature route-building mechanic.
In Via Nebula, two to four players are asked to explore a map of hexagons that, at the start of the game, has no empty spaces. Some are covered in fog and must be explored by the players; some have resource tokens on them; some have ‘ruins’ on which players can construct new buildings; and some are just off limits for the entire game. Players will explore the board to create open paths between the resource hexes and building sites, fulfilling specific resource costs for certain building cards to gain their rewards. When any player builds his/her fifth building, it triggers the end of the game, and each other player gets one final turn to rack up as many points as possible.
Players can score points in several ways, starting with buildings that bring two to four points, equal to the number of resources required to build them. Each player starts the game with two private ‘contract’ cards, which only that player can finish, or can choose to finish one of the four public cards on display during the whole game. The card balance between point rewards and in-game benefits is generally strong, although I think the Architect card, which costs four resources to build but has a variable points reward that can reach five if you complete all your buildings, is the most powerful. Players also get rewards of 1 or 2 points for exploring new resource tiles, and gain 2 points for each pile of blank meadow tiles (used to clear fog spaces) they deplete from their own boards. Triggering end-game gets that player a 2-point bonus as well.
The key to the design of Via Nebula, and to winning it, is the route-building, which is pure Martin Wallace even though it’s much simpler to execute than in Steam or Brass. The layout of the board (which has two sides, beginner and expert) creates a limited number of potential paths early in the game, but opens up as the game progresses, especially with three or four players. The distribution of the game’s five resources is random, and in the early stages players – who get two actions per turn – will have to open up resource supply hexes, start building sites, and build the paths to get from the former to the latter. Players can use supplies that other players create, or paths that other players build, so it’s possible, for example, that you’ll open a new supply of wheat, only to have the other players steal all the wheat tokens before your turn comes back around again. This timing aspect – using your two actions together, deferring some actions, grabbing a resource now because it might be gone next turn – is the subtle part of Via Nebula, the aspect that makes this more than just a route-building game.
We were pleasantly surprised by how quickly Via Nebula moved once we knew the rules; turns take under a minute, and we never reached the game’s listed playing time of an hour. The game is best with three or four players, but includes a set of additional rules to allow it to play with two. With three or four players, each ruin site can accommodate two player buildings, but with two players that drops to one. This adds a blocking aspect that isn’t as prominent in games of 3-4 players, and felt a little forced to us. With three or four, however, there’s just enough competition for space and resources to keep it tense without ever feeling too cutthroat to play with kids. My daughter is ten and said she’d absolutely play it again, especially since she managed to tie me for the lead in her first game (with a little coaching). If you’ve never played a Martin Wallace game, Via Nebula’s a great introduction to his style, and a great second step if your family loves gateway route-builders like Ticket to Ride.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.