Strategy game achieves three-player balance

As an abstract strategy fan I am always excited to give a new game of the genre a closer look.
In the case of NXS, a game originally created back in 2015, but now getting a push by its designer Kevin Kane, it was particularly interesting because it can be played by either two, or three players.
Two player abstract strategy games are of course the norm, but allowing for three players is a tad rare.
The rarity arises because three-player efforts tend to have two players ganging up to eliminate the third so they can then get down to head-to-head action.
In NXS Kane has overcome that general flaw by having players needing to interact with both players to succeed. The goal here is to capture enemy territory and in a three payer contest you must grab half you goal in territory from each opponent, which is a nice element.When I got my copy of NXS I was immediately curious about the background of its creator, so thanks to social media I tracked him down for a few questions.
Interestingly, Kane does not count himself a serious fan of abstract strategy games.
“I learned chess and checkers when I was younger of course, but I was never passionate about that category of game,” he admitted. “When I was older, in the 90’s, I got interested in an abstract called Terrace. That led me to get interested in other strategy games (not just abstract). But in any non-abstract strategy game, what always bugged me was luck. You can strategize all day long, but a couple of bad dice rolls can kill you in Backgammon. So I definitely preferred games like Go or Othello.”
While he mentioned Go and Othello, NXS is unlike both, so where did the idea for this game come from?
“I actually got to meet the creators of Terrace and that was what really kicked off my interest in abstracts, and more specifically creating my own abstract,” said Kane. “I knew right away that I wanted to work off of a hexagon rather than a square. That’s really common today, but I hadn’t seen any in the 90’s. I now know they were out there, but I hadn’t seen them. I was playing games like Star Fleet Battles, and the hexagon grid intrigued me. Honestly, the fact that NXS can be played with three (or more) players is a side-effect of the hexagon shape.”
Go did provide Kane with the concept of territory control he would utilize in NXS.
“I was really interested in Go, but it is so complex! I knew I could never truly be good at it even if spent a crazy amount of time studying and playing,” he said. “But in Go, I always missed the aesthetic of having two armies facing each other across a field of battle (like Chess). So I decided pretty early on that NXS would have two armies face each other, but have a more fluid territory-based goal. I also wanted all the pieces to move by the same rules, and to have short and long game options (two things that I picked up from Terrace). But unlike Terrace, I wanted different pieces to have different ‘personalities’. I also really enjoyed the resource management aspects of Star Fleet Battles. You had to balance engines, weapons, shields, etc. That is represented in a small way in NXS by the move direction/distance trade-off of the pieces.”
The game evolved over the years.
“It was a long time ago, so my memory is fuzzy. I would guess that I had something that is recognizable as NXS created in maybe six-months to a year. Probably closer to six-months,” he said.
“In order to get NXS to the state it is in today took about 20-years. That time was mostly spent with NXS in a closet gathering dust, to be honest. I would drag it out now and again and make my friends play with me. But the rules haven’t changed too much over that time. Little tweaks here and there to make it more solid.”
The biggest hurdle in development was making the end goal work.
“Figuring out how to make it a territory based goal, that was definitely trickiest thing to turn into a practical, playable mechanic,” said Kane. “You aren’t just filling the board with pieces like in Go or Othello, so how do you make it about territory? Playing Othello one day, it struck me. Surround your territory!
“So far as difficult to overcome; I would say getting out of my own way. I had some rules/aspects that I thought were cool, but that didn’t really work that well for players. Letting go of those things took me longer than it should have.”
So in the mind of the designer what is the best element of the game?
“Flexibility,” said Kane. “You can start with fewer pieces, or more. You can play for less territory, or more. You can play with two players, or three (I have experimented with four, and up to six should be possible). There are play variants, different board setups, optional rules, etc. I feel like all of these things combine to make NXS extremely re-playable, even if you have a limited set of opponents.”
As a player the game reminds a bit of Ploy the 1970 release from 3M, largely because of the directional movement of pieces and ability to re-orient as the game progresses. However, NXS is a far more robust game than Ploy.
If you like checkers and chess this is certainly one that is easy to recommend. There is a vitality here based on pre-game choices than make it a game a cut above most.
Thanks to fellow gamers Trevor Lyons and Adam Daniels for their help in running through this game for review.
For a bonus game review head to yorktonthisweek.com where a review of the game Age of Thieves has been posted this week.

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