Review: Nightfall—HyperAgressive Deck Building
Nightfall is the brand new deck builder from AEG. Nightfall utilizes the horror setting and most of the cards feature werewolves, vampires, or hunters trying to rid the world of them. The game has a lot of unique aspects which set it far apart from other deck builders. Both gameplay and setup are exclusive to Nightfall.
A brief word of warning, though. For players interested in checking this game out, be aware that it is highly aggressive. Hyperaggressive even. You will be attacked and burned, bitten, or bled. So be aware that this is not about rainbows and puppydogs. More about raining death and werewolves on people.
The Basics. Though it introduces several new elements to the deck building genre, it remains very much a deckbuilder. The players will buy cards from a common pool (each stack of cards called an Archive), place it into their deck, and then build from there. But, Nightfall creates several new additions that breath new life—or unlife in Nightfall’s case—into the genre.
The game actually starts before the common Archives are even selected. Most deck builders have someone rifle through some randomizer cards, lay those out, and then play begins with those common cards. Not so with Nightfall. Instead, a deck of Draft cards is included. There is one for each potential archive. Rather than dealing them out to the table, they are instead dealt to the players. Each player gets four.
The player keeps one, then passes the remaining three. When he gets his set of three, he keeps one and passes the remaining two. With the remaining two, he selects one to go in the common pile that everyone will buy from and one to go out of the game entirely. The first two he selected will become his private archives. He and he alone will have access to those cards and may put them in his deck. So from the very beginning, the players are involved in what the game will look like. They will develop a strategy even before they know what cards will even be available.
The addition of the private archives is a fantastic development. It helps to vary the play up each game. Whereas most deck builders rely on selecting a limited set from a wider range of options, Nightfall also ensures that no two people will likely have the same private archives twice in a row. This leads to different strategies and ultimately to a different experience in every play.
Nightfall comes with a set of starting cards, as do most games in the genre. However, Nightfall’s start cards act as a mini-tutorial of sorts. Each card has one specific and easily-identified ability. Also, each one is a different color and can only chain to its own color (more on chaining below). That way, the first few turns are played a little more compactly than later in the game. A newer player will be able to learn it on the fly without a lot of explanation and not feel overwhelmed right from the beginning. The start cards even come with the only dedicated blocker in the game—a wall of sorts to prevent massive damage from the very beginning. And each of those start cards are taken out of the deck completely when destroyed, rather than being shuffled back in. After a few turns, the training wheels come off.
On the other hand, it can lead the experienced player to feel a little stymied. Those first few rounds (maybe three turns per player?) will act out pretty similarly in each game. While it diverges massively from there, with a few games under my belt I really just wanted to rush through those initial turns to get to the good stuff. Perhaps later expansions will include alternate rules for starting cards for experienced players.
Nightfall is extremely aggressive. There are very few defensive cards. Almost every card is a way to destroy other players’ minions or to deal damage to the other players. In fact, if you have any minions at the beginning of your turn, they must attack. They are discarded after attacking, even if they aren’t killed. This forces everyone to be aggressive—you cannot sit back and play defense in Nightfall.
However, this is tempered somewhat by the winning conditions. In other games, you collect victory points and whoever has the most points wins. In Nightfall, you are giving out wound cards. Whoever has the least wound cards wins. So, the best strategy is usually to spread the wounds out. You don’t want to gang up on one player because every wound he gets after he no longer has the fewest is essentially wasted. It should be sent to the next player in line—and certainly to someone who has fewer wounds than you do. You won’t see a whole lot of ganging up.
The wounds are added to the player’s deck so they can’t be readily counted. A few cards will remove wounds from a player’s deck. It’s easy to lose count of who has how many wounds—but keeping a steady count is critical to victory. Once those wounds run out, the game is over. Unlike the victory cards from other games, the wound cards are not dead draws. They can be used for special advantages. In Nightfall, they can be discarded to draw two cards a piece. Other expansion may add different abilities.
Nightfall also differs in that a player may be able to lay down cards on any player’s turn. The current player can lay down any card from his hand to start a “chain” of cards. That card will have one large color in the upper left corner and two small ones. That player can play another card, but its large circle must match one of the two small ones on the card that came before it. Thus the chain of plays is created. Once the active player is done, every other person gets a chance to add on if they can and are able to. The chain is then resolved from last card played to first card played.
On a first play, this seemed to bog down the game substantially. Each card has text about what they do in the chain—some even effect other unresolved cards from earlier in the chain. We took a long time reading the new cards and players weren’t really prepared to add new things on each and every player’s turn. By the time the full chain resolved, many of us would forget whose turn it was.
By our second game, though, things sped up substantially. We would announce the final two connecting colors and it would be the next person’s opportunity to add. This has increased with every game to the point where it is no more onerous than other games that have a similar mechanic such as San Juan. And, in a five player game, it tends to keep everyone focused on the play. Other games can go way off track as a player loses interest in-between his turns.
I don’t normally talk about theme—it’s not particularly important to me—but there’s been a lot of buzz about Nightfall’s horror motif. I think the artwork is stellar and I’m a fan of the undead and the terrible horrors of the night. That said, the theme is tenuously tied to the game at best. When playing, your major concerns are being able to chain your cards onto what the person before you played. In fact, I have played hunters, werewolves, and vampires all together, all working for me. Thematically problematic.
But that really doesn’t detract from the game at all. The only reason I include it is because some people don’t care for the horror theme (I know right? I bet they hate cake, too!). If you’re one of those people, take a look at Nightfall anyway. The theme really only influences the names of the cards and the artwork. Gameplay is fast (after a play or two), aggressive, and highly interactive.
Components: 3.5 of 5. The cards are on high quality stock and I have few worries that many games and much shuffling will have an adverse impact on them. There’s no additional gloss though, probably a design choice, which may require them to be sleeved at some point if I play it as much as I think I will. The draft cards also have a much different back to distinguish them. The rulebook is clear, concise, and provides a ton of examples.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Nightfall is probably the most strategy-minded card game I’ve played. You must pay attention to what the other players are grabbing—especially the player on your right. He will provide the cards for you to chain to, so you want to have cards that can be played off of his colors. Also, since the starting cards evaporate after use, the deck swiftly becomes about what you’ve volitionally added rather than about what you’re stuck with just agreeing to play. Add on top the need to remember who has wounds, the strategic choices in who to attack and kill, and the minions that you can play out, and you have one monster of a game.
Mechanics: 4 of 5. The mechanics of Nightfall are fantastic. I love the idea of the private archives. Gaining wounds is balanced by the bonus abilities they give you. The chains and interactivity are phenomenal. Nightfall forces you to be aggressive and it requires you to watch what other players are grabbing so you can chain from it. A few cards, such as the one allowing you to select the target for another card in the chain, seem a little more powerful than others. But not so much that they are game-breaking—just highly sought after.
Replayability: 3.5 of 5. The private archives allow even a game played with the exact same set of cards to feel new and different. After all, in this game I might have chosen a unique combination of two that alters my selections—and therefore will also alter what the player to my left can and will play. If there’s one area where Nightfall suffers it’s in the number of cards that come in the box. This only really becomes an issue with five players. In a five player game, there will be ten private Archives and eight common Archives. That leaves only six cards unused. Using 18 of 24 cards means you’ll see a lot of repeats from game to game. Nightfall doesn’t have that same portion-of-a-whole feeling that you get with other builders. However, I imagine this will be swiftly remedied when Nightfall introduces its first expansion.
Spite: 3 of 5. With so much aggression and so much damage being thrown around, why such a low spite score? Well, it gets a three because spite is available, is present, and will happen. Cards in the chain can have their targets changed or removed altogether. Private archives can have cards removed. There is a lot of spite to go around, but at the same time, the game discourages coordinated efforts against a single player. It will all get spread around so much, and you’ll be doing your fair share, that it tends not to generate the hurtful feelings associated with other high spite games. I think Nightfall might even make a good training ground to develop a thick gaming skin. It’s a lot easier to enjoy the damage and spitefulness in Nightfall because it is so spread out. Once that sentiment develops, perhaps it will be easier to carry over to other games less egalitarian in their spite (cough, Munchkin/Diplomacy, cough).
Overall: 4.5 of 5. The bottom line is that this game is fantastically fun. This combines the thrill and variability of a deck builder, with the interactivity and fight of a combat game or CCG. Nightfall really explodes after the start cards are disposed of and the players are left only with the cards they’ve acquired for themselves. Nightfall also forces aggression, so no player can play it “nice” or build up a defense. I would highly recommend this game to anyone who is a fan of deck builders and direct conflict.
A special thanks to AEG for providing a review copy of Nightfall.