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Reviews - Nightfall
 
by Lee Valentine


NightfallNightfall
Published by Alderac Entertainment Group
Designed by David Gregg
228 Minion and Action cards, 60 Wound cards, 24 randomizers, 34 card dividers, full-color gloss rulebook
$39.99

Nightfall is a new player-versus-player (PVP) deck-building game from Alderac Entertainment Group. The Earth is shrouded in perpetual darkness, and armies of monsters straight out of a Gothic horror film have come out of hiding and now make up the top of the food chain on the planet. Each player takes on the role of a mastermind in control of both monsters and elite human warriors who are well equipped enough to survive in this world of forever night.

Core Mechanics
At the beginning of the game, each player is given an identical twelve-card deck to start with. As with other deck-building games, there is a common marketplace containing stacks of cards from which players purchase additional cards to add to their decks, like shopping in a tiny store with shelves that contain multiple copies of only a small handful of items. As you play cards and they leave play they are discarded. When you run out of cards in your draw pile, you reshuffle your discards (including all your recent purchases) to form a new draw pile.

There, however, is where the similarities to games like Dominion, Ascension, and Thunderstone come to an end. Whereas starting cards in these other games are a necessary evil that you often wish you could prune away, and have to work to do so, in Nightfall each of your starting cards is removed from the game after it enters play once and carries out its specified effects. The focus then is really placed on the cards you are purchasing to add to your deck. While other deck-building games saddle you with a large deck, here it's possible to craft a super lean perpetual motion machine that keeps giving you similar draws, hand after hand, if you want.

NightfallWhile other games just have a common marketplace to purchase cards from, in Nightfall the competition starts out early with a mini-booster style draft. In addition to the cards in the starting decks, there are 24 distinct types of purchasable cards, only some of which will be available in each game. Four of these are handed to each player to start the game. Each player will draft one of these, and pass the remaining three around the table, in turn receiving a hand of three cards from his neighbor. Another card type is drafted. These first two card types represent cards that only you will be able to purchase for the rest of the game; they form your private archives. As the cards continue to cycle, you will choose one type of card that will be put into the common marketplace and one type of card to banish from the game. These early decisions can dominate the game. If you draft something that your opponent does not have an immediate answer for then the game can be short and one-sided. Additional stacks of cards are randomly selected to bring the common marketplace up to eight types of cards for the remainder of the game.

Players shuffle up their starting decks, draw a hand of cards, and play commences. On your turn you will attack with all of your minions in play. Then you will play cards from your hand. Next you will purchase new cards for your deck. Finally, you will destroy all of your minions that started the turn in play and replenish your hand.

Unlike Magic: The Gathering or Heroes of Graxia, the mechanics of minions in Nightfall will not allow you to just amass creatures and create a defensive wall to hide behind. Your creatures must attack and die on each of your turns, so you have to constantly recruit new minions to your cause to defend you during your opponents' turns. They will, in turn, attack and die during your next turn if your opponents haven't managed to kill them before then.

Charlotte Reyes cardPlaying cards to the table in most deck-building games is pretty trivial; if it's in your hand, you can usually play it. This is not always the case with Nightfall. Cards in Nightfall are played out in chains. Playing any one card from your hand starts a chain. Each card in Nightfall has a color (represented by a large colored full moon in the upper left hand corner). It also has one or two additional colored moons, smaller than the first moon representing the card's color. These smaller moons are follow-up colors. When you play your first card, your next card played in the chain must have the color of one of these small follow-up moons. Your second card determines the possible colors of your third card and so on. If you draft and purchase cards erratically, then you will likely only be able to play one or two cards on your turn. If your deck is well tuned then you may be able to play out your entire hand. Once you are done playing cards, the other players go around the table and are offered the opportunity to add their own cards to the end of your chain. Once all players have had a chance to play cards, the chain is resolved, one card at a time, in "last in, first out" order.

The ability to play cards and muster up defensive minions or effects during an opponent's turn is one of the primary skills of the game. Not only does your deck have to be able to link your own cards in succession, you often have to be able to chain off other players, particularly the player to your immediate right in the turn order, who will add to chains right before you do. This complex interaction of chained cards can cause massive analysis paralysis for some players, particularly when purchasing new cards or figuring out how to chain out the cards they have in hand.

Of course, if you chain out cards during your opponents' turns, then you will have fewer cards in your hands during your own turn. This is particularly important because you can discard cards from your hand during your turn to generate more resources to buy more and more powerful new cards for your deck.

All this dance of drafting, shuffling, purchasing, and chaining is just to generate effects that damage your opponent or defend yourself. Unlike Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons, you are not assigned a fixed number of hit points that you can sustain. Instead, each point of damage that you take forces you to shuffle a "Wound" card into your deck. Once per turn you can discard all your Wound cards to draw two cards for every one just discarded. Like all other cards, you can still discard Wounds to generate resources for making purchases, but they otherwise have no in-game effect, and serve to make your deck less efficient. At the end of the game, the player with the fewest total Wounds wins the game.

One note about the mechanics and play style is that attempting to play just for defense, in the end, is a losing strategy, if not impossible. All your creatures must attack and will eventually die, meaning that at least occasionally your opponent's creatures will slip through and nick you. There are often too few defenses against non-creature damage as well. Sure, you can successfully deny your opponent's attempts to damage you for several turns in a row, but eventually he'll leak a few points through. Over time this will result in a game loss. You have to attack to win.

Rules, Components, and Packaging
Much of the full-color rulebook is quite clear. It is easy to get started. Some card combinations raise rules questions, though, which are murky or undefined in the rulebook. In one instance two conceptually different game effects are given one term, "blocking", which can mean to interpose one of your defending minions so that he directly combats an opponent's attacking minion. In another instance, damage from any source can be absorbed or "blocked" by a handful of creature types. This raises a problem where a specific minion who "cannot be blocked" per the first usage of the term can still have the resulting damage "blocked" per the second usage of the term. This is clumsy and confusing. Having two distinct game terms such as "interpose" and "absorb" would have clarified these card interactions.

Nightfall priestThe cards feel a little thinner than I would like, but they still shuffled well. They are, however, substandard in one other way: if there is a press coat on the cards, then it is insufficient. The black ink that dominates the card backs is a finger print magnet. It also chips off and scratches very readily. In spite of handling the cards fairly gingerly, by the time I had finished my second game playing without card sleeves I had started to noticeably mark some of the cards. Typically I don't sleeve the cards from deck-building games, but here it seems like a necessity.

The packaging of the review copy I received is different than the packaging for the retail copy of the game. The retail version of the game has card dividers, to organize and separate the various types of cards. The review packaging does not. It is just a well-decorated card box. Given that I did not have a copy of the retail packaging to review, I did not consider packaging quality when determining an overall score for Nightfall.

While the layout of the cards was clean, it was not eye-catching. I also wished there had been a couple of icons to go with some of the colored numbers. The actual card art is of good quality. I think it is not as good as some art on other AEG products, but it is still appealing and professional, and captures the post-apocalyptic Gothic setting well.

Comparison to Other Deck-Building Games
While I typically would not spend a lot of time comparing a reviewed game to others produced by competing companies, I think that it is necessary for this review. Nightfall's mechanics and play structure are so different from other deck-building games on the market that the reader may need points of comparison to decide how best to spend his money.

Zacharias Sands cardWhile other deck-building games allow players easy entry, and you can feel like you are being productive immediately, Nightfall is a brutal game, and superior opponents can dominate you from early on. Nightfall is not the laid-back, multi-player solitaire experience common to other deck-building games. It is "in your face" and much closer to playing fast, direct damage decks in Magic: The Gathering than it is to the monetary and card draw engines found in Dominion. In Dominion, those engines often are your deck. Here, they simply form the means by which you more quickly gain access to the cards that form your offense and defense.

Given the fact that PVP is a relatively secondary element to most deck-building games, it is only natural to consider how Nightfall stacks up against the other significant entry in the deck-building genre that features PVP as a primary game element, Heroes of Graxia. In Heroes of Graxia, players amass armies that do battle with each other, and gain points by destroying their opponents' creatures. Nightfall, in contrast, borrows an idea from Magic: The Gathering, where the goal is to damage your opponents directly, and creatures merely serve to block some of the incoming damage.

Heroes of Graxia encourages diversity in deck building, and offers a wider array of tactical options. Nightfall offers a narrower range of card types, and rewards a very thin, tightly tuned deck that focuses on repeatedly generating a small number of effects over and over again.

Purchasing cards in Heroes of Graxia is fast, with little down time if you play with two or three players, but intrusive combat mechanics cause the game to grind to a halt. Nightfall, in contrast, is highly susceptible to analysis paralysis at many points in the game, but experienced players can play more quickly. The PVP elements in Nightfall require more thought about deck building, but less thought about execution, particularly in two-player games. For me, even though some of the mechanics are inelegant, Heroes of Graxia wins out in terms of tactical options and integration of theme into the mechanics.

Conclusions
On many levels, Nightfall should be a game that I really liked. Its core mechanical engine is quite clever. However, the game could be exceedingly random, particularly in two-player play (where diplomacy isn't available to balance out chance). If one player has a card in his private archives that there isn't an easy answer for, his opponent will just get punished.

The game also failed to sufficiently integrate theme. For example, wounds come in three different flavors: "Burn", "Bleed" and "Bite". However, Vampires and Werewolves are just as likely to "Burn" you as to "Bleed" or "Bite" you, and humans with guns are just as likely to "Bite" you as not, since the Wounds are handed out largely randomly. Other than as a fairly arbitrary tie-breaking mechanism, there is no distinction between the various types of wound cards. This is just one example of many as to how the theme was almost entirely "pasted on" with a few minor exceptions here and there.

There weren't enough options both in the core mechanics (where all your monsters must attack if they can) and in the variety of cards available for me to want to regularly play this over Magic: The Gathering, Gosu, or Heroes of Graxia. I do suspect that I am in the minority, and that other than the press coat and some problems with rules clarity, Nightfall will appeal to many players. While I will still keep an eye out for future Nightfall expansions to see if they add a greater variety of tactical options and more entrenched thematic elements, for now I am more inclined to play AEG's other deck-building game, Thunderstone. However, I suspect that because Nightfall is so different from Dominion and Thunderstone, this fact alone will peak the interest of many gamers for whom Nightfall will be a better fit.

For Retailers
Given that I did not receive retail packaging for the product, I will not be including an estimate of how well I think this game could sell at retail. AEG has done a good job of promoting this product before it enters the marketplace. They have given away many promotional copies of the game, and have helped to stir up internet hype about their product. I expect that Nightfall will get much more market penetration than Heroes of Graxia did, meaning that it will be the first PVP deck-building game that many players will experience. That will be a strong allure and could help to sell a lot of copies of the product for AEG.

 

Lee's Ratings
Overall: B
Rules: B
Appearance: B+ (A- for the art, but the layout was somewhat plain and lacked certain iconography that would have raised the score to an A)
Gameplay: B (not for players with analysis paralysis)
Components: B (the press coat on the cards was substandard and led to unsleeved cards being slightly marked almost immediately)
Packaging: N/A
Retailer Salability: N/A

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