“Life’s a game, all you have to do, is know how to play it.”
This past weekend was Archon 35, a sci-fi/fantasy convention local to St. Louis, MO. Readers familiar with Archon will know that while there is certainly a lot going on game-wise, Archon’s reputation is first and foremost as a party convention. A few thousand drunk nerds collected in a little bubble in Collinsville, IL. I’ve been attending Archon for a number of years, and I’ve had a blast everytime. The first (and only) time I ever drank so much that I couldn’t remember pieces of the evening the day after happened at Archon. It was the first year that the Rings drinks were introduced at Archon, though they’ve become infamous since. The Rings are a series of high-potency shots inspired by the Legend of the Five Rings game. One ring for each Element, there is a Fire shot, an Air shot, an Earth shot, a Water shot, and there was supposed to be a Void shot. The Void materials were in the creator’s hotel room, but after watching me down four double-sized shots back-to-back, an onlooker exclaimed that I had to finish my “Journey to Enlightenment”, so we took a bit of each Ring and combined them. It was purple. It did not taste anything like grape Kool-Aid. This was where the memories start to blur. Shortly thereafter, I was separated from my friends and they eventually found me in the dance hall, getting down to “Dancing Queen” by ABBA, which was something that had to be told to me, as I didn’t recall it myself in the slightest. It goes without saying that my liver exacted its revenge in the wee hours of the morning. (Don’t drink, kids). This particular Archon I was acting as game instructor (and stayed sober). Although Archon is without fail a menagerie of interesting characters and costumes (I myself wondered what was going to happen when Slave Leia and Prisoner Leia ran into each other) worthy of a great deal of discussion, I’m here to talk about the games. I played a number of games, some old with new spins, some new with old spins (if such a thing is possible). This will be my first multi-post topic, as if I were to give all of the games their proper due in one post, it would be a gigantic TL; DR.
The first game I played is Nightfall. Nightfall is one of the newer contenders to the DBG (Deck Building Game) craze that is sweeping the nation. I’m going to assume that most of the people who would read this blog are familiar with the genre, but for those that are not, here’s a basic description of how the games work. Everyone starts with their own small deck of cards. Almost invariably across games in this genre, these cards are of lower quality than the other cards you will encounter during the game. I’ll note here that while Nightfall is no exception to this, the cards in your starting deck all have a self-removal clause that takes them out of your deck, rather than forcing the player to be proactive about thinning out substandard cards. I go back and forth on whether or not I like this as a mechanic. It’s nice that you don’t have to take time away from your objectives to clean out garbage cards, but on the the other hand, knowing how to efficiently get rid of your bad cards is a learned skill with games of this type. Back on topic, there will be a random assortment of cards available for purchase by all players to add to your deck, allowing it to do more things. However, the more cards you add to your deck, the less likely you are to draw into any one specific card you need. Typically, in popular DBGs, like Dominion or Thunderstone victory is had through the acquisition of cards with Victory Points, whenever the game end mechanic triggers, the player with the most Victory Points is the winner.
There are a few things that make Nightfall stand out against the others. First is the victory condition. In Nightfall, there are no Victory Points. The object of the game is to beat the ever-living crap out of the other players, which you accomplish by deploying various Ghouls, Vampires, Werewolves and Hunters to engage in a bit of the old ultra-violence. One could argue that Nightfall is an evolved descendant of Lunch Money. Your various Denizens of the Night (TM) fight the other players (and each other) until the end game mechanic, a deck of special Wound cards, runs out. Then, you count up Wound cards, the person who has the least number of them is the winner. It’s a direct PvP (player vs. player) deckbuilder. An interesting part of the Wound mechanic is that when you suffer Wounds, the cards go into your deck. As anyone that has played any DBG will tell you, dead cards are among the worst punishments that can be inflicted on you. Nightfall works around this dilemma in an interesting fashion. At the end of your turn in the Cleanup phase, you refill your hand to five cards. At that point, you can discard any number of Wound cards from your hand and draw TWO cards for each Wound discarded this way, which will give you more powerful and productive turns. In short, the worse of a beating you took, the greater chance you have to make a comeback and turn the tables. Yeah, you could discard a lot of Wounds and end up replacing them with more Wounds, but at that point you probably know where you stand in the game.
The second aspect of the game that makes Nightfall unique is the Chain mechanic. Each card you purchase has 3 moons in the upper right hand corner, one large moon (primary) and two small (secondary) moons. All 3 moons are different colors. The only way to get cards into play is during the Chain phase. The active player may start a Chain by playing one of the cards in his/her hand. If that player wishes to play more cards they have to link the cards in a specific way. The primary moon of the card you wish to play must match colors with one of the secondary moons of the card that came before it. This means that when you are deciding what cards to buy, it’s pretty (read: vitally) important that you think about your ability to include that in your chains, as well as your opponent’s. Yes, your opponent’s. See, another interesting thing about Nightfall is that there is no down time. When you decide that you are done playing cards in your chain phase, the chain passes to the player on your left, and they play as many cards onto the chain as they life before it passes to the next player, etc. When the last player has played everything they want to play in the chain, the chain effects start happening in reverse order, starting with the last player and working their way back to the active player. You could conceivably be playing on everyone’s turn. It is very easy to overextend yourself in Nightfall, and sometimes tricky not to do so. Getting caught up in Big Chain Fever is rarely the best move, but it sings a siren song.
Combat is played out very similar to Magic: The Gathering. Your minions all attack, and your opponents have the option to block man-to-man. The defending minions only soak up damage, they do not strike back. Any damage carried over the health of your defending minions is applied in Wounds. There are also actions that provide one-time effects when played, rather than the minions. The actions tend to be a little more flashy and pack a little more punch, but they do not stick around to take punches meant for your face. At Archon, I chose to teach the Aggressive Wound variant. The biggest complaint to the game I’ve come across is that the base rules lead up to a lot of gangpiles and kingmakers. One person has a lead (real or imagined) and the table tears him to shreds. The variant calls for individual wound decks rather than a community wound deck. When you wound another player, you give them Wounds from your deck, and when a player runs out, the game ends and the winner is still determined the original way. This variant places a greater emphasis on deck efficiency and smart combat strategies and lessens the impact of politics on the game. With the game being won by being the least wounded player at the end, I am of the opinion that strong defensive cards are of a greater value than other cards. They also tend to attract less attention than powerful attack cards, but again, these are just my opinions, your mileage may vary.
Nightfall isn’t a perfect game, but there isn’t much to complain about. People with color-blindness may have difficulty with Nightfall, and I wish that they would have addressed this early. Other games with color-coding like Ticket to Ride use symbols as well as colors so that no one is left out. The first few turns are invariably slow. There are things that players can do to speed them up, but there’s almost nothing that can be done about the first two turns. Fortunately, the game moves fast enough to get into the action quickly, and because Minions are forced to attack every turn, there’s really no opportunity to stall. Outside of the first turns, the game moves quickly. The depth to the game is subtle. My first two games, I bought cards with strong numbers and abilities, completely oblivious to the lack of synergy between them. Needless to say, I was defeated easily as I imposed harsh limitations on how many cards I could get into play. The more I play the game, the more I appreciate the skill it takes to stay ahead of the pack, to make choices not only based on what you can play, but what your oppoenents will play into you and what you will play into your opponents. A savvy player can focus on cards with secondary moons that don’t match up with what the next player has been buying, thus limiting their ability to put cards into play after you.
Nightfall has one expansion out, entitled Martial Law. A second expansion, Blood Country, is due out later this month. Following the designer on Twitter, I know that they are currently in playtest for “Nightfall 5” which means that a third expansion is already in the can and waiting for an opening in the production schedule. Nightfall is a fun game, and a completely different feel from the other DBGs I’ve played. The game supports up to 5 players, and whereas it plays fine at 2, I think the sweet spot is 4-5.
Over the next few days, I’ll recap more of the Archon gaming experience, touching on Thunderstone, Chaos in the Old World (squee!) and 7 Wonders, as taught to me by someone who may or may not have been on crack.