“My revenge has just begun! I spread it over centuries and time is on my side.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula
Here’s one of those anxious moments when you review a game created by a company your editor in chief does design work for, AEG. And by “anxious,” I mean I’m salivating at the chance to put the big man in his place, months of pent up passive aggression having been built up into a throbbing boil ready to spew corrosive pus all over the site. This review, it will will be the lance that pierces the fetid flesh and … what’s that Joe? You didn’t actually have a hand in the design of Nightfall? Well, that was awkward.
I remembered seeing some copies of Nightfall and its expansions on the shelf at the Compleat Strategist in New York City. Being the starving writer/game designer that I am, the cost of the game was greater than my curiosity, but I was interested enough in what I read on the back of the box to file the name away in the back of my head for a later date. That date came sooner than expected thanks to what is quickly becoming an amazing board gaming platform: iOS devices. A three dollar price point allows players to take risks they might not for the pricier tabletop version. When it drops to 99 cents during a sale, as it did when I picked it up, it’s really hard to say no.
Nightfall bills itself as a deckbuilder, but it’s quite different than most of the other games in the genre. Whereas Dominion and Ascension betray their Eurogame genre roots by having limited interaction between players, Nightfall is a very aggressive, PvP experience more reminiscent of Magic the Gathering than either of those games.
Beginning with identical decks of basic cards, players draft new decks from a rogue’s gallery of vampires, werewolves, zombies, hunters and actions. Most of these are available to all players, but each player also has two private stashes of cards they can buy that are drafted at the beginning of the game. Cards cost influence, which can be accumulated by discarding cards from your hand during your Claim phase. You can retain cards in your hand between rounds, drawing up to 5 at the end of your Claim phase rather than discarding your entire hand for a new one. This is a core tactical element of the game thanks to its innovative and somewhat screwy chaining system.
The core mechanic of Nightfall is “the chain,” which is a line of cards that take affect in last-in, first-out order. The current player starts the chain, but each player in succession can add as many cards as they can to it. Whether or not a card can be added is based on a color system. Each card has a color and two colors it can link to. So if the last card on the chain is yellow card with red and blue links, a red or blue card can be added to the chain. Non-basic cards also come with a “kicker” ability, which goes off if the previous card in the chain is a particular color.
Think of it like violent, vampire Uno.
Battles between monsters resolve in Magic the Gathering fashion, with creatures able to deal and absorb a certain amount of damage. The critical difference here is that all your dudes must attack during your attack phase. Not only that, but they’re discarded following your attack (with a few exceptions). If they’re starting deck cards, they’re removed from your deck for good.
The mechanics pressure you to keep up a tempo where you have cards coming out in each chain, but not so many that you exhaust your hand and find yourself without blockers.
The object is not to accrue victory points but to be the least damaged player by the end of the game. Once a certain amount of damage has been inflicted to all players cumulatively, the game is over. It’s a simple inversion of the attack-until-your-opponent’s-life-total-is-depleted trope, but it has significant consequences, particularly for multiplayer games. Players never die, which means everyone makes it to the end of the game. And since your goal is to be the least wounded player, it makes little sense to gang up on a single player. That means you’ll have to make a mental note of how much punishment you’ve doled out to each of your opponents. Wounding one player too deeply can easily backfire.
It’s a fun system with a bit of a learning curve, but it does have its problems. The first is that the game doesn’t feel balanced. There are cards that are clearly much better than other cards and, because of the private drafting piles, it’s possible to get stuck with options inferior to your opponents’. A player with Vulko or Ivan Radinsky in his private archive is a force to be reckoned with. The Martial Law expansion adds some hard counters which can punish players who rely on the heavy hitters, but cards like Shining Cross can swing the pendulum so far in the other direction that a player who has drafted vampires doesn’t stand an unholy prayer.
There also seems to be an incentive to draft pretty narrow decks consisting mainly of two or three cards that can link to each other, with one preferably being Ivan Radinsky or Vulko. It’s possible that I haven’t yet played it enough to grasp the higher level strategy, but there are matches where it feels like the winner is a foregone conclusion based on what you were able to draft into your private archive.
As for the digital translation, it’s been handled by playdek, the company behind Summoner Wars and the stellar Ascension adaptation. The interface will be familiar to anyone who has played either game. The trouble here is that Nightfall’s mechanics don’t lend themselves as well to asynchronous play as Ascension. Rather than simply passing turns back and forth between players, play is constantly ping ponging back and forth between players many times throughout the course of a turn to resolve targeting, blockers and the chain. It doesn’t make the game unplayable by any means, but it does interrupt its flow and coherence. Find a game where you and your opponent will stay online for the full 15-20 minutes it takes to complete it.