It looks like deckbuilding games are really heating up as a new subgenre of board games, just like worker-placement games and co-op games have in years past. I was recently sent a preview copy of one of the newest, AEG’s Nightfall. In the manner of my past article, A Deckbuilding Look at Thunderstone, today I’m going to summarize Nightfall and talk about some of its innovations good and bad.
In my opinion, of course.
Nightfall is a game that in many ways borrows more from Magic: The Gathering than it does from Dominion. As with other deckbuilding games, you draw a small hand of cards each game, and through their play are able to buy more cards which are added to your deck.
The biggest difference in Nightfall is its cardplay method: you get to play a card, and then you can play other cards in a “chain” if they match certain color requirements. Afterward, each other player gets to play appropriate cards too, in order. Finally, all effects go off in reverse order. Though some of the card effects are things that you’d expect, like card draws and influence gain (that’s Nightfall‘s money), a Dominion player would probably be surprised to find effects that directly damage opponents and that damage their minions.
Yes, minions. That’s where the game feels most like Magic. You get to put out minions that will attack your opponents.
The whole object of the game is to avoid damage, with the least-damaged player at the end being the winner.
As with my Thunderstone article, I’m going to start by talking about Nightfall‘s innovations that I think expand the card-building subgenre in interesting ways.
Back to Magic’s Basics. The deckbuilding games that I’d played to date had clearly taken Dominion as their baseline. Though you can still see the influence here here—with the core methodology of card purchase — I think it’s really good that Nightfall expanded the genre by going back to the game that itself influenced Dominion. Attacking monsters, direct damage, and a stack of actions are all reminescent of Magic: The Gathering and all give deckbuilding games some neat texture that wasn’t there before.
Robust Starting Hands. You start the game with a hand of six different pairs of cards, which gives you more variety than the somewhat staid starting hands of Dominion. Another neat twist is that these starting cards go out of play when they’re played, immediately putting you down whatever deckbuilding path you’re working on.
Changes Up Card Purchasing in a Strategic Way. As with Dominion and Thunderstone, there’s a central set of cards that everyone can buy from. Unlike those games, you also get two “private” decks in Nightfall that only you can buy from. You even get to select what your private decks will be via card drafting, which adds more strategy. The result is not only original, but it also ensures that not every player will be taking quite the same strategic path.
No Wasted Cards. Though you can purchase new cards with the influence you get from cardplay, you also always get 1 influence from discarding a card. That means that you never have a useless, clogged hand. In the absolute worst case, you have to dump everything, but you purchase something good with it. It’s a nice balance, but I feel it’s still a fair one, as using a card for an influence is never as good as using it for a power.
Unique Cardplay Method. When you play a card in Nightfall, it typically allows for the play of one of two different types (colors) of cards. Through this method, you can often “chain” more than one card during a play. There’s also the opportunity to get a bonus power called a “kicker” when you play a card off of a certain other type of card. Together this methodology can really push you toward building certain color-matched types of decks, which allows for interesting deckbuilding via a method that goes beyond simply selecting complementary powers.
Out-of-Turn Playing Maintains Interest. As I’ve mentioned, other players get to “chain” off of the first player’s last card after he’s gone. This helps keep the game constantly interesting for everyone (at least until they run out of cards to play).
Strong Theming. Nightfall has a sort of HorrorPunk theming which isn’t really my thing. Nonetheless, I think AEG did a good job of making their game stand out from the other deckbuilding games out thus far.
Much of this is solely my opinion; your mileage may vary.
Inelegant Start-Up of Hands. Though I like the variation that starting hands provide, I think the game starts off pretty inelegantly. That’s because the starting cards only “chain” to other cards of the same color. Which typically means that everyone plays the same card simultaneously in those initial chains.
Minion Rules Unintuitive to Many. Minions actually only stick around for one round. You place them out and if they survive until your next turn, then you get to do one-time damage with them. This confused many players who wanted to hold the minions in reserve for future use. I’d chalk it up as a theme-mechanic mismatch.
Cardplay Can Induce AP. Each card can be used to chain one or two colors of card and each card gets a bonus if chained from a specific color. I found it pretty intuitive and was usually able to quickly play down a set of cards in an efficient order. However, some players found it complex enough that they really had to think it out.
Poorly Themed Cardplay Method. Part of the problem may have been that the chaining mechanic didn’t really match up with the theme. What was a chain in the Nightfall world? What did the colors represent? If there’d been answers for these questions, they might have made the play more intuitive.
Multiplayer Play Invites Kingmakers. My biggest concern with the game is that each player gets to decide which players to hand damage to. This can both encourage kingmaking and encourage lots of negotiation and diplomacy that I don’t personally want to see (mainly because it largely consists of trying to convince an opponent that another opponent is more hurt than you).
If Thunderstone was the deckbuilding game for D&D players, Nightfall is the deckbuilding game for Magic: The Gathering players.
Overall, I found Nightfall a game that was enjoyable and interesting. As with Thunderstone it ran longer than I like my games too (often a problem for me with American publishers putting out eurostyle games), but it probably would come in at 60-90 minutes with experience. Definitely an interesting addition to the quickly growing deckbuilding field.
And those are my thoughts on Nightfall.
If you’ve been noticing my scant attention to board game articles and reviews lately, that’s because I’ve been finishing up a huge book that’s been five years in the making. It’s called Designers & Dragons and it’s a history of the roleplaying industry—with visits to the miniature, CCG, board game, eurogame, and PBM fields. My publisher, Mongoose, recently announced it for August release, while I’m finishing up a final draft for the end of this month.
I’ll be back in either 2 or 4 weeks, as time allows while I finish my last draft of that book.
Author’s Notes: I was somewhat surprised to see that Nightfall has four expansions, because it certainly hasn’t taken off in the venues I frequent. The biggest complaint is the complexity of those card chains, but apparently your mileage can vary. Playing time can vary too, as commenters have told me our games were quite long, with 45-60 minutes being more common. And as for the book, Designers & Dragons, it’s come and gone. Mongoose published it in August, released it more broadly in November, and it went out of print in March. I’m now mulling a second edition. —SA, 6/15/2012