Nightfall [Review]

Darkness is now a constant and the forces of supernatural evil are almost unchallenged in the world of the Nightfall, so in Alderac Entertainment’s new card-drafting game it’s no longer a question of whether you’re a bad guy, just if you’re the villain who’s winning. Overrun by vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and more, this setting sees power plays unfold among the newly ascendant groups, controlled by players as they customize and update their decks. By spending Influence they enlist new minions and actions, and these enter play by making a chain. Cards are linked by matching their colors, but enemies can add to this chain and disrupt strategies. In the chains and through old-fashioned throwdowns, minions engage and inflict damage to each other and players. Whoever suffers the fewest wounds owns the night.

Called Chainmaster, the system asks a player to bring his minions into play while chancing that his enemies can gain advantages for themselves at the same time. Trying to lock out the other teams while swelling one’s own ranks is the key to victory. By managing the available link colors at the end of the chain, other players (or at least certain cards) may be kept from entering play. It’s a beautiful set, though the kind of good paper stock you want most from a card-drafting game is missing here. If the play’s the thing, there are plenty of options to learn as the game gives up its secrets. The game is head-to-head (to-head, etc.) competition, giving it a charged urgency missing from many other drafting games. Both the strategies and the context of the game’s setting come alive and pull participants in (so can RPG tie-ins be far behind?).

Before play begins, there’s a rather involved dance in which ownership of the cards is determined. Archives – a deck of all copies of one particular card – are split between the freely accessible commons in the middle of the table and one’s personal archives wherefrom only that player may recruit. Nightfall uses cards actually stamped “draft” to make it easier, and once players have selected archives for themselves, these placeholders are replaced with the matching seven-card decks. (Alternately the rules offer a balanced, quick-setup option.)

The object of the game is to have the fewest Wounds when the Wound deck runs out. Turns always start with combat as the current player deploys minions to attack other players, who in turn block them with monsters of their own. He then adds more servants and options by creating a chain, the mechanic at the heart of the game. By matching colored moons, he strings together a row of cards to bring into play – but then opponents have a chance to add to it as well, hopefully disrupting some of his plans or at least managing the fallout. Cards are resolved in reverse order, so actions on earlier cards may turn out differently due to the interference. Actions are executed, damage is dealt, and new soldiers are called up for the war. The current player then buys more cards with his Influence before passing to the left.

Everyone begins with the same 12-card deck of minions, though one’s hand varies as players shuffle and play. There are initially six minions in this pile, two copies of each. They have pretty basic powers or combat abilities, so everyone must later develop their army of the night. Minions with Strength ratings can inflict damage, and must do so at the start of the active player’s turn. After assigning them to one or more opposing players, the victim(s) call upon their own minions to throw their pale or furry little bodies into harm’s way. Little crimson slashes on the card edges indicate the damage a personality takes before dying, and rotating it a quarter-turn marks that injury. Some units like werewolves take damage but lack Strength; they just suck up a lot of pain. Versatile units can serve offense or defense, so the owner often must choose to sacrifice him now to stop an assault or preserve him for a counterattack on his own turn.

Most of the game centers on bringing cards (broadly called orders) into play by making a chain, which in turn depends on linking colors. Each card has a large moon that determines its color and smaller moons of other hues – if the big moon matches one of the smaller ones on the previous card, they link. Once the current player has connected as many as he wants, however, the player to his left can also join the chain. This continues around the table, giving everyone a chance to link. Then the cards are resolved in reverse order, which means not only do others get to play card effects during someone else’s turn, they get to do it first.

Cards have different text sections, and in a chain the salient bit is called the chain text. “Your chain” means it works better when you’re the active player – it’s unwise to empty the whole load until you’re calling the shots. Most of this is more combat, or at least a lot more pain. Damage effects fly fast and furious, hitting minions and players alike. Attacks may be hijacked by another player and turned against the active player. Additionally, cards may have a “kicker” moon – match these colors and the bonus effects can be pretty darned devastating.

Some cards have rules that apply once they’re in play, like special attacks a minion can perform, while other orders, notably “actions,” provide special effects such as letting you draw more cards. A number of these leave the game once they’ve served a purpose. The starting minions are a good example; if killed or sacrificed, they leave play – called “exiling” a card. Those initial servants are easy to use but lack staying power, so it’s important to conscript new cards to replace them.

Gathering new items costs Influence, the coin of this dark little realm. Everyone gets some Influence at the start of a turn, but they can get more through chains or card discards. So long as he can afford it a player can buy orders from the common and personal archives. These purchases have to be brought in through chains, but they’re harder to lose through exile.

If an enemy inflicts damage on you that your servants cannot intercept, you take wound cards. These cards go into your discard pile and reenter play like anything else. They’re two-edged swords: they provide an effect one can use to good advantage, but they take up space in your hand and deck. Get smacked around often enough and you find yourself drawing a full hand of these things. Only one wound effect may be used per turn so their usefulness is accursedly limited.

The wound cards used each game depend on the number of players, and when that deck is exhausted the game is over. Whoever has the fewest Wounds is the winner.

Alderac went all out for the artwork on the cards. Some of the portraits use washed-out hues, others are in glorious color, and some use an almost monochromatic sheen; the style is mostly comic-book illustration but some paintings run moodier with inactive figures content to ruminate in the shadows. The card stock needed to be thicker (that, or companies need to start providing card sleeves gratis for these notoriously shuffle-heavy drafting games), though the idea of providing singles marked as drafts to facilitate card selection shows much forethought. The box is great, both physically and artistically – murals and samples of the art sweep across most sides. (Note that review copies of Nightfall were sent out before all the components were available. As such, this review does not touch on the dividers or the enlarged box the commercial set features.)

The rules are masterfully done; would that most games put this much care into not just developing their mechanics but explaining them (and some of the nuances) to the players. With card lists, a FAQ, and even a lexicon, there’s little to surprise players once play begins. If there’s a dim spot, it’s the rules on damage. They read smoothly, but somewhere between the book and the table something happens to bring up questions about the difference between damage done to minions versus damage inflicted on their player. Games just aren’t usually this generous with their phrasing. It makes for great, punishing freedom, but when a card says “each opponent” instead of “player” or “minion,” that one question starts you worrying whether you’re doing any of the rest of it correctly. The game’s use of the word “target” brings up similar issues – its application is liberal and powerful.

Not only does the game use a metaphor that more easily pits players against each other (no pretty money-hoarding competition here – this one’s about survival and tearing out throats), it plays to that idiom with its strategies. The rules suggest preventing the player to your left from attaching himself to your chain by not leaving him a color to link to. This is easier said than done. Yes, you see his purchases and personal archives, but if he can’t hitch to your star the next player can. There’s simply too much to anticipate. On the other hand, once burned by a vicious effect, you might keep that particular card from coming back to haunt you. Reacting to enemies’ ploys is easier than most other card-drafting games, and when it isn’t, exacting brutal revenge is always within easy reach.

The wound cards let you discard them to draw more cards, but this probably pulls more Wounds if you’re already taking it on the chin. Like monitoring your foes’ purchases, players who count cards have the advantage – knowing who’s been thrashed helps you decide how to spread the love so everyone gets a healthy helping of bangs and bruises. New wound effects are promised for future Nightfall releases.

Though the action is more personal, there’s not much sense of identity here. You’re not playing the vampires versus the werewolves, or even the humans against the monsters. Factions are merely color for the archive descriptions (it’s hard to see the humans would even be a factor at this stage in this bleak world). This blurring may be deliberate, though, since Ken Hite’s bumper fiction pieces paint it as a fluid struggle for dominance. Making sense of it all may fall to supplemental entries, potentially episodic in their revelations. Taken as a whole, it’s refreshing to see card-drafting go to trading blows. If games like Dominion are a game of whist in the parlor, Nightfall is full-contact darts.

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