Overview: A permanent darkness has fallen over the earth, and with it have come the creatures of the night: vampires and werewolves, as well as the hunters who stalk them. Nightfall is deck-building with a vengeance — the goal is to give as many wounds as you can to the other players by attacking them with your minions or playing vicious actions on them.
Players: 2 to 5
Ages: 12 and up
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Rating: Fast and furious (these aren’t your sparkling vampires).
Who Will Like It? If your favorite cards in Dominion are the attack cards, or if you wish Thunderstone let you beat up on the other players instead of just the monsters in the dungeon, then Nightfall may be just the game you’re looking for.
The manual for Nightfall includes something that I hadn’t seen before in other games: a couple of short stories. The first is told from the point of view of Franz Orlok, one of the vampires, and the other is about a team of human hunters as they battle the vampires and werewolves. It’s an interesting way to set the mood for the game, though I would have liked to have a little more than the three-sentence overview that precedes the actual game rules.
It’s certainly dripping with theme, though: there are a slew of nasty-looking minions (Vampires, Lycanthropes and Hunters) and a bunch of actions like Furious Melee, Ghoul Summoning, Dark Awakening or Flank Attack.
The one thing that makes less sense, as far as the theme goes, is this: you can use minions of all types to attack your opponents, who will also have a mix of defenses. So you may have vampires attacking vampires, or hunters attacking hunters. Somehow you, the player, are striving for power in this dark world, but it’s not clear how you can command both humans and monsters at the same time. Nonetheless, you get to rend and tear at your opponents, so maybe the details aren’t that important.
Nightfall comes with a lot of cards: 60 starting minions (12 for each player) plus 84 minions and 84 actions for the archives, 60 Wound cards, 24 Draft cards (like the Randomizers), 31 card dividers (plus 3 extras for promo cards).
The Draft cards (used for randomizing the starting setup) are clearly marked on the faces, plus the backs are different (with the lightning bolt) so that they’re easily recognized. I’ve had trouble with this in other deck-building games so this is a nice feature.
The artwork on the cards is quite well-done and helps to set the mood. The cards are also laid out pretty well so that you can easily see the cost, health, strength and other vital information. The card quality is about standard, neither better nor worse than other typical card games.
Although Nightfall is a deck-building game, it plays out quite differently from the others I’ve played so far and introduces a few new mechanics. Yes, each player starts with the same basic deck and adds to them over time, but other than that it’s a whole new animal.
The first difference comes in the setup itself. Rather than simply having a common set of cards to choose from in the center, each player has two stacks that form their “Private Archives,” and then there is a commons section of eight stacks in the center of the table. Anyone can claim cards from the commons, but players may only claim cards from their own Private Archives and not from those of the other players.
Also, instead of simply randomizing the entire starting set, Nightfall uses a drafting mechanic: each player draws four of the draft cards, keeps one and passes the rest. They keep one of the cards received and pass the remaining two. Finally, they choose one of those two for the commons, and discards the last one. The commons is then filled with the rest of the deck. What this means is that each player can tailor their Private Archives to some degree, and also has a voice in what will or won’t go into the commons area. (For a quick start, the rulebooks also provide a few pairs of minions and actions that make for good Private Archive sets, but the drafting mechanic definitely adds to the strategy.) Each of the stacks has only seven cards in it, which seemed small at first but then I learned how quickly the game could go.
Once the archives are set up, each player takes their set of twelve starting cards, shuffles them and draws five. Also, the deck of Wound cards is shuffled, then ten wound cards are turned up for each player in the game and stacked on top of the rest of the face-down Wound deck.
Your turn consists of four phases: Combat, Chain, Claim, Cleanup. On the first turn there is no Combat phase so I’ll come back to that later.
First, the chain. The chaining mechanic is probably what sets Nightfall apart the most from other deck-builders. Rather than having a set number of actions, you can chain together any number of cards in your hand as long as the colors match up. Each card has a large circle indicating its color, and then one or two smaller circles which show what types of cards can follow it. In addition, some cards have a “kicker” which comes into play if the previous card matches its color.
Then here’s where it gets really interesting. After you’ve played your chain, the next player can add their own cards to the chain, linking to the last card you played. (Their cards stay in front of them.) Each player in turn gets a chance to add to the chain. Then once the last player is finished, all of the cards in the chain resolve, one at a time, in reverse order. What this means is that the active player gets to start the chain but won’t resolve any cards until everyone else does. Since there are some cards which can affect other cards in the chain, your chain may look quite different by the time it comes back to you.
Some cards will cause damage to minions, some will damage the players directly (in which case they receive Wound cards in their discard piles) and some minions have no chain effects but will simply go into play. As cards resolve, action cards go into the players’ own discard piles and minions get placed in front of the player, “in play.”
The claim phase is where you get to buy cards using your “influence.” The cost of each card is printed in yellow next to the name of the card. You have two influence on each turn, in addition to any influence points gained by cards played in the chain. Also, you may discard any number of cards from your hand for one influence point each. You can buy as many cards each turn as you can afford, from your own private archives or the commons. All cards purchased go in your discard pile and any unspent influence is forfeited.
Finally, the cleanup phase: you do not discard unplayed cards, but simply draw back up to a hand of five. After drawing back up, you have the option of resolving one wound effect. Wound cards allow you to discard any number of wounds from your hand and draw two cards for each wound discarded. (If you draw any more wound cards as replacements you must keep them until your next turn.) It’s another interesting mechanic that gives you a small benefit for taking a few hits.
Ok, now back to the Combat phase. At the beginning of your turn, any minions that you have in play (remember, from the chain?) get sent out to attack the other players. Each minion must be sent out (unless its text says otherwise), attacks and then is discarded. The strength (attacking power) of the minion is printed in red in the top right corner. Players who are attacked then decide which of their minions (if any) they will use to block against attacks. Only minions who are already in play can defend. Each minion can defend against only one attack, although you can use more than one minion to defend against a single attack. The minions have red slashes on the borders representing their health, and for each hit taken you turn the card 90 degrees clockwise, which then displays one less slash at the top. Once a minion is reduced to zero health, it is discarded. Attacks that are not defended (or have more power than the minion’s defense) result in wounds for the attacked player.
The starting minions (two each of six different minions) also include text that says “In Play: Exile when destroyed or discarded.” That means that each of these starting cards is a one-time use. Once it goes into play (after you’ve used it in a chain), that minion will either be destroyed by an attack or go out and attack on your turn — and then it is out of the game entirely. What this means is that although players start with the same cards, eventually it’s possible that none of you will have the same cards in your decks at all.
The game continues until all of the face-up Wound cards have been used. Face-down Wound cards are used to resolve the rest of the attacks in that phase, and then the game is over. The player with the least Wound cards wins the game. In the case of a tie, each player counts their bite, bleed and burn cards and compares the highest number. Player with the lowest high count wins. (There is no difference between the types of wounds otherwise.)
My first run through of Nightfall went poorly but then I realized it was because I’d missed a crucial rule about how the influence works. But then once we got going with the correct rules, I found that it was a pretty enjoyable game. It’s very fast-paced and a two-player game can be finished in 15-20 minutes. If you’re anticipating a game where you end up with a fairly large deck by the end (as with Thunderstone or Dominion), you’ll be surprised. Because of the way you can chain cards together and draw cards from wound effects, sometimes it’s quite possible to burn through your entire deck in a turn or two.
Another aspect that affects game speed is the ability to discard cards for influence points and being able to buy as many cards as you want per turn. Early in the game, rather than using your weak starting minions right away (especially since they can only chain to their own color), you can discard the lot to buy two cards per turn, which quickly adds some more powerful cards to your arsenal. That also lets you jump ahead in your deck a lot faster. Just bought a card that you can’t wait to use? Keep discarding cards for influence until it comes back up.
The chain mechanic is also a great idea. Since you don’t draw back up until the end of your own turn, you have to decide whether to add onto a chain during another player’s turn or to save up cards for your own turn. Playing a minion on your own turn means that they’ll be sitting around to defend you longer; playing a minion during somebody else’s turn means they might still be alive to go out and attack another player. These are all options that add to the strategic choices you get to make as you play Nightfall.
Also, the chaining mechanism is important when you’re purchasing cards. It’s not enough to just buy a card that does a lot of damage — you want to make sure that it fits into your chain somewhere. You want to look for cards that will lead to it, and then look for cards you can chain after it. If you have an idea of the colors your opponents favor, you can try not to end your chain with cards they can follow.
I’ll also say this, in case you can’t already tell from the gameplay description: Nightfall is aggressive. This is not a game for players who take games personally, nor is it one for people who want to play nice. If you don’t like playing attacks on your friends, then you probably won’t enjoy Nightfall, because that’s what the game’s about. On the other hand, if you and your fellow gamers can beat each other up in a game but still emerge as friends afterward, you shouldn’t have any trouble with it.
In the end, my fellow gamers had mixed feelings about Nightfall. I had a couple who really enjoyed it and wanted to play more, and a couple others that thought it was okay but not great. I fell somewhere in the middle — I enjoyed playing it and I think it has some really good things going for it, but I think I still prefer Thunderstone as a deck-builder. I think it depends on your expectations, too: as a fast-and-furious melee, Nightfall is a blast, but it doesn’t have the feel of building up an arsenal or fine-tuning a machine the way other deck-building games do.
With a new stand-alone expansion coming in July, though, I’ll be curious to see what AEG adds to the world of Nightfall.
Wired: Excellent artwork and well-designed cards; innovative chaining mechanism; fast, aggressive play.
Tired: Doesn’t feel as much like a deck-building game; not for gamers who take things personally or want to play nice.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.