First Impressions of Nightfall (AEG)

By: Matt Carlson

In the cold (-5 ºF), dark night of winter, I found a little box on my doorstep from Alderac, a fitting moment to receive my review copy of the deck-construction game, Nightfall.  After reading the rules that night, I brought them with me to work (high school teacher) and have played it once or twice with teens there.  There were enough interesting tidbits about the game that struck me as clever that I decided to put out my comments with which others can disagree.

For those unfamiliar with the game, I’ll start with a summary.  Feel free to scan ahead to find out my opinions.  The goal of this game (for 2 to 5 players) is to have the fewest “wound” cards in your deck at the end of the game.  This is done by trying to “wound” other players with your action-type cards or your minion-type cards.  Both card types may have effects when initially played, however minion cards stick around until the start of your next turn before attacking and then being discarded.

Players begin with a hand of 5 cards taken from a deck of 12 cards (2 each of the 6 cards only available at the start), and can construct their decks during the game with a selection of 8 stacks of cards common to all players and two stacks of cards per player that may only be bought by that player.  With experienced players, many of these card stacks can be chosen using a “draft” method.

A Minion card

The order of a turn is:  1) All of a player’s Minions attack  2) Play one card (which usually starts a “chain”  3) “Buy” new cards, and finally 4) Draw up to 5 cards.

1) Minions attack.  A player MUST use all of his or her minions to attack other players.  Other players can defend with minions if they wish, rotating the minion card to track damage (thus the maximum health for any minion is 4 – one for each side, although most have fewer health.)  Any damage not taken by minions goes to the player who earns a wound card for each damage point.  After attacking, all your minions are discarded.  (Note, since this phase comes before playing any cards, players will generally not have any minions with which to attack in the first round.)

A red Order card which allows chaining with purple or yellow next

2) Play one card.  Cards have a main color (looks like a big colored moon in the corner) and one or two secondary colors (little satellite moons next to the big one.)  A player may “chain” additional cards if their second card is the same color as one of the first one’s satellites.  This can go on until you run out of matches and/or cards.  Then EACH OTHER player (in order) gets a chance to add to the end of the “chain” to make it longer.  Once everyone has had their chance, the chain resolves in a last-in, first-out order.  Thus, although you only “play” on card on your turn, you will typically chain a lot more cards out of your hand, even when it isn’t your turn.  A few cards have effects that only happen if you play them on a chain that you yourself start.

3) Acquire cards.  You have two “influence” to buy any number of cards (most are worth 2-5 influence), but can discard cards from your hand to gain +1 influence per card discarded.  Since you draw UP TO 5 cards at the end of your turn, I typically discard all my unused cards to have more influence to spend.  Influence may also come from cards when played.

4) Draw cards.  Draw up to 5 cards, THEN use the action of any one WOUND card in your hand.  At the moment, this is always to discard any wound cards in your hand to gain +2 additional cards.  (But you’re stuck with any wounds you now draw.)

My (first) thoughts on the game:

This is clearly a dark-themed game (Nightfall – duh).  There are werewolves, vampires, ghouls, and assorted humans with heavy weaponry.  The rulebook reinforces this dark theme with some fictional quotes from the Nightfall setting, even a short story.  The cards are very nice to look at, and reinforce this somewhat violent, dark setting.  I prefer my game themes a bit less violent as I find I can more easily introduce them to family settings.  However, the dark and violent supernatural theme is still a big one in popular youth culture so seemed to go over fine (probably even a plus) with the two teens at my table.  I think I could pass the game off at my church’s middle school gatherings, but will be attempting to keep the somewhat violent art on the cards out of sight from my preschool-aged son.   Once side-effect of the dark theme results in cards that have a bit busier and less minimal-iconic feel than other deckbuilding games I’ve played.  Most of the information is nicely displayed and makes sense, but it’s difficult to sort things into piles when it is time to put away the game.  Even minion and action type cards have the same basic coloration…

There are two features of the game that stood out to me as excellent additions or modifications to deckbuilding styles of games.  They may appear in other games but were new to me.  The game is set up to have a “fast start” through using the starting cards and then ramps up in intensity in the end game through the use of the wound cards.  These two features combine to give the impression of a very fast paced game.

One of the starting cards. Note the moons are all blue -- this card is exiled as soon as it is discarded (so you likely will only use it once in the game)

A player’s initial six pairs of cards each have a fairly straightforward power, and reflect one of the six colors of card “moons”.  Starting cards have the same color “chain” little moon so in the first round or two only copies of a card are able to do any chaining.  This keeps things a little simpler while players start to set up their deck.  What I really like about the initial cards is their removal after use.  Yes, the initial cards (mostly minions, so they do stay for one round) are exiled (“trashed” in Dominion terms) after use.  This is a brilliant mechanic for giving players a bit of a turbo-charge in the first few rounds while they build up their deck theme.  After use, they are removed and get out of the way of whatever combinations and themes a player has chosen to pursue.  I expect to see this style mechanic copied in future deckbuilding games where the emphasis is on very quick play.

The second thing that jumped out at me was the very balanced implementation of the wound cards.  The player with the fewest wound cards wins the game, so they serve as a kind of “negative point” card.  However, rather than being a simple dead weight by clogging up a deck like a Dominion Curse card, they have a special ability.  They can be discarded en mass (one time on a turn) to draw two more cards per wound discarded.  So players who are behind (eg. they have more wound cards) actually have a way to use that to their advantage to get more cards, preventing a “rich get richer” situation.  As everyone receives more wound cards, hand sizes get quite large and the game can ramp up in intensity for an exciting end game.  Leaving the wound cards in a player’s deck rather than keeping score in another way also allows the player freedom to use card abilities to exile (remove from the game) wound cards if they so choose.

While those two ideas were ones that I thought were the best innovations, there were a few other ideas that bear addressing…

The whole concept of “chaining” cards is interesting.  It takes a few rounds to fully grasp the concept.  This is made easier in the first few rounds as all the starting cards only chain themselves (having a single small moon of the same color as their large moon).  I like the idea that other players can chain onto the end of the active player’s chain.  This keeps all players involved and even adds a small bit of strategy as one can attempt to close off one’s chain by ending with colors that other players do not (hopefully) have.  I also enjoy the ability to play cards on other player’s turns as it grants more opportunities for getting cards to the table.  While cards can be discarded for influence (a nice balancing move for a bad hand) it is typically more useful to play a card than simply discard it.

On this card, the kicker is at the bottom. If it is chained directly after a white card, you will also get the bonus kicker effect

The last mechanic for players to understand will probably be how Kickers work.  This is a special ability found on most cards that only goes into effect when a card is chained onto the correct color.  For example, if I play a red card that allows chains of blue or white (symbolized by two tiny blue and white moons), and then play a white card that has a red “kicker” symbol, the second (white) card’s kicker ability is activated because it was played on the correct color (red).  This means players not only have to manage their card purchases to “chain” as much as possible, but they want to ALSO gain cards that will activate their kicker ability.  While I’m beginning to see some of the possibilities of chaining, I think much of the replay value of the game will come as people begin to explore how to set up use of kicker abilities.  All in all, I think the addition of “kicker” abilities is a good thing.  It adds more strategy and requires better planning to execute.  However, this does elevate the complexity of the game a few notches.  For gamers who are slow to grasp the overall concept of kickers, there are many cards without kicker abilities and I’m sure some solid strategies could be pursued without worrying about kickers at all.

Final Analysis:

The game is full of very interesting ideas.  While I don’t personally care for the dark, violent theme, I have to admit it seems to hold up very well throughout the game.  (I guess the whole “chaining” effect is a chain of command of orders or something?)  I consider the game’s pacing its best feature.  It quickly launches players into the game (with self-eliminating starting cards) and then manages to ramp intensity up (with the wound card ability) as the game nears its conclusion.  The chaining and kicker properties are different and seem to work OK, but will require far more examination than a single game or two can provide.

Addendum:  I’ve since played a few more multiplayer games, including a 5 player game.  In one 3 player game, the game seemed to end very quickly.  While this is nice for speed, it reminded me a little of Roll Through the Ages – where games sometimes felt like they ended just when the really started going.  This could be a mild issue, or could simply be a good thing as it left me wanting to play more.  (Not hard to personally adjust by adding more wounds if needed.)  In my 5 player game, the politics of the situation was even stronger.  Sure, you’re tempted to attack the most exposed player but keeping track of who has what damage can be somewhat tricky in a 5 player game.  The politics of convincing your opponents that you aren’t the least wounded player becomes more important.  This is true of any multiplayer attacking game, and will obviously be a factor here.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Dale Yu’s thoughts: (2 plays, both 2p games, about 25min each, with review copy from AEG) —

I’ll start by saying that I have liked just about every deck building game that I’ve played.  (I’ve also spent a great deal of time helping develop Dominion and have played thousands of games in the process..)  I’ve just seen the smallest bit of Nightfall in 2 games – but I can already tell that this is a very intriguing game.  It does use a similar deck building mechanic and cards with varied powers printed on them — as Dominion, Thunderstone, Tanto Cuore and many others have used — but it feels very different, and this difference is very refreshing.

The mandatory attack each turn is a nice way to force cycling – and the victory condition of having the least Wound cards in your deck is very different from Dominion and many of the other deck building games.   Strategies in Nightfall might end up being more varied than many other deck building games due to the 2 personal stacks which can only be accessed (for the most part) by a single player.  There is a drafting mechanism in place that I think will be very important in shaping how you approach any particular game of Nightfall.  (NB: We did not use this drafting method in the first two games as the rules do give a few suggestions for pairings that work well together for beginners — and we felt this would be a good way to get started quickly.)  I also liked the way that there werent specific currency cards — another big difference from most of the other deckbuilders.  At the start of the game, I would usually discard any cards I couldn’t play in order to build up by purchasing power.  In the later stages, there were harder decisions to be made as sometimes keeping specific cards to the next round might help set up some sweet combos.

Another difference is the theme… Though I’ve gone on record many times as not caring about theme, I’ll bet that there are plenty of people who will be drawn to this one because of it.  As you would expect from AEG – this game is dripping with theme, dark, violent, and para-normal.  The artwork is well done, and the flavor text on the cards and in the rules only helps reinforce the theme.  Heck, the rules even include 4 pages (out of 24) that simply provide some backstory to the game.  That’s definitely more than you get in the average Euro ruleset!

The promotional set provided by AEG is packaged differently than the retail version — this set is in a smaller box, similar to a 500 ct. baseball card box.  Card dividers are not provided and the rules do not necessarily fit inside the box.  It appears, from pictures of the retail packaging available on Nightfall’s Facebook page that the “real” box will be wide enough to accomodate two rows of cards – and I assume that this extra space can and will be used to house expansions.  The rules already allude to expansions as the glossary defines terms which will be found only in expansion cards…

The Promotional box

How I (Dale) crammed the rules to fit in the box.


How it looks inside the box... AEG included the gray foam blocks at each end to support the cards. I (Dale) added the green sleeves as card dividers on my own.

Gameplay was slow at first for us, but I think this is mostly because we were struggling to learn the different cards.  After about 10 minutes, though, we were zipping along nicely.  I do think that I was not buying my cards efficiently as I wasn’t paying enough attention to the colors in order to set up good chains — but by the second game, I was already much improved in this regard.  The idea of chaining really changes how you look at any given card because the card can really only be useful if you’re able to play it often!  What I’ll be very keen to discover with repeated playing is how the colors balance out with randomly chosen cards — how will the value of certain cards change depending on how many cards are available to chain in or out with it?

By the end of the second game, I was also starting to get comfortable with the ebb and flow of playing cards in the chains.  Since you have the possibility of playing cards on just about every player’s turn in the game – there are many more opportunities to use your cards.  Given that you have to attack each turn with any minions currently in play — and then those cards are all discarded — playing cards on your opponent’s turns allows you to put cards in play to serve as blockers against their attacks… and if your cards survive to your turn, allows you to then launch your own attack.

What I am not sure about is how this game will translate to three or more players.  In a 2 player game, there aren’t any issues about targeting attacks or any possible ganging-up issues.  When I attack in a 2er, I attack my opponent.  In a 4er, I get to choose which attacks go where, as do my opponents — and we might decide that it’s beneficial, funny, or just interesting to all target one player.  Will the game fall apart in that situation?  I don’t know, though I’m interested to play with more to find out.  My gut feeling is that this won’t be an issue because there is no specific benefit to saddling any one player with all the wound cards – after all, your goal is to have the least wound cards of any player… So the game should drive you to attack your opponents equally to try to distribute wound cards in all of their decks.

As I mentioned earlier, I like deck building games in general, so it should be no surprise that I very much enjoyed my first foray into Nightfall.  I feel that it is quite different from many of the other deck builders out there, and I can’t wait to play it more to see what it’s like.  I have already heard a few people calling this a Dominion clone, and I must say that nothing could be further from the truth.  Other than the central deck building concept, there is not much similar.  Will this game have as much depth and replayability as Dominion — I can’t say yet… but I’m bound and determined to find out.

If you are interested in trying it out early — AEG is still running their First 100 days promotion where they are giving away one set a day to a lucky fan… For more details and the entry form, look here.

Mary Prasad’s thoughts: (1 play, 2 player game, over an hour playing time, review copy from AEG) – The game is rather complex, in that there is a lot of variation; having only played the game once, and a two-player game at that, my views are going to be rather limited. We didn’t use card drafting for our first game since the rulebook listed combinations for quick start – we figured these would be best, not knowing the cards yet. Note: we played the game with the wrong number of wound cards so it lasted much longer than it should have.

The artwork on the cards is pretty cool and fits the theme well. The cards themselves flex nicely when shuffled but are thick enough that they feel nice in your hands. The rulebook is beautiful as well as straightforward. There was only one question about the kickers to which I couldn’t find the answer (although maybe it’s in there and I missed it): if the card to which the kicker is chained is removed, does the kicker still activate? <I believe the card in question only nullifies cards in the chain.  The card isn’t removed immediately but simply nullified and then removed when it is resolved (with no effect). – Carlson>

There were some interesting play ideas in the game. I like how the minions attack at the start of each player’s turn then go away. I like the way cards are purchased (balanced by discards from your hand if you want to boost your purchasing power). I also like how the wound cards are a timer for the game and that you can get more cards when they are in your deck, although having more in your deck is ultimately bad – another nice balance. The only thing I didn’t like is the tie breaker rule (determined by number and type of wounds) since there isn’t much control over what types of wounds you get – and you can’t exactly count them while playing (at least I certainly can’t). If you could choose the types of wounds (maybe from sorted piles) then the tie breaker would make more sense.

The three types of wound cards included in the base set

I’m not sure about the chaining yet. In general I like the concept, but with all the color choices and combinations, will this allow for much planning? I have a terrible memory for tracking cards. I wanted to play the last card such that my opponent couldn’t chain, or at least had limited choices – but there was no way I could remember what cards he picked up beyond the first couple (I’m referring to the common decks, not the private decks that are openly displayed next to each player).

Keeping to a certain color combination may help on your turns but may be limiting if you want to chain on your opponent’s turns (i.e. the combinations may not overlap well since your opponent is collecting his own combinations). This happened in our game. Being able to chain on your opponent’s turn can be a big advantage. The minions played will immediately attack at the start of your turn. I was able to neutralize some of my opponent’s minions (discarding cards in his chain that hadn’t resolved) and add another minion or two to the ones I had already played on my turn, resulting in a slaughter at the beginning of my turn. This was rather a lucky combination on my part – neither of us were tracking colors.

I am a little doubtful about the card drafting aspect. Each player only sees 4 cards, two of which become his personal library and one which is added to the common library (these libraries are called “archives” in the game). I will have to play the game many more times to determine how much impact these few choices will have on the game overall. My first impression is that I would like to have more cards for drafting, possibly another choice for personal library, but at least more choices for the common area.

Nightfall has some interesting concepts to add to the deck building genre of games. I am looking forward to playing it again, especially with more players.

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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2 Responses to First Impressions of Nightfall (AEG)

  1. Larry says:

    Out of curiosity, is it fairly easy to follow the chained set of cards? When I had an opportunity to play a prototype copy a while back, we sometimes had difficulty remembering who chained off of whom.

  2. Dale Yu says:

    Larry – in the games that I played, we kept the cards in the chain in front of each player… It worked pretty well – but that was just a 2p game. Though after seeing how it went, I’d likely do the same in a 3 or more game as well.


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