Review: Nightfall – Aggression and Diplomacy in Deckbuilding

Due to a few strategically placed preview copies, the Opinionated Gamers manged to post one of the earliest first impressions of Nightfall, and since that time, I’ve been able to put the game through its paces with a regular 3 player group, several 4 and 5 player groups, and even a few two player duels.  Since I now have a few more games under my belt, and also to celebrate the release of its first expansion (the Zombie Hoard card now available at the BGG store),  I thought I’d post up a more comprehensive review.  The bright and shiny newness of the game has worn off for me but I still find myself attracted to what I can get out of playing this deckbuilding game of diplomacy and combat in a mere 30 minutes.

If you haven’t read up on the game, Nightfall is a horror themed (think vampires and werewolves) deckbuilding game (start with a deck of cards and then add to them throughout the game) where players attack each other in hopes of giving “wound” cards to their opponents.  The player with the least number of wound cards in their deck at the end of the game, wins.  Wounds can be dealt directly (and sometimes avoided) by playing cards but are most often given by attacking with one’s minions at the start of a turn.

Nightfall brings several “new” things to the growing deckbuilding genre, but where it stands apart is in its very interactive multiplayer games.  Anyone who’s wished for more direct player interaction in their deckbuilding games needs to give Nightfall a try.  This is particularly the case in games with three or more players when the winner can pull off a victory by avoiding looking like a threat.   This does give a smooth talking player a slight advantage but also offers unique opportunities for decisions since the best move is not always to play one’s cards at every opportunity.

Nightfall’s combination of deckbuilding, aggressive combat, and negotiation/diplomacy makes it a good choice for deckbuilding fans looking for something with a different feel from any other game in the genre.  In addition, players who enjoy a good game of Bang!, Risk, or other confrontational games should also give Nightfall a try.

If you’re still not convinced, I’ll try to dive into the highs and lows of the game in more detail.

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.

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.  Most cards also have a “kicker” effect that only occurs if they are played directly after a very specific color – this is just one more complication to the chaining effects that can be challenging at first.  Since it rarely comes into play I typically leave off explaining it in detail until midgame when players have a better feel for how cards are played.

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 thoughts on the game:

Time Investment:  With considerable more play time, the pace of the game has greatly increased such that even four player games often finish in under 30 minutes.  This provides an excellent gaming return on my time investment.  However, I am now starting to see the game drag a bit more in 4 or 5 player games when new players are introduced.  A five player game can move along quite quickly, but it can also stagnate with new (or just slow) players.  Since every turn offers players a chance to play cards, a single slow player can slow down every turn.  Not a total turn-off in my book, but definitely something of which to be aware.

Self-Eliminating Cards: I was initially enamoured with the idea of a starting deck of cards that quickly eliminates itself from play, making way for a higher concentration of custom-purchased cards in one’s deck.  Now that I’m experienced with the game I continue to see it as one of the game’s strongest new mechanisms.  Since playing out the “weaker” starting cards quickly can be an advantage, there is considerable room for strategic decisions in the early rounds.  Not only is one plotting out which cards to buy in order to build an aggressive deck later in the game, but players are also vying to burn through their starting cards as quickly as possible.  There is even a danger in 5 player games (and sometimes in 4) of burning through one’s cards so quickly that you can nearly run out of cards in your deck – having managed to play most of one’s cards before being able to purchase more than three or four.  This can also be seen as an advantage as the game progresses into the “interesting” phase of primarily using purchased cards in far fewer rounds than in a 2 or 3 player game.

The “Dark” Theme:  I was initially ambivalent, perhaps even negative, about the dark theme to the game.  However, multiple plays of the game has make all the mechanics far more abstract.  I can appreciate how the theme does blend well with many of the gameplay decisions, but I initially was a bit wary of the graphic nature of some of the art (I keep it out of sight of my preschool son).  It no longer bothers me, since I’m now always focused on the card powers and costs and pay much less attention to the artwork.  I also found sorting the cards at the end of the game rather tedious due to their similar, dark artwork.  I can now report that after a dozen or so plays of the game sorting no longer came to mind.

The Wound Cards:  I was initially very excited with how wound cards interacted with players’ decks.  Sure, they represent damage and clog up a deck, but they also grant players the ability to discard to draw more cards again.  I had thought this was a great accelerator to the game, allowing players to draw and play more cards as the game goes on.  This is true for the early part of the game, but becomes less intriguing in the late game since most bonus cards drawn will simply end up being more wound cards.  Overall, the wound card mechanic is a nice touch for the game and is good for preserving some balance, but no longer consider it the best thing since sliced bread.

No Turtling Allowed:  Unlike other combat/attacking oriented multiplayer games, it is very difficult to find a way to simply turtle under a huge defense and wait for all the other players to duke it out.  Since every minion attacks at the start of one’s turn and are then discarded, there isn’t any way to build up a wall of defense (short of putting a new one up each turn.)  The politics of the situation can come into play, since players tend to favor attacking weaker players in order to give wound cards rather than simply attacking the strongest player, hoping to wear them down.  This works well in the long term since a player with a large defense will tend to follow that with a weak turn, having spent most of their cards in the prior turn building up their army.  It only becomes a major problem in the last turn or two before the game ends and the tables aren’t able to be turned in time.

The Diplomatic Game:  What is going to make or break the game for most people will probably be the player interaction.  Most aggressive actions are going to be targeted at a specific player, so a player can easily lose the game due to processes beyond their control.  Just because you might focus on the player who has the fewest wounds, it doesn’t follow that all your opponents will do the same.  If other players decide you are a threat, you will get attacked and it is very difficult to block the combined attack of two or three opponents at the same time.  As a result, I would venture that the majority of games I have played have been won by players who were initially attacked quite aggressively.  After a starting burst of attacks, the other players begin to target each other and tend to be slow to switch targets after the distribution of wounds have evened back out.  This would be less of an issue with players who card-count to keep track of opponents’ scores, but I’m assuming Nightfall’s somewhat chaotic nature at times may not be a good fit for players of that ilk.

The Changing Nature of Cards:  At first glance, some of the cards seem far more powerful than others.  While each card is balanced by their purchase price, the main cost of a card is the opportunity cost it takes to draw and then play it out of one’s hand.  Sure, you might be able to buy more copies of a cheaper card, but that will only limit you during the early middle of the game.  After most of your starting cards are removed, players who only bought more expensive cards will still have plenty to use and they will be able to draw 5 expensive cards a turn where you will be drawing 5 less expensive cards.  After more plays with different numbers of people, I have begun to see the use of specific cards improve depending on the situation.  Cards that allow drawing additional cards can get quite powerful in 4 and 5 player games since there are so many opportunities to play between turns, whereas they are fairly weak in a two player game.  I’m still of the opinion that cards granting extra money aren’t particularly useful since cost does not seem to be a major factor in my games.   Cards that affect other cards that were played earlier in the chain are particularly hard for me to use effectively.  They are useless (sometimes worse) in your own chain so they can only be played on other players’ turns.  If you don’t get a nice color match to play them in any given round, they just take up dead weight.  With the quick progression of the game, losing even one or two opportunities to use a purchased card can be important.   Finally, even some of the best cards (unblockable attackers, huge offensive cards, etc…) are surprisingly less fun than one might think.  Sure, they’re great if you know how to get them to the table, but far too often they simply become the target of everyone else’s attack due to fear of their use.  It is fun to play a big old nasty to the table, but is it still fun if it gets killed off before you can use it 5 out of 6 times you play it?

The Two Player Game:  I’ve only been able to play the game with two players a half dozen times, but it clearly is a far different game with all the politics of the multiplayer game removed.  There is room for strategy and planning, but I worry that a two player game is even more prone to issues that can arise with strange card draws.  Most of the 2 player games I played with experienced players tended to be somewhat back-and-forth matches that ended quickly with a win for the first player who managed to “fire off” nearly all of their better cards in one big attack or turn.  There are some fun and interesting things to explore, and the removal of other players’ whims keeps the game focused more on one’s own strategy and tactics.  However, I might lean toward something else when presented with a situation calling for a two player game.

Do You Like Politics?:  I predict Nightfall will be one of those games that garners plenty of praise (probably too much from myself) but also a fair bit of dismissal by others who decide the game is “not for them”.  Players who can’t stand games where players denigrate their own situations in order to offer up a different opponent as a sacrificial lamb (don’t attack me, the other guy is clearly “winning”) should definitely steer clear of Nightfall.   I consider the political aspect of the game so important, that many of my best playing strategies revolve around how I can play in order to affect other players’ perceptions and reactions within the game, rather than simply playing out my own cards as effectively as possible within the game system.  Do I put out my big heavy now, or hope and wait to use him when the opponents will have less of a chance to eliminate him before he goes into battle?  Should I attack the strongest opponent now, or should I weaken someone else still further in the hope that my opponents will then swoop down on that poor hapless soul instead of me?

It’s Over Too Soon:  Whenever I sit back and analyze a game of Nightfall where I played particularly poorly, I find myself with grandiose plans that were going to kick in in only a few more rounds.  With all my emphasis on how quick the game gets off to a nice start and how the wound cards tend to accelerate the end game, it may come as a surprise to learn that I often end a game wishing it would last just another round or two.  I suppose this could be the mark of a good game, “always keep them wanting more” and all that.  (I think nearly every game of Agricola I’ve played has been the same.)  However, in Nightfall I feel that there are a few entire strategies I’d like to play out some time but I expect them to take far too much time to set up.  Games race to a conclusion so quickly that players hoping to regularly chain 3 different cards together will nearly always lose out to players who can get a two-card repeating chain up and running far more quickly.  I’ve thought up a few more “out there” strategies I’d like to try, but they tend to be ones that have a build-up phase that is then turned into a production/attacking phase.  More often than not, I’m in the middle or perhaps near the end of the build-up phase just when the last wound cards are distributed to end the game.

Final Thoughts:  I realize that most of my review is rather glowing, but I have to admit Nightfall has sucked me in and taking up a large portion of my gaming time over the past month or two.  However, I will stop just short of giving it an “I love it” rating, keeping my “I like it” rating for a little while longer.  Currently, I feel as if I’m nearing the limit of interesting situations the game can provide and I’m now working more and more on mastering how to play against my opponents rather than with the game.  To some, this could mean the game is not for them, while others will see this as a healthy positive.  Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure where I fall in the spectrum.  I still enjoy playing and thinking about strategy, although my strategy now focuses more on how I play rather than on any given card combinations.  However, I also have seen my fair share of frustration as I observe opponents make multiple sub-par tactical plays and I still end up with a loss.  What will probably tip Nightfall permanently up out of the “I like it” into the “I love it” category will be its first expansion coming out later this year.  If that manages to introduce enough new tactics into the game, I’ll be a confirmed fan of the game.  If it ends up feeling like more of the same, Nightfall will probably start to fade off my radar.  In the meantime, I intend to give the game variation in the rules a try, by playing a series of games to a set total of 100 wounds.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers for Nightfall
I love it! (0)
I like it. (2) Matt Carlson, Mary Prasad
Neutral (0)
Not for me (0)

First Impressions from other Opinionated Gamers (taken from the Nightfall Preview):

Dale Yu’s First Impressions: (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 weren’t 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!

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.

Mary Prasad’s First Impressions: (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? <Answer: Yes, technically it isn’t discarded until the chain reaches it – Editor>

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.

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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