Game Review: Nightfall Brings Werewolves vs. Vampires to the Table

Deck building card games have often been pitched as the low-cost alternative to Magic: The Gathering and other CCGs, but the mechanics have not always matched up. More often than not, your standard deck builder turns into simultaneous games of solitaire where the best player snatches victory before anyone really gets a chance to do anything with their decks. They scratch only one specific itch from the desire to play CCGs, but Nightfall seeks to change that with its focus on direct combat and damage dealing. In a rapidly evolving genre, this game takes multiple original steps, but do they form a complete game? Read on for the full review.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-5

Playing Time: 45 minutes

Age: 12 to adult

Publisher: AEG

MSRP: $39.99

Release: March 2011

The Gameplay:

For those not familiar with deck building card games, allow me to give you a quick rundown. Each player starts with a small yet identical decks of cards. Throughout the game, players will slowly add more and more cards to their deck. The game is played by drawing hands from this deck, which is re-shuffled as necessary, making deck composition the key to drawing balanced yet powerful hands. In Nightfall, the starting decks have twelve cards and consist of two copies from each of the starting card sets.

There are only three types of cards: actions, minions, and wounds. Of those, only the first two can be voluntarily added to player's decks. Minions are character cards that remain on the table for attack and defense, while actions are instantly resolved and discarded. The game is focused entirely on combat, with the winner being the player who has taken the least amount of wounds at the end of the game. As damage is dealt, wound cards are added into the player's deck.

The game starts out with a draft, where each player is dealt four unique cards. Players select one of these cards for their private archive, meaning it will only be purchasable by them. They then pass the remaining cards to the left and select a second private archives card. Finally, the remaining two cards are again passed to the left, with one being selected for placement in the commons (purchasable by anyone) and the other removed from the game. The rest of the cards in the commons are chosen randomly from those not originally dealt out.

The first phase of each turn, combat, practically runs on autopilot to help move the game along. Every minion you control must attack, after which they are all discarded. The only decision to make is how to split up your attacks amongst opposing players. From there, opponents will select minions of their own as defenders. Attacker strength is applied to defender health, with any leftover damage dealt directly to the player.

Following the combat phase is the chain phase. Since cards enter and leave the table so quickly, players are given the opportunity to play cards on every turn. The active player starts by playing one card, and can play any number of additional cards if they can match certain chain symbols located in the upper-left corner of the cards. Once there are no more matches to be made, the other players at the table can pick up where the last player left off, playing their own cards with the proper matching symbols. The end result is a single chain with cards owned by each of the players, which is resolved in reverse order.

The last two phases are claim and cleanup. During claim, players may add new cards to their deck from the private archives and commons areas. Each player starts with two "influence", which is the Nightfall term for purchasing power, but they can gain one additional point for every card they discard from their hand. Purchased cards go immediately into the discard pile. During the cleanup phase, the active player will always draw new cards to fill a five card hand. If wound cards are drawn, the player can choose to perform a once-per-turn refresh of their hand.

The Components:

Card quality, print quality, and box construction all get high marks. The Nightfall box in particular is a nice touch. There is plenty of extra space for expansions, foam to fill the gaps, and dividers for the included cards. Extra room in the box is something we've seen before from AEG with Thunderstone, and is crucial to prevent new cards from being a burden for players to transport.

The graphic design is generally well done, although not perfect across the board. The card art is all original, and is at it's strongest on cards such as "Big Ghost", "Shock and Awe", and "Furious Melee". One slightly humorous observation on card art is that the wound cards are labeled "bite", "burn", and "bleed", yet all of them show the same picture of bullet holes.

One gripe actually affected gameplay, though. There was some difficulty in identifying the chaining symbols since every symbol is exactly the same, just differently colored. In one game, glare from across the table continuously prevented our players from distinguishing between yellow and white. Luckily, we didn't have any red-green colorblind players at the table or they would have been out of luck.

There are several pages of original Nightfall fiction at the beginning of the game rules, helping to set the stage for play, but some players were a bit skeptical regarding the theme. Vampires vs. werewolves? The risk of being caught playing Twilight the card game seemed a bit too high, but I'm glad to report that this game has more in common with Underworld than any tween franchise. Do not let the theme discourage your from trying this game.

Final Thoughts:

Nightfall is a game that keeps you engaged. While there is constant combat, the mechanics don't bog down play. Combat is simply a means to an end, with the focus placed squarely on deck composition as it should be in a strong deck building card game. The chain adds a lot of strategy into which cards to select. While it is important to select cards that will aid you in combat, it is even more important to select cards that increase your rate of play. In a sense, quantity can overwhelm quality, and making sure you have cards that can be easily chained enables that.

What's more, there is a bonus effect listed on every card that is only activated when players can match a secondary symbol while chaining. Referred to as the "kicker" bonus, these effects can supercharge a card, making it important to build a diverse deck to ensure combo possibilities will be drawn.

When I first heard about Nightfall, I had a common reaction. "Another deck building game?" I was taken by surprise after a few rounds proved that this game stands on its own. Nightfall separates itself from other deck building games with the introduction of a few unique mechanics. The draft is a great way to start the game, as it allows for some deeply strategic moves. Once players pick their two private archive cards, they can influence which common cards will and will not be available during the game. Also, the large starting deck allows the game to hit the ground running, but these starting cards will be removed as they are played, ensuring that these starting cards do not bog down play in later turns. Whether you have played deck builders before or are completely new to the genre, Nightfall fills a void in the market and is worth your time to play.