nightfall Deck building with claws   Nightfall reviewThe deck-building scene exploded after Dominion’s smashing success in 2008. Publishers have struggled to differentiate their own entries into the genre. How well does NIGHTFALL fare?

Part of me believes that every game should be judged solely on its own merits. But another, more persuasive, part of me recognizes that you will notice certain similarities, so I will address them. I introduce this game to friends as, “like Dominion, but every action is an ATTACK, there are no Victory cards, and the fewest Wounds (i.e. Curses) wins.” That is an over-simplification (there is a LOT of strategic depth to attacking and defending effectively), but it is an effective hook to draw in your friends and other victims.

A few words about theme

The theme is post-apocalyptic gothic horror, but one essential element is a bit vague: who or what am *I* in this scenario? The creature cards are “minions” that I can order around, but why do they follow my orders? The flavor text in the rulebook doesn’t say.

The standard horror beasts are here: zombies, werewolves, and vampires. They all have original names (“Zacharias Sands,” “Furious Melee”), but the names don’t indicate their function. “Alton Hickman” is a vampire whose attack cannot be blocked, but the card’s name doesn’t relate to its ability. Many fans complain that Dominion’s theme is too light, but I have to say, it is pretty easy to remember that the Moat deflects attacks, the Workshop produces goods, and the Thief steals your lunch money.

I am not a huge fan of the artwork. The painted images on the cards were OK but not great. (The “Zacharias Sands” card is inspired by The Master from first season Buffy, and that makes me giggle.)

The limited color palette and uniform aesthetic sometimes makes it hard to distinguish similar cards from across the table. Other than that, the cards are well designed; relevant numbers and icons are presented clearly. The inclusion of card dividers in the box is a nice touch.

What makes this game unique

The phases of a player’s turn are much the same as Dominion, with the addition of a COMBAT phase which opens your turn. All “minions” you already have in play attack the other players. MTG players will find this part of the game familiar, especially if they play with red aggro decks. The Eurogame tradition discourages targeted attacks, so in that context, I find it exciting and refreshing. Damage that is not absorbed by defending minions penalizes you by adding Wound cards to your deck.

The fact that minions are discarded after they attack means you must be careful about managing your defenses. It is easy to put your entire hand into play in one epic turn, only to find yourself undefended until your next draw.

If your group is accustomed to friendlier games, you may have to institute a NO WHINING house rule. Your other alternative is to simply attack the whiners more aggressively, because they are OBVIOUSLY trying to trick you into believing they’re not ahead. (You’re not fooling me!)

The Chain phase contains the most innovative new mechanic. Multiple cards are put into play like links in a chain. Colored moon icons in the upper left corner indicate whether a card can link to the card already at the end of the chain: the new card’s Main color must match the previous card’s Link color. The Kicker icon at the bottom of each card rewards carefully constructed combos.

This is both a blessing and a curse. It creates new opportunities for strategic planning, as you can build your deck in order to link off of what link colors you predict the opponent to your right will play. On the other hand, unlike in Dominion, a good combo in NIGHTFALL is determined by the arbitrary colored icons printed on the cards. It is impossible for players to discover new combos that were not intended by the designers.

One of NIGHTFALL’s biggest advantages over Dominion is that each other player can add cards to the end of a chain on another player’s turn. This increases engagement and drastically reduces downtime between turns.

Another wrinkle on the deck-building mechanic is the DRAFT during setup; each player chooses two “private” Archives that only she can buy from. Predicting which combos you can build but your opponents can’t (and vice versa) will keep this game challenging for a long time. The rulebook includes a few official variant draft rules, and I foresee gaming groups will come up with their own house rules for drafting.

There are a couple interesting deck-cycling mechanics that turn otherwise useless cards into 1) more currency during your Claim (“buy”) phase, or 2) a larger hand size.

What makes this game fun

There is nothing like pulling off a great combo. Bonus points if you combo off of another player’s chain. Turn their own cards against them. (They TOTALLY had it coming.) It is really satisfying seeing your opponent’s carefully laid plans crumble into dust because they failed to anticipate what cards you would play on their turn.

NIGHTFALL satisfies the bloodthirsty itch that many other games neglect. My group prefers Eurogames, where acts of aggression are either indirect, equally distributed, or mild in severity. This game allows your CLAWS to come out. And part of the fun is manipulating your opponents into attacking each other instead of going after you. As long as you don’t whine about it. PITY IS FOR THE WEAK.

Note: NIGHTFALL‘s combat system makes this game very different with two players. In a multi-player game, if  I have a bad hand and end up with no minions in play, I appear vulnerable but I am also not much of a threat; my opponents are inclined to attack each other. But in a two player game, if I end up undefended, my opponent comes after me WITH EVERYTHING SHE’S GOT, giving me eight wounds (nearly half the game) in a single turn.

Conclusion: Who should buy this game

Simple: this is for fans of deck-building who have a taste for BLOOD. Hobbyist gamers who don’t mind aggressive play or who have thick skins would do fine with this. I would not play this game with children, parents, or anyone who lacks the heart of a warrior.

I also would not recommend this for anyone with card counting skills. Knowing everyone’s wound count at all times would give a slight competitive edge, but it would drain much of the thrill out of this game.

Bottom line, this is much more than a Dominion clone with targeted attacks and a couple new mechanics. Each time I play NIGHTFALL, I see a bit more of the nuance necessary to play effectively. Considering there are already several expansions, I look forward to many years of enjoying the depth of NIGHTFALL‘s gameplay.

Nightfall from AEG Games
Players: 2-5
Ages: 12+
Play time: 45 minutes
Weight: Medium-Light