How many of you have played Dominion? Probably a lot: it’s one of those games that managed to break out of the hobbyist crowd and become a well-known party favorite. I’m amazed at the number of people (and, frankly, the variety of people) who’ve played it. Part of the reason it’s successful is that it created an entirely new genre of game, one that had never existed before in any form: the deck-building game. Just like Magic: The Gathering revolutionized the game industry by creating the “collectible card game,” a card game where you make your own deck before you play, Dominion revolutionized it seventeen years later by turning the very act of deck-building into the game itself. You start with some basic cards and slowly add more to your deck, reshuffling as necessary, building your own custom deck according to your own strategy. It’s a fascinating concept.
Just as with Magic, Dominion has spawned a massive wave of imitators, which is what brings us to Nightfall. Dominion deserves a lot of credit for coming up with the new idea, but Nightfall is the game that finally, for me, made it work. Nightfall’s designers were able to look at the other games of this type and identify some key problems, such as lack of player interaction, and address them head-on. A lot of deck-building games feel like multi-player solitaire, which decks that are efficiently designed to accrue more cards and earn more points, but that never interact with each other in meaningful ways. Yes, you get some interaction here and there with “oh no, he’s buying a lot of X, I’d better buy some before it’s gone,” but be honest with yourselves: that’s the most boring kind of player interaction possible. In Nightfall you are attacking each other with hordes of vicious monsters, scratching and biting and burning your way to victory; the winner is the player who manages to take the least amount of damage.
(Let me preemptively answer the inevitable retorts of the Dominion fans in the audience: yes, you love it, and yes, the expansions solve some of the issues I mention above, and yes, I still like Nightfall better. You’re welcome to play and enjoy any game you want, and me liking Nightfall more doesn’t make Dominion bad. Please give Nightfall a try, though, and I think you’ll really like it.)
The story behind Nightfall is delightfully bloodthirsty: the world is full of secret cabals of vampires, werewolves, zombies, and ghouls, and the paramilitary teams who hunt them. You start with some basic representatives of each, and use your growing influence to hire more to your cause, carving out a position of power in the urban fantasy underworld. These “starter” cards remove themselves from your deck as soon as you use them, ensuring after a few rounds that your deck is all good stuff–and more specifically, that it’s all YOUR stuff, the characters and actions you’ve personally chosen to put into it.
And I haven’t even talked about the best part yet! Half of the player interaction comes from the attack system, and the rest comes from the game’s biggest innovation: the chain system. Each card has three colors: a base color and two chain colors. When you play a card, you–or the next player in order–can play another card if it’s base color matches one of the chain colors on the previous card. You lay out ever card that people want play, resulting in a chain that could have anywhere from one to a couple dozen cards, and then you resolve them in reverse order. This is a pretty simple system, but it allows for a lot of interaction in a lot of unique ways. Let’s say the player on your right is buying a lot of card X–all of a sudden you have a choice to make. Do you buy more of card X for yourself before they’re all gone (Dominion style)? Or do you buy more of card Y, because it will chain off of card X? Maybe the best answer is to buy more of card Z, because it counters card X; you have a ton of options, but the point is that you have to pay attention to what your opponents are doing. Add in kicker effects, which are special abilities than only trigger when chained off of very specific color combinations, and the system gets really interesting.
One of the other things I love about the game is the drafting system. At the beginning of the game, as with most deck-building games, you add a limited number of card types to the center of the table. This helps make each game unique, because the card pool is different everytime, which in turn makes the overall game more replayable. With Nightfall this card pool isn’t random–you draft it, giving each player their own unique card pool, plus a bit of control over what is and isn’t in the overall card pool. It’s a fun mechanic which, honestly, could be adapted just as easily to most other deck-building games, but which has even more impact here thanks to the chain system.
If you like deck-building games, Nightfall is a wonderful refinement of the concept that feels like a breath of fresh air in the genre. If you like games in general, or even if you just like vampires and werewolves tearing each other apart, Nightfall is a great choice. There’s already one expansion, called Martial Law, and there’s another one coming out this fall called Blood Country. And yes, even though it wasn’t on my list from last week, I’m totally buying it–I like the game so much that it never occurred to me to NOT buy it, so I didn’t think about it for my list. Maybe that’s the best recommendation of all.