Saturday, 9 April 2011

Fangs for the Munchies

Nightfall by Alderac Entertainment Group is described as a "competitive deckbuilding game". To be honest I had never heard it of it before until a few nights back when my mate Alan announced he had bought the game and he was expecting it to arrive for our gaming session on Thursday night.  So although I was bringing along my Orc Blood Bowl team for some anticipated mayhem on the Blood Bowl pitch, Alan had asked if we could give Nightfall a try out before we started playing BB. It would only take about 45 mins he said, and he also mentioned that his son, Joseph, who is 9, was also keen to give it a try, so having had a quick look on BoardGameGeek as to what the game was about I said, no problem, we'd give it a go before we started the Blood Bowl.

I've played a few Card Games over the years. I first played Magic The Gathering when the Tempest Cycle set was in play in 1997 and stuck around with it for a few years until, the volume of expansions and card releases just overwhelmed me and I couln't keep up (I tend to be a collector as well as a player and it soon became apparent that there was no way I was going to be able to collect every card - and having half completed sets always annoyed me). However, what really killed off Magic for me was the arrival of the now sadly defunct Lord Of the Rings TCG by Decipher.

I had signed up to part of Decipher's "Riders" programme, which meant I would set up demo games, show people how to play the game and run tournaments and for a while it too sucked up a lot of my time, but although with Lord of the Rings I had been able to complete the first 10 sets of the series, work, new daughter and other real life issues meant I just couldn't keep at it. That and the fact the rules went through such a radical transition that the game when I left it was very different from the one I had started playing.

Ruarok, went through a phase of playing Pokemon Cards (with the original sets - not all these new fangled sets that seem to come out once a week) and again we played that regularly for a wee while. But, the recurring problem of being tempted to collect all the cards in the sets brought about impending bankruptcy so it too went by the wayside.

So I stayed in the TCG wilderness for several years until, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, while on holiday last year, I picked up the starter decks for the new edition of Magic, 11th Edition or M11. Played some games with Ruarok, bought a pile of old cards bringing back the memories of the late, great sets of Alliances, Mirage, Tempest and Urza's Saga and so on (and also bringing with it a painful realisation that I had practically given away my old cards - "Mox Diamond" anyone?") but the buzz for card games didn't really hit home this time and so far I've resisted the temptation to go mad on collecting the cards again.

Alan told me that Nightfall was different. It is a boxed set, and all of the cards in the set are in the box - so in theory you only need the one box to play with. Although expansions are planned for the future they will be, again, fixed sets, so each box has exactly the same cards as the next box on the shelf - no more scouring eBay for that elusive power card. I understand it's what is called a "Living Card Game". He also mentioned that one of our old mates, my Lord of the Rings TCG nemesis, Mark Wootton, was involved in the game design. Mark had been heavily involved with the Legend of the Five Rings (Lo5R) TCG (which I admit I never played) and I think I am right in saying that he was involved in the design of some of the later Lo5R sets so the fact that he was involved in the design of Nightfall gave me some indication that the game would be solid.

The premise behind the game is that each player (and you can have up to 5 playing) controls various creatures (minions), usually an assortment of Vampires, Werewolves and Hunters, and has powers (orders) that you use to overwhelm your opponents and thus win the game. Each player starts of a with a draw deck of 12 cards containing 2 each of the starting minions in the game-

The starting minions

10 wound cards for each player in the game are turned face up and placed on top of the remaining face down wound cards. Each time a player takes damage he draws a wound card from this deck and places it into his discard pile. When all the face up wound cards are drawn then the game ends once play returns to the player who originally started the game. The player with the least wounds in his hand, draw deck or discard deck is declared the winner.

The Wound Cards

24 draft cards are then shuffled and each player is dealt 4 cards. The player selects one of those cards which will become his first "private" archive deck and as such only he (with limited exceptions due to card effects) will be able to use. The card are then passed round to the left and you then pick a second archive card. The cards are then passed round a third time and the card chosen this time forms part of the "Common" Archive from which all players will be able to access the cards. The remaining draft cards are discarded back into the box.

The Common Archive

Each player then draws 5 cards from his draw deck and after determining who goes first (we rolled a dice) the game begins.

"The 4 C phases"

Each player's turn is divided into 4 phases:- Combat phase, Chain phase, Claim Phase, Clean Up phase.

In combat, any minions that you have in play must attack. If they are sent against an opposing player then that player may either take damage equivalent to the strength of the minion (the red figure in the top right hand corner of the card), or use his own minions to block the attack. If the blocking minion absorbs all the damage (each minion has a health total which amounts to the number of hits it can take before leaving the table) then none is inflicted on the controlling player otherwise, hits not saved by blocking minions result in the target player drawing a wound for each hit. Any blocking minions destroyed by the damage inflicted go either into exile (that is they go back into the box) or on top of the discard pile (Marcus Toth actually goes into the player's hand).

Attacking minions are then, depending on their card text, put into exile or on top of the discard pile.

Then comes the "Chain Phase".

This is, in my opinion, one of the unique aspects of the game - at least I'm not aware of another game using this type of card playing mechanism.

The active player, can choose to play 1 card as part of his starting chain. In the top left hand corner of the card will be 2 or 3 moon symbols, of different colours or perhaps the same colour. He can then play a card if the colour of the large moon symbol on the card matches one of the small coloured moons of the last card played in the chain. The player can continue adding to this chain of cards as long the colours match up. When he is done the player to his left can add cards to the chain and so on until play comes round to the first turn player again.

 So for example, if Sir John Travail is placed in the Chain first, the "Big Ghost" can then link to it next in the Chain as the colour of it's large Moon (Yellow) matches the colour of one of the small moons on Sir John's card.

Once all players have added to the Chain or passed, the Chain resolves, starting with the last card played on the Chain. Most of the cards, minion or an order, has a "Chain effect". As each card is removed from the Chain then the effect is resolved - it may be for example draw cards from your draw deck, or damage a target player and so on. As each effect resolves, the card, if it is a minion, is deployed to the table, if it is an order then it goes onto the player's discard pile.

In the claim phase, the player uses his "influence" to recruit cards from either his private archive decks or the Common archive decks. You start of with 2 influence per turn and cards can be discarded from hand to gain a point of influnce per card discarded. Each minion or order card has an "influence cost" - the yellow figure shown to the right of the Card Title and so you pay your influence and recruit the card, which is placed in the discard deck. So the card recruited is not immediately available to play.

The Clean Up phase allows a player to replenish his hand, discard wound cards to draw additional cards from his draw deck so that at the end of his turn he has a minimum of 5 cards in hand. As the starting draw deck is only 12 cards, the significance of placing the cards that you recruit with your influence into the discard pile becomes significant. You have to plan ahead and try and cycle through your draw deck as quickly as possible so that you can them empty it and your discard pile is then shuffled and becomes your new draw deck. (which is whay wound cards can end up in your draw deck and obviously then into your hand) Wounds can then be discarded from hand to allow you to draw 2 cards, thus increasing the cycling of the cards.

Play continues to the player on the left who rinses and repeats the sequence above until all the face up wound cards are drawn and the winner determined as I mentioned above.

So Alan, Jospeh and I sat down to the game. Although not totally sure of what was going on due to my limited skim through the rules, Alan (with Joseph's help) was able to summarise the mechanics of the game and the card effects for me fairly quickly and so the play commenced at a fairly frantic pace. Combat was joined, Chains formed, influence expended and after a wee while, after realising that Joseph and Alan tended to take large lumps out of each other and I was getting off lightly, I knew that I was in the lead. A big attack by me on Alan, meant he took so many wounds that he was clearly out going to end up last and a few more skilful card plays led to Joseph taking wounds and I ended up winning the first game with 6 wounds in total, Joseph's 8 and Alan's zillions (ok slight exaggeration).

That was fun, thought I, so let's go again, and so it was that Blood Bowl was forgotten about and we ended up playing 4 games and I won the first 3..... All hail the conquering hero!!

There are definite synergies to be worked out between the various cards to get the maximum effect from their text. Some of the starting minions have very useful abilities such as the "Bad Smoke" card which stops the player taking direct damage

And the Genesis One card can get rid of wound cards in your discard deck permanently

But as the starting minions are then Exiled into the box once they leave play and can't come back, their use has to be carefully planned. Using the Bad Smokes too early might give you space to build up your draw deck with good minions and orders but leave you exposed in the late game. But deploy them too late and you may have already taken to many wounds from which to recover. And playing the Genesis One card when there are no wound cards in your discard deck would normally be wasteful, but then if you have few minions available to you to help prevent an attack then you may have no option but to get the card in to play given that he has a health of 2.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of strategies to be worked out on how to get the best of the cards and again, because all of the cards are technically available to all of the players at the start of the game, there is no risk of a player bringing a deck to a game which contains all of the power cards of a set which he has acquired by spending much gold on eBay.

The physical components of the game are pretty sound, good solid box, card dividers, plenty of foam to protect the cards while in the box. Some excellent artwork

Hmmmmm, Charlotte, Fancy a Bite?

The rule book seemed pretty tight. We were able to find an answer to any query that cropped up fairly quickly. There is some background stories by Kenneth Hite which gave you an introduction to some of the characters who appear in the cards. Some of the cards contain keywords which don't have any relevance in this set but whch are clearly intended to have effect as other sets are released.

A copy of the latest rulebook and FAQ can be found here

One effect which didn't really come into play (whether that was due to us forgetting about it, or the card combinations not coming off, I'm not sure) was the "Kicker effect". Some cards have a Kicker effect whereby if the colour of the moon associated with the Kicker effect is the same colour as the Large Moon on the card in the Chain that you link to, then that Kicker effect will come into play when the Chain resolves. 

So an enjoyable game (it must have been given that I quite happily gave up a game of Blood Bowl for it) and given that Joseph, for all of his 9 years showed he grasped the mechanics of the game pretty quickly shows that it is definitely a game that can be learnt without too much brain crunching, and in my increasing dotage, I  I struggle to take in the rules after the first dozen or so pages.

So what happened in the last game? Well, Alan, in clear desperation to try and win a game (I think he had managed 1 second place up to that point) deployed his secret weapon - Japanese Rice crackers. Having kept me supplied with copious amounts of tea and soft drink through out the evening, the lure of the Japanese Rice Cracker was just too much temptation. I kept picking away at the box of crackers and munching happily that I was not keeping my eye on the play and got thumped with a couple of big hits from both Joseph and Alan, that I was not going to be able to recover from. So there was nothing else for it but to finish the crackers off.

I would have taken a picture of the offending crackers but I ate them all........

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