I had five or six games going when it happened. As soon as it happened, I had a few options. I could throw my iPhone against the wall, I could take a deep breath and practice the tenets of buddhism taught by zen masters in the far reaches of Tibet, or I could just stop playing Nightfall. The answer was obvious, since iPhones cost several hundred dollars and I’d never actually been to Tibet.
One by one, I went through all my games of Nightfall. Forfeit, forfeit, forfeit, forfeit, forfeit. There. Problem solved.
After the jump, the fall of Nightfall
There are two Nightfalls worth discussing, both flawed. The actual game — the one you play on a table, at least as far as I can tell from having played the iPhone port — is flawed in a sort of charming way. It’s a deck building game with little thought given to whether the mechanics fit the theme. It’s one of those games lumberingly oblivious to that magic spot where gameplay and narrative intersect.
Starter card Yuri Kovoviev fights himself a few times at the beginning of every game. Yeah, there are seven copies of each named character in every game. Ivan Radinsky might be blocked by Ivan Radinsky. Synergies are baked into the cards with an obtuse color-coding system. For instance, you’d never know this without spreading all the cards before you, but Blaine Cordell is fully powered only after you’ve played a Zacharias Sands or a Furious Melee. Nightfall is a horror-themed deck building game in which werewolves, vampires, and special ops dudes all fight each other and themselves for no discernible reason. Some games reveal a story as you play. Nightfall only reveals a game system that settled on random artwork.
The secret to Nightfall, which is yet another deck-building game that at least has the advantage of being unlike any deck building game I’ve ever played, is to forget the theme and narrative. Instead, think of it as a game about chaining color-coded cards to each other, with each color representing a different gameplay concept: direct damage, indirect damage, healing, cards, or card-buying power. Nightfall has two set-up phases. The first is the drafting of cards before the game proper. Then players work through a handful of opening moves with their starter cards, basically buying time to build up their decks by buying better cards.
All the while, you have to pay close attention to your cards and the other guy’s cards, watching carefully for the opportunity to set up powerful chains, sometimes piggy-backing onto the other guy’s chain. Of course, he’s doing the same to you. It’s all very cat and mouse, and it often ends with a single brutally decisive play.
So that’s the tabletop game. You’d think Playdek could do it justice on the iPhone, since Playdeck are the folks who published (but didn’t develop!) Incinerator’s superlative port of Ascension. But publishers don’t always make good developers. Nightfall is a simply wretched implementation, brought low by amateur mistakes and mystifyingly bad decisions.
The thing that made me ragequit is Playdek situates the “done” button close enough to your cards that if you ever try to look at the last card on the right, you’re liable to brush up against the “done” button and — oops! — there goes your turn. I’ve done this at least half a dozen times in multiplayer games. Nightfall plays far too close to allow for the occasional missed turn.
Furthermore, Nightfall is all about paying close attention to the cards you’ve got as well as the cards the other guy is getting. That’s how a lot of deck-building games work. It’s hard to do when you’ve got a few games going in which you take maybe one turn a day. One of the challenges of asynchronous multiplayer is answering questions like, “Wait, what was I doing?”, “Where was I?”, and “Did I have some strategy going?” The iPhone version of Ascension, for instance, does a great job addressing these questions by letting you look at the total cards in your deck at any time. It also keeps a thorough log of everything that’s happened over the last five turns.
Nightfall, on the other hand, does nothing to help you. Wait, what was I doing? Where was I? Did I have some strategy going? How is it that the company who published Incinerator’s Ascension port, which handily answers these questions and more, could so thoroughly ignore the issue when they developed a port of Nightfall? The solution is right under their noses!
A similarly amateurish mistake is the way the cards in your hand are fanned. The most important bit of information about deciding which cards to play is on the upper left corner of the card. But for whatever reason, Nightfall decides to fan your hand in such a way that the left side of the card is obscured behind the card in front of it. Why isn’t this reversed? When you get more than five cards in your hand, you literally have to take out each card individually to see whether you can play it.
Here, I’ll show you. Each card has one color that it can dovetail onto, and then two colors that can then dovetail onto it. But because of the way the cards are fanned, you can only see the color icons on the upper left of the card over to the far left.
To check any other card, you have to tap it to bring it up full screen, at which point you can’t see any of the other cards. What a mess. How does someone miss this? How does someone who published the Ascension port miss this?
The documentation is horrible, which also applies to the tutorial. If you don’t know how to play Nightfall, Nightfall won’t help you much. And if you don’t know how to play deck-building games, Nightfall will be a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Finally, there’s the AI issue. I’m not convinced the AI knows what it’s doing when it comes to the act of assembling cards. Nightfall is all about emphasizing the synergy among a few cards. The AI takes a broader approach, which sometimes works. I’ve certainly lost my share of games to it, since any card based game partly relies on the luck of the draw. But inasmuch as it’s possible to play Nightfall “wrong”, the AI is playing Nightfall “wrong”.
So as far as a tabletop game, Nightfall is just weird enough to be worthwhile. But as an iPhone port, Nightfall is a disappointing mess. That I’m no longer playing.