Review – Dark Rages (Nightfall)

                Dark Rages is the fourth expansion for Alderac Entertainment Group’s creatures-of-the-night deckbuilding game Nightfall. Dark Rages moves the story to Western Europe, and the cards are thematically set in Germany, France, England, Spain, Italy, etc. Dark Rages retails for about $30. This review will presume that the reader is familiar with Nightfall.

The Short Version: The best Nightfall expansion yet. The Avatars are a fun and flavorful addition to the game. The new cards (obviously) add more variety, and had a nice power level – nothing broken-good, not a bunch of stinkers. We wish there were fewer attachments though.

The Basics

Dark Rages, like the other non-stand-alone Nightfall expansion (Blood Country) comes in this tiny box – which is great, because the cards are all going to end up in one box together anyway, and I don’t need empty boxes taking up more space on my shelf.

Dark Rages has 24 new Order cards (12 Minions, 12 Actions). There aren’t any new mechanics on the cards, nor do they seem to have a particular mechanical theme. That’s probably because the big new addition from Dark Rages is . . .

                Avatars! There are 12 different ones of these in Dark Rages. You end up with one Avatar, that represents “you” and that has two global effects on the game, one positive and one negative. Most of the avatars are themed around two of the creature types (vampires, lycanthropes, ghouls, hunters) – you get some sort of bonus with two of them, and some sort of penalty with the other two. A few avatars explore other aspects – one gives you a boost when using Wounds but prevents you from exiling them, and another boosts Actions to the detriment of your Minions.

Avatars are chosen in a two-step process. Before anything else, you deal out the avatars so that everyone has an even number (so 2 each for 5 players, 3 each for 4, etc.), and then draft them. Then you do the normal draft to determine your private archives and the commons. After that, you get to pick which of the avatars you drafted you’ll actually use.

Opinions

                The Avatars are great. They add flavor to the game because they really make you care about what kind of Minions you’re drafting. Yes, Nightfall has been making this matter on a few individual cards since the Martial Law expansion, but this is the first time you’re drafting and claiming will really focus on that in a heavy way (well, it was the first time for us, anyway).

They’re solid mechanically as well. Since you have some control over which one you get and you know your options before the draft, you can craft your draft around your Avatar options (yes, there’s still luck in what Avatars and cards show up, but only to the extent that’s an inherent part of a card game that uses randomly selected cards each game). They add enough to the gameplay to be worth the additional complexity. They matter constantly so there isn’t an issue forgetting to keep track of what your Avatar does. And they are distinct enough to scratch that factional itch, so that each player has that mechanical difference in their approach.

Note that, because the Avatars are so involved with creature type, you probably really want to use both different sets of starting minions for them (the original set from the base game/Martial Law, and the new set from Coldest War). This way players can pick which minion of each color they want, and avoid having to play with a bunch of minions that they get punished for by their Avatar.

There isn’t a ton to comment on with the new cards – which is good, because it’s a lot easier to comment when there’s something wrong. The cards had a nice power level, without anything broken-good or a bunch of terrible cards you’d never want to claim.

                There are a few I found particularly interesting, however. One was What Should Not Be, an attachment action that squishes two minions into one, adding their strength, health, and getting all text on both cards. It’s a fun concept – sometimes it doesn’t do a lot, and sometimes it does nasty things like combine Schutzhunde (when it blocks it deals damage equal to its strength to the attacker) with “Cane Alpino” (can block any number of attackers). My favorite, however, was Mirabelle Durand, a French vampire so taken with herself that her flavor descriptor is “Paris will always have me” (plus I always was a sucker for a vamp girl dressed in black).

Having just praised an attachment action, I do wish there were fewer of them in here – half of the actions are ones that attach to your minions. My group just generally finds the attachments less fun than normal old actions. There’s a place for them, but we wish there weren’t so many.

                Our only other quibble is that they switched from saying that minions work like Bad Smoke “block” damage inflicted on you to saying that they “absorb” damage that would be inflicted on you. But this change in terminology isn’t mentioned in the rules.

Although it doesn’t affect gameplay, it might be worth noting that Dark Rages contains the four cards for the winners of AEG’s Big Game Night at GenCon 2011. One player for each faction got a card featuring them in the art (Les Revenants, “Good Boy,” Lady Anne Muriel, “Sanctuary Five”).

So, in sum, this is probably the best Nightfall expansion, largely on the strength of the new Avatar mechanic. Its fun enough that even the member of our group who dislikes Nightfall said that he might have to switch to actually liking it now. I doubt we’ll play Nightfall again without the Avatars. And the new cards in the expansion provide more options without power level issues. You probably don’t want Dark Rages as your first expansion, because the Avatars work best when you have both sets of starting minions to choose from, but we would strongly recommend it as a first expansion choice after you have Coldest War and the base game.

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