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Subject: Creepy Fun for the Whole (Dead) Family rss

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Stephen Schaefer
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Columbus
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Nightmare is one of Tablestar Games' offering in their HeroCard line of board games for 2007. While it will not be available for wide release until later in the summer, there was a demo at Origins, as well as a small handful of advance copies of the game. So I actually had a chance to see this game, up close and personal.

First, a quick recap of the HeroCard dueling system, which is the core mechanic of each of the HeroCard board games. The characters are typically represented by a sculpted plastic figure and three attribute cards. These cards have values for (B)ody, (M)ind, and (X), which tell the player how many points he can spend playing his action cards. Action cards come in three varieties: Exclusive (only one per the player's turn), Restricted (as many as the player can afford during his own turn), and Fast (as many as the player can afford, during any player's turn). Each card displays an attribute and cost which, when played, subtracts from the available points on that attribute.

During a turn, the player discards from his hand if he wishes, draws up to 3 cards (not to exceed the hand limit of 7), "clears" up to 3 cards from his attribute stack by placing them in the discard pile (last on, first off if there is more than one card played on a certain attribute) to make more attribute points available, then takes his "Action Phase", which is when action cards are played, and when most of the gameplay takes place. Aside from card duels between players, this is also when pieces are moved around the board and other various in-game actions take place.

Nightmare plays a bit differently from the other HeroCard games (in truth, they all have their own quirks), in that rather than each player controlling their own character, they all control a single common avatar: The Dreamer. The Dreamer moves about a fractured dreamscape, where each hex shows a different "scene" (e.g. Farm, Forest, Lake). There are also several "killers", both human and monstrous, that move about the board. During each Action Phase, the player has three movement points to spend, either moving The Dreamer, moving a killer, or moving a hex to another position on the periphery of the board. Hex movement in particular can radically alter the flow of the game, especially if it moves with a Dreamer or killer in that scene, because only three of the six sides are "open" for movement; the other three sides are walled off. Once that is done, the player can then opt to "Attack to Scare" or "Attack to Kill".

At the beginning of the game, each player is given a scene card and a killer card, which they keep hidden. Their character is scared of the scene and the killer they hold. When a player "Attacks to Scare", he initiates a Herocard battle by playing a Base Attack. If this attack succeeds, then if someone is scared of that scene, or of a killer that happens to be located in that scene, he must reveal that to the other players. If no one is scared of the scene or killer(s), they are eliminated from the game board. This serves to reduce the number of possible combinations for scaring opponents. Eventually, when a player is able to reveal (or deduce) the correct combination of scene and killer for an opponent, and is able to get The Dreamer and those two elements together, he can then "Attack to Kill". A successful Attack to Kill will eliminate that opponent from the game, and the scene and killer used to kill them. Last man standing wins the game.

Two other elements make this game unique among other iterations of the dueling system. The first is that when one player Attacks to Scare, each of the other players in turn may decide if they wish to join the battle on one side or the other. Going clockwise from the attacker, a player has the option to play a blocking card. Once a block is played, then the next player has the option to join the side currently losing. Example: Player A attacks for 3, Player B blocks for 5, Player C has the option of joining the battle on the attacking side only, because the attacker is currently losing. If he adds 3 more to the battle, Player D has the option to join the battle on the blocking side only, because the blocker is currently losing. And so it goes until the battle is resolved. In this manner, players can cooperate or they can really screw each other. They can block to keep from being scared, or they can bluff with a block, to make it harder to deduce who is hiding what.

The other significant difference is that when an attack is resolved, two things happen. The winning side (attacker or blocker) gets "Relief", the option to draw three additional cards, or clear three cards from their stack. Any player that is "scared" as the result of a successful attack must discard all the cards in their hand and draw an equal number of cards (e.g. discard 5, draw 5).

Nightmare ships with all 4 decks in the box (only Cyberspace shares this quality; the others ship with 2 decks and are expandable to 4), which are not as complicated as some of the advanced decks found in games like Rise of the Shogun or Orc Wars. This is probably just as well, because with so many options to jump in on other attacks, and with the game board itself varying so wildly, and with the potential to have your entire hand wasted, a more intricate in-deck strategy might bog down the game. As with most HeroCard titles, the average play time is about an hour, although it could certainly skew in one direction or the other given the right set of circumstances.

The moving hexes provide an added layer of strategy to gameplay, and present a very vivid picture of a fractured, shifting dreamscape. The artwork is great in that it is very creepy: washed-out sepia tones, off-kilter lettering, stark imagery at extreme angles... it almost looks like somebody took Resident Evil or Silent Hill and made a board game out of it.

All told, I thought this game was a lot of fun, with gameplay that strongly supports the theme and carries a moderate level of strategy, especially with the Clue-like deduction and the cooperative/competitive hybrid battle style. Easily as good as Rise of the Shogun, their strongest 2006 offering.

limecamellimecamellimecamellimecamellimecamellimecamellimecamellemoncamelorangecamelorangecamel (7.5/10)
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Hugh G. Rection
United States
La Mesa
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I'm looking forward to this one to be released. It's got a great theme for the HeroCard system. Thanks for the review!
 
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Jeff Wood
United States
Davis
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Just a clarification on the rules: those who are 'scared' only reveal they are scared, not if the killer or scene (or both!) was responsible. My group gave a collective 'Oooooh!' at that, with asides of 'I thought it was too easy...'. meeple
 
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Stephen Schaefer
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Columbus
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Cinnibar wrote:
Just a clarification on the rules: those who are 'scared' only reveal they are scared, not if the killer or scene (or both!) was responsible. My group gave a collective 'Oooooh!' at that, with asides of 'I thought it was too easy...'. meeple


Ooooh indeed!

The review will be corrected with the proper explanation of scaring by this time tomorrow, when I have taken a look at the rulebook. Not because I disbelieve you, but because I want to verify that I change it to something that doesn't need to be corrected yet again.

Thank you for catching this!
 
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Darrell Pavitt
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Checking the online rules, it doesn't specifically state this, but your statement makes a whole lot of sense (yes, I too say "I thought it was too easy").
 
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David Kennerly
United States
San Francisco
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Hm. As the designer of that mechanism and as a player, I've assumed when scared, all that is revealed is that one is scared, unless deduction can conclude the exact cause of the fear.

By the way, over Thanksgiving, I played a variant that was quick and fun for those not familiar with HeroCard. For lack of a clever name, call it Poker Nightmare.

Instead of any HeroCards, a deck of playing cards is used (52 cards). On a turn, each player still has 7 cards, may discard up to 3 cards, yet draws until 7 cards in hand (even if that requires more than 3). As in HeroCard, to attack, one plays a set of cards. But the strength of the attack is its poker ranking (highest card, one pair, two pair, etc.). As in HeroCard, a defender only needs to match the attack to block. Also as before, anyone may contribute cards to either attacker or defender's played cards. When attacker or defender cannot exceed the current play, the attack is over. If someone is scared, that player discards their hand and draws a new one. If someone gets relief, they may draw 3 cards (up to a maximum of 7 in hand).

Since poker is ubitquitous, this variant is easier to learn and play. And, as in poker, this variant suggests a synergistic deduction of cards that the other player might or might not have in hand. But it lacks the character art and attribute administration of HeroCard.
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