Quick Look: Nightlancer
Designer: Joseph Norris
Artists: Manolis Frangidis
Publisher: Adversity Games
Year Published: 2021
Nightlancer is a competitive cyberpunk game set in the unique dystopian future of 2099. Each player must guide their Nightlancer through a hazardous underworld career, intent on securing their future before society collapses around them.
Each player controls one of 10 unique Nightlancers. They take on challenging missions with multiple choice paths, choosing the option that best utilizes their abilities and options. If they are successful they get paid.
They can invest the money either to improve their pool of options with Black Market or Training cards, or they can invest the money in their Prospects to try to secure victory.
Players can use their hand of Contact cards to gain advantages or obstruct their opponents throughout each game round, or they can save them to help complete Agendas – giving them another path to Prospects.
The player with the most Prospects at the end of the game is the winner.
Nightlancer includes solitaire and cooperative optional rules.
I have been a fan of the cyberpunk genre for almost 30 years now, and like many people , I was probably introduced to it via the world of Shadowrun. And even though I find that I love the setting for the world it created, the games that are set within it are well…rather hit or miss for me. In fact, I might say that many times the rule systems for the RPG are a modern mess in terms of organization and layout.
Fortunately there are some really good tabletop games. I like Shadowrun : Crossfire, for example, but as noted above not all tabletop games can really do the theme justice. So whenever I hear about a new game with a cyberpunk theme, I am always willing to try it in the hopes that it can right many of the perceived wrongs I have with some of the offerings Catalyst games has.
NightLancer is one such game that showed promise to me. When I caught wind of it a few months ago, I was very keen to give this a try.
And from an aesthetic sense, I felt immediately at home when getting the box. Both the art and iconography boasted a style that instantly evoked familiarity. For example, the hex-based stat icons are very true to what I am used to from the “other” cyberpunk game that is out there. As does the “board”.
And the “board” for this game is cleverly just a series of 4 laminated 8.5×11 sheets that are laid on the table to denote various areas and meters of the game. Not folding cardboard as is the norm, but I find that this must have been one of the unique means Adversity Games employed to cut production costs down. And if it did manage to make the game more affordable, I am all for it, because I do not find it makes a qualitative difference at all when set up at the table over the more traditional type of game “board”.
There are also some great looking cards well-suited to the world of Nightlancer. There are the usual sorts of Black Market cards that one may buy weapons and armor from, but in addition there are contact cards representing your personal connections that may help you out in a mission, or also “Opportunity” cards that give you a chance to score big for the ultimate win against the competition.
And this is primarily a competitive game by design (though it also sports a coop mode). You will be duking it out against rival NightLancers to see who can come out on top in this futuristic world that is set in the U.K. (Nope, not Seattle folks. But probably just as rainy, so who can tell the difference?)
Players will have a chance to pick characters with unique abilities, backstories, starting gear/stats and more in the hopes of bringing in the greatest cache of Credits (money) and more importantly, Prospects, which serve as the Victory Points needed for victory.
There are a ton of cool features about gameplay. 10 distinct characters (and associated starting gear and special abilities) give a healthy dose of choice in starting your narrative.
The manual is pretty beefy and can seem a lot to swallow, but in reality the game plays and flows very well, in an almost worker placement way sometimes, but in others it is a dice-chucking race to the finish. Quite a nice blend, actually, as not to offend the playing sensibilities of people who are normally opposed to those particular styles of play—even if you must “suffer” through a round of dice chucking at one phase of the round order, the game is structured well enough that it is not centered purely around dice or worker placement for example.
Each “Round” will consist of a number of steps. This is only a broad generalization, so keep this in mind, but in a nutshell…
At the beginning of a round players may heal a little bit…and then the proceed to the following.
Pay off loans to the Euromafia. That’s right, if you have an open loan in the criminal underworld , they will come and give the hurts to you (taking away 3 health) unless you somehow manage to at least cough up an interest payment. Ouch.
It hurts, but it hurts oh so good thematically.
Then in a constantly rotating turn order (that depends on how much “Heat” players accrue in their missions) players will decide if they want to be active on this particular day to face one of a series of Event cards that serve as the Round Counters for the game or not (Lay Low to rest and recoup).
If you decide to face an event, you do so along with all players. This basically sets you on track to being able to do the rest of the days’ activities such as buying/selling gear, choosing a mission, etc. You can fail these Events, too, though , even though this won’t exactly lock you out of doing a mission , it may hurt you enough to give you pause before doing so…
All players that Lay Low are essentially locked out of the next steps.
Players will then flip over a number of Low Profile or High Profile Mission cards as indicated by the Round/Event Cards. This helps ensure that all players have a variety of missions to choose from and exploit for profit. Here’s the catch that makes things interesting:
Each mission can accommodate up to two teams trying to vie for its loot.
So it is perfectly possible that only one player may decide to opt for a particular mission…when its their turn, they would place their square Party token there to represent they are undertaking the mission.
But what if someone else finds that their character is also particularly well-suited to the challenges of the mission? Well they can ask the Boss of the first party who selected that mission if they can join up. If they first party says yes, then the second player may join up. It means they will have to split the loot , but have an increased chance of success.
If the first player says no, well the second player can form their own competing party against the first player. There can only be one winner. And if both players somehow manage to survive until the final stages of the mission, it will put them in a direct fight against each other…
It is also possible that a player may have “exclusive” rights to a certain mission due to certain “favors” they are owed by the criminal underworld. In such a case, no one else other than the player who calls in the favor may join a specific mission. Again, a very nice thematic touch.
After players “select” a mission, they need to prepare for it…
Generally speaking, this includes exploiting connections, making contacts taking out loans or buying cards. Players will take turns placing one of five player markers on specifically marked areas on the game board. If another player has already placed a token there, you cannot take that specific action. So it does make it a priority for you to choose the spots that you need the most first, and that again means it is important to keep your Heat index low if you want to be first in the pecking order here.
Once players have taken all the actions in this sort of Setup phase, next , they will attempt to progress their character marker on the mission board through a 3-tiered set of challenges. It may involve direct fights or more subtle hacking challenges. It is possible to fail some stages while still progressing along the track , but this is usually at a steep cost of hit points , resolve points (similar to madness points in other games), or Credits, but other times, failing even a single instance will knock you out of the mission entirely and send you packing home to rest up.
Challenges in the game are generally dice based skill checks that can be modified by gear you have acquired, contacts, or even other players who want to through a monkey wrench into your plans by calling in favors of their own to “deal with you”.
Game play continues until all Round Cards and phases have been drawn and resolved. At the end of the game, there is still more advanced scoring that rewards players for completing with a high number of Ideals, tokens , while penalties are incurred for having outstanding loans and high Heat.
Critical Analysis : So what did we think?
Okay, so I did already make quite a few allusions to the Shadowrun world and other games in that particular series. It does need to be said that NightLancer is NOT Shadowrun. There are no orcs, dwarfs and elves running around a skyscraper setting bombs to ignite the fury of a corporate Dragon. There are no classes such as Hackers, Faces and Street Samurai. So those of you expecting such a direct analogy to that “other” world will not find it here.
However, you will find a full fledged dystopian CyberPunk game that absolutely does not need to rely on the “bigger” franchises to thrive. Simply put, Nightlancer manages to stand fully well on its own two feet while still managing to evoke the same feelings of the former series.
My wife uttered a single word, “Shadowrun”, in disbelief after just completing a few turns, surprised at just how much it evokes the feel of other games of series without even utilizing the same features, rules, or gameplay. That was quite the powerful realization there.
Thematically, so much stands out while being distinct.
We loved how, for example, you could buy CyberTech to have for your player, which grants upgrades and enhancements to your otherwise mediocre “human” abilities, but purchasing these upgrades exacts a cost—Grafting a neural enhancer onto you, for example, will cost you health and resolve the first time you purchase and use it, and potentially render you more susceptible to damage and being “Shaken” during your next mission. Even though the implant may give you a long term advantage, it may just let the competition walk right over you in the short term…
We also liked how the game fuses some cooperative elements into its otherwise fully competitive game mode (though there is also a fully cooperative setup which we did not try). Many missions will be too tough to tackle by yourself when starting out, so it is really nice being able to team up with your opponents to increase your odds of completing a Mission. Then again, you may just have your team mate “accidentally” drop out of the mission, leaving you to handle the security team around that next corner by yourself…
The gameplay isn’t what I would I describe as “shallow”, either for something that relies on dice for many of the resolution of conflicts of the game. In fact, there is a lot of strategy and the wise gamer could pull of a game without being focused on beating Missions with brute force…
The game box is many times smaller than that of Shadowrun : Sprawl Ops, but for us, Nightlancer is the better game.
The criticisms we have aren’t too great. I did personally have a tough time at first making the distinction between “Hand” cards and “Asset” cards—you do need to treat your “Hand” as an entirely separate entity with its own set of individually catered nuances that you need to keep track of to make your moves optimally.
I do feel that while the four sheets represent the board work perfectly fine, they do get moved around a bit. I wouldn’t mark it down for gameplay at all, but I would hope that future iterations of Nightlancer may be able to spruce this up to a fully decorated game board some day.
Other than that though, we do highly recommend this game for anyone who loves CyberPunk themes. It still manages to capture that feeling of Shadowrun : Crossfire (still one of our favorite games of all time)or Sprawl Ops that we love, but does so under its own terms and rules.
Adversity Games deserves some attention with this one. Even though some of the components could use some upgrades in the future, the gameplay is rock solid and fun—I know a game is good if my wife wants to play it again right away!
Final Score : 8.4 (at least!)
Find out more at BGG.
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer