Nightlancer Review

I think cyberpunk works so well in the medium of games because it depicts a gamified society. People can cybernetically enhance their skills and abilities. Corporations and governments treat people as pawns in their pursuit for power. Digital landscapes become the ground on which war is waged. The powerless fight for agency in a world that wants to control them. We’ve seen cyberpunk brought to life beautifully in Android: Netrunner, which still surprises me in its ability to tell an engrossing story in almost entirely mechanical ways. Nightlancer, the first design from Joseph Norris and Adversity Games, wants to tell similar stories but can’t quite find the words.

Let’s start with the explicitly narrative elements, which range from serviceable to occasionally interesting. The basic story is that you’re a mercenary in a dystopian society. You take jobs to get money to try to escape the dangers around you. In a genre that thrives with difficult moral questions, this makes sense as a premise. A couple of details stand out, most notably the concept of “techshock”, described as a sort of disorienting loss of self. Mechanically you can enter this state by doing too many tasks that run counter to your ideals.

I think morality and ideas of agential value outside of “being efficient” are extremely under-explored in the board game space, so I applaud Nightlancer’s attempt. Unfortunately I don’t think it does much to enhance the game. Functionally ideals are more or less another resource, like health or resolve, that you don’t want to tick down to zero. What constitutes an ideals violation is unchanging and the same between each player. They also don’t make a whole lot of sense to me. For example, one mission has you finding a snitch and killing them, and it’s understandably marked as “dirty” (the word that indicates that it’ll cost you an ideals point). Sure, murder is wrong and that’s sure to weigh on your mind even as a mercenary. But in another case murdering a snitch isn’t dirty and I can’t find much of a difference between them.. Extorting some protection money for one of the factions is dirty, but assassinating rival gang members or blowing up an entire (staffed!) police station isn’t.

The art hints at a more complex web of factions and loyalties but it never actually reveals anything of substance. The best narrative bits are the smallest: the story beats on each step of a mission. Each mission is divided into three sections, and in each one you have a choice of two paths. If you fail any of those skill checks you encounter a fail-state skill check, which is often more difficult, more violent, and more punishing if you fail.

Let’s look at a mission called “Destroy Evidence” as an example. Immediately you get a choice of how to approach the assignment: stealth or streetwise. The latter has you talking with locals to gather intel. After you can sneak past the guard or snipe him from a distance, before you take either the violent route to smash everything or the tech-knowledgeable path of finding the precise drive you need and wiping it. All of this is communicated with only a short sentence at each step; an economical use of flavor text.

Unfortunately the game keeps distracting you away from whatever small interest you may have in it, starting with the unnecessarily convoluted rulebook that’s a headache and a half. The game isn’t that complex, but information is terribly hard to find and awkwardly worded whenever you do find it. 

A small example: in the “Downtime step” part of the Prep phase, a number of upkeep tasks are listed, then this sentence: “Loan costs are always resolved absolutely last in the Downtime step.” The next two items on the list are paying mandatory loan interest and optionally paying off loans in full. The quoted sentence seems redundant because paying loans is already last on the list of downtime step activities. Perhaps for more clarity it could have said “In order:” before listing the downtime step items. But because there’s an entire sentence dedicated to this loan thing being last I get suspicious that there’s something I’m missing that justifies that sentence. Multiply this kind of small uncertainty over and over again and you get a seriously annoying rulebook.

Elsewhere seemingly critical information is omitted entirely. For instance, this game has action cards that can (I assume) be played at instant speed since some of them say “at any time:” before their ability. But I can’t find any place in the rules that tells you what priority order should be on card reactions or if the game uses something like “the stack” to resolve cards. So if player A is on a mission, and players B and C both have cards they might want to play to make that mission more difficult for player A, does anyone have priority to decide first if they want to play a card at that juncture? If player A has a counterspell-type card does priority shift to them to react immediately after another card is played or does it loop around one player at a time? If player A is on a mission and they have a card that boosts one of their skills for a given skill check, can they play that card after they roll the dice or do they have to do it before? None of these situations are edge cases. They’re fundamental to the flow of the game, but I can’t find any rules about them.

While I’m on production issues, the graphic design of Nightlancer simply has icons and typeface that’s too small and difficult to read. I appreciate that they’re often trying to convey a lot of information, but even with the space limitations of a first time production that’s trying to cut down costs (by not using a mounted board, for instance) they could have made critical information more visible. It’s a shame, too, because once you get your face close enough to cards to see them, many elements look quite good. I particularly like the subtle texturing throughout that gives everything a lived-in, sort of grimy feel. 

I think Nightlancer either needs to be a shorter or a longer game. The box says 60 minutes but that’s a flat-out lie. My quickest play yet is 100 minutes with only two players. I could see two experienced people getting done in an hour but beyond that would be quick indeed. There’s simply too much stuff to get through. You’ll cycle through dozens of cards and missions that need to be parsed and, in theory, action card windows of opportunity all over the place.

The round sequence itself is fairly straightforward. You’ve got a bit of upkeep before everyone decides what missions they want to take on. Missions can be played cooperatively or competitively with another player, which is conceptually interesting, but I never found a good reason to attempt that when I could just take on a mission by myself and not have to split the reward or fight another player for the prize.

After everyone commits to a mission there’s a worker placement phase where you can purchase new equipment, heal up a bit, take loans, purchase a couple of victory points, complete agendas (more on that later), or do other miscellaneous tasks. This phase doesn’t feel very coherent and mostly serves to showcase the equipment, which follows a couple of patterns: expensive and dangerous cybernetics, moderately expensive weapons and gear, and cheap once-time-use gadgets. I was initially impressed at how many cards Nightlancer comes with but after only a couple of games I was able to plainly see the balancing and design patterns in them. Instead of evoking a world full of life they began to evoke a game designer’s excel file.

If you can afford the expensive equipment, you should go for it, but affordability can be a slippery concept. Nightlancer works best in the mid-game where you want to push towards dangerous and lucrative “high stakes” missions. You’ll want to stuff your body full of fancy new robotics but doing so literally damages your health and resolve. You’ll start eyeing the loan office to afford it all. Being so desperate to take on even more dangerous jobs to liberate yourself that you mutilate your body in more expensive and hazardous ways? Some true cyberpunk themes finally emerge!

Back to the rest. I could see Nightlancer as a quicker game, focused on equipment drafting and quick missions exclusively, as they’re the strengths of the current iteration. I could also see it as a longer game, delving more genuinely into inter-player conflict, the morality system, and a broader variety of worldbuilding elements. Instead it sits awkwardly in the middle. Missions can’t be played simultaneously because everyone’s got to be on alert in case they want to try to sabotage them. But the extent of possible sabotage is simply nudging a skill check up a tick. So now you’ve got both a longer play time and player interaction that’s more annoying than engaging.

Agendas can be incredibly point-lucrative (even more than the centerpiece missions which are primarily a means of getting cash), but they feel like an awkward appendage. I can see the intent behind them, representing personal goal accomplishment in contrast to the job-like missions, but mechanically they’re boring. Most of them amount to “pay $X to get Y points”. Others require you to have specific types of “contact” cards in hand which simply invites frustration if you hit a string of bad luck with the deck.

But you can’t ignore agendas because they’ll account for a huge chunk of your score. Why make them your ultimate goal if the missions are going to be more robust and interesting? I’ve got to praise the skill check system here because it’s actually executed quite cleanly. You’ve got six different skills you’ll be working with, three combat focused and three non-combat focused. Every time you encounter a skill check you’re presented with 4 hexagons. The first one states if there’s a hard barrier you must overcome via equipment powers. The second hex displays the skill tested, the third the numerical threshold for success, and the fourth the consequence of failure. In addition to your skills and equipment you roll three 50/50 dice to get additional points. If you meet or exceed the threshold you pass, if not you fail. It’s easy to parse and quick to execute.

So I don’t understand why actually getting victory points is so removed from this system. End of game scoring feels anticlimactic, with a modest amount of points awarded to those with extra cash and to the people who are best at the various skills. There’s an unnecessarily convoluted bit that effectively gives a point or two to those who keep their ideals meter high. 

Nightlancer is the kind of game where you want an immediate second edition to revisit its ideas. Every once in a while something promising peeks through but the experience as a whole feels uneven and frustrating. Cyberpunk is such a promising genre for board gaming, but that promise isn’t realized here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Score: 4.5/10

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