This review is based on a pre-release prototype of the game provided by Adversity Games. Art may not be final in any images.
Welcome to UK Games Expo 2099. In 2018 the prophetic game Nightlancer was released to tell us of the future, but we laughed it off, dismissing it out of hand. How foolish we were. Now all boardgames are only available in virtual reality, the Expo is a shadow of its former self and we all live in a cyberpunk dystopia. Few copies now exist but we have been fortunate enough to find one.
Lancing the Night Away
Nightlancer is a really good looking prototype with a generous supply of components. Cards, counters, a big board and a hefty rulebook. It looked a little intimidating, I have to admit, but I actually found the rules relatively well explained. Each game you play one of the available classes: engineer, hacker, soldier, etc. Armed with some cyberpunky equipment you will take on missions, buy training and tools, and establish contacts , all in order try to gain the most prospects before the end of the game.
The core of the game revolves around 2 main phases: Worker placement where you buy stuff, play cards from hand and tool up and the mission phase where you send your operative on a mission and hope to come out with money, prospects or new cards. On top of this there’s a gotcha element added by contract cards which can mess with other players or aid you in a variety of ways.
That sounds ok, right? A game inspired by the cyberpunk of the 90s, at least if the box art is anything to go by, with mission based play and cool cyberpunk equipment. I’ve been playing in a Shadowrun campaign and quite fancied a game set in that kind of world. The idea of worker placement as your planning phase and then having the missions be more of a risk/reward element where you were not totally guaranteed the outcome, appealed to me.
Unfortunately, the problems with Nightlancer started early for me and didn’t let up. First up was the theme. Technically it was set in cyberpunk UK, and specifically Birmingham, but other than some information in the rulebook there was nothing in the rest of the game that spoke to this: It could have been any cyberpunk city, anywhere in the world. That’s fine but it feels terribly generic and there is none of the flavour of the Nightlancer setting, just the 90s cyberpunk t
The worker placement planning followed by dice rolling missions actually ended up feeling really anticlimactic a lot of the time. The planning phase was fine but then the missions were just a series of dice rolls with no real sense of you being pushed to the limits to finish your job. The gotcha cards were incapable of really causing enough interference to threaten anyone on a mission, so they felt pointless. No one playing really felt capable of taking on the high level missions until about 3 turns before the end of the game, which felt odd since they were there right from the start. The numbers involved were just too big to take a risk and the consequences for failure generally worse than the low risk missions.
Each turn you drew a new card to tell you about an event that was happening in the city which would affect all or some of us depending on the card. Sometimes these cards would just take someone out for a round with no real ability to do anything about it, or at least force them to lay low so they couldn’t take on missions. You would think this would be a bad thing right? Perhaps not.
You see, the number of prospects, the things you need to win the game, received from missions was piddling – even from the high risk jobs you could look forward to getting 2 or 3 at most. I found myself in a position where I just bought my way to victory: I’d made enough money from missions to buy my way to victory. Maybe this is an intentional mechanic but it just felt like missions were such a focus of the game that they should be more rewarding. It felt unsatisfying that I had bought my way to victory with little problem and few missions completed.
Old school look, old school attitudes
Moving away from mechanics I’d like to look at how uncomfortable the game made me feel at times with its representation of women. There was one character class called the Bombshell that was all skimpy clothing and was the youngest, 23, of the characters available. Not crazy young by any means, but haven’t we moved away from this kind of thing?
On top of this there was some gendering of targets in some of the missions that made me feel really horrible. Let’s look at this mission.
Is there any reason to gender the detective here? This becomes even worse when you see the last part of this mission:
‘Just give her a beating’. Really? Now you could argue that this is deliberate, to make the player feel uncomfortable. However there is no real choice here about what you do, no moral paths to decide between. If you don’t have the skill required to intimidate her, you are mechanically incentivised to take the violent path and the turn of phrase here is really nasty. In the Shadowrun game I mentioned we went up against female antagonists a lot, but never was I made to feel as uncomfortable as this single line of text did.
But wait, there’s more! The art style throughout all the equipment cards is pretty cool and I really liked the attention to detail. When I was laying the game out for a solo turn or two to get a handle on the mechanics, I came across this card:
I would like you to note that this is the only piece of nudity in the whole game. I mean why? Why does it need to be this piece of art? They are even showing this piece of art on their homepage leading me to believe that it will be in the final product. There is a distinctly old school feel to the treatment of women in the game and that really put me off.
I also noted that amongst the 8 character classes available everyone appeared to be caucasian. It’s so easy to do better at representation than this, all it requires is a little care and attention.
Nightlancer is a game that feels like it would have been acceptable 10 to 15 years ago. It has been competently put together by a team that obviously believe strongly in their product, the mechanics are ok and the art is pretty good. In the modern board game scene, it feels very dated.
That aside our main trouble was that it just wasn’t very much fun; the game went on way too long, the missions weren’t exciting and completing them didn’t feel like an achievement. I had no desire to play the game again to try a different route to victory, because honestly I couldn’t see one better than what I had already achieved. I really wanted to like Nightlancer as I love the Cyberpunk genre, but it just didn’t work for us at all. If you think it might work for you then you can find the Kickstarter here.