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[Review] Nightmare before Christmas TCG

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Joined: 03/23/2011

For me, the measure of a trading card game (TCG) is how well the game plays with the “starters” that can be purchased. How impressive is the game? Do I need rare and valuable cards to have fun? Will I be caught up in the throes of “must-have-more” greed, and seek to buy booster packs with all of my spare and not-so-spare change? Having been sucked into the vortex that is trading card games in the past, I am always therefore wary of them. I’ve also found that as my enjoyment of games increases and as does my experience in the wide world of boardgaming, that I’ve found many TCGs shallow, with a copious amount of rules smashed into a teensy booklet – with hundreds of exceptions on the cards.

This was one of my concerns when receiving The Nightmare before Christmas TCG (Reel Games, 2005 – Andrew Parks and Zev Shlasinger). I also wondered why a game would be based on a movie that was years old. (Granted, I do enjoy Star Wars games). But the designer assured me that there was a heavy fan base for the movie, and that the game was simple and elegant. Now, I haven’t met enough people to know if his first part is correct, although even many of the teens I teach are fans of the movie; but he was dead on with his second point. I found Nightmare to be easy – almost TOO easy, and I went back and read the rules again to see if I had missed anything. No cards are overly powerful, the game lasts quickly, and the starting decks are well balanced. Not since Blue Moon have I played a game that was so deceptively simple.

Comments on the game…

1.) Locales: These are the heart of the game. Each player has one “starting” locale and five others. In the first five rounds, a random locale is drawn from the player’s “Locale Deck” to add to their city. Players can play characters at their locales, which then allow them to take advantage of the abilities listed there. Each locale has a “scare threshold” number, which means that the characters at that location must equal or exceed that number to utilize the special ability of the locales. The starting locales give three options, while most of the others give only one – albeit often better than the options of the starting locale. For example, Finklestein Hall, a starting locale, allows a player to draw three cards OR add two pumpkin points OR move two cards. The Town Square, on the other hand, allows a player to add four pumpkin points, while the Back Alley allows a player to draw two cards AND move three cards. When adding new locales, a player can add them at either end of their city but not stick them in the middle of the town. This adds a slight bit of strategy, as players may want to move their characters around, allowing them usage of the different abilities. On a player’s turn, they may only do ONE ability on ONE of their locales – and only if they have me the scare threshold. At the beginning of the game, this means a player will constantly be using their starting locale (which has a scare threshold of “0”), but eventually they’ll move on to using their other locales. It seems as if a player never has enough characters at all the locales, so movement of the characters is of prime importance, so that a player can use the abilities that will most help them.

2.) Pumpkin Points: Each player has a Pumpkin Point card, which needs a counter (not provided with the game) to track. A few of the actions allow a player to add Pumpkin Points to their card, which is critical to playing cards from their hand. Besides the one locale action that a player has, they may play as many cards from their hand as they like, provided they “pay” the appropriate amount of pumpkin points – indicated by the card’s “scare” number. Pumpkin points are not saved from turn to turn, so a player usually wants to use them all up and get as many (or any!) cards on the table each turn.

3.) Days: A player needs twelve counters to represent the twelve days of Christmas (get it?). Each turn, one of these counters is removed from the game, indicating a passage of time. The game will end when all twelve days are over, with the player having the most scare points on their characters, creations, and surprises winning!

4.) Characters: Characters are the heart of the game, as they allow a player to utilize the abilities on locales, which are critical to doing anything of value. Most characters are simple – with a scare number in their top left-hand corner, and a special ability listed at the bottom. The abilities are usually pretty simple and easy, such as discarding the character to move two other cards, draw a card when that character is at a certain location, or add pumpkin points for similar characters on the table. A player may only have one of a certain character in their town but may have as many of the characters in their deck.

5.) Creations: Creations are cards that are played to the side and also have a limit of one per town. They don’t affect the game too much, although some have special abilities. Rather, the main goal of a player is to simply get these on the table, as they often are worth quite a few scare points (six is not uncommon), more than characters – and usually can be played for a reduced cost if certain characters are in play. In my opinion, the player that best lays out their creation cards will win the game.

6.) Surprises: These cards are discarded when played and are even replaced at the end of a round – unlike other cards. Players can play the same Surprise during a game but may only play it once per turn. Many of them are discarded, but a few can be added to characters to boost them up, or add some special effect. When this happens, the scare cost of the surprise is added to the player’s total scariness at the end of the game.

7.) Pumpkin King: One player is chosen to be the Pumpkin King at the beginning of the game, and each turn that privilege passes clockwise to the next player. Being the Pumpkin King is a good thing, because this player has three choices at the beginning of each turn, before anything else is done. They must pick one of three options on the Pumpkin King card. These options are either
- draw one card,
- add one pumpkin point
- or move one card
Each player, including the Pumpkin king has the option of discarding one card to take the action. However, the player who meets a certain requirement may take the option for free (for example, the player with the least cards may draw one card for free). Therefore, the Pumpkin king usually will pick the option which most benefits him (i.e. – no cost), but sometimes it is more important to take something else. These actions are weak and expensive, but you would be surprised at how many games hinge on having just one more pumpkin point.

8.) Artwork and Theme: The artwork from the game looks like it comes directly from the movie, which (in my probably poor opinion) isn’t that great. I was actually underwhelmed by the movie myself. But for those who enjoyed the movie for its artistic and story value will be pleased to know that Nightmare TCG follows the same basic premise and looks remarkably like the move. I will give the graphic design credit – although black borders are a “no-no” in card games, as they get too scratched.

9.) Components: The cards are of good quality (except the black borders) and fit snugly in a small card box (too small, in my opinion). A player needs several counters to play; but pennies or other small objects are easy to add, so I don’t think this will be a problem for most.

10.) Decks: I got to try out four different starter decks when I played - the Oogie Boogie, Dr. Finklestein, Jack Skellington, and the Mayor deck. As far as I can tell, these decks are fairly balanced, which is mostly because they aren’t too terribly different from each other. They each have their own theme, but many characters are alive (ha!) and kicking in more than one of the decks. My personal favorite at the moment is the Oogie Boogie deck, but even I will admit it’s because of my enjoyment of him in the movie.

11.) Expansion: While I don’t feel the need to expand my game at all, I’m very content with the four decks I have; some folks really find enjoyment in the “trading” aspect of the TCG. With over 150 cards in the base set, they will find a decent amount of variety, but even more is planned with the first expansion right around the corner. I’ve gone online and checked out the text for the “rare” cards; and while they look fun, they don’t look essential like they are in other TCGs. In fact, since the four decks I mentioned contain the biggest characters in the game (Sally is in two of them), fans of the movie should be quite content.

12.) Fun Factor and Strategy: The game isn’t really about slamming your opponent, although certain surprise cards allow players to derail others. Instead, the game is about using the cards one draws to expedite having the “scariest” Halloweentown around. I found this to be a breath of fresh air; because while a player has only a limited amount of options each turn, the options they choose will open up new options for future turns, which is a simple yet clever concept. Games are fast and easy - something I enjoy in card games.

13.) Rules: There is a FAQ on the internet already (never heard of a TCG that didn’t have one, but the forty-two page rulebook is full of examples, and honestly, is much longer than one might think simply because of a glossary and the constant regurgitation of rules). The game is the easiest TCG I’ve ever taught to others, and both teenagers and adults learn it quickly.

The Nightmare before Christmas TCG isn’t for everyone, as some people don’t like simple card games; some might be scared away by the collectible aspect. But I really recommend that you pick up two starter decks and give it a try. It’s a simple TCG that allows for some clever strategic play and doesn’t need to be expanded. But for those who like deck building and variety, that’s included also. I was surprised at my enjoyment of the game – you might be too.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games”

doho123's picture
Joined: 07/21/2008
[Review] Nightmare before Christmas TCG

1.) Locales: These are the heart of the game.


4.) Characters: Characters are the heart of the game, ...

The game with two hearts???

By the way, I'm a big fan of the movie, and I know someone who has a big collection of, well, collectibles, from the movie, so there is a fan base apparently out there..

Additionally, The new 3-D re-release.

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